THE RED MILLIONAIRE: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY OF WILLI MUENZENBERG, MOSCOW’S SECRET PROPAGANDA TSAR IN THE WEST, 1917-1940
By Sean McMeekin
Yale University Press, $32.50, 416 pages
REVIEWED BY ARNOLD BEICHMAN
The year 1940 was a great year for Joseph Stalin. He rid himself of three arch-enemies living outside the Soviet Union: Walter Krivitsky, a defector from the Soviet secret police, in Washington, D.C.; Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s ideological arch-rival, in Mexico; and Willi Muenzenberg, his onetime propaganda genius, in France.
We know something about Krivitsky because of his memoir “In Stalin’s Secret Service” and the recently published “A Death in Washington: Walter G. Krivitsky and the Stalin Terror.” And we know a great deal about Trotsky because of his activities in exile and his writings. Muenzenberg never got a chance to write his own memoir after he broke with Stalin. His decomposed body was found in October 1940 by two hunters in a forest near Grenoble. His death, probably four or five months earlier, remains a mystery to this day.
Until now, therefore, we knew little about Muenzenberg, except for some memories of him by Arthur Koestler, who in his Communist phase worked for him. Muenzenberg’s widow wrote a somewhat uninformative biography about his years as the Comintern’s extraordinarily successful propaganda master.
With Sean McMeekin’s well-written, extremely well-researched and heavily footnoted volume, an important chapter in Soviet history has been illuminated. Ordinarily books like Mr. McMeekin’s are reserved for professional historians. “The Red Millionaire” is one book that would be of interest to any reader seeking to understand the tragedy that befell us in September 1939.
What the author has demonstrated, play by play, is how the German Communist Party (KPD), under Comintern orders, barred any coordinated resistance with the Socialist Party and thus helped — yes, helped — Adolf Hitler’s rise to power under the KPD’s arrogant slogan: “Nach Hitler, kommen wir.” After Hitler, we’ll take over. So they thought.
Even though Muenzenberg, born in 1889, was an intimate member of V.I. Lenin’s inner circle back in the pre-revolutionary Zurich days, this did him little good when Stalin turned against him in 1937. On seizing power, Lenin, who long before Josef Goebbels knew the power of the Big Lie, told Muenzenberg, a German Communist, “I want you to spend millions, many millions” to propagandize the West, particularly Europe.
Muenzenberg found intellectuals more than willing to help him send the message about their new neighbor, the would-be socialist Utopia. Intellectuals, particularly in France, had become a force in the battle to free Capt. Alfred Dreyfus but they really came into their own, thanks to Muenzenberg, in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Muenzenberg fostered the rise of a new class of Western intellectuals: fellow-travelers, useful idiots, sympathizers, the moral equivalence brigade, right up to those who thought it their duty to lie on behalf of the Revolution, who knew when it was time to close their eyes, and some who even thought it was right to betray their native lands to Stalin.
What Muenzenberg achieved in Western Europe (and his achievement spread to North America as well) by a program of disinformation was the elevation of the Soviet Union as a symbol of moral righteousness, and therefore a country beyond criticism, whose manifestly criminal leadership ought to be “understood” since the crimes were dedicated to creating a better world. He helped make falsification and murder morally acceptable to leading intellectuals and other opinion-makers since such behavior was being done on behalf of the working class, the proletariat, the Soviet Union, the Revolution.
This justification was well expressed in Albert Camus’ play, “Les Justes,” in which a Russian terrorist in 1905, plotting an archduke’s assassination, justifies his act with these words: “… We are killing to build a world in which no one will ever kill. We accept criminality for ourselves in order that the earth may at last be full of innocent people.”
Muenzenberg was a dominating figure on the German political scene (he was a Communist member of the Reichstag) headquartered in Berlin until 1933 when the Nazis took over and he fled to Paris. But during the Weimar days, this man with no more than a grade-school education controlled Communist front organizations, charities, publishers, newspapers, magazines, theaters, movie theaters and film studios.
Famous intellectuals in the interwar years — Upton Sinclair, Albert Einstein, Henri Barbusse, Bertholt Brecht, John Dos Passos — “came under his ever-expanding organizational spell,” writes Mr. McMeekin. He had a magazine for women and one for teenagers, neither of which had any significant paid circulation or profitable ads, any more than did his “Book-of-the-Month Club.” He ran phantom committees which spent Comintern money. He even planned an “Arab Freedom Congress” (to be held in Mecca no less) in 1928 but he ran out of Moscow gold.
As a financial operator, he was a disaster. Everything he touched, says the author, “hemorrhaged red ink.” Attempts to audit his accounts came to naught because of his “financial legerdemain.” In other words, no one could figure out where the money was going. Who cared? Profits were for capitalists. Obviously in another incarnation he would have been a great Enron executive.
All this money manipulation didn’t bother the Comintern, which supplied the bailout funds. Muenzenberg was showing results. For example, he started a hue and cry in the 1920s that the Soviet Union was in danger of “imperialist attack,” which he then turned into an international slogan — “Hands off the Socialist Fatherland” — for Communist Party mass meetings everywhere. No proof was offered that such an attack was either planned or imminent. The mere accusation against capitalist militarism became evidence of a preemptive attack in the offing.
Muenzenberg linked the fear of fascism with admiration of the USSR as the anti-fascist bulwark even as the Comintern was doing everything in its power — even supporting a Nazi subway strike — to prevent a united front with the powerful German Socialist Party. Stalin had ordered as part of his “class against class” party line that the real enemy was not fascism but the democratic Socialists who were to be called “social fascists.”
There used to be a sardonic cliche among Communists which went like this: “Nothing is too good for the working class …” and then, with a cynical ha-ha, “… and for the leaders of the working class.” So Muenzenberg in his heyday had a chauffeured limousine, a personal barber, tailored suits, a resplendent Berlin apartment and bottomless expense accounts. Since he was a Reichstag deputy he was exempt from taxation and, therefore, there was no public record of his investments, which included I.G. Farben, according to Mr. McMeekin.
Nothing much has changed in the intervening years. Several years ago, when Russia opened its archives, there popped up a signed receipt by Gus Hall, Communist Party USA (CPUSA) secretary, as having received $2 million from the Comintern. At the same time it was reported by dissident Communists headed by Angela Davis that Hall, who died three years ago, owned a big mansion in an affluent section of a New York suburb, with a sauna, expensive and original art and an underground garage. He always flew first-class and registered at luxury hotels. He had a chauffeur-driven limousine and an estate and powerboat out on Long Island in chic Hampton Bays.
When I put down this book and began to look at my notes, it occurred to me that the Soviet Union was really the biggest scam in world history. It was a scam which, unfortunately, was armed with nuclear bombs and missiles, but still a scam, a sanguinary scam in which a con man named Muenzenberg, grounded in dialectical materialism and other Marxist-Leninist goodies, conned the Comintern scammers.
Actually Muenzenberg was more than just a scam artist. He finally faced up to the obvious, which he had refused to see for some two decades. He broke with Stalin over the Nazi-Soviet pact in August 1939 and would have continued as an anti-Communist, just as his onetime colleague Arthur Koestler did. But for Stalin, who could reach out to enemies in the Hotel Bellevue in Washington, D.C. (where Krivitsky died) and in the Mexican suburb of Coyoacan (where Trotsky was killed), it was no problem to find Muenzenberg in occupied France at a time when Stalin and Hitler were allies.
Mr. McMeekin’s book is an important history of how intellectuals who were willingly harnessed to a propaganda genius contributed to the rise of two totalitarian states and the bloody aftermath.
Arnold Beichman, a Hoover Institution research fellow, is a columnist for The Washington Times.