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 at age 14 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
(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
|Victor Grossman books
I learned a great many things from these books. I'd have to write a whole
book to explain them all, but Victor 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 prevention 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-for-profit, and there were no advertisements anywhere!
and on. You can get an inkling of this in the 2003
, 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.
|East Berlin 1959 (photo by me)
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 jobs, apartments, excellent health care, excellent
education, secure retirement, 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, crushing debt, an incipient race war, public health disasters, mass
evictions and homelessness, an epidemic of misinformation and ignorance,
skyrocketing crime born of poverty and hopelessness, and world-record levels
of incarceration, 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
seventy years and the departed GDR
by Victor Grossman, Monthly Review, 2022 (about 5 pages) - August 2022
Wall 30 Years Later by Victor Grossman, 2019 (about 3 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: Second season from 2018 that takes place in 1986*.
- TV: Deutschland
89: Third and final season from 2020 that takes place in 1989*.
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). You can order
them on DVD.
- 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
- 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
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].
Building Socialism: The Afterlife of East German Architecture in Urban
Vietnam, Christina Schwenkel, Duke University Press (2020): the
story of how East Germany helped Vietnam rebuild after eight years of
American saturation bombing.
110, an East German cop show, 1971-1991 (read about it
A pretty realistic, filmed-on-location police drama that offers an
intimate look at East Germany, its workplaces, its people, and some of its
social problems and how they were handled. In German with no subtitles.
The show continued after reunification but, of course, under West German
Kathleen Reinhardt et al.,
Rosen für Angela Davis / 1 Million Roses for Angela Davis,
Mousse Publishing (2021): Angela Davis and East Germany
in Leipzig (13 minutes, 1972).
Hear the East
German national anthem (on Youtube, sorry for any ads)
- Article about Victor Grossman:
for an Odd Sort of Harvard Expatriate,
New York Times, 29 November 1996.
30 August 2023