East Germany Reconsidered: Books by Victor Grossman

Frank da Cruz
Bronx NY
4 September 2020

East German 2 Mark coin
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 in Frankfurt, 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 itself.

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 A 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 overlap.

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 film Goodbye 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 40 years.

* Bulletin: "The Trump administration has ordered the closure of Stars and Stripes, a newspaper that has served US armed forces since 1861, according to a Pentagon memo obtained by USA Today." —The Guardian, 4 September 2020 (later the same day, Trump seemed to back off).

Related:
This section updated 6 January 2021.
* Deutschland 83 and 86 are somewhat similar to The Americans, but from the East German point of view. A third installment, Deutschland 89 about the end of East Germany, started streaming on Amazon Prime in late September 2020, but so far only in Germany, Austria, India and Japan [search].