Different Worlds:  Life in the German Democratic Republic

“The GDR threw out the Vialons and Scheels, the Krupps and Flicks, the Thyssens and Deutsche Bankers, the Globkes and Gehlens [corporate heads, ideologists, military leaders, lawyers who facilitated and implemented fascist criminality] … My hatred of those who build and ran Auschwitz and Treblinka led me to resolve ‘Never again.’ For me, this included Jews and Palestinian Arabs, Poles and Roma, Congolese and Kurds, Tamils of Sri Lanka, Rohingya of Myanmar, and oppressed people everywhere.  Black men or women in the ghettos, gay or transgender victims or Native Americans on the North Dakota prairie: all are my brothers and sisters!”

“There were undeniably blots, far too many, which hastened the final failure [of East German socialism].  I don’t want to prettify the past.  Avarice, egoism, envy, and other failings could not be eradicated by even the best laws or most socially conscious system … Human rarely become angels.  But there do seem to have been changes: comparisons shortly after [German] unification showed East Germans on the average less motivated by a craving for more money and laying more value on family life.  With little pecuniary rivalry, they tended to be friendlier with one another.  Women, despite the burdens of household and family weighing heavier on their shoulders then on men’s, were more satisfied at their independent roles on the job with other people, and better able to defy patriarchal pressures.”
--Victor Grossman


Nearly 30 years have passed since the Berlin Wall crumbled, followed quickly by the collapse of the German Democratic Republic.  Thus ended the attempt to build socialism on one-third of German soil.  Along with that failure came a version of history in which the totalitarian East was inevitably defeated by the liberal capitalist West because of the inherent virtues of free markets.  Buried in the Cold War triumphalism of German unification, the questions of what happened, why and what it all meant were left unasked, let alone answered as capitalism – unencumbered by alternatives in the East -- was seen as ready to launch into a golden age.  In the years since, however, the bloom has fallen off the rose; Germany’s economy has grown but so too has inequality, poverty and dislocation – realities even more apparent in the United States.  Unification was supposed to be a step toward peace, but the US and NATO have since been engaged in endless wars of aggression.  Germany’s military budget and arms sales have grown too, while engaging in military action around the world, something that had been unthinkable in 1945, something that was not supposed to happen when the Wall came down.  Most concerning has been the revival of strength of neo-fascist movements, right-wing demagogues, unvarnished anti-Semitism joined to an especially toxic Islamophobia.

These developments raise the question of why the defeat of Germany, Italy and Japan during World War II did not bury fascism once and for all.  So too, the 2008-9 banking crisis – which hit Europe as it did the United States – raises the question of why capitalism, unrestrained by even a flawed or weak socialism, has been so unable to meet popular needs, to provide security or prosperity for working people.  Capitalism’s failures have removed socialism from the list of taboo words when looking at political alternatives and given space for a more honest and nuanced look at what went right, what went wrong, during those years of the GDR’s existence from 1949-1991.

Victor Grossman, on a national tour discussing his book, A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee, spoke with such honesty along with sympathy for what the GDR accomplished and attempted.  At age 91, he was not, however, only concerned with the past; he addressed GDR history with an eye to contemporary relevance in well-attended talks in Washington DC.  He spoke at progressive event space Busboys and Poets’ 14th & V location (May 15), and at the German government-sponsored Goethe Institute (May 17) with Washington Post Senior Editor Marc Fisher moderating the latter.  In addition, he addressed the Nation reading group meeting at the Cleveland Park library on May 18.

Victor – whose given name is Stephen Wechsler – has a unique vantage point for he defected from the US to the GDR in 1952, lived and worked there until its collapse, remaining thereafter in reunified Germany, retaining his socialist convictions.  Victor’s uniqueness may be noted by one simple fact – he is the only person to have graduated from both Harvard and the Karl Marx University (and given that the latter no longer exists, it is a club of which he is likely to remain the only member).  The politics and commitment to a better world that lay behind the decisions which brought him both degrees form a central part of his story.

Born in 1928, growing up observing the ravages of the Depression, the rise of fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe, the struggle to defend and advance the ideals of the New Deal, Victor became a supporter and subsequently a member of the Communist Party while a student at Harvard.  That commitment remained and was expressed in support of Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party campaign in 1948 around demands for economic justice, an end to racism, a commitment to peace in the last attempt to give expression to the goals that seemed to realization during the labor-led progressive gains of the 1930s, especially after the World War II defeat of Hitler.  Times, though, were changing, the world-wide war-time anti-Nazi alliance was breaking up as was the New Deal coalition domestically.  Reaction set in, anti-Communism became almost a state religion and the era of Joe McCarthy witch hunts began.  Congress passed legislation that made the Communist Party a semi-legal organization, the enforcement mechanism being ubiquitous loyalty oaths.

The Korean War soon took center stage, and with it, military conscription.  Victor was drafted and made the fateful decision to sign on the dotted line the statement that he was not a Communist Party member. He was sent to serve in Austria; meanwhile an FBI informant led to a scheduled hearing about the affidavit.  Fearing criminal charges for perjury, Victor instead decided to flee to the Soviet-occupied sector of Austria and announced his willingness to defect.  Within a year he was living and working in the GDR and there he would make his life (it is a story he recounts in greater detail in an earlier volume:  Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and life in East Germany).  It is that unusual double-sided life that enables Grossman to give a fuller, more balanced perspective than most commentators -- stressing the positive, to be sure, but without ignoring the negative; the genuine meaning in daily life of the degree of social security and equality the GDR attained as against the social and personal consequences of the narrowness, lack of openness, the democratic deficits the country suffered.

The latter, however, is all that most people know; the Berlin Wall transformed by the media into an image of East Germany as one large prison.  Victor asked at the Goethe Institute talk how many people had seen the film The Lives of Others – most raised their hands.  He then pointed out the distortions in its image of a GDR in which all lived in fear.  Police surveillance and political repression did indeed exist, and were among the reasons the GDR was unable to survive.  But the picture in the film of an all-seeing police state was an exaggeration that had little to do with the actual circumstances of life people lived – moreover GDR conditions could not be separated from the real-life attempts to destroy what was being built there by West Germany and the US.  Grossman added that most commentators failed to note that the film itself could have been a film of McCarthyism in the US (including an accidental, ironic, or wholly unintentional, similarity to aspects of the Alger Hiss case – a notorious early instance of witch-hunting that proved to be the launching pad for Richard Nixon’s national political career).

The point Victor was making in that respect was the need to see developments in relationship to each other.  His journey West to East was very much a response to the repression that gripped hold of the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s, repression that resulted in arrests, blacklists, deportations, repression that stirred up racist mobs, expanded FBI power and surveillance, repression that weakened democratic institutions within the US.  While adding that this comparison is not to excuse repression as it existed in the GDR, it nonetheless should give pause to those who uncritically accept the too-often promoted Cold War “democracy vs. totalitarianism” framework.

Commonplace contrasts between the two systems can instead be turned when it comes to making a comparison between West and East Germany.  Victor eventually became a journalist in the GDR and, as such, served as a writer for the Democratic German Report in the early 1960’s publishing the results of research that showed that former Nazis – often high-ranking ones (like those mentioned above) with direct involvement in the promulgation and implementation of ant-Semitic laws, war crimes in occupied territories, placing anti-fascists in concentration camps, overseeing gas chambers – dominated among West German diplomats abroad, in the courts, universities, schools, police, other administrative posts and in centers of political and business power.  The facts could not be denied, yet the consequence of the exposures had relatively little impact: Former Nazis remained over-represented in national leadership and the civil service in the new “democracy.”  This passage from an authoritarian to a democratic system did not represent any break with the thinking of the past – the policies and practices of German industry and banks, of Germany’s renewed bid for dominance in Europe and military aggressiveness outside Europe’s borders, in the post-1991 world shows the continuities left over from a lack of confrontation with the past.

West German officials and media attempted to charge the GDR with the same, but the difference was striking – no equivalents could be found in the higher reaches of the government in the East, and those few administrators discovered were not the policy makers and ideologists of the fascist regime.  Rejecting those who had set the stage and implemented the policies of the Nazis had widespread consequences.  As Grossman explained (and details in his book) it necessitated a rapid process of training people to teach, to serve in the diplomatic corps, to form a new police force and military, to join the civil service.  Most of these were working-class people whose upward mobility would have otherwise been sharply limited; they formed the core of support for the new society along with Communists and other anti-fascists who survived the years of terror.

But, as Grossman pointed out, this was not an unmixed blessing – the lack of experience, the swiftness of the training, contributed to the dogmatism and rigidity that was to hamper the GDR throughout its history.  Moreover, those who became part of the new society in this way often failed to understand the needs, thoughts, dreams of the generation which came after them, contributing to the alienation of many young people that became so evident in the 1980s.  This, in turn, reinforced undemocratic practices, led to limitations on popular initiatives, that were at the root of the GDR’s failure – though, he also pointed out that these lay too in a degree of distrust of the population, many of whom, of course, had gone along with the Nazi terror.

Adding to the GDR’s difficulties was the obligation to pay almost all of Germany’s reparations to the Soviet Union, while West Germany was receiving support from the United States in rebuilding its economy.  Yet as Grossman points out, despite the flaws and rigidities of socialism as it was being developed in the East, much in everyday life improved over time – incomes rose, housing improved, social amenities became better, there was greater choice in consumer goods; so and the quality of life became richer in many respects.  Quite to the contrary of the image projected in The Lives of Others, people had privacy and freedom in their personal lives.  But democratic input remained limited and in some respects moved backward and with that came a sense of freedom being constricted – especially with the allure of the West which seemed (and, in some respects, was) more dynamic, especially as the insecurity and inequality that underlay that growth was not appreciated by a younger generation who had not experienced the boom and bust cycles of capitalist life.

Victor noted that his political convictions developed under the influence of the New Deal and felt that FDR’s four freedoms serve as a way to envision a better world – and so as a way to compare the GDR with both West Germany and the United States.  Of course, the first freedom is that of speech, and there he reaffirmed that East Germany’s record left a lot to be desired and was the Achilles’ heel that played an outsized role in the system’s demise.  Though the extent of repression is exaggerated, the repression was real and costly.  At the same time, political repression has a long history in the United States as well – being the reason for Victor’s decision to defect – and alongside racist repression continues to this day. And repression had a history in West Germany and still does in re-unified Germany today.  As to freedom of worship, the GDR’s record was again mixed – churches were open, religious practice was permitted, manifestations of anti-Semitism were illegal – but there is no doubt that mainline churches were often the victim of petty repressive measures in a game of tit-for-tat with West Germany which itself was an aspect of the GDR’s never fully overcome democratic deficit.

However, when it comes to the third freedom --freedom from want – socialism had the stronger argument as it reflected the system’s values.  People in the GDR did not suffer from homelessness, unemployment, poverty or hunger.  Victor writes of how when his wife visited the US (her first time in the West) after the Wall came down, she was shocked at the sight of beggars, for she had never before seen people so desperate for a meal.  Quoting FDR that “necessitous men are not free men,” Victor argued that this fundamental right is all too often forgotten and that in this the contrast between capitalism and the socialism they were trying to build in the GDR are most clearly to be found.  So too was the final freedom -- freedom from fear – which meant that humanity should no longer live under the cloud of war.  Grossman again quotes from FDR this too little remembered admonition: “freedom from fear … means a worldwide reduction of armaments … in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor --- anywhere in the world.”  Several months after Roosevelt’s death, the US launched nuclear bombs over Hiroshima then Nagasaki, after which our arms spending and military interventions and wars abroad have been unending, unrelenting and on a scale beyond any other nation of the world.  Grossman recounts those wars, that violence, and comments that there is no freedom from fear in the world.  In fact, in his talk he noted that climate change has added a new source of fear in the world.

Although attitudes can’t be legislated, social policies can be implemented and here too Victor brought to light positive measures the GDR took to ensure that whatever progress was made, was made for all.  The racism and forms of stratification everywhere to be found in the US were banned in the GDR as were the kinds of hate speech that now finds expression in White House orchestrated mass rallies. Victor gave a picture of daily life too that, notwithstanding its limitations, was in some aspects freer and more humane than our own, and certainly not the unrelieved grim experience that is often portrayed.  In this, he challenged the view of the United States and our full-blown capitalism as natural, normal, and inevitable with the contrast of the conscious attempt to create an alternative – for even if the experiment failed, the fact that an alternative was tried proved that what exists need not always exist.  Others can learn from the GDR’s failure and perhaps do better in the future to come.  Questions at both of the formal talks he gave in DC touched on this, with a receptivity that might not have been there thirty years ago when socialism appeared buried forever and capitalism on the cusp of a new beginning.

Many (but by no means all) attendees at the Goethe Institute event came with a perspective more critical of the GDR to begin with – and some questions stressed the centrality of individual freedom as a freedom more respected in the West – but all were asked and answered in a spirit of openness.  And some questions were the same at both events, including one that often figures in discussions about whether socialism can “work.”  For with full employment and guaranteed jobs on one side and a relatively narrow gap between lowest to highest pay scales, both the fear of job loss or the hope of riches that serve as a productivity engine in capitalist society are absent.  And, indeed, Victor granted that the question was legitimate.  He responded that workplaces were centers of socialization, that a line might be shut down for a visit to someone who is sick or around some celebration or other, even if it meant slowing production.  People did their jobs but often did not push themselves beyond that.  It is a complex problem and genuine difficulty, Victor agreed, but he added that work need not be oppressive, that it isn’t always necessary to make the maximum effort, that life exists beyond the capitalist imperative of ever more.  The real question here is the cost to quality of life by a system of exploitation, and the question still to be discovered is what would be valued in a world free of exploitation and war.  As much as FDR’s four freedoms, Victor’s explained that his political convictions – his opposition to what capitalism is, his vision of what socialism could be -- found expression in Martin Luther King’s 1967 speech against the Vietnam War, his call for a revolution in values  “… [for] when machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.”

Victor’s talk was not meant as either an exercise in nostalgia nor as an idle look at what might be.  He was clear on stressing the needs of the moment – his political commitment when young was fired by hatred of fascism and so today he stressed the need to combat the growing strength of neo-fascism in Germany, the need to combat Donald Trump’s racism and authoritarianism.  When young, he was inspired by the promise of the New Deal and the politics that sought to ground it in workers’ struggles and deeper structural change.  Today, he takes heart from the wide support Bernie Sanders has generated – his popularizing of socialism in the context of a militant challenge to corporate power has its roots in the same New Deal ideals. So too does the proposal of a Green New Deal authored by Rep. Alexandria Cortez-Ocasio and other newly elected representatives in Congress on behalf of a younger generation committed to a different and better future.

Being attuned to current progressive initiative contributes to a spirit of optimism that runs through Grossman’s book and talks.  This stems from a life of commitment that learns from defeat rather than using it as an excuse to turn away from life.  That is best expressed in the closing lines of A Socialist Defector:

“I believe that what I wrote, said, or did was for a good cause, and despite occasional mistakes I have no real regrets.  And I still have great hopes for a happier future for everyone, everywhere!  They are expressed in two of my most cherished songs.  One is the fighting miners’ song: “Which Side Are You On?”  The other, full of hope for tomorrow’s man – and definitely woman: “Imagine no possessions, I wonder if you can, no need for greed or hunger – a brotherhood of man.”

A version of this article is also published in the Stansbury Forum.

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