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My Seventy Years and the Departed GDR

I defected to the GDR 70 years ago, finding neither Utopia nor the hunger, poverty and misery American media might have led me to expect. I hope that new generations learn from the GDR, and not only from its blunders, nasty habits and limitations.

It’s a momentous day! Not for the world—for which it’s nothing special. But for me! Just seventy years ago, in nervous panic, I took off my U.S. Army jacket, shoes and sleeve insignia and stepped into the swift Danube River which, at Linz in still-occupied Austria, divided the USA Zone from the USSR Zone. Although very wet at this short sector, it was part of the long Iron Curtain. And I was swimming across it in what most Americans would consider a very wrong direction!

It was not really my free choice! In 1950 the McCarran Act ruled that all members of a long list of “Communist Front” organizations must immediately register as foreign agents. I had been in a dozen; American Youth for Democracy, the Anti-Fascist Spanish Refugee Committee, the Southern Negro Youth Congress (I gave them a dollar in solidarity), the Sam Adams School, the American Labor Party, Young Progressives and – most heinous of all, the Communist Party. The maximum penalty for not registering could be $10,000 and – PER DAY! - 5 years in prison!! Neither I nor anyone else bowed to this monstrosity !

But in January 1951, during the Korean War, I was drafted – and required to sign that I was never in any of those on that long, long list. Should I risk years in prison by admitting my infamy? Or sign and, by staying mum, hope to survive two army years with no one checking up? I signed.

However, they did check up! Decades later, thanks to the FOIA, 1100 pages (! ) of FBI files about  me (at 10c/page) revealed that J. Edgar Hoover’s boys had watched me closely, as a leftist Harvard student (the names of seven informants were redacted) and as a worker in Buffalo, where I had hoped to help in saving the fighting 1930s character of the CIO unions.  

In August 1952 a Pentagon letter listed seven of my memberships and ordered me to “report on Monday to HQ”. The threatened penalty for my perjury: up to 5 years, perhaps in Leavenworth. By then dozens of Communists had been indicted; many were sent to prison. I had luckily been sent not to Korea but to Bavaria, next to Austria. With no-one to advise me, I chose the Danube.

Across the river, in a surprisingly quiet landscape, in no way like an Iron Curtain, the Soviets kept me two weeks in a barred but polite lock-up, then sent me north to the German Democratic Republic, East Germany. I was lucky again; the GDR was the most successful, most untroubled of all in the “East Bloc.” For the next 38 years, as an American, raised with a broad, varied education (six public schools, Bronx Science, Dalton, Fieldston, Harvard), I watched, with left-leaning but not dogmatically limited eyes, the rise, then fall of this western outpost of socialism (or Communism, “state socialism”, “totalitarianism,” or whatever).

I found neither Utopia nor, back then or ever, the hunger, poverty and general misery the American media might have led me to expect. Even in the crucial, difficult year 1952-1953, less than eight years after the war, while shop offerings were limited, lacking variety, style, and often just that very item you were looking for, they were stocked well enough with the basics. East Germany was much smaller and in terms of industry and natural resources far poorer than West Germany. It had borne over 90% of the war reparations burden; the heavily-destroyed USSR did not drop these until 1953. The GDR lacked the huge investment possibilities of war criminal monopolies like Krupp, Siemens, Bayer or BASF, whose factories it nationalized, as well as the politically-aimed assistance of the Marshall Plan. Large numbers of its scientific, management and academic staffs, mostly pro-Nazi, had fled from the occupying Red Army and the leftist, mostly Communist administrators who came with it – and got jobs with their former bosses who were soon prospering again along the Rhine and Ruhr. This seriously weakened the economic revival, but I felt happy that the war criminals were gone.

As an ardent (and Jewish) anti-fascist, I rejoiced to find that the entire atmosphere was anti-Nazi! Unlike West Germany, the schools, universities, courts, police departments, all were cleansed of the swastika crowd, even when at first this meant new, barely-trained replacements, like my father-in-law, a pro-union carpenter, as village mayor or my two brothers-in-law as teachers. My wife trembled when she was reminded of her brutal teachers before 1945. Then, in the altered East German schools, corporal punishment was immediately forbidden.

Of course there were countless problems in a country ruled by Hitler & Co. for twelve years, where cynicism was widespread and Stalin’s cultural views and anti-Semitism exerted undue  influence until his death in 1953. Luckily, the aged Communist leader Wilhelm Pieck was able to shield the GDR to a large degree in this regard. And from the start anti-Nazi leftists, often returned Jewish exiles, became leaders in the entire cultural scene; theater, music, opera, literature, journalism and film, where true masterpieces were created, often against fascism, but boycotted and hence unknown in West Germany and the USA. In the all-powerful Politburo of the ruling party Hermann Axen had barely survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald (his brother and parents did not). Albert Norden had escaped to the USA; the Nazis killed his father, a rabbi, in Theresienstadt. In the GDR, except for 3 or 4 mild word-clichés, I met no anti-Semitism in all those 38 years. Those still infected with fascist ideology were careful, except with family or buddies, to keep their mouths shut. Which was OK with me!

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Step by step our living standard - of my very dear wife, who saved me from homesickness, our two sons, and myself, kept improving, like that of nearly everyone in the GDR, as it pulled itself up by its own thin bootstraps. Impressing me most as an American: no layoffs, no unemployment; there were jobs for everyone. Rents averaged less than 10% of most incomes; evictions were forbidden by law. In the early years large apartments were divided up when needed; no-one slept in the streets or went begging. Food pantries were unneeded, even the word was unknown. So was student debt. All education was free and monthly stipends covered basic costs, making all jobbing while at college unnecessary.

I participated fully in the generally very normal life. First as a factory worker, an apprentice lathe operator, then a student, editor, director of a new Paul/Eslanda Robeson archive, finally as a free lance journalist, lecturer and author. I was not treated as a privileged “American,” as some assume, but my last three occupations meant that - in my series of four little two-stroke Trabant cars I really “got around”- to nearly all areas, with all age levels, in all possible milieus.

A monthly medical tax on wages or fees (max. 10%) covered everything: in my case, nine (free) hospital weeks with hepatitis plus four weeks at a health spa to recuperate and four more a year later in Karlsbad. My wife had three rheumatism cures, four weeks each, in the Polish and Harz mountains. All costs were covered and we also got 90% of our salaries. Prescribed drugs were fully covered, also dental care, glasses, hearing aids; I had no need of my wallet or checkbook to pay for my daily insulin shots or my ten-year active pace-maker. Nor for my wife’s two maternal leaves (six months paid, the rest, if wanted, with guaranteed job ). No charge for full child care, participation in sports, summer camps, not for contraception aid nor for free abortions after a new law was passed in 1982. So many fears were gone – so many were totally unknown!

This may really seem almost Utopian. Then why did some risk their lives to leave? Why was a wall built to keep them in? Why did they vote to join West Germany – and ditch the GDR? Why did it fail?

There were all too many reasons. East Germany was occupied by a country it had been taught to hate, whose soldiers had fought it hardest, were often violent in the first weeks, and were poorer and more difficult to love than prosperous, hence generous, gum-chewing GI’s, who came from a wealthy, undamaged homeland. Many but certainly not all East Germans appreciated the Soviets’ major role in defeating the Nazis and their pressure and guidance in confiscating major industry and breaking the power of those worst enemies of the world and the  Germans, the Krupps, Siemens and IG Farbens, and the ousting of giant Prussian landowners, the Junkers, who so often officered Germany into mass bloodshed and disaster.

The Russians offered lots of good culture, such as Tolstoy and Dostoevski, top quality dancing, to “Peter and the Wolf” and “The Cranes Are Flying”. But these could rarely compete in mass popularity with the Beatles and Stones, Elvin Presley and suspense-laden Hollywood B-films.

Such enticements, which included some of high quality, based on an unusual American mix of Anglo-Scot, Irish, Jewish, Italian and especially Black cultures, were cleverly misused to increase political and economic influence and power in the world, especially in the East Bloc. They were paired, above all in Germany, with clever propaganda adapted from both Goebbels and that master peddler-publicist of anything from toothpaste to capitalism, Edward L. Bernays. They threaten the great old cultures of France, Italy, India, even China. While GDR leaders, in full power, did aim at noble goals, how could such elderly men, hardened by years of life-and-death struggle against Nazi murderers but usually trained with Stalinist clichés, grow flexible enough to find rapport in printed or spoken word with the average, changeable citizen? There were indeed successes – but too few and far between.

In the 1980s difficulties increased, upward trends slowed and slipped downward. The USSR, with its own problems, offered no assistance. Such problems were difficult but, in a changing world, hardly rare or insurmountable - except that here every problem was utilized in the unceasing attempts to retake East Germany, use its skilled but exploitable working class and move eastwards from there. The State Security or “Stasi,” created to oppose such doings, was crude enough to make the situation worse.  

And yet the GDR had probably come closer than any country in the world to achieving that legendary goal of abolishing poverty, while sharply decreasing the frightful, growing rich-poor gap based on an obscene profit system. But it could not afford the immense assortment of goods – foods, apparel,  appliances, electronics, vehicles and travel which the West offered, above all the USA and West Germany. The GDR citizenry took all its amazing social advantages for granted and dreamt of scarce bananas and unavailable VWs, of Golden Arch and Golden Gate – without realizing that these are largely available and affordable due to the poverty of children in West Africa or Brazil, of exploited pickers in Andalusian or Californian fields and orchards. Some are just now beginning to realize that those billionaire giants, after cheating so many people of color, wrecking world climate and wielding ever deadlier weapons of annihilation, may soon feel impelled to squeeze and break the comfortable middle classes in their own countries. The start is already felt by many families.

I look back at my seventy years as an ex-pat, and still consider myself a patriotic American – never for the USA of Morgan or Rockefeller but for that of John Brown, Harriet Tubman, Eugene Debs and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, DuBois, Robeson, Malcolm and Martin.

I also love and admire great Germans: Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Karl Liebknecht, the great Polish-German Rosa Luxemburg - or great writers: Lessing, Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht. And I respect and empathize with people from all lands, my brothers and sisters, from Guam to Guatemala - and Gaza.

I can only hope that new generations learn from the GDR, and not only from its blunders, nasty habits and limitations, born of its history and all too realistic fears of being overthrown.

It was finally overthrown and stands no longer as a barrier to renewed billionaire expansion - economic, political and military - to the south and east. It is still being belittled or maligned – largely out of fear that it has not yet been sufficiently erased and forgotten. Despite my sometime feelings in those years of despair, even anger at mistaken paths or missed opportunities, I still look back with a mixture of nostalgia, regret and also pride at its many hard-won achievements, in culture, in living together, in partly overcoming the cult of greed and rivalry, in unflinching GDR support for the Mandelas, the Allendes and Ho Chi Minhs, for Angela Davis, too - and not, like its ultimately stronger and victorious opponents in Bonn, for the Pinochets, Francos, racists and apartheid tyrants. I recall our achievements in avoiding war and striving for lives without fear or hatred. By and large they were good years. I am glad I lived through them.

Victor Grossman, born in NYC, fled McCarthy-era menaces as a young draftee, landed in East Germany where he observed the rise and fall of its German Democratic Republic (GDR). He has described his own life in his autobiography Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), and analyzed the GDR and questions of capitalism and socialism in Germany and the USA, with his provocative conclusions, along with humor, irony and occasional sarcasm in all directions, in A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee (New York: Monthly Review Press). His address is wechsler_grossman [at] (also for a free sub to the Berlin Bulletins sent out by MR Online).