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Eve's Review

Socialism Besieged

"A Socialist Defector"

Victor Grossman

Monthly Review Press, 351 pages



Eve Ottenberg

From the perspective of 2019, it's often difficult to recall the cold war hysteria over East Germany. It was called a secret police state. Everyone there was said to be oppressively monitored if not actively harassed by the Stasi. For Americans, it epitomized communist tyranny. Then along comes Victor Grossman's memoir, "A Socialist Defector" – he fled US anticommunism to East Germany in 1952 – and the distortions about East Germany (GDR) go right out the window. While no worker's paradise, the GDR wasn't the vast grim, dreary prison portrayed for decades by Western media, intellectuals and some artists.


It was a state, like all communist countries, under siege. From the 1917 Russian revolution to the fall of communism over seventy years later, the capitalist world vilified, subverted, attacked, tried to destroy and besieged its mortal enemy. And the first thing to vanish in a besieged country is freedom of speech and, usually, political freedom, both of which are so easily perverted by besiegers to undermine the surrounded city or country. Grossman concedes these defects of the GDR willingly. But for him, economic freedom – always severely limited in the West – largely compensated. There were no beggars or homeless people in the GDR. There were no evictions or desperate citizens diving into dumpsters for a meal. No frantic parents working two and three jobs and still unable to afford health care for their children. New GDR mothers received 26 weeks of fully paid maternity leave plus a generous stipend for each child's expenses. Health care and all education was free. For recuperation, patients were sent to spas and sanitoria in gorgeous resorts at no cost. Everyone had work. Rent was roughly 10 percent of income and food was cheap. There were no billionaires with yachts, multiple estates, jets and skyscraper suites running corporations that treated thousands of workers like serfs.


But even today in Germany, Grossman writes, "the mildest praise of the GDR, even objective analysis, is quickly attacked by a hornet swarm of op-ed writers, historians and politicians." Clearly one thing capitalism produces very well is a class of violent ideologues dedicated to wiping any trace of socialism off the globe. Whether in intelligence services, the military, corporations or the media, these people do not need to be told what to do. These violent true believers currently have the run of the White House – they usually do – and many countries' presidential palaces. They do not want informed, civilized discussion of what communism was, of its strengths and defects, or which socialistic policies might be beneficially adapted to the present. They want the reactionary party line. Their vilification of leftism is not random, it is planned and systematic.


"I am relying on the German judiciary," Grossman quotes Justice Minister Klaus Kinkle telling German judges in 1991. "It must be possible to delegitimize the GDR system, which justified itself to the bitter end with its anti-fascist beliefs, its professedly higher values and its asserted absolute humanism." No matter that in truth most GDR leaders spent their youth fighting fascism "in defense of Madrid or Stalingrad, at backstreet barricades in Florence or mountain passes in Greece or Slovakia," at risk of guillotines and death camps.


Conversely, the West German government in postwar years was riddled with former Nazis and promoted corporations that had profited from slave labor. "During the war…Bayer [the pharmaceutical corporation] wrote the commander of Auschwitz concentration camp to inquire about 'purchasing' 150 women for experiments with sleep-inducing drugs." It got them. Later Bayer wrote of these women, "despite their emaciated condition, they were acceptable…The experiments were concluded. All persons died. We will soon get in touch with you regarding a new shipment." The GDR, unlike West Germany, did no business with Bayer. In fact, the GDR "threw out the Vialons and Scheels, the Krupps [over 280,000 slave laborers toiled in Krupp factories and "70,000 died miserably"] and the Flicks, the Thyssens and Deutsche Banks…" Not so West Germany.


In cold war West Germany, Grossman writes, "all but one top Bundeswehr officer had been a wartime general, admiral or colonel in the Nazi Wehrmacht, three hundred had been officers in the Waffen SS." By contrast, the GDR wanted a Nazi-free, war-criminal-free police force and military. GDR bases were all named after anti-fascist and communist heroes. These names "were dropped in a single day after unification in 1990."


Grossman argues that "the Soviet presence in East Germany was crucial in overcoming fascism and erasing fascist views. What was left of the mills and factories of bloody dynasties like Krupp, Flick, Siemens and the big banks was entirely confiscated…All this was only possible because of the Red Army's presence." Had the Red Army been in West Germany, de-Nazification would have truly proceeded there too. But Western capitalists – who always prefer fascists to even mild socialists, no less to outright communists – were having none of this.


"The West rejected Stalin's proposal of a united democratic and neutral Germany in 1952," Grossman writes. Western corporate power had other things in mind, and peaceful treaties with communists were not among them. Bulldozing communism then economically exploiting what remained was more on the to-do list. So we got the cold war and the CIA's cultural cold war, wherein it promoted Abstract Expressionism,  New York's Museum of Modern Art, literary modernism and funded numerous intellectuals and distinguished literary journals, like "The Partisan Review." Artists and intellectuals who did not conform or who were too genuinely left-wing, watched their careers wither on the vine, or in the McCarthy years, were packed off to prison.



Thus proceeded the West's great siege to advance world capitalist hegemony and corporate access to global resources. If you think that agenda ended with the cold war, you are sorely mistaken. Just look at U.S. sanctions – compared by some to medieval sieges that starve populations and deprive them of medicine – of Venezuela, Iran, Syria, Cuba and other countries that dare defy Washington. It's not that the empire is striking back. It never stopped striking its perceived enemies for over a century.

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