Did I pass Victor Grossman on the street in East Berlin in August, 1989?

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East Berlin, 1989.

I’ve heard of Victor Grossman, recalling his name from the period in the late 1980s when I abstracted geopolitical and current events magazine articles.

My job was discarded in order to travel abroad in 1989, a trip that included my first and only month in East Germany, where I spent three weeks as a paid employee of the East Berlin Parks Department. The Berlin Wall fell just before I returned home circa November.

As someone fascinated by the place and the period, I find this interview with Grossman to be compelling. Much of what he says strikes me as plausible in the sense that East Germany surely did establish a level playing field for much of its population with respect to fundamental living conditions.

But whatever the word “freedom” actually means, and we might debate this until the end of time, there wasn’t enough of it in East Germany.

If there had been, East Germans eager for something more wouldn’t have been streaming across the Hungarian border into Austria, in route to West German citizenship. The hemorrhaging was something ongoing during my stay in East German, although I didn’t really understand it; speaking no German explains part of the fog, with the remainder owing to the fact of there being no independent sources of media information.

It was pre-internet, and you couldn’t just go to a newsstand and pick up a diverse assortment of publications. At any rate, three decades later Grossman speaks for himself quite capably. Geography, politics and history buffs, you’ll want to click through, read and absorb. Who knew Grossman was even still alive?

From Harvard to East Berlin: An Interview with Victor Grossman, by Julia Damphouse and David Broder (Jacobin)

In 1952 the Harvard grad Victor Grossman defected to East Germany, hoping to help build socialism on the ruins of Nazism. Thirty years after that state collapsed, he insists that we should see it as a land of contradictions, not just a totalitarian monolith.

Victor Grossman is the only person to have earned degrees from both Harvard and East Germany’s Karl Marx University. Born in New York in 1928, he joined the Communist Party as a Harvard economics student before being drafted as a GI in occupied Germany. From there he defected to the East, swimming across the Danube into the Soviet-controlled part of Austria before making his home in the self-styled German Democratic Republic (GDR).

Having been an eyewitness to the postwar Red Scare in the United States and the onset of McCarthyism, Grossman became an ardent defender of East German socialism. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, which brought the GDR to its final collapse, he has continued to live in the former East Berlin, writing of the social hardships caused by the sell-offs of formerly publicly owned workplaces, services, and housing.

Grossman recently toured the United States to promote his latest book, A Socialist Defector: From Harvard to Karl-Marx-Allee. Jacobin’s Julia Damphouse and David Broder met up with him to discuss the successes and darker aspects of the GDR, his own experience as an American on the “wrong side” of the Cold War divide, and what legacy the twentieth-century left has for the recent resurgence of socialism in the United States.

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