September 13, 2019


Reviewed by  Eric Walberg


I finished Victor Grossman’s [1] A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee (2019) with a sigh of regret. His memoirs of living in East Germany from his defection from the US army in 1951 to his witnessing the post-collapse ’freedom’ was as close to building socialism as I’ll ever get. What a great life he led, quiet, without the rat race, surrounded by socialists living socialistically.

Sure, after 1917, those of us born and bred in the West who wanted to help ‘build socialism’ could join the appropriate communist party, hurriedly set up by eager enthusiasts in the 1920s. But, as Grossman describes his own experience in the CPUSA in the late 1940s, this was like having your teeth pulled in some modern day Inferno.

For an all too brief 40 years, Germans had the rare chance to free themselves from their capitalist puppet-masters. Some, the best, braved the shrill cries of red, traitor, fool and choose socialism. Thousands of non-Germans did too, escaping death, prison, torture, like Grossman and Chilean socialist Michelle Bachelet, who returned to become president of Chile in 2006. Despite the nightmare conditions of isolation, sabotage, the heavy cultural hand of FRG media pouring lies and distortions, sugar-coated with Camels and nylons. We don’t make our history as we please, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.

It is a real living miracle, those 40 years. The constant pressures, including a sudden West-mark in 1948 that emptied East German shelves until they figured out how to stem the hemorrhaging of already scanty goods, there being no Uncles Sam and Marshall stocking them from the bottomless wealth the US accumulated in WWII.

That wasn’t the worst of the hemorrhaging. One in five took the metro crossing into west Berlin at Friedrichstrasse or, in the early years, just walked across the border and blended into the Wessies. And don’t forget the poisonous CIA/BND types that could go the other way about their ‘business’ unimpeded until 1961.

The overall population fell from 18.4m (1950) to 16.1m (1990), most leaving being ex-nazis, liberal intellectuals, doctors, engineers. Wages were double or more, in ‘hard’ currency. What possible choice could there be? Ossies were despised, before and after the Wende (the overthrow).

Grossman faced a 10 year prison sentence for ‘lying’ about ‘never having been a member’ in 1951 when he was drafted. But admitting his past to the FBI was an even worse fate, making him a hated, virtually stateless person with no rights except the right to starve and die. The FBI and McCarran Act (1950, vetoed twice by Truman, bless his heart) would no doubt consign him to Dante’s sixth+ circles, with heresy, violence, fraud, and treachery, though Grossman would surely have no trouble convincing God that it is THEY that belong there.

Whatever. Grossman swam the Danube one night and after wandering for hours, finally found an Austrian guard and asked to see the Soviet commandant. He joked with the Russian guard about Pushkin and Dostoevsky, the only Russian words he knew. He was accepted and sent to Bautzen, a hill-top town in eastern Saxony on the river Spree, complete with castle and magnificent Lutheran-Catholic cathedral (in a celestial joke, a small fence separates the two halves). Near Dresden and Leipzig.

He was fixed up with a job and nice room in a boarding house. The post-war devastation and the new social order meant a lot of shared effort and sacrifice. Grossman seemed to have more or less pleasant hosts (landlords?), who no doubt were sharing their homes at government request. He recalls rationing and the importance of a good lunch at work, the sight of cars with wooden ovens mounted on back as motors in the early years. When razors disappeared he had to line up to resharpen his razors.

Bautzen was a centre for expats of all kinds: there were 15 Americans, 10 Brits, 5 French, 5 from north African French colonies who deserted to avoid fighting in Indochina, a Dutchman, Spaniard, Irishman, Mexican, and Nigerian. All men, some having fled conflict zones, some with drinking problems, some blacks with white German or American women, both prohibited in FRG-US.

Grossman didn’t seem to chum with any. If they found a local woman, they integrated. Singles travelled to bars, caroused, were late for work. We don’t learn what happened to them. He recalls one gigantic black American, a former boxing star, clean-living and able to travel on tours and at will. The kids in the neighbourhood loved him and followed him like a pied piper. Grossman found his true love Renate, and soon was just another Ossie.

Everywhere, what was immediately striking, by the 1960s, was the relaxed work atmosphere. Good workers were in demand, and management hustled to find ‘deficit’ goods for the factory grocery. People always had a battered briefcase, mostly not for business documents, but in case something exciting was for sale that day. Grossman complains of there being too many extras with extra staff that probably could have been culled.

He was impressed by the celebration for the 10th anniversary of the victory at Stalingrad in 1953, the genuine respect shown to the Soviet victors. The train locomotive painted ‘Free the Rosenbergs’. [Think today of a country where ‘free Assange’ is painted on a tram or train. Or better, a world where this is unnecessary.]

Most  people he knew were warm-hearted, rejected the nazi past, were dedicated to creating a fair socialist society. There were dogmatists, hacks spouting cliches, careerists, slow thinkers/ idiots, a few bitter anti-GDRers displaced from now Polish Silesia. Meanwhile, the nazi past in FRG was alive and well. Adenauer dreamed of retaking provinces given to Poland (in the fine print of 1950s passports).

As I read this, an epiphany. There’s a goldmine for social psychologists/ anthropologists here the FRG being the ‘control group’: how do people develop without capitalism distorting their character? How to build socialism? Where is the movement to document the socialist experience in a neutral/ positive way? Before those who lived it are dead? For example, the steel works in Magdeburg (the only real industrial enterprise in the resource-power country) had a theatre, library, sports teams/ facilities.[2] Imagine how this affected workers’ lives, how such respect for them gave self-respect to them.

Time after time, the West schemed to undermine the GDR. No diplomatic recognition or the FRG-US would penalize any renegade country daring this. Of course, no ‘Marshall Aid’, so the GDR, like an orphan, had only its socialist neighbours and itself to rely on. Add in ‘no reparations’ from the West for any of the devastated East (surely a crime against humanity), and poor GDR forced to part with machinery to the Soviet Union, not to mention the usual wartime pillaging.

The US broke all wartime agreements it could, leaving virtually the entire nazi elite in place in its zones (the Brits and French now in the US pocket), as judges, teachers (!), police, even the army, where most nazi generals got a slap on the wrist, only a handful of the very, very worst executed. Then back to work for the Reich.

Grossman studied journalism at Karl Marx University in Leipzig and founded the Democratic German Report which he mailed to (among others) British Labour MPs. One 1962 edition included a world map with 50 swastikas for 50 FRG ambassadors. Only British papers took this seriously, but it was enough for the FRG to dismiss the very, very worst of them, claiming the GDR also had ex-nazis. Not true, Grossman was able to shoot back.

What about the FRG? A thousand judges and prosecutors picked up where they left off in 1945 after the real nasties were tried. The FRG tried to outlaw the ‘Victims of nazi persecution association’ as a commie front but the defense noted in the trial that all three judges were either SS, nazi, stormtroopers or Gestapo and they immediately put a stop to the trial. Forty out of 49 supreme court judges — ditto. And some of the worst of the worst of the ‘Gestapo Boys’ (Globke and Gehlen) just were left in place or in US hands.[3]

The US rounded up and left in place the entire nazi network set up in 1933 to undermine communism and the Soviet Union, led by Reinhard Gehlen, who became the spymaster of the CIA-affiliated anti–Communist Gehlen Organisation (1946–56) and the first president of the Federal Intelligence Service (Bundesnachrichtendienst, BND) of West Germany (1956–68). Bundeswehr camps were named for WWI&II heroes, all jingoists and the latter nazis. Green MP Petra Kelly got the notorious Condor Legion names dropped in 2005.

The US pumped money into west Berlin as a showcase, giving generous loans and property to capitalists, much like they did with Korea, similarly faced with half its people now communists. Along the still open border, cinemas with Hollywood films. Anti-fascist Germans celebrated in GDR were ignored/ spurned in the FRG. Any remembrance of the pre-war anti-fascist resistance was suppressed, as if the recent past was already ancient, forgotten history. The Communist Party was outlawed in 1956, its assets stolen by the ‘democratic’ state.

And in the GDR? ‘New teachers’, mostly still at university, were hurriedly trained to replaced 90% of the 20,000 nazi teachers in 1948. Corporal punishment at schools was abolished. Like all the socialist countries, the old pro-nazis had to prove themselves before any real authority was granted.

The GDR cleaned up the judiciary and police. Grossman recalls he saw mural portraits in police dorms of a very negroid Pushkin and Jewish Heine. Crime decreased sharply with new judges and police and was always lower than the FRG. People had faith in the authorities. Money wasn’t that important. There was no incitement for ‘conspicuous consumption’.

Grossman notes that the GDR did not have the tragic show trials of the early 1950s as did the other socialist countries. The effects of Stalin were muted here. Perhaps the ability of the GDR to attract the many anti-fascist Germans who suffered prison and survived, lived abroad — Brecht, Eisler, Bloch. Despite all the handicaps, the GDR became the envy of the other socialist countries. Given a task — build socialism — they went about it methodically and pragmatically.

The FRG was a menacing brother, intent on doing in the younger, radical pretender to the throne. The younger brother just wanted to live in peace. Thomas Mann visited GDR for the Year of Goethe (1949)  and of Schiller (1955), was called traitor and physically threatened, requiring a security guard in Stuttgart. But in Weimar, he was given a hero’s welcome.

What about the GDR leaders? They were all anti-fascists, working class, courageous, intelligent. Hilde Benjamin (brother-in-law Walter Benjamin) minister of justice. First prime minister social democratic leader Otto Grotewohl, who fled Germany in 1937. Ulbricht and Honecker both imprisoned under Hitler.

They didn’t want an army at all. Stalin’s proposal was a neutral Germany, like Switzerland and Finland. The US rejected it, of course, wanting the whole thing as a capitalist military ally.[4] The GDR army appointed only nine former generals. All were prisoners in the Soviet Union who rejected Hitler, defying prisoner peer pressure, joined anti-fascist association of German officers or the national committee for a free Germany founded Moscow in 1943. Others fought in Spain, the Danish resistance, deserter Kessler, and crossed enemy lines to surrender.

What about dissidents? Like Cuba (and now, Venezuela), the flotsam were allowed to leave in the early years, so no big movement. The most noted writer, Christa Wolf, whose Divided Heaven (1961) created a sensation, was even briefly on the central committee, and at the 1964 plenum criticized the stress on economism, and urged east-west dialogue. But she was a loyal voice to the end. Wolf Biermann defected from Hamburg, but was a loose canon, gave a concert in Koln, defaming Honicker in 1976, and was barred from returning.

STASI? A strawman. The country was surrounded, The teeth of the FRG-US always barred. Of course they needed security. And just about everyone agreed. STASI agents were pretty low key, not at all like the fearsome FBI, CIA and now 17 agencies, last count. The revelations since 1991 are hardly shocking. Mostly used to blacken GDRers who were just being good citizens.

What about the Wall? The determination of the West to destroy the GDR, the daily hemorrhaging, required it. Grossman (and many others) had a personal interest, as he was wanted as a traitor, and could be spirited away any day without the Wall. He later looked at the 1,100 pages of FBI files on him, finding out about a second wife of an uncle that he didn’t even know about. They were indeed looking for him, finally tracking him down using his Harvard Class of 49 yearbook, even including a translation of a short article in a GDR newspaper referring to him.

He did not hide. He was a good worker, a fine example for his fellow Germans of an honest, moral American, a friend of the poor, a genuine communist. A popular speaker at clubs and unions across the country, he was free to give an honest insider’s view of the US, a nondissident critique of his GDR homeland. Despite its material drawbacks, Ossies saw in the flesh that their nation by definition ‘superior’.

He smiles at the little things:

*In the 60s, Ossies, with their new meagre affluence, drove their Trabants to the Baltic and camped wild, more and more as nudists. This caught on and was officially sanctioned in 1968, with 60 designated beaches, most on the Baltic but also on some lakes in Mecklenburg. In the FRG, no nude beaches but lots of porn.

*He recounts the trick he played to help a British shop steward touring eastern Europe by bike soon after he arrived in 1951. The  west Berlin police chase him away at dawn. He contacted Grossman and Grossman told the trade union office and they sent a car to pick up the scruffy cyclist, giving him a first class hotel room in east Berlin.

*Brecht’s response in 1953 to the government call for better work: maybe the government should dissolve the people and elect another.

*When Angela Davis faced a life sentence in 1972, GDR schoolchildren sent truckloads of letters, astonishing the presiding judge.

In the GDR, there was no need for ‘feminism’, only socialism: free health, education, day car, long maternity leave, income benefits for more children… If the husband is a jerk, there’s no-fault divorce, abortion. Renate was able to continue her studies because of the university weekly nursery for student mothers.  After the Wende, Grossman recounts how a friendly grocery clerk was fired for just asking to change the holiday dates dictated to her to allow her to holiday with her young child and was fired. He later saw her selling cheese on street, now destitute, but ‘free’.

The woman’s magazine Fur Dich was taken over in 1990, its staff fired or forced to stop publishing intelligent articles in favour of fashion, cosmetics, capturing a husband, wrinkles, weight increase… Studies from the mid-80s reported that 80% of East German women always experienced orgasm during sex, compared to 63% in West Germany. ‘Women in those socialist countries enjoy certain freedoms, both material and existential, that were and remain largely unavailable, or even unimaginable, to women in liberal democracies, writes Kristen Ghodsee.

There was no need for gaylib either. The courts did not use the existing law to prosecute gays and it was officially annulled in 1968. A fine gay film Coming Out premiered the day the Wall came down. Ossies had to wait till 1994 for their Wessie masters to legalize it.

As an economist, I’m jealous of Grossman! He describes living the logic of building socialism: health care, university, subsidized food, factory like a second home,  intelligent use of barter, imported treasured treats from other socialist countries (vs exotic fare produced by third world slave labour in any season).

You might have to sharpen your razors at the worst of times, but you never go hungry. You never end up homeless. You have peace treaties with your neighbours. His journalist faculty was nicknamed ‘Roter Kloster full of real socialists. (The medical students were less happy about socialized medicine, looking at their wessie fat cats, but, hey, that’s the breaks, as Canadian doctors learned, largely thanks to socialized medicine in the socialist world.).

Profs were anti-fascists, some, legends of the resistance. Philosopher Ernst Bloch left in 1961, as did a few others, though they did not reject socialism. From 1953 on, there was more open political discussion. The was genuine pride and excitement in ‘building socialism’ when Gagarin and Tereshkova became the first man and woman in space. Socialism, even with less than perfect consumer goods, really was better than capitalism then. More democratic, more progressive, more human. Sadly, pressures from without and the inability to reform the political system undermined them, though both the GDR and the Soviet Union had economic reform programs in 1965 which would not have led to the unravelling of the system (as appeared to be happening in Czechoslovakia in 1968). Sadly, politics got in the way.

I was sorry to close Socialist Dissident. I’d had a back-to-the-future moment, I was lived in the GDR. We were building socialism! Really. And we surely had more democracy than the West’s artificial electoral dance, complete with supporting real dictators keeping their peasants at work for slave wages, not to mention hundreds of coups to overthrow genuine democratic forces.

Democracy is in the doing. Workers had lots of say (where there were good managers) about working hours, conditions. Yes, they had to meet the plan, but they weren’t filling some capitalist’s pockets. They were producing for themselves and their partners in unexploitive trade, often using an intelligent barter means. It is fascinating to imagine being part of that. From scratch, with Großer Bruder breathing down our necks. What a feeling of solidarity, of defying imperialism.

The experience of the socialist bloc is precious. But the FRG did everything to erase the GDR from history. The Kaiser’s Palace was rubble in 1945 and the GDR built the Palace of the Republic, an open square with fountains and a fine concert hall in 1977. But Kohl couldn’t abide a GDR Palace of the Republic at the other end of the Unter die Linden’s Brandenburg Gates.

Let’s let Rosa Luxembourg (they haven’t destroyed her grave, a pilgrimage site for us lefties) have the last word: Either the triumph of imperialism and the destruction of all culture and, as in ancient Rome, depopulation, desolation, degeneration, a vast cemetery; or the victory of socialism. (Junius pamphlet 1915)


[1] Stephen Wechsler  became Victor Grossman his new life, with a new birthday, to keep the FBI as much at bay as possible.

[2] Privatized into 5 small firms in 1991, now empty ruins. The classic example of asset stripping that was the basis of privatization.

[3] James Warburg told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1952: the government is afraid to call Stalin’s bluff for fear it’s not bluff. I.e., the [US wanted Germany capitalist and part of its imperialism. Stalin wanted peace (and hopefully socialism).]

[4] The Eichmann trial in Jerusalem in 1961 cause a panic, as these nazis were responsible for millions  of Jewish deaths. The Israelis cooperated with the Germans-Americans, and in return for 240m marks weapons ‘aid’, kept their names out of the prosecution. The GDR tried Globke in absentia and sentenced him to life imprisonment. But who paid any attention to the GDR?

A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee (2019) By Victor Grossman

Monthly Review Press, March 2019, Paperback ISBN: 978-1-58367-738-4

352 Pp.

Canadian Eric Walberg is known worldwide as a journalist specializing in the Middle East, Central Asia and Russia. A graduate of University of Toronto and Cambridge in economics, he has been writing on East-West relations since the 1980s.