The Mystery of Willi Münzenberg


The cold war ended in 1991, but a continuing flow of books on the subject testifies to our deep fascination with it, and to the contested meaning of its legacy. This is particularly true of its ideological component, the “cultural cold war,” for as David Caute has noted, the “mortal ‘stroke'” that buried Soviet communism was not just economic and military, but also “moral, intellectual, and cultural.”1 The opening of the archives east and west over the past fifteen years has greatly contributed to the debate over what exactly happened, by allowing commentators to reexamine, for example, the role of the CIA in front organizations in the West, like the Congress for Cultural Freedom,2 and that of the NKVD/ KGB and its affiliates in Communist fronts of a similar nature.

Implicit in some of these investigations is the search for scapegoats. Were there intellectual traitors in our midst during the cold war? Were they the liberal peace activists and democratic socialists who found themselves in bed with fellow travelers and KGB agents, or the right-wing hawks and neoconservatives who played hopscotch with McCarthy and the CIA? And what about the Soviet side? Who really “believed,” and who didn’t, and to what degree were coalitions like the Popular Front and the Anti-Fascist Movement successfully manipulated by the Soviet secret services?

The latest writer to tackle this theme is Sean McMeekin, whose The Red Millionaire: A Political Biography of Willi Münzenberg offers a revisionist view of the German Communist media mogul who had powerful influence on the European left from the early 1920s until his mysterious death in 1940. From his base in Weimar Berlin and later in Paris, Münzenberg controlled an international network of newspapers, magazines, film studios, publishing houses, charities, clubs, committees, schools, and orphanages aimed at promoting the Soviet cause. When he died his media empire vanished with him, and he himself came to seem like a cultural and political dodo, of interest, if at all, to nostalgic veterans of the Popular Front and historians of European communism.

It was not until 1954 that Münzenberg’s name resurfaced in any meaningful way, when Arthur Koestler wrote about him in the second volume of his autobiography.3 Koestler had known of Münzenberg as a young newspaperman in Berlin in the early 1930s, and later worked for him in Paris over a period of about seven years (1933–1940). Koestler was deeply impressed by Münzenberg’s talents as an organizer, publisher, and propagandist, by his ability to generate a seemingly endless stream of newspapers, magazines, and books to support the Communist cause, and by the apparently magical ease with which he set up his various front committees while keeping the Communist role in them virtually invisible. Through his famous Berlin organization, Internationale Arbeiterhilfe (International Workers’ Aid, or IAH), based in Berlin, Münzenberg was reputed to have sent millions of dollars’ worth of aid to the Soviet Union during the famine of 1921, and later used the trust to launch his media…

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