Rethinking the GDR

Victor Grossman, nee Stephen Wechsler, has penned a nuanced memoir of note, “A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Alee” (Monthly Review Press, 2019). It is an historical, personal and political work of his adult life in the German Democratic Republic [East Germany], which had a socialist economy. His is a rare perspective, indeed.

For those who did not live through the Cold War, it is tough to describe the ideological outlook it created and perpetuated. In the West, of which Uncle Sam is and was the global bully on the block, armed to the teeth and willing to wage war by any means necessary, anti-communism against the USSR and the GDR took on a life of its own.

Capitalism versus socialism became the battle between good and evil. Then the Berlin Wall fell and Germany reunification arrived in 1989. Grossman delivers a critical viewpoint of what preceded that and came next.

I place the author’s memoir in the left political context of books such as “Blues for America” by Doug Dowd and Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz’ “Red Dirt.” In brief, Grossman links the historical to the personal and political of living and working in East Germany as an adult during the Cold War years. This is no mean feat.

As an American service member, Grossman defected to the GDR in the early 1950s to escape possible imprisonment over prior political activity while growing up in America. The whys and wherefores of this adventure make for stirring reading. What follows is his bird’s eye view of the strengths and weaknesses of the GDR.

The author shares the experiences of receiving unheard of universal social services such as health care and higher education available to all in the GDR. Everybody was in and nobody was out. The contrast to what we have in both areas stateside can make a reader envious.

Another theme that courses through Grossman’s memoir is the GDR’s cleansing of ex-Nazis from governance after WW II. The opposite treatment of Nazis and their corporate allies such as Deutsche Bank AG was the case in West Germany and the US. Is this news?

If so, I suggest that you also read “Blowback: The First Full Account of America’s Recruitment of Nazis and Its Disastrous Effect on The Cold War, Our Domestic and Foreign Policy” by Christopher Simpson. Capitalism birthed fascism, as current political trends show.

Grossman’s tone conveys an open mind as to the strengths and weaknesses of the GDR experiment. He refers to it as a “noble” one, despite the flaws in governance, e.g., the Stasi, the GDR’s political police presence in citizens’ lives. In brief, there was more to praise than to damn.

Grossman writes in a conversational manner. Reading his memoir is as if you are having a discussion with him over a cup of coffee or tea.

If you are looking for interesting summer reading, I recommend “A Socialist Defector.” If you are searching for a book for millennials to read, given the popularity of socialism among them, this is the one.


Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email