From the United States to a Socialist Germany That Never Was

The Westemigranten were communists who fled Nazism for the United States, only to resettle in East Germany after 1945. Their biographies are a monument to the hopes of the twentieth-century communist movement — and how they were disappointed by the reality of the postwar Eastern Bloc.

Bertold Brecht (right) and Hanns Eisler at the preparatory meeting of the Academy of the Arts of the GDR on March 21, 1950. (Wikimedia Commons)

I encountered Stefan Heym for the first time in Berlin-Weissensee. At the beginning of George W. Bush’s second term, I started to regularly wander through the hundred acres of ivy and crumbled stone that make up Europe’s largest Jewish cemetery, which happened to be located a straight shot down from my apartment at the Schönhauser–Bornholmer intersection on the (old) 23 Tram. Back then, I would go to pass the hours of the interminable Berlin winter in my own seemingly interminable depression, because you could get pretty lost among the nineteenth-century tombs, because you could fall out of time, because it was so beautiful and very truly old. I saw Heym there by accident. I didn’t immediately recognize his name, but his gravestone was so shocking it arrested my ambling. It was bright and new, minimally adorned with just his signature and birth and death dates, the latter falling just a few years earlier, in 2001.

My thoughts about Heym now — thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall — are occasioned by Mario Kessler’s recently published volume Westemigranten: Deutsche Kommunisten zwischen USA-Exil und DDR (Böhlau, 2019). Heym opens and nearly closes Kessler’s collective biography of the forty-nine communists who fled Nazi Germany, who, after (eventually) finding temporary refuge in the United States, left to (re)settle in the nascent German Democratic Republic (GDR) after the end of World War II.

To be asked for a review of Kessler’s book was initially confounding. Prodigiously academic, at 478 pages (525 including a biographic appendix) and in German, its function and meaning within our — if an us may be presupposed — particular discursive framework is not immediately clear. But as a synthetic, wide-reaching, and in parts compassionate historical account of quite a few mid-century lives and stories that together constitute a cohort, Kessler’s work can help us see the co-experience of political and ideological alienation that attended being a German between Nazism and Stalinism, between the United States and the USSR, and sharing, at some level, communist principles. Kessler’s book evinces a sense of betweenness. Yet it is also far from ambivalent.

As a historical narrative rooted in the act of recovering and remembering dead communists’ lives, it is also a judgment and denunciation of the communist era that ended in defeat. Kessler’s condemnatory gestures brush against some foundational questions about memorializing and historicizing a communist past in our neoliberal present. To what end does remembering serve us, our cohort, today, and for the future?


Kessler’s title and cover illustration are immediately provocative. The word Westemigranten simultaneously evokes homecoming and departure. An emigre is a migrant who leaves, but in this case is marked by the directionality and locus of return: a Westemigrant can only be an East German who returned from “the West.” From this GDR perspective, “the West” is less a place or geographical region than a condition, an ideology we can call “Americanism.” As it is configured within the founding myths and sociopolitical lexica of the GDR, “Americanism” is capitalist-imperialistic, warmongering, and an enemy of working-class people.

The image positioned above the title on the cover is a reproduction of East German Herbert Sandberg’s 1964 etching titled “A Song is Born.” The etching depicts Bertolt Brecht and Hanns Eisler at a piano together, creating a song that will be recognizable in the lines that Brecht holds aloft as the Solidaritätslied. Brecht penned the “Solidarity Song” twice — in the aftermath of the Great War and in the midst of the Spanish Civil War — and it rings with fury of an international proletariat who together call for an end to belligerence and the overthrow of tyranny and answer the question: To whom does the world of tomorrow belong?

The Brecht of Sandberg’s etching has a page in his hand inscribed with the legible lyrics Vorwärts, und nie Vergessen — “Forward, and never forget.” But more than recalling the internationalist working-class antifascism of the early twentieth century, here the lyric evokes the song’s historicity as a (literal and figurative) leitmotiv in the GDR — one justified by the cultural and moral legitimacy of Brecht and Eisler, who anchor the GDR’s own present in the ethos of past antifascist resistance.

In Westemigranten, Kessler follows the “traces left by German communists in exile in the USA as well as the experiences of exile that inform their lives in the East of Germany after 1945.” It would be difficult to summarize or report on the biographic riches that this volume collects, or delve into the many names figuring therein. Their individual contributions — to culture, and to each other — are not uniform. This itself increases the visibility of lesser-known figures in their treatment and consideration, next to (themselves differently) renowned individuals like Brecht, Hanns and Gerhart Eisler, or Stefan Heym. In a certain sense, it is a betrayal of the book’s most beautiful gestures to not attempt to rearticulate these lives in this review. But it is the dramatic structure of Kessler’s text and its analytic frame — which prioritize these stories and lives for the sake of narrating a collective failure — that will be my focus, here.

No Longer Heroes

In Westemigranten, Kessler breaks with the logic of biographic writing — a genre of which he is arguably a master, having published articles and monographs on several individuals featured in Westemigranten, including Albert Schreiner, Ruth Fisher, Alfred Kantorowicz, and Stefan Heym. In Westemigranten, however, life stories are subordinated to geopolitical and historical time. The first two hundred pages of Kessler’s telling recount the experiences of Germans exiled in the United States before 1945, further subdividing the biographic extracts to reflect important events that happened before the “postwar era.” The second half of the book, following the paths of individuals back across the Atlantic, is similarly organized, according to policy adjustments and political changes that came with the founding of the GDR and its ruling party (Socialist Unity Party, SED): the uprising of June 17, 1953 and the death of Stalin; the rise and fall of the political fortunes of Wilhelm Pieck, Walter Ulbricht, and Erich Honecker; the building of the Wall; the intensification of censorship after the 1965 Central Committee convention of the SED; and, as a kind of addendum (since many of Kessler’s subjects were no longer alive), Mauerfall and reunification.

The organization of Westemigranten according to historical stages affects a strange displacement of the biographic subjects whose life stories carry the narrative. They no longer inhabit the role of heroes in their stories. The narrative continuity of the lives lived is also broken in two by the Stunde Null, the zero hour of Nazi Germany’s complete defeat. Each half begins with a new précis of the biography’s subjects — which is, to be sure, metaphorically apt, but rather disorienting to read and digest. Kessler does not treat any historical event in great detail, and this reader must depend on both her knowledge of twentieth-century European history and the vast Volksarchiv that is Wikipedia to track all of the crucial historical transitions that organize Kessler’s telling. Besides a fascinating introductory account of “Roosevelt’s America,” which describes the politics of US immigration and foreign policy in the 1930s, and the concise and often very rich synopses that head each chapter, the various historical turns unfold nearly exclusively through the biographic accounts of the book’s over four dozen subjects.

It is also increasingly obvious that no analytic or interpretive historical explanation should be required for understanding Kessler’s narrative, beyond the consensus of scholars of Contemporary History (Zeitgeschichte). The meanings of historical events themselves are ossified according to the perspective of the victors — relegating to the contemporary historian the job of excavating details from the troves of archival material, personal letters, and unpublished essays which were locked behind an iron curtain for long decades. Kessler explains straight away that the “central problem” that motivates Westemigranten is the extent to which “exiled German communists could or could not realize their plans and hopes for a post-war Germany in the GDR.” This sounds like a rhetorical question, since it is already answered. It is answered insofar as the GDR collapsed, and the remnants of its cultural and political heritage are despised by all — except those individuals that mainstream discourse-makers politely call (n)ostalgists or, more pointedly, apologists for terror. Whatever plans they might have had, however lofty their ideals, they were definitely unrealizable in the German Democratic Republic.

If a logic of geopolitical time structures Kessler’s collective biography, its material basis is the archive. A magisterial synthesis of archival material, culled from the SED archives in Berlin, Stasi files, FBI files, and various library holdings on both continents, serves Kessler’s intention of adding to what we know about “ideas about the USA in the GDR.” To a certain extent, the questions Kessler asks and the subjects collected are both enhanced and limited by the archive holdings. There were no more or less than forty-nine German communists who found refuge in the United States and then returned to Soviet-occupied Germany or the GDR, and with both post-Soviet and US archives now accessible to scholars, such a narrative can really stand as a definitive and complete collection of this particular subset of historical figures. At the same time, what constitutes a “communist” in the first place was quite different in the eyes of a J. Edgar Hoover or a Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria. Indeed, what would happen to you if you wound up on the wrong side of the definition for one intelligence chief or the other was also not quite equal.

Kessler is well-aware of these contradictions, which is why the “German Communists” of the title are neither exclusively card-carrying Communist Party (KPD) members before the war, or SED party members afterward, but also Mitläufer, fellow travelers, defined as such insofar as they irritated the dominant ideologies of the United States and the USSR respectively.

The evidentiary significance of the various files amassed by state operatives in the United States and the GDR is curious. It would be banal to critique the epistemological status of informants’ testimonies and self-reporting under interrogation or the threat of deportation. Yet it is striking, here, how much of Kessler’s own text is generated by his study and summary of an impressive number of files. In pages upon pages of deftly woven prose, often formulated in the subjunctive of reported speech, Kessler tells us about the lives of our communists as they are constructed through citations and paraphrase of FBI agents, party bigwigs, and other, often secret, operatives and informants.

In this sense, the archives determine and create a cohort of individuals who, by nature of their immigration status, friendships, and cultural roles — almost none of the subjects of Kessler’s book are what one could properly call political figures — are an a priori danger to national security and morale and for that reason become objects of state surveillance. It is not that other forms of textual evidence don’t assist the construction of biographic narratives. Kessler cites published and unpublished letters, manuscripts, fictional and nonfictional works, biographies and autobiographies, newspaper and magazine articles, and scientific publications. It is that all forms of texts are reduced to similarly legible traces, evidence to collect, sort, and eventually evaluate. Kessler admittedly recuses himself as a viable interpreter of individual texts — a job he leaves to the “skilled experts” and “specialists” of literary-theoretical or other humanistic and scientific fields. But his text still depends on “scientific, literary, and artistic works that are meaningful for my account insofar as they relate to the USA.”

To a certain extent, this methodological orientation is not unlike the methodology of the files themselves, in which the meaning of any utterance is dependent on the context of its collection — and the ideological presumptions behind the collecting. For the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), any scent of communist “collaboration” — being accused of serving as a Soviet spy or writing an even rather underwhelming play that suggests the legitimacy of centralized communism — could lead, as in Brecht’s case, to suspicion and surveillance. In this vein, aggregated “historical” statements unmoored from their medial contexts — as art, as agitational journalism, as private letters to friends that were never meant to see the light of day — are taken as informing us of the politics (and political-moral quality) of exiled German communists. And it is, in the end, an individualized, moral judgment to which each figure in Westemigranten is subjected.

At its least generous, Kessler’s text makes clear that almost none of his subjects (constituted objectively, i.e. according to all the available traces of them) were totally free of error, and their penchant for error escalated after returning East. On the west side of the Pond, the exiled German communists experienced collective alienation — sometimes linguistic, sometimes economic, sometimes social, but always political. For Kessler, while this alienation is understandable, it would sometimes express itself in incorrect ways (i.e. the failure to denounce the Stalin-Hitler pact, or at least, failure to do so in a way that could be cited later). But it ultimately allowed for a collective moral victory.

In Kessler’s telling, by the early 1940s the (incorrect) factional divisions between communists, socialists, and even liberal democrats were briefly transcended, reaching its apotheosis in the formation of the Council for a Democratic Germany, a nonpartisan group of antifascist Germans in exile led by the (non-communist) Paul Tillich. The Council’s proclamation for the creation of a democratic and people-led postwar Germany, published in a German-language newspaper in New York in 1944, had no strong political influence. But it evidences, for Kessler, an antifascist “balance,” namely that of correctly identifying the ultimate political concern — Nazi fascism — as an immediate danger and unmitigated evil. Putting it more crassly than Kessler, this also means reaching across the aisle for the sake of imagining a better tomorrow with ideologically diverse friends.

In the East, the seeming penchant for error only multiplied, once the conditions of linguistic and economic alienation were redressed, once communism became politically hegemonic, and, most decisively, once Hitler’s Germany was destroyed and there was no longer any manifestly obvious fascism to oppose collectively.

In the book’s latter half, focused on individuals’ lives as configured by a GDR state whose contours were dictated by the USSR, all sorts of signs of compromise — and new forms of loneliness — emerge. Kessler stands in judgment of the manifold moral errors collected in the archive, that bespeak loudly or silently (insofar as they are acts of omission) moments of failure to live communism correctly. He condemns the failure to speak out against injustice and the dictatorial elements of the SED in as full-throated a manner as Hitler was denounced. Centrally, Kessler condemns various individuals’ failure to resist ideological bluster in writing about America, succumbing to errors such as hyperbole and the erasure of the unquestionably good elements of American culture. Indeed, these latter stand at the front of every chapter, in the form of song lyrics by “our” most revered Volk icons (Dylan, Joplin, etc.).

Kessler asks an increasing number of rhetorical whys of communists who cannot answer him. He even, gently, asks them of Stefan Heym, who survived Hitler’s reign as a Jewish communist, and the GDR as a Jewish dissident, indefatigably in the service of his craft as a writer and role as public intellectual, up to and past the moment that he stood on Alexanderplatz with Christa Wolf to call for a free and truly socialist democratic German republic.

“Balance” or “differentiated thinking” might be the most appropriate approach to historical scholarship (although Walter Benjamin, whose absence in this collection is deeply felt, would probably beg to differ). But it seems risible as a personal political orientation. There is no way forward without an articulate choice for something, and there is no socialist plan or dream that is not against militarism and imperialism as such. While the vulgar “black and white” anti-Americanism articulated by some of the citizens of the GDR is, in retrospect, rather unappealing, it is not because the sentiments were unwarranted, or in themselves untrue. The critics, per Kessler, committed lies of omission, by not simultaneously recounting the horrors of Stalinism or the repressive function of the Stasi. Yet it is only thanks to historical accident that we now can read about these lies of omission in Westemigranten.

Fellow Travelers

I do not wish either to further interrogate the dead, or Kessler’s remembrance of their lives, but rather ask what these lives might mean for us, by offering what they mean to me. It was through stumbling upon the uncorrected, hyperbolic lies of omission propagated by ideologically motivated East German historians that led me to socialism. It was in 1995, during a visit to the unified Germany, when I snuck under my host father’s desk to leaf through the binders of notes he recorded as a history student at the University of Potsdam in the early 1980s.

Shortly before, I was a monolingual, midwestern seventeen-year-old who loved my God and my country, who more or less accidentally ended up in a year-long homestay in a village in Sachsen-Anhalt. My poor German skills did not inhibit my understanding of the headings that ordered my host father’s notes: American Imperialism, American Militarism, American Racism. Fascism in the USA.

I was distraught, not for what it indicated about either my host father’s education or the state of East German historical inquiry, but what it meant for me. Not because it could suddenly reverse everything that I believed to be true and false, but because it undermined my sense of how I knew to tell right from wrong. I didn’t wonder whether the USSR was the real hero and the United States the real villain of the Cold War — but rather, whether there were no heroes at all.

Thereafter, for a while, I called myself a communist (making me radically unpopular among my friends at home), not as a positive commitment to the future, or an articulation of a plan or hope, but a gesture of negation, born in the encounter with the cultural and political heritage of the GDR.

If there is an us, I imagine it as fellow travelers who like me exist between the United States and a “unified” Germany today, in which one must constantly negotiate the disappearance of the hope for a socialist democratic German republic and the internationalist socialist solidarity enshrined in Brecht and Eisler’s Solidaritätslied.

We no longer find ourselves trapped between the statist struggles of two superpowers, but on the ash heap of a vanquished real existing socialism — and in the shadow of the utterly unvanquished fascistic forms of thought and rule that are ascendant today.

We know each other in our alienation, from the United States and from Germany simultaneously, and sometimes it feels like we can do little else but read stories together and talk about them. For Stefan Heym’s story, and many others, I am immensely grateful for Mario Kessler’s biography.