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The Red MillionaireA Political Biography of Willy Munzenberg, Moscow's Secret Propaganda Tsar in the West$

Sean McMeekin

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780300098471

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300098471.001.0001

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Introduction: Who in the World Is Willi Münzenberg?

Introduction: Who in the World Is Willi Münzenberg?

(p.1) Introduction: Who in the World Is Willi Münzenberg?
The Red Millionaire

Sean McMeekin

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This book focuses on the life of Willi Munzenberg, who—although being relatively unknown today—demonstrated formidable talents in the black arts of propaganda. At the height of his influence, he controlled from his Berlin headquarters a seemingly invincible network of Communist organizations using fronts such as charities, publishers, newspapers, magazines, theaters, film studios, and cinema houses. On paper, these organizations stretched from Buenos Aires to Tokyo, employing many of the interwar period's most famous intellectuals, including Upton Sinclair, Henri Barbusse, Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, and John Dos Passos. To his admirers, Munzenberg was a beacon of hope for a Europe ravaged by war, a hero whose fund-raising campaigns built bridges between the ever-fragile Soviet experiment in “proletarian” government and Western socialists. To his critics, on the other hand, he was a dangerous media demagogue who preyed on naive fellow traveling sympathizers to reap a personal fortune—a “Red Millionaire.”

Keywords:   propaganda, Willi Munzenberg, Communist organizations, interwar period, proletarian government, Western socialists, media demagogue, Red Millionaire

Willi Münzenberg is little remembered today, but there was a time, not so long ago, when the utterance of his name aroused fear, loathing, and admiration among the world's political classes. In the ideological warfare that convulsed Europe after the First World War, Münzenberg demonstrated formidable talents in the black arts of propaganda. At the height of his influence, Münzenberg controlled from his Berlin headquarters a seemingly invincible network of Communist front organizations—charities, publishers, newspapers, magazines, theaters, film studios, and cinema houses—which stretched, on paper at least, from Buenos Aires to Tokyo. Many of the interwar period's most famous intellectuals—Upton Sinclair, Henri Barbusse, Albert Einstein, Bertolt Brecht, and John Dos Passos—came under his ever-expanding organizational spell. The Nazi journalist Joseph Goebbels, who also operated out of Berlin, admired and feared his Communist rival's propaganda machine, and when Hitler came to power in 1933, Münzenberg's media empire was immediately slated for destruction. It is a measure of Münzenberg's still formidable reputation that even after he was expelled from the Central Committee of the German Communist Party in 1938, his movements in Paris were closely shadowed by agents of both Hitler's Gestapo and Stalin's NKVD. In Münzenberg's mind lodged many potentially explosive secrets about the finances and personnel of the Communist International, secrets that, but for a tantalizingly incomplete paper trail of documents, many of which are only now becoming available, followed him to his grave.1

To his legion admirers, Willi Münzenberg was a singular beacon of hope for war-ravaged Europe, a hero whose fund-raising campaigns built bridges between the ever-fragile Soviet experiment in “proletarian” government and Western socialists. To his critics, Münzenberg was a dangerous media demagogue who preyed on naïve fellow-traveling sympathizers to reap a personal fortune—a “Communist Hugenberg” or a “Red Millionaire.”2 (p.2) There is an element of truth in both of these caricatures, first drawn by Münzenberg's contemporaries, and then endorsed uncritically by historians alternately sympathetic or hostile to communism.3

To emphasize Münzenberg's bland progressive virtues, however, or to ascribe cynicism to this consummate political operator, is to miss the point of his spectacular career in communism. Willi Münzenberg was not unique in his admiration of the Soviet Union, nor in his espousal of pacifism, antiimperialism, antifascism, and all the other great progressive causes of his time. If Münzenberg had merely been a sympathizer, as opposed to a hardcore Communist devoted to the principles of violent revolution, he never would have remained a trusted confidant in Moscow's ruling circles for two decades. There was nothing cynical about his revolutionary rhetoric, or his often ferocious speeches devoted to accelerating class warfare. He believed sincerely in the Revolution.

Nor did Münzenberg draw his power from a widely reputed entrepreneurial prowess.4 Although unrivaled in the scale of the investments he made with Moscow's money, Münzenberg was a stranger to corporate profits. Every business he touched—reaching across sectors as diverse as mechanized agriculture, caviar, oil, cars, cigarettes, publishing, along with film production and distribution—hemorrhaged red ink. Had Münzenberg truly been more businessman than Bolshevik, his political fortunes would never have risen as meteorically as they did, nor fallen so precipitously and irreversibly once Stalin finally turned against him in 1937.

Yet another historical myth that has obscured understanding of Münzenberg's career is the Kremlin's alleged use of his media “trust” to lubricate the foreign operations of the NKVD.5 Münzenberg displayed, to be sure, an impressive capacity for distributing Moscow gold through the dozens of corporate fronts he invented. Unlike the business trust of the American magnate Armand Hammer, however—whose principal raison d'être was to launder espionage funds for Moscow—Münzenberg's fronts were far too cash-thirsty themselves to subsidize spying to any significant degree.6 So reckless was Münzenberg in launching new firms, often leveraged to the hilt through private German bank loans, that the Kremlin could barely keep up with servicing his debts. Neither profit-maker nor money launderer, Münzenberg was, rather, the Comintern's junk bond king. Knowing that the Bolsheviks placed politics well before profits, Münzenberg believed to the end that the Kremlin would bail out every last one of his expensive media adventures.

And why not? Because he had joined Lenin's tiny cadre of friends and confidants in Zurich, during World War I, when the Communist movement still (p.3) languished in obscurity, Münzenberg could overawe even the most persistent creditors with his senior status. The Bolsheviks trusted few non-Bussians in the Communist movement, especially those who had not struggled with them in the Revolution. Münzenberg, as the only member of Lenin's inner circle from Zurich who did not accompany the future dictator on his fateful train ride to Petrograd, became by default the highest-ranking Bolshevik “outsider” in Europe, answerable only to the Kremlin. As such, Münzenberg became a real thorn in the flesh of socialists who resented Moscow's manipulation of European politics, not to mention a major irritant to colleagues in his own German Communist Party, who did not appreciate having an unaccountable Bolshevik commissar in their midst. Nowhere did the Bolshevik invasion of the European Left have more serious consequences than in Germany, and nowhere was this invasion more blatantly on display than in the Münzenberg media “trust,” whose mysterious finances inspired endless speculation by critics on both sides of the political spectrum.

Certainly Münzenberg did not doubt the impregnability of his position in Communism. Although he believed wholeheartedly in the cause, Münzenberg had no qualms about employing ideologically dubious means to further Communist ends. In his exuberant, reckless lying, Münzenberg often out-“Bolsheviked” the Bolsheviks, riding the Russian Revolutionary show pony so ruthlessly that the poor animal had to stop and catch its breath. And so when this fickle, violent, and ultimately ungrateful animal, whose virtues Münzenberg was still tirelessly proclaiming to the world, at last snorted and heaved and bucked its most ferocious foreign partisan off for good, the ride was over. For Münzenberg, revolutionary Marxist-Leninism had long since been the only show in town.

But what a tremendous ride it was while it lasted! Few of history's great salesmen have been carried to such dizzying heights by their star attraction, which never failed to attract gasps of admiration as it was peddled to the far corners of the globe. True, the glamour of utopia-in-power was shadowed by rumors of uncivilized brutality as it passed from War Communism into catastrophic famine in 1921, sponsored political terrorism abroad throughout the 1920s, and forced the collectivization of Ukrainian agriculture over millions of peasant corpses in the early 1930s. But these rumors were easily chalked up to anticommunist propaganda, or the events themselves to direct sabotage by foreign enemies of the utopia. Those Western sympathizers who churned through Münzenberg's propaganda thresher, meanwhile, often saw their careers mysteriously promoted or their lives suddenly ruined as they acquired notoriety and the enmity of their governments.

(p.4) But risks to livelihood and limb did not lead all prospective Communists to shy away. The risks, Münzenberg rapidly learned, were part of the attraction. In fact, bloody rehearsals in class warfare proved effective political advertising, nowhere more so than in Münzenberg's native Germany. And if Communist calls for an invasion of central Europe by the Red Army, to be accompanied by the forcible expropriation of private property and the elimination of millions of class enemies, helped to rally mass support for right-wing extremist parties who vowed to exterminate Communists before they could exterminate everyone else, then all the better. The rise of openly fascist parties throughout Europe would merely unmask the latent “social fascism” of the mainstream Socialist parties, alerting workers not yet conscious of their historical mission that the moment of apocalyptic reckoning, the true world Communist Revolution, was at hand. Spurred on by such inescapable conclusions of dialectical reasoning, from his seat in the cockpit of a global propaganda empire, Willi Münzenberg planned to lead Germany, and with her all of Europe, into the cataclysmic class war that would destroy capitalism forever.


(1) . The most important files on Münzenberg's activities are in Moscow at the Russian Government Archive of Social-Political History (RGASPI, formerly RTsKhiIDNI) on ulitsa Bolshaia Dimitrovka. Some of the relevant material in the general Comintern archive (fond 495) remains closed, but the voluminous files of Münzenberg's organizational clearinghouse, the International Worker Relief (fond 538) have been open since the early 1990s. Gestapo files on Münzenberg can also be found in Moscow, in the so-called Osoby or “special” archive of materials taken back to Russia by the Red Army after World War II. A limited number of captured Gestapo files are also available at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, California. Some of the captured records of the German Communist Party, long housed in the “Osoby,” have been repatriated to Germany, where they accompany scattered Communist files from the former East German Institut für Marxismus-Leninismus, now located at the Bundesarchiv at the former American army base in Lichterfelde. There are also archival materials on Münzenberg from army and police intelligence in Bern, Paris, and Washington.

But many crucial documents have disappeared. After Münzenberg's arrest in Zurich in November 1917, many of his early letters, to Karl Radek, Lenin, Zinoviev, and others, (p.310) were lost (although some materials were preserved by Münzenberg's Young Socialist colleague Edi Meyer, who deposited them in the Schweizerisches Sozialarchiv in Zurich). Similarly, most of Münzenberg's correspondence from his Berlin years was seized by the Nazis after the Reichstag fire in 1933, and most of the material from his Paris years, 1933–40, was taken by the Gestapo in 1940.

(2) . Alfred Hugenberg was a wealthy right-wing media mogul who controlled a chain of successful newspapers in Weimar Germany, of which the most successful was the Berliner Lokalanzeiger.

(3) . The most popular source text remains Babette Gross's informative, yet often inaccurate, memoir of her husband's career, Willi Münzenberg: Eine politische Biographie (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1967). Recent literature on Münzenberg usually follows Gross in emphasizing Münzenberg's vaunted “antifascism,” trying to rehabilitate him as a Third Way (Dritte Weg) socialist who has something to teach modern liberals and social democrats. See, for example, Harald Wessel's Münzenbergs Ende (Berlin: Dietz, 1991), or the 1992 Aix-en-Provence conference volume Willi Münzenberg (1889–1940): Ein deutscher Kommunist im Spannungsfeld zwischen Stalinismus und Antifaschismus, ed. Tania Schlie and Simon Roche (Frankfurt-am-Main: Peter Lang, 1995).

(4) . The myth of Münzenberg's “financial genius,” which originates both from self-serving propaganda and from the testimonials of co-workers such as Babette Gross and Arthur Koestler, seems to be unshakable. Relying largely on Koestler's vague say-so, David Caute once famously wrote that Münzenberg “demonstrated that if communism could not smash capitalism in an afternoon, it could at least make money while it was trying.” Caute, The Fellow Travellers: A Postscript to the Enlightenment (New York: Macmillan, 1973), 57.

(5) . In this vein, see especially Koch, Double Lives.

(6) . See Edward J. Epstein's recent biography Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer (New York: Random House, 1996).