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 empire.

His front organizations had grandiose names like World Committee for the Relief of the Victims of German Fascism, Committee of Vigilance and Democratic Control, Writers’ Congress in Defense of Culture, Committee for War Relief for Republican Spain, and Committee of Inquiry into Foreign Intervention in the Spanish War. He was adept at getting famous people to join or send telegrams of support—Albert Einstein, H.G. Wells, Thomas Mann, Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, Henri Barbusse, Romain Rolland, Stafford Cripps, to name only a few—and there were dozens of others who signed his petitions and proclamations without the faintest idea who exactly Willi Münzenberg was.

Münzenberg’s finest hour came in a long and bitter campaign against the Nazi regime in Germany after Hitler had cracked down on the Communist Party, closed Münzenberg’s newspapers, and forced him to flee to France. Hitler’s pretext was the Reichstag fire in January 1933, which he blamed on the Communists. A Dutch Communist, Marinus van der Lubbe, was arrested by the Gestapo, but before Hitler could put him on trial, Münzenberg upstaged him by organizing a mock counter-trial in London. He published The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag, which became an international best seller, and which he supplemented with two more “brown books” of documents and testimony on Nazi brutality. Only slightly less effective was the antifascist propaganda blitz that Münzenberg launched to support the Republican cause in Spain, in which Koestler himself played a part, helping to edit yet another brown book, The Nazi Terror in Spain, and writing Spanish Testament, a polemic against the Franco regime.

Koestler described Münzenberg as a “shortish, square, squat, heavy-boned man with powerful shoulders, who gave the impression that bumping against him would be like colliding with a steam-roller,” and whose face had “the forceful simplicity of a woodcut.” Willi was a hard-driving taskmaster, “a fiery, demagogical, and irresistible public speaker, and a born leader of men.” Other ex-Communist writers who had worked for Münzenberg echoed Koestler’s description. Gustav Regler, a German émigré writer and veteran of the brown book campaigns, found Münzenberg “as foul-mouthed as a cab driver,” but thought him “Napoleonic” in his ability to campaign on many fronts at once.4 The Galician-born novelist Manès Sperber, who settled in Paris, recalled Münzenberg as “a general directing battles from his headquarters,” with an uncanny ability to line up his troops when he needed them—scientists, composers, writers, artists, and lawyers who were ready to sign their names to almost anything he put in front of them.5


These descriptions were augmented by Münzenberg’s widow, Babette Gross, who, with Koestler’s encouragement, published a full-scale “political biography” of Münzenberg in 1974.6 Gross gave fresh information about Münzenberg’s youth as a worker in a shoe factory in Erfurt, his early involvement with the far left Spartacist movement, and his friendship with Lenin, whom he had met as a young radical in Zurich, where he sat out World War I working as a pharmacist’s assistant. His friendship with Lenin was a badge of Communist honor that bolstered Münzenberg’s independence from local Party leaders in Europe and assured his immunity during the early years of Stalin’s purges in Moscow. Gross also recounted in detail Münzenberg’s years as a revolutionary agitator in Germany after the war, his work as a Communist member of the German Reichstag after 1924, and his feat of transforming the International Workers’ Aid Trust into a publishing and propaganda empire.

A mythical, larger-than-life quality shone through all the early descriptions of Münzenberg. Babette Gross thought of him as “obsessive” and “daemonic”; for Sperber he was a “pied-piper,” with the whole world as his Hamelin; Regler envisioned him as a chessmaster “playing twenty games at once”; and Koestler saw him as “a unique combination” of conjuror and crusader. Reinforcing the myth was the unsolved mystery of Münzenberg’s death in 1940, when the Nazis were gobbling up the Benelux countries and advancing on France.

Fearing a fifth column, the French rounded up the Germans and Austrians in their midst, including Münzenberg (as well as Gross, Koestler, and Regler) and interned them in camps. Münzenberg was sent to a camp southeast of Lyons, but, as German divisions approached the French frontier, he and several other prisoners escaped and made their way into the forest. It is not clear where they were headed—Switzerland or the south of France—but Münzenberg disappeared. Six months later, his badly decomposed body was discovered at the foot of a tree, with a noose around its neck. The official verdict of the French authorities was suicide. Some speculated that the Nazis had killed him, but even more blamed his death on agents of Stalin. The truth has never been established.

Münzenberg’s martyrdom created an aura around his name that has persisted to the present day. Few of the writers who worked with him doubted the single-mindedness of his ambition, or his willingness to cut ethical corners in the interests of expediency. But they also saw him as someone who remained above the factional struggles of the German Communist Party, and whose fidelity to communism was independent of Soviet machinations. His heroic image was further reinforced by his fiery opposition to Hitler and fascism, at a time when most of Western Europe was pursuing a strategy of appeasement and the Soviet Union was looking the other way. Münzenberg’s admirers cited as an example of his political acumen his refusal to go to Moscow in 1937 and 1938, when he was in danger of falling victim to the purges himself, and his break from the Party soon afterward. Münzenberg’s last publication, the periodical Die Zukunft (The Future), which Koestler edited for a while, was regarded as proof of Münzenberg’s final independence from Moscow.

Sean McMeekin originally went to Moscow to collect material for a Ph.D. dissertation on Münzenberg and discovered, in the Russian Government Archive of Social-Political History (commonly known as RGASPI), virtually the entire history of Münzenberg’s relations with the Comintern from 1918 to 1938. In the Swiss police archives he found an undiscovered early autobiography by Münzenberg, and turned up rich new supporting material in the archives of the former German Democratic Republic and in the United States. From these sources McMeekin pieced together a new account of Münzenberg’s career that is radically at odds with earlier versions and rests on two broad conclusions. First, far from being the free agent of legend, Münzenberg was an apparatchik who consistently took his orders from Moscow. Second, Münzenberg was never a financially successful millionaire: his vast business empire was propped up by bottomless Kremlin subsidies.


From his opening pages, McMeekin makes no secret of his scorn for his subject. In Babette Gross’s biography Münzenberg’s father is described as “the illegitimate child of a shepherdess and Baron von Seckendorf.” In McMeekin’s version this becomes:

Himself the bastard son of a hot-tempered and hard-drinking Prussian Junker, Baron von Seckendorf, who in a moment of lust took advantage of his chambermaid, Karl Münzenberg seems to have inherited the baron’s recklessness….

Looking at the young Willi’s face in a blurry reproduction of a group photograph taken when Münzenberg was seventeen, McMeekin detects “a certain fanaticism, a moral intensity” in the eyes of the “diminutive teenager,” who by the time he meets Lenin in Switzerland has become “an uncontrollable firebrand.” The “German draft dodger”—Münzenberg had refused to fight in the German military—incites his Spartacist youth followers to violent street demonstrations and class war; and when expelled from Switzerland to Germany after World War I, “ruthlessly” purges his staff and conceals his real political program in order to preserve his freedom for “revolutionary” offensives.

McMeekin’s Münzenberg is a fanatical Communist of the worst sort—vain, cowardly, ambitious, ruthless, devious, egotistical, cynical, and immoral. The idea to found International Workers’ Aid in 1921 was not his, but came in the form of a direct order from Lenin—and Münzenberg was forced to coordinate his activities with the Comintern every step of the way. According to McMeekin, Münzenberg’s vaunted efforts to raise money and food for victims of the terrible Volga famine of 1919–1922 were paltry compared with the relief that came from the US and other parts of Europe. “Whichever way you looked at it,” writes McMeekin, “the money arriving at Münzenberg’s Berlin office represented the merest trickle of the global fund-raising efforts for the Volga famine, but in his propaganda literature he somehow made it seem like a mighty stream.”

McMeekin pursues the evidence of Münzenberg’s financial ineptitude through the archives with the persistence of a bloodhound. Münzenberg’s industrial assistance program inside Russia, according to McMeekin, was a giant pyramid scheme that failed miserably through fraud, mismanagement, and debt. In order to stay afloat Münzenberg skimmed money from American “Friends of Soviet Russia” committees until he was cut out of the picture by a sister organization, International Red Aid. His career as a movie mogul was also a mirage: he was able to distribute Soviet art movies (The Battleship Potemkin was the most famous example) because their makers had no one else to turn to. Münzenberg financed their distribution with yet more Kremlin subsidies and still lost money, while the film studio he purchased inside Russia, according to McMeekin, was financed by money “embezzled” from the IAH or the Comintern.

Nor was Münzenberg’s publishing empire what it seemed, for he inflated circulation numbers. The Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung (Workers’ Illustrated Weekly, or AIZ), Münzenberg’s German equivalent of Life magazine, had an “abysmal financial track record,” and spin-offs in Austria, Switzerland, and Czechoslovakia lost even more money. Münzenberg’s book and movie clubs were also financial disasters, and his popular daily newspapers couldn’t attract enough advertisers to pay their way.

By showing that Münzenberg was an eager but often inefficient capitalist, McMeekin undermines Münzenberg’s left-wing jargon about the immorality of the market. But McMeekin’s single-minded concentration on the bottom line also leads him to some questionable conclusions. He complains repeatedly that Münzenberg lost money because he diverted so much income to publicity, but that was precisely the point. What Koestler and others most admired about Münzenberg was not his supposed capacity for making money, but his ability to take even the most modest initiative and blow it up into a propaganda success. Whenever Münzenberg set up a committee, sent a shipload of aid to Russia, or staged a demonstration, he had the event photographed, written about, and advertised in his newspapers and magazines, and he used the resulting publicity to enlist new supporters for the Soviet cause.

Münzenberg didn’t hesitate to demand money from the Comintern because he needed it for propaganda and knew he could get it. McMeekin, in his patriotic zeal, contends that Münzenberg borrowed most of his publicity ideas from America.7 While Münzenberg did borrow from America, he borrowed equally heavily from the Soviets, who from their earliest days put a premium on flattering images and positive messages about the October Revolution. Where Americans used their publicity talents mainly to make money, the Soviets used them to make political propaganda, and it was the Soviet example that meant most to Münzenberg.8

Münzenberg was ahead of both the American and Soviet governments when it came to influencing public opinion, especially in Western Europe. He, more than any other single person, might be said to be the original father of the cultural cold war, pioneering, with his committees, his congresses, his front magazines, and his international petitions, methods that were to become commonplace during the post–World War II conflict between the CIA and the KGB. Links in the chain of his influence included former Communists who went west like Koestler, Regler, Sperber, and Ruth Fischer, and those who went east, like Otto Katz, Johannes Becher, and Alfred Kantorowicz. When the CIA sponsored a hugely successful meeting of the newly minted Congress for Cultural Freedom in West Berlin in 1950, it was acting on a suggestion made by, among others, Ruth Fischer. One of the leading planners of the congress, and its most militant public speaker, was Arthur Koestler—who was answered on East German radio by Kantorowicz and Becher.9

The question of the degree of Münzenberg’s dependence on Moscow is also more complicated than McMeekin acknowledges. A case can be made that up to 1923 Münzenberg’s policies were virtually identical with the Comintern’s. McMeekin demonstrates that for the next ten years, from 1923 to 1933, Münzenberg still hewed to the Party line in his speeches, his writings, and his publications. But what also emerges from McMeekin’s research is that after 1923, Münzenberg frequently developed programs on his own initiative which the Comintern approved only later. Such programs included his first antifascist movement, his “Hands Off Soviet Russia” campaign, and his program to provide food for starving German workers. In 1926, Münzenberg conceived his anti-imperialist League Against Colonial Oppression independently of Moscow, and when Bukharin asked him what he needed in the way of support, answered: “Only that no one gets in our way.”

McMeekin amply demonstrates the financial weaknesses of Münzenberg’s print and publishing empire, but oddly ignores its political influence. By 1928, for example, the Workers’ Illustrated Newspaper had a weekly circulation of 350,000 copies (McMeekin’s figure), and was the second-largest illustrated magazine in Berlin. The Welt am Abend (Evening World) was the fourth-largest daily newspaper, with a circulation of 180,000. Another Münzenberg paper, Berlin am Morgen (Morning Berlin), was in twelfth place, with 80,000 readers—and he started a third daily, the Neue Montags Zeitung (New Monday Newspaper). These did not include his other publications elsewhere in Germany and Europe. According to a leading expert on this period, Münzenberg, with his newspapers, his many magazines, his publishing house, his book club, and his film distribution company, was one of the “big four” media giants in Berlin (the others being Ullstein, Mosse, and Scherl-Hugenberg), and his political influence was judged proportionate to his holdings.10

McMeekin avoids the topic of influence, and fails to discuss seriously Münzenberg’s books, Solidarität (Solidarity) and Propaganda als Waffe (Propaganda as a Weapon), his influential brown books, or his numerous articles and speeches. Solidarität (1931), which is treated with derision by McMeekin, is Münzenberg’s personal story of International Workers’ Aid and its activities, with photographs, drawings, and statistical tables. If nothing else it tellingly illustrates Münzenberg’s methods to perfection: a brief citation from one of its more inflammatory passages would reveal better than any of McMeekin’s invective the essentially Bolshevik nature of Münzenberg’s early ideology. Propaganda als Waffe (1937) is much more interesting for its masterly analysis of Hitler’s propaganda methods—modestly described as the most powerful in the world by Münzenberg as a competing master of the black art; his brown books provided the first (albeit not always factual) documentation of Hitler’s brutal methods.

It is worth noting that of McMeekin’s sixteen chapters, thirteen are devoted to Münzenberg’s life in Switzerland and Germany, and only three to the Paris period, while he writes next to nothing on the Spanish campaign or Münzenberg’s mysterious death. This may account for some of the disparity between his and other accounts of Münzenberg’s career. It is true that Münzenberg spent only seven of his fifty-one years in Paris, and twice as many in Berlin. On the other hand, those last seven years were packed with action, and coincided with the brilliant antifascist campaigns that earned Münzenberg the respect and admiration of Koestler and his comrades. McMeekin is content to record that Münzenberg was in closer touch with the Kremlin at the time than was generally realized, and takes this as evidence of his subservience; but Münzenberg’s associates watched his gradual (if reluctant) conversion to anti-Stalinism at first hand, and seem to have believed that had he lived, Münzenberg would have followed their own path into full-blown anticommunism.

The subject of Münzenberg’s anti-Stalinism, when it began and how serious it was, is crucial to any final reckoning of his historical role, and was the subject of two other books on Münzenberg that have appeared in recent years. In 1991 Harald Wessel, a German historian, published a study of Münzenberg’s antifascist campaigns during his Paris years and argued that Münzenberg was a key figure in the search for a humane and democratic alternative to Stalinist socialism.11 A year later, two dozen specialists took part in an international conference in Aix-en-Provence to discuss Münzenberg. Under the title Un Homme contre (A Man Against), the conference explored a similar theme: Münzenberg’s positions “against” both Stalin and Hitler. Wessel had drawn heavily for his material on the East German archives, and some of the scholars at Aix used both East German and Soviet archives; what they found there brought them to a very different interpretation of Münzenberg’s ideological position from McMeekin’s. For them Münzenberg was a hero of the left—a flawed hero, no doubt, and one who had taken a long time to see the light, but a hero nonetheless.


McMeekin refers to Wessel and Un Homme contre only glancingly, but it’s clear from the introduction to his notes that his biography is directed as much against them as it is against Gross, Koestler, et al. But he does acknowledge that he is not the first revisionist to take on Münzenberg. That honor goes to the novelist Stephen Koch, who ten years ago published Double Lives: Stalin, Willi Münzenberg, and the Seduction of the Intellectuals, in which he also portrayed Münzenberg as a pitiless, Stalinist manipulator of gullible Western intellectuals. Koch went considerably further than McMeekin, asserting that Münzenberg was not just a propagandist but also a spymaster. “Münzenberg,” according to Koch, “was affiliated with the Comintern’s training schools for undercover agents and spies. His enterprises and people were deep in recruitment for espionage.” More sensationally, Koch claimed that the Reichstag fire trial was a joint conspiracy of Stalin and Hitler: “Six years before the Nazi-Soviet Pact…the dictators were already secretly waltzing together, in full collaboration.” The Popular Front, according to Koch, was a “vast propaganda fraud,” co-opted and manipulated by Münzenberg. Almost as an aside, Koch added that Münzenberg was behind the huge pro-Communist publicity generated by the Sacco-Vanzetti case in America.

Unlike McMeekin, Koch does not speak Russian, but he hired a Russian expert to do research in the Russian archives. Koch was also able to interview the late Babette Gross (then ninety-one years old and the reputed source for Münzenberg’s Sacco and Vanzetti connection), as well as other survivors from the period, such as the English diplomat Paul Willert12 and Gustav Regler’s wife, Margaret. But if McMeekin suffers from a dearth of imagination, Koch is endowed with a surfeit. The result was a book crammed with hints, conjectures, and far-fetched hypotheses that read more like a suspense novel than a scholarly study. This was a pity, because Koch’s speculative musings about the motives and attitudes of prominent intellectuals between the two world wars were ingenious and suggestive. The problem was his perverse attempt to weave these into an airtight conspiracy theory for which he had no documentary proof, and in the United States his book was widely dismissed (though it had a more favorable reception in France).

Ten years later, Koch has returned with a revised and updated edition of Double Lives, with a new introduction by Sam Tanenhaus. He has withdrawn the claim that Münzenberg masterminded the propaganda about Sacco and Vanzetti, and softened his espionage charges. But he repeats his assertion that Hitler and Stalin colluded in the Reichstag fire trial and were covert allies throughout the Thirties, as well as his view of the Popular Front as a plaything of Münzenberg and the Soviets. In a defiant preface, he claims that the first edition of his book fell victim to the continuing ideological war between left and right. He also defends his habit of speculation. “I am not a professional historian. I am a novelist,” he writes, adding that he would be “suffocated behind the dreary mask of ‘objectivity.'”

This is all very well, but Koch can’t have it both ways. Either he is writing history or he is writing fiction. If he had presented his work as a historical novel with a strongly factual basis, he would have disarmed many of his critics, for there is much in his book to admire. He is a far better writer than McMeekin, and more astute in imagining the mentality of Lenin, Münzenberg, Romain Rolland, and even the average Comintern bureaucrat. He is sensitive to the powerful hold that idealism, ambition, and loyalty—not to mention jealousy, selfishness, and greed—can have on even strong minds, and he understands the different milieux of movies, literature, and newspapers in which Münzenberg moved. His prose is lively, entertaining, dramatic (even melodramatic in places), and consistently engaging. Had he more candidly acknowledged the boundaries between facts and imaginative probabilities—as he begins to do in his new preface—his book would have been more persuasive.

This impression is reinforced by a curious literary coincidence: a discerning reader of Koch’s book did incorporate some of Koch’s material into just the kind of historical novel-memoir that might have served Koch’s purposes better. That reader is the Spanish novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina, whose recent novel, Sepharad,13 is a personal meditation on the grimness of twentieth-century history. Molina has an affinity with W.G. Sebald in the way he projects his own life and experiences onto larger historical themes. As his title suggests, one of his preoccupations is the early dispersion of the Sephardic diaspora, which leads him to treat the Spanish Inquisition as an appallingly apt parallel to the twentieth-century disasters of the Holocaust and the Gulag.

The novel is of interest here for its chapter on Willi Münzenberg, conceived by Molina after reading Koch’s book in French, which led him to Koestler on Münzenberg, and then to the French historian François Furet. In his magisterial The Passing of an Illusion: The Idea of Communism in the Twentieth Century,14 Furet includes an incisive sketch of Münzenberg that is sharply critical but also factually accurate. Molina, under Koch’s influence, is somewhat less faithful to the facts, but freed of Koch’s self-imposed task of writing history, he is able to re-imagine Münzenberg’s life—evoking for example “the fascination of the poor boy who watches the dazzling lives of the powerful from a distance”—and to assimilate that life into his own interpretation of the twentieth century in a way no conventional historian would attempt.

According to Furet, Münzenberg was “lucky enough to have been captured by two great portraitists,” Koestler and Sperber. Molina, far removed from his predecessors in time and experience, is a third, having experienced by proxy the force and uniqueness of Münzenberg’s personality. Neither Koch’s impassioned indictment nor McMeekin’s sour diatribe seem likely to displace the more nuanced appreciations of Koestler, Sperber, and Molina. But Münzenberg’s reputation does not emerge unscathed. Koch’s insights and McMeekin’s dogged digging have seriously modified earlier accounts, and with half a century of hindsight, it is possible to see how in pursuing his Communist goals, Münzenberg was as much a force for evil as for good. But this still accounts for only half the story.

The problem is that both Koch and McMeekin see Münzenberg’s life as a cautionary tale. McMeekin finds it “hardly an accident” that the kinds of fronts and committees Münzenberg invented “are now exploited by the world’s most formidable terrorist organizations.” The “masterminds of suicide bombings,” he writes, cloak their activities in the “progressive” propaganda of anti-imperialism and anti-fascism, just as Münzenberg once did. The Communist International, “arguably the greatest terrorist conspiracy” of the twentieth century, is now replicated by “Islamic terrorists,” who by invoking left-leaning political doctrines have no trouble in finding “liberal journalists to apologize for them.”

Followers of Rumsfeld, Cheney, and the Bush White House may find these words comforting, but Sam Tanenhaus, in his introduction to the new edition of Double Lives, draws a different lesson. While agreeing with McMeekin that we live in dangerous ideological times, Tanenhaus concludes that it is the neoconservatives who have become the “ideological descendants of the 1930s radicals.” Some of them, he writes, “confidently expound theories of Islamic ‘fascism’ in tones that echo the…calls to arms sounded by Willi Münzenberg.”

Poor Münzenberg would seem to have a lot to answer for, though what exactly depends on which end of the ideological spectrum one views him from. Can he possibly be responsible for both Islamic terrorists and American crusaders? The revisionist accounts of Münzenberg’s life and times offer a useful corrective to the over-rosy memories of his former allies, but they are still not very convincing. They are too cut-and-dried, too psychologically flat to do justice to their subject; but the very diversity of opinion about the meaning of Münzenberg’s career suggests that we have not heard the last of this complex and fascinating figure.

This Issue

November 3, 2005