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From Harvard to East Berlin

Victor Grossman

In 1952 the Harvard grad Victor Grossman defected to East Germany, hoping to help build socialism on the ruins of Nazism. Thirty years after that state collapsed, he insists that we should see it as a land of contradictions, not just a totalitarian monolith.

Victor Grossman. (Facebook)

Interview by
Julia Damphouse
David Broder

Victor Grossman is the only person to have earned degrees from both Harvard and East Germany’s Karl Marx University. Born in New York in 1928, he joined the Communist Party as a Harvard economics student before being drafted as a GI in occupied Germany. From there he defected to the East, swimming across the Danube into the Soviet-controlled part of Austria before making his home in the self-styled German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Having been an eyewitness to the postwar Red Scare in the United States and the onset of McCarthyism, Grossman became an ardent defender of East German socialism. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which brought the GDR to its final collapse, he has continued to live in the former East Berlin, writing of the social hardships caused by the sell-offs of formerly publicly owned workplaces, services, and housing.

Grossman recently toured the United States to promote his latest book, A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee. Jacobin’s Julia Damphouse and David Broder met up with him to discuss the successes and darker aspects of the GDR, his own experience as an American on the “wrong side” of the Cold War divide, and what legacy the twentieth-century left has for the recent resurgence of socialism in the United States.


JD DB

Your 2003 autobiography Crossing the River describes how come a Harvard student swam across the Danube to make it to the Soviet zone. This new book offers more of a political perspective on the GDR itself. Why did you think it important to write about these experiences?

VG

The first book I wrote was published in East Berlin and talked about my life in the United States right up until the first days of my defection to the GDR in 1952. It was called The Way Across the Border. The funny thing is, some people in the GDR bought it thinking that I was talking about going in the other direction — they thought it would help them jump the Wall from East to West.

I published my first full autobiography, Crossing the River, in 2003. It starts at the dramatic high point of my physical defection to the East when I swam across the Danube. But I also talk about my childhood, my life as a student and young Communist at Harvard, and then of my experience working in a factory before being drafted.

This new book is more about my political perspective, but of course, it’s also informed by my background. It begins with my experience integrating into East German society in the early 1950s, my first year in a small town in the center of the GDR, then my spell in Leipzig studying journalism at the Karl Marx University, and my life and career in Berlin. I examine the development of the GDR, its downfall and what followed. This also allows me to put the Cold War itself in perspective, while also facing the tough questions about the GDR itself.

JD DB

Today the Left is again on the rise in the United States, under the banner of “democratic socialism.” So what value can there be in reengaging with experiences of state socialism like the GDR’s?

VG

Part of my present motivation is to make this kind of history interesting for young people. I was particularly inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign and before that Occupy Wall Street. I was excited to see this huge growth of interest in socialism among young people. But of course, they don’t always have well-formed ideas about what that means. Some might say socialism is whatever Bernie Sanders says it is, but certainly not anything like the Soviet Union or East Germany. And of course, lots of people think of East Germany as the worst of the socialist states because of the Berlin Wall.

There were, indeed, many things wrong with the GDR. There were violations of freedom of speech and movement, and farcical elections were staged. Yet there were also forces in the GDR, with a real effect on people’s lives, which were profoundly democratic. Workplace control and some methods of protest meant that the power of the working class to affect the decisions at the top was not insignificant. There was near-full employment, which also helped workers apply pressure when they were unhappy. Added to that were civil pressures in the general population. The ruling party (the Socialist Unity Party, SED) had to try to reflect somewhat what people were saying or thinking, to at least somewhat prove its own legitimacy.

In the new book, I take examples of aspects of life in the United States today and talk about what life was like in the GDR by comparison. I shine a light on issues that Americans face: evictions, homelessness, mass incarceration, food banks, and the lack of access to food, healthcare, education, maternity leave, and childcare. I draw on some truly ghastly yet upsettingly commonplace examples, like a woman in need of dental care who hasn’t been treated in nine years for lack of ability to pay, only to get it after a free clinic was set up.

The GDR wasn’t like that. I learned nearly all my German while living in the GDR, but I never learned the German word for food bank! There was no such thing because everyone could afford enough food to live. They couldn’t always buy what they wanted, and there were often shortages of certain items, but there was enough food — everybody could afford it. That was true even for the worst off. For instance, older women who became widows after the war and lacked the ability to work much before retiring, and so found themselves in the lowest pension bracket, they had access to social clubs for the elderly, with very cheap meals — no one went hungry.

So the point is to help inspire people with the idea that we can run society differently — things don’t just have to be as they are now.

JD DB

Even admitting that there were some positive aspects of life in the GDR, the lack of elections — coupled with the existence of the Wall and of intrusive surveillance — would seem to question the idea that it ever had mass support . . .

VG

The GDR had problems right from the start because it was a new state run by people coming from a small antifascist milieu, who governed over a population who had been the citizens of Nazi Germany for over a decade. That doesn’t mean that they were still pro-Nazi, but it did mean there was a great deal of resentment. They had become cynical about any ideology and basically thought: leave us alone, with all your bullshit theories.

Despite this, there is some polling that tells us that in the first few decades of the state’s existence, if there had been a vote, probably 60 or 70 percent would have been pro-GDR. That’s not exactly the 99 percent backing that the SED claimed in every election, though it’s not a bad result either. But the people at the top were afraid. There was a time when the majority was probably pro-GDR, including the youth and the intellectuals, but this began to disintegrate in the 1980s.

There’s also the question of who was to blame for the GDR’s errors and crimes. There was pressure from the Soviet Union, and of course, the threat from the West, and sometimes a lack of principled leadership in the GDR itself. But sometimes there was also the problem that the GDR’s leaders had been formed under conditions — the bitter life-and-death struggle with the Nazis, and the Stalin period — which were unsuited to postwar realities. This made them rigid and alienated from the younger generations of the general population.

JD DB

Do you think the GDR could have gained legitimacy, by holding free elections, while remaining a socialist state?

VG

Under the circumstances the leaders faced, that would have been very tough. Facing a relatively high level of dissatisfaction from start, the GDR wagered that it could not really have free elections. West Germany’s power of propaganda was also a very powerful influence over the mood of East Germans. While East Germany succeeded in abolishing poverty and providing a decent quality of life for just about everybody, there was nothing like the level of consumer goods that were available in the West.

People would watch West German TV and see advertisements promising a different way of living. Of course, we know that all of that is overblown and not representative of most people’s real lives. But still, those images were powerful. People couldn’t help but believe that what the media was saying reflected real life in the West, and they wanted what they saw. The GDR’s own TV couldn’t compete with the message that the Western media were selling.

More broadly, it faced geographical and economic obstacles that made it hard to compete with the West in many regards. But it was a global player in other fields — GDP isn’t everything. East Germany was in fact ahead of the West in general labor protections, protection against unemployment, and also in terms of women’s rights, like access to abortion, the right to get a divorce if they wanted, and free childcare. But people took these sort of things for granted. It was easier to see what the state wasn’t able to provide — like consumer goods — than it was to imagine life without employment protections, which were just basic parts of their life.

JD DB

What led the GDR to its ultimate collapse?

VG

What I want to make very clear, while addressing criticisms of the GDR, is that it was under terrible pressure from the very start. This pressure came from two sides. It came from the West but also from the Soviet Union. Of course, it was really only thanks to the USSR that German antifascists were able to throw out the Nazis and the capitalists, which they couldn’t have done on their own. And in the postwar period, since most had been in prison or in exile, they had no power — even if they had a moral claim to govern — so they needed the Soviets to lift them to office. But the USSR also put its own demands on the GDR and in many ways limited its potential.

There were also economic factors that placed an increasing strain on the state. The GDR had a leading machine tools industry, but it struggled to keep up with the development of electronics from countries like Japan and the United States. The Soviet Union had its own focuses and couldn’t provide as much support as the GDR would have needed, but of course, the political situation also limited its ability to import from the West. So this tiny country had to provide all its own research and development in electronics in order to keep up with international standards.

There was a similar situation for military technology. The GDR’s leaders felt they needed to keep up with the West, and it cost them greatly.

When Erich Honecker took over as SED party secretary in 1971, one of his main promises was to build 3.5 million homes by 1990. By 1987 they had built around one million, which was no small feat, but was not on pace as promised, and it cost the state a lot of money.

The cost of these different areas of state investment meant investment in consumer goods was lacking, and a lot of what the GDR did produce was sold to the West to make up for the shortage of funds and Western currency. It couldn’t keep up.

The pressures that resulted from this economic situation led to people’s growing dissatisfaction with their living conditions and an increasing envy of the West. In turn, the people’s dissatisfaction led to growing concerns, within the government, that people would try to leave, and it responded by increasing the reach of the Stasi.

The repression a state enacts is related to the threat it perceives, and the amount of repression people are willing to put up with is directly related to their level of satisfaction. If people are satisfied, the state has no need to worry about dissent since complaints are unlikely to stick. When the dissatisfaction was on the rise, they started to increase repression, making the situation even more unpleasant and adding to the pressure on the GDR’s legitimacy. This created a negative spiral which was hard to reverse. People were pacified somewhat by the improved living conditions of the 1970s and early 1980s, but after 1985 things began to stagnate, largely because of the economic issues I just mentioned.

JD DB

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ushered in a mood of Cold War triumphalism, with the declaration of the end of history. But at three decades’ distance, liberalism is itself in crisis, while the integration of the former East has also proven fraught. Do you find that it’s easier to talk about the GDR today — are people coming around to your more positive perspective?

VG

It’s a discussion I’ve been having for a long time. From the 1970s up till the dissolution of the GDR in 1989–90, I was often invited to travel around East Germany giving lectures on the United States to young people at schools and universities. Toward the end, I began to see that their questions were no longer just about the curiosities of daily life in America, but about the more fundamental comparative questions: of their Germany versus the West, of capitalism versus socialism.

They were skeptical of news reports that told them of terrible conditions and events in the West, and in the later years, they grew unwilling to believe them. I would say to them frankly: “if things changed, you’ll be able to travel to see the Louvre, to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa or San Francisco, and you’ll get all the Coca-Cola you want, but you may not have a job, and you may have a very rough time.” But I could see in their eyes that this didn’t mean anything to them. In the GDR, if you were out of a job you’d get unemployment compensation — so what’s the difference? They didn’t realize the things they took for granted wouldn’t be there anymore.

But I always tried to say that there were all kinds of terrible things about the GDR — things I hoped could be changed (and there was hope toward the end that things would change). But at the same time, I knew then that the end of the GDR would bring about changes many didn’t expect, and that the transition would be more difficult than we were told. Today, I would estimate about a third of people from the GDR are doing materially better than before, another third more or less the same, and a third are having a more difficult time.

JD DB

You are still very convinced in a socialist future. How do you know things would be different building socialism today?

VG

My book isn’t just meant to present interesting autobiographical reminiscences. It’s intended as a recipe for changing things.

Back in 1941 Franklin D. Roosevelt made a speech where he identified four freedoms: the freedom of speech and expression, the freedom to worship God in your own way, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Some of these freedoms are very familiar, but some we don’t hear about anymore. Most of all, freedom from want: people suffer terrible misery and poverty, and this has to do with the consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of a tiny minority.

The proliferation of suffering continues because its causes are somehow profitable. The pharmaceutical industry abets the opioid crisis, oil companies try to hide the facts of the worsening climate crisis, and of course, the arms industry profits off of endless war. I continue to say the only solution is: take all this power away from them and end the incentives that cause this to go on. People should be fairly compensated for their social contribution and hard work. No one should own half the world.

We need to know about the history of Eastern Bloc socialism so that we don’t make the same mistakes the GDR did. But just the same, we also need to acknowledge the good things. They got rid of the profiteers as best as they could and got rid of poverty. This is what I am trying to get across — we can all say this without denying the reality of the country’s darker side.

If the United States became socialist today, it wouldn’t have a lot of the economic barriers that the GDR faced. It is one of the biggest global imperial powers, exploiting and causing political instability in the Global South — so if it went socialist, it could improve the quality of life for people all over the world just by ceasing to be such a negative influence.