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.
Grossman never mentions whether he spoke with Soviet intelligence officers about his Army unit or experience, but a substantial portion of his book recounts his struggles to make a life in his new homeland. He worked for a while as director of a club for Western defectors, most of whom were drunks with German wives. Life was not easy; he was lonely, his job was stressful, leading to a temporary nervous breakdown, but he met a woman, fell in love, and got married. Workers revolted in East Germany, but the West, filled as it was with fascists, instigated the whole affair, which was based, in any case, on minor dissatisfactions and, besides, things got better. Not in America, however, where the Rosenbergs were executed, a sign that America had "been usurped by antidemocratic evil." There was no anti-Semitism in the Communist world, although he does mention that Dean Reed, his folksong-singing American friend, also an expatriate, faced resistance when he wanted to sing the "Hava Nagila" at a Moscow concert. Later he grudgingly admits there was some anti-Semitism but quickly adds that it has been exaggerated.
Grossman attended journalism school where he did notice "near unanimity" on major issues and was troubled by the reluctance of people to use a secret voting booth in elections for fear that they might fall under suspicion of being dissidents. Still, it was better than America, which groaned under the yoke of fascism.
Grossman's self-image is that he was always a secret dissident, too wise or skeptical to swallow the more inane or stupid rationalizations for Communist policies. When the American Communist party line dictated that the wartime no-strike pledge continue, Grossman does "not recall my views, but I hope I was skeptical." When a friend complained that the Soviets judged music by political criteria, he doesn't "recall my own confusion. But I hope I agreed with him or at least admitted my own confusion." He always had "gnawing doubts about the adulation of Stalin" but decided it was neither the time nor the place to voice them in East Germany. The Khrushchev speech detailing the horrors of Stalinism left him "confused." The Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia left him "confused and uncertain." All this confusion and silent doubting leads him to proclaim that "I was always a bit of a Don Quixote myself."
Whatever quibbles he had with East Germany and its policies, Grossman found it far more democratic than West Germany, a place where Nazis not only found a refuge but "dominated a country." Grossman is indignant about Polish jokes because the Nazis "virtually wiped out two generations of intellectuals," but he remains to this day silent about Stalinist massacres of Polish prisoners of war. Western anger at the Berlin Wall was hypocritical; the West Germans favored those "who embellished or invented stories of repression."
Whatever minor sins could be laid on the East, poverty, violence, racism, and environmental degradation were Western traits, and capitalism and fascism remain natural allies.
Given this blinkered and besotted view of the world, it is not surprising that Grossman laments the collapse of the Communist dictatorship. The East German people were misled. Even though there was a "flagging economy, . . . a narrowness of spirit, and an intolerance of other beliefs," the people should have understood how wonderful their country was, this "flawed and tragic little republic." The only result of the collapse of East Germany has been crime, pornography, advertising, competition, lots of automobiles (he liked his Trabant), unemployment, and a new McCarthyism.
Grossman is particularly upset when some old Communist apparatchiks who expelled and repressed dissidents for years are ousted from their positions. Grossman even has a few kind words for the Stasi, the ubiquitous secret police who monitored the entire population with an army of informers. Some, he admits, could be ruthless, but, all in all, they were just "unpleasant but less frightening than now portrayed." And, anyway, one benefit of the constant surveillance was a richness to cultural life, because writers had to evade censorship or write between the lines.
After German unification, Grossman negotiated with American authorities to clear up his problems. He returned to the United States in 1994 for his forty-fifth college reunion at Harvard. After landing in New York, he was taken to Fort Dix, politely given a general discharge from the Army he had deserted years before, and soon got an American passport. He returned to Germany where he will be able to live out his life pining for the repressive, dysfunctional little dictatorship that his adopted countrymen have decisively rejected.
Harvey Klehr teaches at Emory University and is coauthor of "In Denial: Historians, Communism and Espionage."