Stephen Wechsler, born in 1929, was raised in New York City, educated at the Fieldston School and Harvard College. Not too different from many children of liberal leading parents at the time, he became involved in leftist activities, looking for a way to humanize and less than human world, and bring about a more equal and just society. His quest led him to join many organizations, including the American Communist Party, although he was never a strict party-liner.
To his mother’s dismay, after his college graduation, Stephen Wechsler decided to become a ‘worker’, doubling as an organizer of the masses and he moved to Buffalo where he had a series of factory jobs, and a not very pleasant existence. Eventually, to his dismay but not surprisingly, he was drafted into the Army, trained and sent to Germany.
Upon entering the Army, he was required to fill out various questionnaires and forms. Among the questions he was required to answer was whether or not he was, or ever had been a member of the Communist Party. Afraid of the possible consequences a “yes” answer would bring, he lied and said no, starting him on a course of fear that one day, he would be found out.
The day came when he was informed that he was to report to the office of the Judge Advocate in Germany. He knew what that meant – he had visions of a court martial and a long military imprisonment. What to do?
Although Wechsler was not the bravest of individuals, he felt that he had no choice, but to desert from the army, and defect to East Germany. He did this, first going to Austria on a furlough and then swimming the Danube, in 1952, going from the American to the Soviet sector, and seeking asylum
It was not as easy as he had hoped, because he was not welcomed with open arms, but with suspicion and he was thrown into a rather dank prison cell, until his bona fides could be checked. Eventually, he was freed, and given a work permit, a place to stay until he could establish himself in a small town.
I am abbreviating much of the story, of course, as to how this Jewish American, 7 years after the end of World War II, became a resident of East Germany, where he remains (I believe) to this day. He did not set foot in the United States again for over 40 years – in 1994 he was finally given an army discharge, without prosecution for his desertion, and permitted back in the country, where he came with his German wife of 40 years or so, visiting family and old friends, and attending his 45th college reunion. He then returned to his German home (no longer was there an East Germany) and two his two sons and their families.
He published his memoirs, “Crossing the River” in 2003, written under the name Victor Grossman. It was under this name that he lived in Germany, not able to use his real name for fear of discovery. The book is fascinating on so many levels; I wish more Americans could read it.
Wechsler, by his own account, does not appear like an extraordinary individual. Clearly, he is intelligent, but he has no special skills – he is not an athlete, a musician, a handy man, or someone reeking of charisma. He is sort of an ordinary guy (to the extent that a Jewish leftist from New York City can be an ordinary guy). The life he led in East Germany was a rather ordinary life (considering he was an American defector living in a Communist country). He acted as a journalist, a translator, a guide for visiting Americans. He built a life in this alien land – and it was, as I said considering his unique circumstances, sort of an ordinary one.
What is most interesting about the book is his description of this life, and of the society surrounding him. He is clearly a believer that society should aim to make everyone as comfortable as it can, to keep tensions and pressures as low as possible, and to avoid great inequality. At least, this is how I read him. He believes that a socialist, or primarily socialist, society is the best way to achieve these goals, although he was quickly convinced that the undemocratic aspects of Communist society were harmful and unnecessary. He is quick to criticize East Germany and its leaders and their inefficiencies. He was always critical of the Berlin Wall and travel restrictions. He doesn’t deny the activities of STASI, but thinks that the western media has overplayed the role STASI played in East German life, that STASI activities did not touch the vast majority of its citizens.
But, as he says, most people in East Germany did lead satisfactory lives – with full employment and free health care and education. They were, he believes, seduced by the image of West Germany, and the west in general, as being a consumer oriented society, where everything was better, but they learned otherwise after the destruction of the wall, the collapse of the East and the reunification of Germany. His description of the changes in East Germany as the Gorbachev era started in the USSR is very interesting, as was his descriptions not only of life in East Germany before hand, but in the differences between each of the countries of Eastern Europe, which often seemed in the West to be clones of each other.
His chapter entitled “The Big Rock Candy Mountain?”, describing the jolts to East German society after the Wall fell is particularly instructive, with excerpts such as the following:
“GDR people enviously compared their society with one of the world’s wealthiest states seen through cathode-ray prisms or during brief visits where life appeared free of difficulties, while home problems seemed incurable and unbearable. But despite major deficits in the economic and political spheres, life for most people was not rough at all. I recall many gatherings with Renate’s [his wife] family, surrounded by flowers, blossoming trees, and their little swimming pool. Half of the urbanites spent weekends or vacations on their “dachas” or bungalows near lakes, woods, or in garden colonies. City outskirts in the warm months smelled of grills, with unlimited food and drink. Family and neighbors listened untroubled to the latest Western hits; the younger set motorcycled off to a disco”, and
“Like other working people, Renate and I went on office and factory team outings and got free or cheap tickets to drama, concerts, opera or musicals. Like every workplace, Renate’s hospital offered employees low priced vacation resorts and sent kids almost free to summer camps.”, and
“GDR schools had no corporal punishment; differences in quality and standards between urban and rural schools were largely eliminated; college was free, with scholarships for all students; every college or apprenticeship graduate, nearly 98 percent of young people, was guaranteed full pay in his or her trade. Mobility between social strata was high. No one feared getting a pink slip; if a factory was closed, every worker was assured a new job with free retraining and guaranteed average pay…..”, and
“But new problems have replaced the old ones. We shed the sodden GDR red tape and fell under a wildly more expansive bureaucracy. Worst were tax returns, with the convoluted Value Added Tax and the task of saving restaurant, gas and post office bills by those who schemed for deductions….I had to restructure social security and all my insurance. Innocent Ossies [easterners] like myself switched money from one bank to another seeking the best of confusing offers. How easy it was in the old GDR: 3.5 percent interest for everyone using a single savings and checking account. Health care insurance, formerly uncomplicated, now required hard decisions as to which company offered more or cheated less. Should I buy my apartment (if possible) or keep paying fast-rising rents?”
He talks about the new problems of homelessness, unknown in the GDR, of how women’s jobs were hurt the most in the transition, how people over 50 had it very hard, how large industrial establishments, dependent upon the east for its markets, shut down, displacing workers in large numbers, how emigration from the east hurt the social structure.
In today’s atmosphere of highly charged political rhetoric, where any suggestion that things could be different from our increasingly stridently capitalistic model is viewed in many quarters as traitorous, reading about different models can be quite salutary. Even if those models did not work, it can be quite eye opening.