THE RED MILLIONAIRE: A Political Biography of Willi Münzenberg, Moscow’s Secret Propaganda Tsar in the West, 1917-1940.
By Sean McMeekin.
Yale University Press, Hardback, RRP: AU$64.95 plus p&h
(Available from News Weekly Books in 4-6 weeks).
R.J. Stove reviews a new biography of Willi Münzenberg, Soviet communism’s legendary propaganda supremo.
Willi Münzenberg’s worldwide influence as agitprop tycoon far transcended the various middlebrow, predominantly middle-class endeavours of Lord Northcliffe, Lord Beaverbrook, and Henry Luce.
He appreciated, in best Screwtape fashion, the dual role that any media engineer of human souls has needed to undertake in our age. Not only must he reduce the masses to envious, incoherent beasts; he must simultaneously fulfil – as Goebbels, for instance, manifestly did not – the more rarefied demands of intelligentsias.
Propaganda and “fronts”
As Sean McMeekin demonstrates in his splendid new book, Münzenberg’s propaganda machine offered something for almost everyone. If you belonged in the inter-war years to that (always sizeable) demographic whose talent for reading is unencumbered by the smallest talent for thinking, then your world was Münzenberg’s oyster. In one media field alone did he, unlike Murdoch, fail: he died in 1940, too soon to have supplemented his publishing empire with a television empire.
Born (1889) in Erfurt, Germany, to a sadistic innkeeper – whose strange demise, while “cleaning his pistols”, foreshadowed his son’s mysterious fate – Münzenberg (a gentile, contrary to subsequent Third Reich myths) actually had a working-class upbringing. This alone would have differentiated him from his fellow Old Bolsheviks.
The first Münzenberg agitprop masterwork involved commandeering international aid to relieve the Soviets’ 1921-22 famine. Even Slick Willi found this assignment a tall order; repackaging Jack the Ripper as a feminist would have been, by comparison, child’s play.
In 1921-22 those with any disinterested concern for Russia knew that all responsibility for creating the Soviet famine rested with the Soviets. The conga-line of clueless Western liberals who cheered on Stalin’s Ukrainian genocide a decade afterwards had yet to form. Saying, therefore, “We demand you end the hunger caused by us” savored all too obviously of the proverbial chutzpah-exemplar who murdered his parents and then pleaded for the mercy due to an orphan: especially after Moscow unleashed fortissimo invective against Herbert Hoover’s American Relief Administration (“one must punish Hoover”, Lenin patiently explained, “one must publicly slap his face“).
War-ravaged Europe showed limited interest in offering help, as McMeekin points out: “It was hard for European workers, themselves struggling just to put food on the table, to get too excited by tales of starvation in the Volga region thousands of miles away.”
For Münzenberg’s career, as for Freud’s, salvation came from the US. Doughty progressives across the Atlantic – fortunate enough to be confronted with no worse an Axis of Evil than Warren G. Harding – styled themselves “Friends of Soviet Russia”, donating $125,000 to the Münzenberg cause “at a time when [he] had yet to raise $10,000 in all of Europe.”
A lesser man might have diverted this income stream to boringly prosaic matters like paying off debt. Not so Münzenberg, who proudly remained (to quote McMeekin again) “a stranger to corporate profits. Every business he touched – reaching across sectors as diverse as mechanised agriculture, caviar, oil, cars, cigarettes, publishing, along with film production and distribution – haemorrhaged red ink.”
Fortunately for Münzenberg, the flow of Moscow gold – in addition to letting him defy periodic denunciations from mean-spirited national Communist parties dismally lacking his own visionary showmanship – enabled him to walk tall as prototype and archetype of that quintessential post-1917 hero: the rugged individualist whose rugged individualism is propped up unceasingly by Big Government.
It is curious, moreover, to learn how few genuinely significant European writers he attracted. His American myrmidons might have won over Hemingway, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair and Dorothy Parker (though even here he had his failures: the recalcitrance in 1932 of Theodore Dreiser, for instance). Yet first-rate European literary minds mostly proved impervious to his charm.
André Gide, initially sympathetic, soon recoiled: he took one look at the workers’ paradise and uttered the Gallic equivalent of Sam Goldwyn’s epigram, “Include me out.” Among European intellectuals, Münzenberg had to make do with the loose cannon André Malraux (whose tendency to drink toasts to Trotsky when visiting the USSR made him at least as much a risk as an asset), with a dinosaur from Tsarist days (Maxim Gorky), with dreary apparatchiks (Henri Barbusse), and with manic apparatchiks (Brecht, Heinrich Mann). Still, even these figures abounded in political prestige; and with Koestler, Münzenberg had a leftist adherent of lasting authorial distinction.
The Münzenberg agitprop imperium conspicuously weakened from 1936; but even before then Hitler’s ascension had severely, if secretly, wounded it. Like many another sales-whiz, Münzenberg spent far too much time talking to bother with intent listening. Thus he maintained the most childish optimism, both about Hitler’s political impotence, and about the chances of Germany’s Communist Party (the KPD) surviving Nazi threats unaided.
Amid the Weimar Republic’s death-rattle, a handful of German Communist officials – including, very briefly, the Stalinist leader Ernst Thälmann – toyed with wooing Social Democrats into an anti-Hitler coalition.
For their pains, they were howled down by a nomenklatura enraged at anyone even contemplating an alliance with the “social fascists”. During a 1931 public debate with the dissident Nazi Otto Strasser, Münzenberg solemnly and surrealistically announced (in words that made Franz von Papen look like the greatest Realpolitik practitioner of all time): “Hitler we can ignore.”
He continued to proclaim this message, albeit with a greater show of polemic sophistication, on the last weekend of January 1933, as Hitler assumed power in Germany.
One last triumph of his gifts for mendacity he did vouchsafe, early in Hitler’s reign: the Brown Book, that official – and for 30 years universally trusted – Communist exercise in rewriting the history of the Reichstag Fire. (Its pages happily cited “a lengthy harangue Lenin had once devoted to the nefarious machinations of ‘rich Jews’.”)
After the Brown Book, Münzenberg rather lost his old aptitude, to the point where Barbusse began assuring Moscow: “Speaking frankly, Münzenberg’s name … presents serious inconveniences.” With the liquidation of Münzenberg’s propaganda conglomerate IAH (short for Internationale Arbeiterhilfe, “International Worker Relief”) in 1935, Slick Willi forfeited his main power base.
He spectacularly benefited in the short term when the Popular Front became official Soviet strategy (the job of persuading useful idiots to shriek abuse of Mussolini and Franco might have been made to order for Münzenberg’s crypto-demagogic gifts), but an increasing recklessness in his private grumbling about party tactics led to his being sharply rebuked by the Kremlin.
As his reputation there waned, so that of his leading Teutonic rivals – such as future East German despot Walter Ulbricht – waxed. Once Münzenberg’s Old Bolshevik colleagues found themselves on the wrong end of the Moscow show trials, he panicked.
The KPD having expelled him, he could openly condemn the Nazi-Soviet Pact with a clear conscience (though he carefully omitted from his diatribes the signing of Stalin’s first non-aggression treaty with Hitler six years before Molotov-Ribbentrop).
Stuck in France at World War II’s outbreak, Münzenberg vanished shortly after the Wehrmacht conquered Paris.
On October 22, 1940, two hunters and their dogs in a wood near Grenoble found a corpse hanging from a tree: “the head, left exposed to buzzards along with the rain and wind, had been stripped to the bone.”
Only the papers on the body revealed Münzenberg’s identity. The likeliest explanation for his death is that NKVD goons slew him, as a low-key counterpart to their renowned visitation of Trotsky. Nevertheless a verdict of suicide suited officialdom much better.
It suited the NKVD itself, naturally, but it also suited Vichy’s policemen: fearing a Gestapo invasion of their turf, as would certainly have happened once word leaked out that a world-famous German refugee had been assassinated.
To finish The Red Millionaire is to be dazed with sorrow. All that energy which Münzenberg expended; all that intense, if hopelessly shallow, brainwork; and with what aim? That the most loathsome and lethal régime ever inflicted upon men – at least until Mao showed a reverential world what mass extermination could really achieve – might shine in the eyes of the public with a greater refulgence.
Entrapped in his dialectical-materialist squalor, Münzenberg knew nothing of the heroic faith that sustained Stalinism’s great religious victims: such as the Orthodox Solzhenitsyn, the Catholic Mindszenty, and the Protestant Richard Wurmbrand.
Maybe in his last conscious moments, as the noose tightened around his neck, Münzenberg felt a surge of contrition for so brilliantly upholding “the culture of the lie”.
It would be agreeable to think so; it would also be unjustified by a scrap of available evidence.
Rebecca West, in The Meaning of Treason, observed: “What is the sin against the Holy Ghost? It is perhaps to deal with people as if they were things.”
Let that be the epitaph for Willi Münzenberg: puppet-master extra-ordinaire, who never imagined – till too late – that Stalin would lean over the proscenium arch and cut the marionettes’ threads, one by one by one.
- This edited version of R.J. Stove’s review is from The American Conservative, June 21, 2004.