Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany

Victor Grossman (Stephen Wechsler), Crossing the River: A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany (Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003).

Crossing the River adds a previously missing voice to the rather large literature in English on the German Democratic Republic (GDR)—the perspective of an American Communist, Victor Grossman, who in 1952, while serving in the United States Army, defected there and to this day continues to call it his home. While telling a picaresque tale of an individual Communist’s adjustment—and contribution—to this beleaguered outpost of socialism, he adds to our understanding of what has been lost by its demise and why the GDR and the rest of the socialist camp ultimately collapsed.
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Grossman, who was born in 1928 to Jewish American parents, had been raised in Free Acres, a small community in central New Jersey loosely fashioned on the principles of Henry George. Grossman gravitated to Free Acres’ Communist residents, which met with no opposition from his parents (especially his mother), who were sympathetic to that cause. Consequently, at the age of fourteen Victor joined the Young Communist League; and by seventeen he had joined the Communist Party.

As a Harvard undergraduate, Grossman and other members of his campus party club helped collect 100,000 signatures to place Progressive Party candidate Henry Wallace on the Massachusetts ballot in 1948. Upon graduation in 1949, Grossman attended a series of special classes in Marxism-Leninism in New York City as preparation for work as a concealed Communist in an upstate New York factory. There he shared the insecurity, exhaustion, and indignities endured by American industrial workers and waited for an unspecified moment when he would be able to influence his co-workers to struggle for a more democratic and militant union. That time arrived when the union leadership in an appliance factory in Buffalo presented to the workers a contract offering an extremely paltry pay raise and recommended their approval. Grossman joined the more militant workers in demanding a better contract. He could do little more. His Party membership effectively precluded running for union office; the recently passed Taft-Hartley Act required a sworn affidavit from elected union officers that they were neither members of the Party nor of any other organization the government deemed affiliated with the Party. Noncompliance with this clause led to suspension of all National Labor Relations Board services, including the certification of a union’s collective bargaining certificate.

From his experiences working in factories and earlier at Harvard, Grossman documents one of the greatest strengths of the Party, that is, its central focus on African American liberation. At Harvard when an African American student had been denied admittance to a student pub, the Party club helped organize a nightly picket line. Grossman reports that the campaign attracted considerable publicity and ended in success. Upon arriving in upstate New York, Grossman joined leftist students at Syracuse University in the campaign organized by the Party-led Civil Rights Congress to free the “Trenton Six,” six Black men falsely charged with murder, who, in large measure because of these activities, were ultimately acquitted. At that time, Grossman met the Communist Party leader Mattie Timpken, an African American matriarch who lived with four generations of her family in a large house “sparsely furnished with cheap religious prints on the wall,” deep in the Buffalo ghetto. Nine of Mattie’s ten children had followed her into the Party, where they became a mainstay of its work in this large blue-collar city. Several of her children and their friends joined with the white “colonizers” to form a chapter of the Labor Youth League, which among other things conducted a campaign to integrate a day-liner that sailed from Buffalo. In this instance, their efforts led to arrests, the beating of one of the Timpkin’s sons, and no conclusive victory.

In addition to his trade union activities, in August 1949 Grossman traveled to Peekskill, New York, to help protect Paul Robeson’s concert from organized mob attacks and to participate in the Stockholm Peace petition drive. Both these efforts were largely abortive. Once the Korean War began, the range of political possibilities constantly contracted, and Grossman’s contact with the Party became increasingly limited. His Party activities came to a sudden halt when he was drafted into the Army and sent to West Germany.

In his second year in the Army, Grossman became fearful that the Army had likely discovered his Party affiliation. One day prior to an appearance before an investigator, he swam across the Danube River to the Soviet-administered zone of Austria. From there, he was removed to Bautzen a provincial town near East Germany’s Polish border, which was the center of the Sorbs, a Slavic-speaking minority, whose linguistic and other cultural rights were fostered by the socialist state.

In the GDR, Grossman initially worked in a lumberyard, where he unloaded wooden planks from trucks and ate lunches of potatoes and cheese. Grossman did not find this work worse than upstate New York factory jobs, where he had experienced physical discomfort and potential danger to life and limb. He reports that there was much less friction between workers and supervisors, as well as a greater concern for the workers’ safety. Moreover, unlike post-war Buffalo, jobs in East Germany were plentiful and secure, and vacation time longer and portable so that workers who changed jobs did not lose accumulated vacation time. The greater contrasts between the two systems, however, were not so much at the workplace as in daily life. At this time, power shortages were frequent in the GDR, and items of daily consumption, such as handkerchiefs and washcloths, disappeared from the stores for months at a time. When new razorblades became scarce, Grossman joined the lines of men waiting to have his supply of dull blades sharpened.

Supporters of the new state ascribed these economic hardships to exogenous causes. They pointed to Soviet insistence that East Germany, relatively much poorer than Western Germany, deliver 20% of its capital goods to the Soviet Union as reparations (at a time when West Germany was the largest beneficiary of Marshall Plan aid). They also cited the constriction in the production of consumer goods brought about by the West’s imposition of an economic boycott and military encirclement. Far exceeding these losses, however, was the constant outflow to the West of the best educated and most highly skilled workers, who before departing for the West first took advantage of free higher education, unavailable at that time in West Germany, so that they could benefit from the higher wages prevalent in West Germany.

More disturbing, and seemingly inherent in the system, was the nature of the GDR’s political life, which the Communist Party monopolized. During coffee breaks at the factory where Grossman worked, party cadre held informal meetings where workers were encouraged to commit to political positions, such as acceptance of the GDR’s eastern border (beyond which lay the vast areas of pre-World War II Germany that had been transferred to Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union) and condemnation of listening to US-sponsored radio. In this and other instances, Grossman shows how individuals’ political differences with the regime—in thinking as well as in action—potentially entailed the withholding of advancement, privileges and rewards. The result was, of course, a virulent brew of dissembling and resentment.

Then there was the orchestration and ritualization of political life by the Party and its affiliates. Grossman describes a celebration in Bautzen of the tenth anniversary of the Soviet victory at Stalingrad. Many of the workers who had been assembled at their workplaces to march to the rally simply wandered away in large numbers, while others who arrived at the rally left before its end. While there were few jeers or sarcastic remarks from the assembled workers, for most the event represented yet another “boring rally and meeting—and a chance to get home earlier.” The sphere of Party control was not limited to political ideas and activities. At a Free Democratic Youth (equivalent of the Young Communists) meeting, Grossman witnessed a girl of 17 being severely criticized for using lipstick. Within the Party and its youth affiliate, conformity was enforced by denunciations for such transgressions as assuming a French name while singing chansons in order to earn some pocket money and buying a sweater when visiting West Berlin.

As a politically active Communist during the McCarthy Era, Grossman knew that the benefits of American-style democracy were largely limited to those who accepted the basic premises of the capitalist system. Nonetheless, he struggled with this conundrum. The curtailment of American civil liberties in this period did not seem to damage the capitalist system. However, the unraveling of the socialist system in the GDR and its ultimate dénouement was organically tied to the absence of democracy. Ultimately, the lack of genuine mass participation in its political life led to almost universal acquiescence in the demise of the GDR, and consequently of socialism, by those for whom it was intended—and whom it frequently did in fact benefit. Over time, most of its citizens had withdrwn into a private world of family and immediate community. (Ironically, there is a great nostalgia among former East Germans, including Grossman, for what many now describe as immensely satisfying society.) Others manipulated this system for self-advancement. In a society where being a Communist was no longer dangerous, heroism was increasingly replaced by cronyism, sycophancy, lethargy, and a prevalent bureaucratic mentality.

Grossman’s educational background, but surely too his political reliability, resulted in his advancement from the factory floor to the position of director of the cultural club for the extraordinarily diverse group of “defectors” that the GDR had settled in Bautzen for safekeeping. There is not very much to be learned from this section of the book except that the motivations of those who opted for life in the GDR were not in every case the most pristine. In addition to a few leftist war resisters who had refused to fight in Korea, the others included: “a Deep South check forger, a Pennsylvania thief, alcoholics from all over, Charlie the boxer, and an innocent Indiana farm boy who insisted on marrying a motherly woman almost twice his age.”

During this period, Grossman married Renate, to whom he remains married and with whom he has raised two sons. Renate came from a rural family; her father supported the GDR and had helped organize one of its first collective farms. In this and other instances, Grossman provides scant explanation as to why some East Germans, often ardently, supported the regime and not much more about why others were so opposed. We do learn, for instance, that teachers generally were staunch supporters of the GDR, but the author does not explain what was cause and what effect. Were they appointed to these positions because of their loyalty or did they choose this profession, in part at least, as a type of political act? Similarly, aside from mentioning that the large numbers of postwar refugees (“re-settlers” in approved GDR jargon) from Silesia, the Sudetenland, and East Prussia opposed the GDR, we learn little about the motivations of others with similar beliefs.

Grossman was accepted by Leipzig University in 1955 to study journalism. At this point, the author invites the reader to consider other aspects of life in “real socialism.” These included periods of “voluntary labor” harvesting the potato crop in October and mining lignite in January as well as the contribution of a week’s wages towards funds for international solidarity, such as the liberation struggle in Algeria. On other occasions, university students worked clearing rubble remaining from the wartime bombing of Leipzig, weeding sugar beets, or helping to build sports stadiums. These features of life in the GDR, which from a socialist perspective were admirable and congruent with the goals of an avowed workers’ state, were counterbalanced by single-slate elections that challenged voters who disagreed with the candidates or the process to enter a flimsy balloting booth, in plain sight of the authorities, to mark a ballot.

The GDR’s rationale for building the Berlin Wall in 1961, Grossman reminds us, was based on its urgent need to stop speculation with its currency and the sale of its subsidized produce in West Germany. Even more pressing, of course, was the unstated need to staunch the hemorrhaging of the GDR’s best educated and most highly skilled workers to the West (who were often lured there by specific offers of lucrative employment and excellent housing), which resulted in vast losses of the state’s investment in their education and greatly disrupted production. While the Wall did in fact resolve these and other problems, Grossman does not speculate as to what set of conditions would have allowed the GDR’s government to feel secure enough to demolish the Wall. As it happened, the Berlin Wall and other barriers to the West proved to be as useless in protecting the GDR as the Great Wall of China had been in protecting the Middle Kingdom from invasion. As soon as Hungary opened its borders to Austria in 1989, first East German tourists in Czechoslovakia and Hungary and then other residents of the GDR joined an unstoppable and constantly enlarging caravan of emigrés to the German Federal Republic.

Grossman’s gradually improving living conditions mirrored the steady, albeit incremental, increases in the GDR’s initially very modest standard of living. In 1956, the Grossmans moved from one furnished room with a shared bathroom and no bathing privileges to a two-room apartment with a private bathroom and a kitchen. By this time, stores stocked staples and a selection of specialty items from other socialist countries. By 1960, he acquired a much-prized small three-room apartment (without central heating) in Berlin. Grossman’s wife and sons could now leave Leipzig and join him in East Berlin. In 1961, the Grossmans moved to a three-room apartment, with a separate kitchen, on Karl Marx Allee with a view of the Oder River. The building’s residents organized parties, travel lectures, card games, excursions to local lakes, and occasional outings to East Berlin’s excellent theaters and operas (including the Berliner Ensemble which presented the works of Bertolt Brecht) as well as participating in twice-a-year clean ups of lawns, and pruning of shrubs and trees.

Soon after the GDR government erected the Berlin Wall, Grossman began working with Seven Seas Books, a small publishing house (managed by Gertrude Heym, an American Communist married to the writer Stefan Heym, who like Anna Seghers and other anti-fascist German intellectuals opted to live in the East) that produced books in English (including works by blacklisted American writers, such as Meridel LeSueur, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ring Lardner, Jr., and Albert Maltz) which advanced, in the widest possible terms, the Communist perspective on art and culture for circulation in East Europe (and, to a very limited extent, in the United States.)

Grossman’s inability to get along with the imperious Gertrude caused him to accept employment with the Democratic German Report, an English-language biweekly newsletter, which reached audiences in the West beyond the true believers. Its semi-official status allowed it to present the GDR’s perspective and accomplishments in ways which were more realistic and therefore more credible than those emanating from official channels. These initiatives helped advance the GDR’s goal of achieving diplomatic recognition from the United States, which finally occurred in 1972.

In 1964, Grossman was given an opportunity which even further connected his truncated life as a leftist in the United States with his commitment to helping build socialism in the GDR. The much lauded African American cartoonist, Oliver (Ollie) Harrington, who had settled in the GDR, invited Grossman to translate and produce programming for Radio Berlin. This soon resulted in his hosting a biweekly program that wove together narrative with the type of folk music—labor songs and songs with political themes—integral to the culture around the American Communist Party in the forties. This led to a concert by Pete Seeger in East Berlin. It also ignited criticism within Party circles, including in Neue Zeitung, the Party’s newspaper, that the influence of American culture was becoming too great! Consequently, in order to accommodate official dissatisfaction, the Hootenanny Club (which Grossman had organized as a means of promoting political song) was renamed the October Club, in honor of the Bolshevik Revolution. In 1970, the October Club organized the first of a series of annual Festivals of Political Songs that invited singers from six countries to perform in East Berlin. Eventually, as many as fifty singers or groups from thirty countries arrived in the GDR to take part in this event. Performers included a near complete international pantheon of left artists in the arena of political song, including: Quilapayún, Silvio Rodríguez, Miriam Makeba, Mikis Theodorakis, Mercedes Sosa, Billy Bragg, Ewan McCall, Sweet Honey in the Rock, and the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Eventually, as many as 70,000 attended concerts in East Berlin during these festivals. Grossman also helped establish a Paul Robeson archive, which sponsored a major exhibit and helped produce a large public meeting to celebrate Robeson’s seventieth birthday.

In addition to these activities, Grossman regularly lectured to youth groups, schools, teachers’ clubs, and factory workers on a wide range of topics, most often in connection with American folk music. Motoring about East Germany to deliver these lectures, he came to know almost every nook and cranny of this country, which he discovered was filled with “historic sites, ancient towns, and beautiful scenery: Romanesque churches from the tenth and twelfth centuries… the white cliffs on the Baltic.” He reports: “I grew to love the place.” Grossman also notes at this point that in the early ‘80s, his mostly pro-GDR audiences began to become older and smaller. Clearly, sentiment had begun to shift away from acceptance and even active support for the socialist state.

Grossman’s perspective as a sympathetic outsider allows him to arrive at some insightful observations on the causes of the collapse of socialism in the GDR, and by extension the rest of the socialist bloc. He notes that the largest group of people in the GDR, albeit somewhat grudgingly, had become accepting of a system that had become familiar and which provided definite advantages. However, the nature of the system promoted a mindset where a specific setback or disappointment—a fight with a supervisor or the inability to obtain a better apartment—led to renunciation of the entire system. After all, the point that the GDR was socialist was constantly put before people, whereas in the West, similar experiences rarely caused individuals to question capitalism. Grossman also points out that there was no apparent class struggle in East Germany, so that the endless anti-capitalist appeals sounded hollow and unconvincing.

The German Democratic Republic, though hardly a beacon radiating hope and inspiration, did attract interest and support from many leftists outside its borders. Its relatively higher standard of living within the socialist bloc (by 1990, 40% of its households owned cars, and the ownership of televisions and refrigerators was near universal) made its way of life more comprehensible to Western leftists. The GDR’s extensive solidarity work in assisting liberation struggles in Africa and aiding refugees from Chile and elsewhere made the existence of “real socialism,” regardless of its shortcomings, seem valuable. However, the main reason why this mid-sized country of some 17 million earned greater attention on the left than other socialist-bloc countries was that it evinced more genuine interest in socialism—in its educational system, wage structure, and solidarity work—than did the Soviet Union’s other European allies. In fact, it had little choice but to do so: The GDR represented only a fragment of its nation. Unlike the emigrés from the GDR entering West Germany, Poles, Hungarians, Rumanians, etc., who emigrated left much more than socialism behind. Moreover, “Goulash Communism” was never the solution for the GDR. The GDR knew that it had little chance of besting West Germany in a competition for more and better consumer goods; however, it believed it could promise a more egalitarian society which renounced Germany’s fascist past and expressed solidarity with socialism wherever it appeared and most particularly with the Soviet Union. These goals were, to a significant extent, pursued by a leadership that included veterans of the Spanish Civil War and many Communist and Socialist trade union leaders who had only barely survived Nazi concentration camps. Always on the front lines against anti-socialist provocation, the GDR went further than the other Eastern bloc countries (except perhaps the Soviet Union) to equalize living standards, provide a comprehensive social-service network, and develop an alternate culture. Nonetheless, the GDR collapsed as quickly and as completely as those other states which had moved less far toward socialist goals.

Building socialism in East Germany took place within the context of total political control by the Communist Party and an Orwellian system of secret-police informers that numbered as many as one million. Threats to its existence from without, opposition from within, and an ingrained contempt for “bourgeois democracy” all contributed to this denial of democratic rights. This in turn alienated and pacified the general population and corrupted those who held or sought power, thereby creating the conditions for a massive implosion. Yet, the establishment of democracy within a socialist society seems to depend on a number of unlikely occurrences. Among these is the acquiescing to this system by those (such as managers and professionals) who could gain more under capitalism and the acceptance by highly skilled groups of workers (such as electricians and master craftsmen) of less remuneration so that overall levels of income become more or less equalized. Crossing the River lays before the reader these great dilemmas of building socialism.

Grossman shows that, in any case, the GDR’s egalitarianism did not ensure the populace’s devotion to the system. When visiting Hungary, he notes that compared to the GDR, there was less equality but a far greater supply of consumer goods. This mix seemed to result in a far more contented population. When visiting Poland, which had a generally lower standard of living than the GDR, he witnessed still greater degrees of inequality but far more individual freedom. Nonetheless, in contrast with the other socialist states, the substantial vote for the Party of Democratic Socialism, the successor party for East Germany’s Communist Party—which in the last election, running on a strongly left program, garnered 25% of the vote (including majorities in most of the former East Berlin)—demonstrates that in the former GDR there remains a more sanguine attitude on the part of the people toward its socialist past as well as more continued support for socialism than in the other successor states in Eastern Europe.

Grossman reminds his readers that West Germany did not so much liberate as colonize East Germany. The GDR’s cultural institutions—publishing houses, film studios, theaters, newspapers and journals, research academies—have been disbanded. Four million of the GDR’s 9.5 million jobs disappeared, including those of two-thirds of the farmers during the process of decollectivization. Marriages have declined by one half and the birthrate has plummeted by two-thirds. For Grossman, reunification has meant the end of his work and an increase in his rent from 114 to 950 marks per month. For him and leftists everywhere, the demise of the GDR raises an additional disturbing question: “Where can I flee, if necessary?”

Reviewed by Gerald Meyer

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