A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee
352 pp, $23 pbk, ISBN 978-1-58367-738-4
By Victor Grossman
Reviewed by Tony Briscoe for the Communist Review, issue 92
“For most of history, there was no ‘Germany’ as such – just a ragbag of German-speaking states. In 1871, most of them unified into the German Empire (Austria stayed outside, together with Switzerland, where German is but one of the languages spoken).
Germany came late to the capitalist table, and flexed its muscles in the early 20th century with the aim of becoming a major imperialist power. It was defeated in World War One, which saw the October Revolution in Russia, and led to the relatively short-lived Weimar Republic in Germany. Nazi Germany lasted from 1933 to 1945.
After World War Two and occupation by the major powers that defeated Hitler, Germany was divided into two separate states: the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany), and the German Democratic Republic (the GDR, or East Germany). These separate states lasted from 1949 until 1990, when a unified Germany arose again. So far, so much basic history.
Victor Grossman experienced life in the GDR from 1952 until its demise 38 years later after the Berlin Wall came down. East Germans describe the outcome as ‘die Wende’ – the ‘turning point, turnaround, U-turn’. Call it what you will – I prefer the term ‘annexation’.
A lifelong communist, Grossman explains how he ran away from his role as a US conscript in order to escape impending McCarthyite persecution. He threw himself onto Soviet mercy in Austria, but was soon relocated to Bautzen in East Germany, having been allocated a new name, so no longer “Stephen Wechsler, Private First Class”. In Bautzen, he was billeted among a fair number of exiles from other nations – American, Dutch, Spanish, Irish, Mexican, and – news to me – Brits who did not relish the thought of serving in the Korean War.
After stints of factory work, Grossman studied journalism, which became his life’s profession. He married a GDR citizen, had children and lived the unfolding of socialism in all its ups and downs. Now in his 90s, he still writes, including for our own Morning Star.
He writes well, albeit with numerous Americanisms, eg queues are always “lines”, underground rail is the “subway”, trams are “streetcars”. We are, however, used to such differences in vocabulary through US films and literature.
Other linguistic stumbling blocks can be put down to faux amis – traps which arise when switching from one language to another. So, for example, the Communist Party of Germany was not so much “forbidden” (German: verboten) in 1956, but was in fact banned; a GDR works canteen would not serve a “warm lunch” (German: warmes Essen) but rather a hot dinner; and it must be bordering on blasphemy to describe Robert Burns as “Bobby”.
Such infelicities could have been avoided through more rigorous editing. Never mind, these are minor quibbles, sparked by my own work as a translator in the GDR in the 1970s.
Grossman tells us how the GDR was founded in 1949 as a reaction to the Western occupation powers unilaterally setting up the Federal Republic on their patch and launching a new currency.
He goes into great depth to compare and contrast the evolution of the two new states. He tells us just how little West Germany did to denazify its republic, compared with the systematic approach adopted by the GDR. He outlines the shortages in supplies in the GDR shops, at least until rationing was lifted in May 1958, some four years after Britain dropped it. He relates how theatre and the arts blossomed in the GDR, and how the government tackled the housing problems inherited from war damage and the slum dwellings which were the traditional lot of many workers. He describes the renaissance of public transport, with GDR fares fixed at the exact same price until the Wende.
He shows how much fairer and more egalitarian the GDR was, and explains the “positive discrimination” measures taken in favour of women.
So why was the Wall built? Grossman relates the deliberate undermining of the GDR currency by West Berlin selling it short. Smuggling and the brain drain were bleeding the GDR dry. Western propaganda painted a rosy picture of life on its patch, and constantly told the GDR citizens just how hard done-by they were. Something had to give, otherwise the GDR would never be able to pull itself up by its bootstraps. So, 1961 saw the Wall divide Berlin.
Ups and downs in the complex relationship between the GDR and the Soviet Union are explored. Yes, there was a prevalence of political jokes about the Soviet ‘big brother’ but, without help from the USSR, GDR living standards would not have become the best in Eastern Europe by the mid-1970s, somewhat to the chagrin of Soviet citizens.
The economic stability brought by the Wall enabled the GDR to play a significant role in international solidarity, giving practical help to Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam, the African National Congress and other liberation struggles.
I grew up viewing West Germany and the GDR not as parts of a divided Germany, but rather as two different countries with a common language. Over the post-war decades, two different social systems arose. West Germany was allegedly a capitalist ‘democracy’ – reconcile that with the banning of the Communist Party! In Western media, the GDR was described variously as ‘authoritarian’ at best, a ‘dictatorship’ at worst.
Visiting and living in the GDR opened my eyes. Yes, life was different there, and in many ways better – certainly a more secure way of life. Yes, there were restrictions – on travel to the West, for example; and petty bureaucracy – and careerism – were frequently experienced.
Given all the relative advantages of living under ‘real existing socialism’, why did it all go wrong? How was it possible for West Germany to gobble up the GDR? Grossman describes the undermining effect of Western propaganda; widespread efforts to block recognition of the GDR as a sovereign state; the constant promises of a better life if only the Wall came down; and the role of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost (for even greater details of the blame to be laid at Gorbachev’s door, see Perestroika and Germany: The Truth behind the Myths, by Hans Modrow, the GDR’s last Prime Minister 1).
Grossman lets an understandable edge of bitterness creep in to his narrative, when he depicts the wholesale McCarthyite sackings of GDR citizens after the Wende, and the impact of the changes in everyday life. East Germans experienced unemployment first-hand, and came across beggars and rough sleepers for the first time. Okay, cars became freely available to buy, rather than an 8-year waiting list, and worldwide travel was now possible. Such possibilities are empty without a job …
Grossman homes in on the rush to adopt the West German currency, but unfortunately his investigation of economic factors both before and after the Wende leaves something to be desired. He should have explained that the GDR’s currency was not convertible on the world market. Whilst this meant there could not be a ‘run’ on the East German Mark, it also meant that the GDR had to earn Western ‘hard’ currency in order to buy Western imports, whether of capital goods or consumer items. To do this, it had first to export GDR products, depriving GDR citizens of them. And it also meant that, after the Wende, the traditional Eastern markets for GDR exports fell away, as the buyers had to pay in ‘hard’ currency.
It is true that GDR productivity was way below that of West Germany’s, for a whole complex of reasons outlined by Grossman. The GDR was heavily dependent on Soviet oil; when its flow dropped, so did the GDR’s ability to meet its citizens’ expectations of an ever-improving lifestyle. And the GDR had to rely significantly on its indigenous but noxious ‘brown coal’ (lignite), leading to environmental degradation and poorer air quality.
Grossman digs deeper, and shows how Western consumerism is generated by the media and sustained by imperialist exploitation of less developed countries, and how GDR citizens benefited from a significant social wage, including subsidised kindergartens and works canteens, free workplace clubs, cheap and efficient public transport, low rents, subsidised holidays, plenty of food (with prices fixed the same everywhere in the ountry – and the same next year) and a decent range of consumer goods.
He also distinguishes the GDR’s trade relations (principally with developed countries in the north, west and east) from the rapacious exploitation of developing countries by Western imperialism. West German TV made GDR citizens envious of the plentiful supply of bananas on the other side of the Wall. But Western media did not point out the poverty of the banana producers in the supplying countries.
A Socialist Defector is overall a well-written book, with nice touches of humour. Grossman’s historical grasp and keen eye for detail enable him to draw telling contrasts between capitalism and ‘real existing socialism’. He explains the personal experiences of GDR leaders in fighting Nazism, and the resultant rigidity they adopted towards any changes that might endanger the GDR’s stability. He does not shy away from criticising the GDR’s leadership when criticism is due, but provides a more balanced evaluation than today’s German schoolchildren are taught. But then, history is written by the winners, whose media are keen on delegitimising the whole of the GDR’s existence.
Building socialism is of course different in each country, depending as it does on history and circumstances – never more so than in the aftermath of a world war. The GDR came into existence rather reluctantly, as the Soviet Union wanted a unified, albeit neutral, post-war Germany.
Revolution is the passing of political power from the hands of one class to the hands of a historically more progressive class. So, from feudalism to capitalism, and from capitalism to socialism. Counterrevolution passes political power back in the wrong direction.
But was the GDR a country where the working class held power, or was it rather the Socialist Unity Party? Did the existence of five GDR political parties equate with democracy? Did the trades unions have any real power in the economy? Grossman gives a balanced, informed verdict. Did the GDR leadership become estranged from the population? Grossman thinks so.
Well-written though it is, the book suffers from a shift in emphasis two-thirds of the way through. It moves from a personal memoir to an exposé of the pernicious role of US imperialism and militarism. Grossman quotes extensively from his researches in Western media archives and on the internet. This takes the writing style away from the personal to the direction of political feature journalism.
A well-read “leftist” (Grossman’s word) would probably be aware of much of what he recites. I would have preferred him to make bullet-point references, and to put the research material into an appendix and/or a bibliography, neither of which the book contains.
However, it is clear that Grossman wants not only to outline his unique personal experiences, but also to leave his political legacy: an undaunted socialist commitment to a world ‘for the many, not the few’, coupled with optimism that this can still be achieved.
The book takes us right up to the current era, including his reintroduction to the land of his birth. His story helps us gain insight into a wide range of factors that must exercise our minds as we work for a socialist world. He does not attempt to give answers to all the questions, nut his story at least helps us identify the pertinent questions.
Another publication, Stasi State or Socialist Paradise,2 also covers GDR history and achievements, but A Socialist Defector is different in style and sweep, reflecting as it does Grossman’s unmatchable personal story. Alongside Hans Modrow’s book, we could do with more such publications.
An acquaintance asked me why, despite the collapse of socialism in Eastern Europe, I am still a member of the Communist Party. My reply is that “Capitalism is still there: and for the good of the human race – and the planet – it has to go.”
An East German friend was surprised that I campaigned for Brexit. He asked “Whatever happened to our dream of a Europe without nation states?” I replied that I never dreampt of such a Europe. Instead, I dreamed of a Europe with socialist states. My GDR friend did not just experience the loss of socialist state power, he also lost his country!
Alongside the Soviet Union, the GDR and its citizens played a significant role on the world stage in solidarity with others struggling for a better life. From its experiences we can learn lessons (some specific, some general) of ‘how to do it’ – and in some cases, ‘how not to do it’!
Its downfall leaves us all the poorer. Its history and example, as depicted in A Socialist Defector, will inform us in our ongoing campaign for a world of socialism. Grossman’s story will help us do it better next time round!”
Notes and References
- H Modrow, Perestroika and Germany: the truth behind the myths, Marx Memorial Library in collaboration with Artery Publications, London, 2014.
- B De la Motte and J Green, Stasi State or Socialist Paradise? The German Democratic Republic and what became of it, Artery Publications, London, 2015.