Reconsidered: Books by Victor Grossman
Frank da Cruz
4 September 2020
|East German 2 Mark coin
I lived in West Germany for a total of five years between 1959 and 1966,
both before and after the Berlin Wall went up: first as
a high school student on the Army base
, and then in the Army
itself in Kaiserlautern and Stuttgart
. I visited Berlin in February
1959 when the East-West border was still open and I even walked around a bit
on the far side of the Brandenburg Gate. We flew there from Frankfurt on a
DC-4 and I remember looking down and thinking that East Germany looked
exactly like West Germany from the air. But at ground level, West Berlin
was far more prosperous and rebuilt than East Berlin because it was
subsidized by the United States as a "showcase for capitalism".
We knew little about East Germany. Our information sources then were the
Stars and Stripes* (newspaper) and the Armed Forces Network (radio),
both of which were remarkably objective and informative by today's
standards, perhaps because they were not-for-profit. But news stories
regarding East Germany focussed on the ongoing Berlin Crisis and the massive
migrations from East to West. We never learned much about East Germany
From that time until German reunification in 1990, East Germany was
invariably depicted in the mainstream media as a joyless and regimented
society where citizens lived in constant terror of Gestapo-like Stasi secret
police; a place where everybody informed on everyone else and where living
conditions were spartan and bleak.
In the Army in 1963-66, stationed in West Germany, I was aware of the
situation at the border — plowed strips, barbed wire, guard towers,
machine guns — especially since my own unit (the 3rd Armored Cavalry
Regiment) took an annual turn at border duty. Everyone knew about the many
escapes and escape attempts from east to west but as a GI, I began to hear
about escapes in the opposite direction by American soldiers; some for
political reasons, some for racial reasons, and some simply to be able to
marry their German girlfriends. These were rarely publicized.
An early defector was Victor Grossman, a US Army soldier who deserted and
crossed into Austria's Soviet occupation zone in 1952, winding up in East
Germany where he lived, worked, married, and raised a family, and where he
still lives. He has written a pair of remarkable books, Crossing
the River (2003) and
Socialist Defector (2019), which present not only a detailed account
of life in East Germany from the perspective of an American, but also a
wealth of detail about its history, its successes, its problems, and its
demise. To oversimplify, I'd say the first book is his own story and the
second tells the larger story in political-historical context, with some
I learned a great many things from these books. I'd have to write a whole
book to explain them all, but Mr. Grossman already has; I'll only touch on a
few items. First of all, East Germany — the German Democratic
Republic or GDR (DDR in German) — was dedicated from the very
beginning to the health and well-being of its people and the suppression of
any Nazi resurgence. As a socialist state, the necessities of life were
guaranteed: secure jobs with living wages, affordable housing, affordable
food, free medical care, free education, secure retirement, and a very low
crime rate. There was a vibrant cultural life — literature, film,
music, theater — and ample recreational and sports facilities and
vacation resorts available to everybody. Food and consumer goods were not
sold for profit, and there were no advertisements anywhere! And on
and on. You can get an inkling of this in the 2003
Lenin, the West's first look into the "other side" of East Germany
that we never heard about.
In stark contrast to West Germany, where ex-Nazis and complicit corporations
like I.G. Farben formed the new Federal Republic and its military as a
bulwark against Communism (in violation of the 1945 Potsdam agreement), in
East Germany ex-Nazis were barred from positions of responsibility in
government and the economy and from teaching in schools and
universities. Nazi-era companies were taken over by the state. Most
officials were antifascists who had been imprisoned by Nazis or whose
families had been killed by them, or who had fought against them by
defecting or in the underground or in the Spanish Civil War. Also many of
them were Jewish.
Americans think of East Germany the same way they think of the Soviet Union
(gray, drab, impoverished, devoid of fun). Although I never visited East
Germany except for a few minutes on a foggy winter day in 1959, I did spend
some time in the USSR. Like East Germany, the USSR was relatively lacking
in consumer goods and people had to stand in line for everything. On the
other hand, they had apartments, excellent health care, excellent education,
and ample leisure time, and did not have to worry about how to pay for any
of it. As to the supposed lack of freedom, it was as I suspected: at home,
people said whatever they wanted, told subsersive jokes, and enjoyed
themselves. If the price for all of that security was to watch what you
said in public or at work, so be it. Compare to the price we pay for "our
freedoms": insecurity in employment, health care, housing, education,
retirement: lives of constant stress for all but the most wealthy.
At a time when the USA is torn by political dysfunction, enormous wealth
gaps, an incipient race war, public health disasters, and skyrocketing crime
born of poverty and hopelessness, it is worth knowing that other systems are
possible and what it's like to live in one. There are no paradises on this
planet except for the super-rich. For the rest of us there are
only tradeoffs. East Germany had the rare kind of government that was
devoted to the well-being of its entire population, and all this
while never attacking even one other country. Compare to the USA which
devotes itself exclusively to making the already-rich ever richer at the
expense of everyone else while interfering in the internal affairs of
countless other countries, causing untold chaos, misery, and death.
I heartily recommend reading Victor Grossman's books to discover an
alternative way of life that has never before been presented to an American
audience in objective terms, written by an American who lived it for nearly
This section updated 6 January 2021.
Wall 30 Years Later by Victor Grossman, 2019 (about 5 pages).
- Newsletter: Victor Grossman's Berlin
- Article: "African Americans in the German
Democratic Republic" by Victor Grossman, in Larry A. Greene and Anke
and African Americans: Two Centuries of Exchange, University Press of
- Article: History
on screen: East Germany through its filmmakers' eyes, David Rising,
Associated Press, 3 Oct 2020.
- TV: Deutschland
83: a 2015 German series about East Germany in 1983*.
- TV: Deutschland
86: a second series from 2018 that takes place in 1986*.
Mörder sind unter uns, Hildegard Knef and Ernst Borchert: the first
postwar German movie: Nazi war criminals hiding in plain sight. Filmed in
the rubble of the Soviet sector of Berlin in 1945-46 by the Soviet/East
DEFA film production company.
- Films: The DEFA film library
at the University of Massachusetts (over 1000 DDR films).
- Films: PROGRESS archive of East German
documentaries, newsreels, and feature films
Kalte Engel - Doku-Krimi aus dem Berlin der Nachkriegszeit, Horst
Bosetzky, Jaron Verlag (2013). A remarkable and meticulously-researched
true-crime novel based on a 1949 murder case in Berlin, in which the East
and West German police worked together. Also available in
Hear the East
German national anthem (on Youtube, sorry for any ads)
- Article about Victor Grossman:
"Der Amerikanner, der die DDR liebte",
Der Spiegel, 2 October 2020 (paywall).
- Book: Ute
Mahler: Zusammenleben, Sibylle Berg and Ute Mahler, Hatje Cantz (2014).
Photos of people and everyday life in East Germany, 1970-1990 (see
The Guardian) (see Google Images).
Ute Mahler was also a photographer for Sibylle, the Vogue of
East Germany, which covered fashion without selling any brands whatsoever
although sewing patterns for the designs featured were included in the
magazine [i-D Magazine,
16 September 2019].