An American socialist’s memoir of his life in East Germany overturns many standard assumptions about the contrasts of West and East, finds Dominic Alexander

Victor Grossman (Stephen Wechsler), A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee (Monthly Review 2019), 352pp.

After the Second World War, the legitimacy of Western imperial interventions rested on the idea that they were done in order to defend democracy against the spectre of totalitarianism, in a seamless transition from war against the Nazis to a struggle against ‘Communism’. Many people have always doubted the starkness of the good West, evil East narrative. Perhaps as a result, since the collapse of the Stalinist states of eastern Europe, a concerted effort has been made to reinforce the notion that the East German state, the German Democratic Republic (DDR), in particular, was a dystopian police state morally equivalent to the Nazi regime.

The purpose of this demonisation is perfectly clear: to discredit permanently any notion that there could be a viable alternative to neoliberal capitalism. One response is to point out that the DDR was a state-capitalist regime dominated by a bureaucratic class, not a workers’ state founded on democratic, self-organising structures like the soviets of revolutionary Russia in 1917. While this is certainly the case, the binary Cold-War propaganda is also factually untrue, and while the DDR was not a genuine socialist state, neither can it be reduced to a caricature in which existence there was a living nightmare. It did exhibit some positive characteristics, and a careful consideration of these exposes the propaganda behind the usual view of the eastern state.

Defecting east

This part memoir, part history by Victor Grossman (originally named Stephen Wechsler), a defector from the US army to the DDR, succeeds in blowing out of the water the notion that the Western capitalist states were in any way the rightful heirs to the anti-Nazi struggle. It corrects the myopia which makes mainstream accounts blind to the sins of the West, while exaggerating the evils of the East. For a start, Grossman was given a new name, one which ‘retained some of my Jewish identity’, for the practical purpose of hiding him, and ‘to protect my family from difficulties’, that is retaliation from the American authorities (p.11). Grossman’s account of his experiences as a labour and civil-rights activist in the US gives plenty of reason to suggest this was no overreaction.

The next surprise in Grossman’s story is that he was by no means the only defector from West to East. Others also escaped there, such as a Jewish couple who ‘fled from the Nazis to the United States after he fought in Spain. When they were harassed during the McCarthy era, they moved to the GDR’ (p.183). The Korean War was the occasion for not a few British soldiers to decamp to the DDR to avoid having to fight in that vicious conflict. French soldiers defected rather than being sent to the murderous colonial war in Indo-China (p.12).

Grossman himself, in 1951, was fleeing from McCarthyism in the United States. Although young (he is now evidently over ninety), he was already a veteran of the socialist and labour movement, a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America, and a committed civil-rights activist. All of this, and perhaps especially the latter, brought him under the surveillance of the FBI, about which he has much to say at various points in the book. Having been drafted into the army, it was necessary to sign a form saying he had never been a member of a long list of banned, overwhelmingly left-wing, organisations. Caught in this catch-22, he was in severe danger of being imprisoned for a term of five years in relation to his un-American activities (p.8). Posted not to Korea but to Germany, this was the context for him to swim across the Danube river to Russian occupied Austria.

The repressive activities of the American authorities, within the US and elsewhere, from McCarthyism to COINTELPRO activities in the 1960s and 70s, and beyond, enable Grossman to relativize the presence of the Stasi in DDR society. The Stasi was created to counter real acts of sabotage, organised from the Federal Republic, such as blowing up railroad bridges (p.123). It nevertheless must have cast even more of a shadow over East German society than Grossman admits. Even so, he is surely right to argue that it is ‘a purposeful and deliberate lie to equate even the Stasi’s worst activities’ with the crimes of the Gestapo and the Nazis (p.124). The two really are not equivalent.

Grossman had a good experience of his settlement in East Germany, even in the austere post-war conditions, and eventually was able to establish a career as a freelance journalist. Here he evidently had considerable latitude, contradicting the usual image of the society as rigidly monolithic. He is not, however, merely an apologist for the regime, as where he describes the aftermath of the 1953 uprising, sparked by the introduction of stricter production norms. After this point, the bureaucracy’s already evident distrust of socialist intellectuals became even more problematic, with a general ‘tightening of the screws’ on allowable debate. Grossman himself was involved in a student newspaper that found itself in difficulties:

‘Political “deviations” by students, or in one case by a teacher, were harshly castigated. The teacher lost his job but rather than “proving himself” at some temporary industrial job, as demanded, he too took the option, still open before the Wall, and went west’ (pp.26-7).

It might be concluded on this basis that the valuation of free West and repressive East is justified after all, but before making that leap, there is another dimension to the story of the two Germanies that needs consideration. This is the way in which each new state dealt with the Nazi past.

De-Nazification in the West

It is in no way necessary to be a Stalinist apologist to be critical of the Federal Republic’s handling of this issue; it is a mainstream view to find it troubling. Thus, a standard account of de-Nazification, Norbert Frei’s Adenauer’s Germany and the Nazi Past details the large numbers of ex-Nazi Party members involved in various branches of government by 1953. In the Foreign Office, up to 40% of personnel came under just one of the classes to which leniency was given.[1] Even more, ‘public officials who had served under Nazi foreign minister Ribbentrop occupied almost all of that venue’s leading positions.’ When this was publicly exposed, Adenauer’s response was to say:

‘But I believe that if you ever consider the matter quietly, you will not be able to say that it would have been possible to proceed otherwise. It is in fact impossible to erect a foreign ministry without having, at least at first, people who understand something of the earlier history in the important posts … I think we now need to finish with this sniffing out of Nazis.’[2]

The Chancellor himself clearly felt that it was not only in that ministry that Nazi-era talent was needed; the head of the Chancery itself, sometimes seen as the second most important individual in the state, was one Hans Globke. Globke had been a senior figure in the Nazi Ministry of the Interior, was involved in drafting the Nuremburg Laws, and during the war was in an administrative position which abetted the Holocaust (p.47).It would have been extraordinary if Globke had not known what was happening. He was also not the only such figure in the governing elite of the Federal Republic.

Apart from the extent of ex-Nazi personnel in the new state, the government’s attitude towards ‘extremist’ organisations, banned by the founding Basic Law, is highly revealing. When Nazis began to rally openly around a new grouping called the Socialist Reich Party in 1950, it was challenged at its rallies and meetings by the Association of Victims of the Nazi Regime. The government, in response to these developments, decided ‘to remove everyone from public service who was actively working “against the order of the democratic state”’.

In the subsequent cabinet discussion, the first organisation to be discussed as falling under this stricture was, in fact, the Association of Victims of the Nazi Regime (VVN), as it was thought to have been ‘infiltrated’ by Communists. Second on the list for discussion was the Socialist Reich Party, and then two other Communist linked organisations, but ‘no other extreme right factions.’ A subsequent list of organisations, membership of which was incompatible with public duties, included the Communist Party, nine other ‘extreme-left’ factions, with the SRP eleventh on the list, and only one other extreme-right faction included (of which there were many to choose from).[3]

There was a systematic bias in the West German state against the left, and a deep reluctance to prosecute former Nazis for their actions. This meant that ‘efforts to legally redress crimes of the Nazi period decreased drastically’ in the early 1950s, clearly because of ‘the high degree of personal continuity in the judicial system; for the officials it favoured, this continuity seemed to grant the system its political justification.’[4] The Socialist Reich Party was soon banned, but so was the Communist Party only a few years later:

‘left to their own devices, the German courts of the 1950s honed a one-sided sword. Unmistakably, their procedure was not simply a reflex of new external and internal dangers [that is, the Korean War, and the impact of the Cold War on the two German states]. The rigorous, indeed unrestrained proceedings undertaken against Communists contrasted all too drastically with the familiar old inhibitions in protecting democracy against its right-wing enemies for this to be the case.’[5]

It is important to remember that many of the communists being persecuted in the 1950s were precisely the people who were indeed victims of the Nazis and active opponents of them, so there is no equivalence between these activists and the far-right.

The argument in defence of the Federal Republic’s abandonment of de-Nazification is that so many people were in the Nazi Party, especially in senior and skilled positions, that it was not possible to purge even most of them. In fact, in 1951, an addendum was added to a key part of the Basic Law on the Nazi era actually requiring ‘government institutions to fill at least 20 percent of their staffs with people employed there before May 1945, no lower than in their former rank’ (p.40).

Purges in the east

Yet, the contrast with the DDR’s actions gives the lie to the argument that thorough de-Nazification was a hopeless ambition. Grossman also effectively counters the other charge that East Germany made use of Nazi-era officials also. Firstly, twenty thousand ‘Nazi teachers, the overwhelming majority, were dismissed for good’ in the east, and replaced by ‘New Teachers’, who, while they might have been often only one step ahead of their students, were ‘highly dedicated and strongly anti-fascist’. Corporal punishment in schools was banned immediately (p.43). No such cleansing was conducted in the West, but, revealingly, upon re-unification in 1990, it was found that a thorough purge was practical on that occasion, and anyone with any involvement in an SED organisation (the Socialist Unity Party, the state party) were dismissed:

‘Some may have been no great loss, though the manner of ousting them was nasty. But also excluded were the last of that enthusiastic generation of “New Teachers” who jumped in to replace Nazis after 1945 and were often among the best, but were now themselves replaced, in a kind of reverse vengeance, just before their pension age’ (p.184).

As well as schools, East-German academia was thoroughly purged, regardless of subject, in an atmosphere where people were judged as ‘Ossies, their opinions were disapproved, and their jobs were sought after’ (p.184). Apart from the vindictiveness of this process, it undermines claims that it would not have been possible to de-Nazify West Germany in the 1950s.

It might be said that teachers are one thing, but higher officials, such as the judiciary, could not be dealt with similarly. Here again, the contrasts are instructive. When the government of the Federal Republic tried to ban the VVN (the Association of Victims of the Nazi Regime), the nature of the West-German judiciary became a public scandal: ‘the defence noted that all three presiding judges had been in the SS, the Nazi Party, the stormtroopers or the Gestapo.’ In this third-highest court in West Germany, forty out of forty-nine judges ‘had similar backgrounds’ (pp.43-4). In the east, despite opposition from ‘still conservative’ university law schools, a fast-track system was put in place to train new judges, mostly from ‘blue- or white-collar’ backgrounds. These replaced all the Nazis in the judicial system who were sacked in 1945, which was about 80-90% of them.

It is true, Grossman admits, that a fair number of former Wehrmacht officers served for a time in the GDR army, but they had all made some kind of clear break with the Nazis. Indeed, one general had been sentenced to death in absentia by a Nazi court (p.55). There is not just a contrast with the continuity of the Federal Republic, but a whole difference in order here. It has also been remarked elsewhere, although it does not seem to be common knowledge, that the West German state made great use, not just of former members of the Nazi Party, but of actual war criminals, to staff its intelligence service, the BND.[6]

Fascists and anti-fascists

The head of the BND was recruited by the Americans to occupy that very post, as he had extensive knowledge of the Red Army, derived from the torture and mistreatment of Russian prisoners of war, some three million of whom were deliberately starved to death by the Nazis:

‘Gehlen hired men from the Gestapo and Heinrich Himmler’s security service, such as Konrad Fiebig, whose death squad murdered 11,000 Jews in Belarus … As CIA official Harry Rositzke said about Gehlen: “It was absolutely necessary to use every son of a bitch. The main thing – he was an anti-Communist.” Gehlen replied to any criticism of his hiring practices by pointing out that, in percentage terms, he employed fewer such men “than most cabinet ministries.” His BND also spied (illegally) on “undesirable anti-militarists and leftists” inside Germany’ (pp.45-6).

The issue of de-Nazification reveals not just, negatively, how compromised the western state really was, but also a core part of the legitimacy of the eastern state in the eyes of very many of those who, like the author, lived there. This was the notion that it was rooted in the anti-fascism of the workers’ movement. Many among its personnel did in fact have good, even heroic, records, derived often enough from the Spanish Civil War, as well as from the anti-Nazi struggle in Germany. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the Russian sponsored state was worthy of the anti-fascist legacy, but it was a reason for many sincere and courageous socialists like Grossman to maintain hope that it was worth their efforts to work for socialist values there, despite its many manifest and egregious failings.

Of course, another accusation often lodged against the DDR is that it failed to deal with the legacy of fascism, unlike the western republic. Grossman is clear that from the start he perceived a range of people in the east, from those dedicated to building a socialist society, to ‘narrow-minded dogmatists’, and to those ‘who had learned little or nothing from the defeat of fascism’ (p.16). The return of far-right politics in eastern Germany after re-unification may have something to do with a persistence of this tendency, but probably much more to do with the shock therapy administered to the ex-DDR economy, where whole industries were deliberately wiped out in favour of Western competitors (pp.180-5). Yet, an interesting public-opinion statistic should once again give pause before any acceptance of the simple story: just after re-unification, a poll found that 4% of East Germans were openly anti-Semitic, and Grossman notes that:

‘in GDR days they had been silenced and kept from influence. As an anti-fascist, indeed a Jewish anti-fascist landing in Germany less than eight years after Hitler, this had always impressed me’ (p.330).

The same poll gave, for West Germans, a figure of 16%. Perhaps the rise of the far right since 1990 is not only the fault of East German politics.

Social security and equality

There are many other salutary contrasts drawn between east and west that provide startling witness to the nature of the Federal Republic, and that underline how preposterous the Cold War narrative of good and evil really is. The welfare-state system of the DDR is probably relatively well known, with its extensive provision of childcare, of rights to housing and employment, and so on. Grossman remarks upon the absence of prostitution, homelessness and other social blights taken as inevitable in the West.

Family visiting Grossman commented on how much more normal it was for there to be women in managerial positions than in the United States (despite the entirely male leadership at the very top).In the Federal Republic, until 1977, women needed their husband’s permission to take a job, and could not even have an independent bank account until 1962. Gender equality was far from being achieved in the east, but the contrast highlights how little the state to the west lived up to the image of a land of freedom for half its population (pp.79-80).

Again, this is not to present the DDR as any kind of model for socialism, and Grossman is quick to point out its failures. It could be said however, that he tends to see the problems as drawbacks, stupidities, and singular shortcomings rather than signs of a structural problem due to the domination of a bureaucratic class over a state-capitalist economy. He is nonetheless convincing on the economic war fought by the Federal Republic, with the support of the USA, against the DDR from the beginning, disadvantaging its industries at every turn. That this account is surely true does not absolve the eastern economy from the problems engendered by an undemocratic production regime modelled on and imposed by Stalinist Russia.

Even here, Grossman does throw up some revealing contrasts which continue to complicate the good West, evil East narrative. He reports that a few years after re-unification, working people began to characterise their different experiences of what was permitted under the two different regimes like this:

“In GDR days, to avoid difficulties, it was wiser not to say anything against Erich Honecker or other Party bigwigs. But you could answer back and say whatever you wanted against the foreman, the department boss or the manager! Today it is the other way around. You can say anything you want against Chancellor Kohl and political big shots, but you damned well better be careful what you say about your foreman or any other factory boss!” (p.224).

This seems to encapsulate the problem with the alternatives on offer during the Cold War, and still today where only one way is permissible, which is that neither offered democracy in any real sense. The German Democratic Republic was no such thing, and this crippled it in terms of building a socialism that could really challenge capitalism. On the other hand, bourgeois political democracy offers no meaningful freedom when our economy, and our working lives, remain under the dictatorship of capital.


[1]Norbert Frei, Adenauer’s Germany and the Nazi Past (New York: Columbia University Press 1997), pp.54-5).

[2] Ibid. p.55.

[3] Ibid. p.253.

[4] Ibid. p.67.

[5] Ibid. p.248.

[6] See, for example, Tariq Ali, The Extreme Centre: A Second Warning (London: Verso 2018), p.8.

Dominic Alexander

Dominic Alexander is a member of Counterfire, for which he is the book review editor. He is a longstanding activist in north London. He is a historian whose work includes the book Saints and Animals in the Middle Ages (2008), a social history of medieval wonder tales, and articles on London’s first revolutionary, William Longbeard, and the revolt of 1196, in Viator 48:3 (2017), and Science and Society 84:3 (July 2020). He is also the author of the Counterfire books, The Limits of Keynesianism (2018) and Trotsky in the Bronze Age (2020).