The Magazine

Back in the GDR

Victor Grossman longs for the return of communism to East Germany.

Dec 1, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 12 • By HARVEY KLEHR
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Crossing the River

A Memoir of the American Left, the Cold War, and Life in East Germany

by Victor Grossman

University of Massachusetts Press, 352 pp., $22.95

IT HAS BEEN more than a decade since the collapse of East European communism, so perhaps it is not surprising that a university press in the United States should think it time to publish a nostalgic memoir about life in East Germany during the Cold War. As an added attraction the book is written by an American Communist who deserted from the U.S. Army in 1952, fled to the Communist side of the German border, and still admires the repressive regime to which he devoted his life. Victor Grossman's "Crossing the River" is a work of moral squalor and political blindness, the story of a man stuck in an ideological time warp.

During the Cold War the vast majority of people who fled their countries were escaping from Communist regimes. East Germany built the Berlin Wall in a desperate effort to prevent its citizens from escaping repression and economic failure. Only the threat of the Red Army propped up these deeply unpopular governments. When Mikhail Gorbachev withdrew that pillar and Communist regimes behind the Iron Curtain opened their borders in 1989, they all collapsed.

Still, a handful of people fled in the other direction. Some were committed Communists, seeking the utopia their doctrine told them was in full bloom. Others--like Big Bill Haywood, the leader of the Industrial Workers of the World, who jumped bail and fled to Russia in 1919--were looking for escape from pressing problems back home. Victor Grossman combined these causes: a committed Communist with a very serious personal problem.

Born in New York in 1928 into a lower-middle-class Jewish family with radical leanings, "Stephen Wechsler" (his name before he changed it to Victor Grossman) had the benefit of an excellent education, courtesy of a determined mother. A scholarship student at the Dalton School and the Ethical Culture School, he also attended the Bronx High School of Science, and was a Communist partisan by the time he was thirteen, attracted, he claims, by the party's role in the Spanish Civil War and undeterred by its alliance with Nazi Germany. He formally joined the American Communist party in 1945 as a student at Harvard and worked diligently to advance its causes. He threw himself into efforts to infiltrate the Harvard Liberal Union, traveled to Prague as a delegate to a Communist Youth Festival where he blindly defended Soviet foreign policy, and campaigned for Henry Wallace. After graduating, he became a party worker, sent to Buffalo where he spent seventeen mostly futile months trying to organize workers before being drafted into the Army.

Grossman admits that he "did not benefit enough from my Harvard education, mistrustful as I was of theories taught in economics, political science, and history." He's not kidding; he insists that during the 1940s and 1950s, "as for the tragic repression inside the USSR, I knew little." Even today he's not the best guide to either Soviet or American history. He still thinks that in the late 1940s, "every Communist was required to register as a foreign agent." Perhaps such misperceptions and paranoia accounted for his decision to commit perjury in 1951, when upon being inducted into the Army, he swore that he had not been a member of a variety of groups including the Communist party. After basic training, he was shipped to West Germany where he worked as a radio telegrapher. In 1952, less than a year before his stint was up, he received a letter from the Judge Advocate-General's Office, ordering him to report to a military court to answer charges that he had lied under oath.

Had he done so, Wechsler would probably have been given a general discharge under honorable conditions. He panicked, however, and deserted, taking a train to Austria and then swimming across the Danube River to the Russian zone, where he encountered a cultural Eden that Americans could only envy. "The simplest-looking Soviet soldier, seemingly primitive in some ways, knew of more books than any American G.I. I ever met." Taken to East Germany, he was moved to tears at the sight of a demonstration where young people called for peace.