By: Stephen Schwartz
New York Sun | Wednesday, February 11, 2004
The Red Millionaire: A Political Biography of Willi Munzenberg: Moscow’s Secret Propaganda Tsar in the West
by Sean McMeekin, New Haven, Yale University Press, 398 pages, $32.50.
The term “fellow traveler” has fallen out of the Anglo-American idiom, which is unfortunate. Once commonly used to denote “liberals” and “dilettantes” — or as we would say today, “progressives” — who followed the Stalinist line without openly declaring themselves communists or even socialists, the term could be applied handily now to Arab, Muslim, and Western apologists for terror.
Willi Münzenberg is known to historians of communism as the inventor of the “fellow traveler.” He himself was something quite a bit more serious: an authentic Bolshevik revolutionary. He was actually the only member of the circle around Lenin in Zurich who did not go to Russia in 1917 with the founder of the Soviet state. Instead, as Lenin’s effective legate in Western Europe, Münzenberg constructed an extraordinary façade of press enterprises, shell companies, charities, and star personalities to advance Moscow’s agenda. The main such body was the International Workers’ Relief, known by its German initials IAH.
Münzenberg’s reputation as the “red millionaire” was based on the vast expenditures his propaganda drew on, from official Soviet coffers and Western donations. Although most of it was ephemeral, his print media alone — leaving aside the soup kitchens, drama groups, movie distribution, photography clubs, sports events, and other items in a seemingly limitless cavalcade — gave the impression that communism was an unstoppable colossus leading humanity forward.
Münzenberg’s operations reflected the turbulent creativity of the 1920s and 1930s and ranged from productions still attractive in their boldness to the sleaziest sort of political puppeteering. As an example of the first, he created a weekly newspaper, the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, or Workers’ Illustrated News, that produced pioneering photojournalism. During the Nazi period, when AIZ, as it was known, went into exile in Prague and Paris, it featured the notable satirical collages of John Heartfield, which portrayed Hitler in various ridiculous postures.
The underside of the Münzenberg effort is epitomized by his agents’ transformation of the American campaign to defend Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists on trial in Massachusetts. The Sacco-Vanzetti effort began as a noble commitment by anarchists, liberals, and labor leaders to assure justice, and was turned into yet another funding machine for the Communist network.
Münzenberg’s extraordinary life has been described in earlier books, most notably Stephen Koch’s “Double Lives” (1994). But Sean McMeekin, a professor at Bilkent University in Turkey, has produced a narrative that should endure as the definitive account. His style is more literary than academic, a plus when dealing with so flamboyant and bizarre a protagonist.
Mr. McMeekin also has several advantages over other Münzenberg biographers, having been able to consult the recently opened Soviet archives on the activities of the IAH and other front groups. He also brings a healthy dose of skepticism to the case, in particular regarding claims made about Münzenberg by his widow, Babette Gross. She lived to an impressive old age, but was a bit too enraptured with the legend of total Soviet manipulation and came to see it even where it did not exist. For even without exaggeration, the details assembled by Mr. McMeekin are so amazing and extensive that a reviewer is seriously challenged in finding a place to start unraveling Münzenberg’s dizzying life, which ended with expulsion from the Communist ranks in 1939 and a mysterious death the following year.
Willi Münzenberg was born in the German town of Erfurt in 1889, the same year as Hitler. As in the case of the Nazi dictator, there was illegitimacy in the family history; Karl Münzenberg, his father, was the bastard offspring of an aristocrat. (It is perhaps worthy of note that although the Nazis labeled Münzenberg a Jew, his bloodline was strictly gentile.) Karl Münzenberg was a Prussian army veteran who, after his discharge, meandered through various professions, but who was a heavy drinker and a hunter and gun enthusiast above all. He ended up accidentally killing himself while cleaning one of his beloved firearms.
Münzenberg left school at 15 and was apprenticed to a barber. He gravitated to work in a shoe factory. Under the shelter of the factory roof, the socialist movement beckoned to the young workers. Münzenberg found an arena for his talents as a speaker and organizer and became active in the German Social Democratic party’s youth wing. In 1910 he went to Zurich, where he found a job in a pharmacy — although he knew nothing of that profession — and began his rise in international socialist politics.
The beginning of World War I provoked a crisis within socialist ranks. Millions of German and French leftists, along with their British and Austrian comrades, abandoned their past pledges of solidarity against war and rallied at their country’s call. Neutral Switzerland became the European haven for stalwart antiwar radicals, and it was here that Münzenberg encountered Lenin.
The real lesson of Münzenberg’s life, in my view, is that a link between the extreme radicalism of the Bolsheviks themselves and the soft ideology of the “fellow travelers” always existed. Too many ex-Leninists, among whom I should include myself, have chosen to view the original Bolsheviks as steely insurrectionaries exclusively concerned to organize factory workers and have viewed the drift of communism away from the realm of union organizers to the homes of screenwriters and academics as a symptom of Stalinist degeneration.
But the gap between Big Bill Haywood, organizer of Rocky Mountain miners and founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, and Alger Hiss, a favored member of the Washington elite, was in the end very small. Münzenberg and his endless array of pro-Soviet activist groups brought the two together from the beginning. Indeed, Mr. McMeekin shows that, quite amazingly, although Münzenberg and his IAH were mainly rooted in the German communist milieu, which was nothing if not aggressive about its proletarianism, they had much greater success in the United States, where the communists remained an isolated minority.
Mr. McMeekin has also uncovered an extraordinary chapter in the history of American communism. Harold Ware, son of an old American communist wheelhorse, “Mother” Ella Reeve Bloor, benefited in the early 1920s from the patronage of Münzenberg’s network. With his wife, Jessica Smith, he set out to establish a “model” collective farm, using American tractors, in the Ural mountains.
As the Soviet archives reveal, the experiment was a dystopian nightmare. Ware and Smith lured a group of unenthusiastic peasants into their grasp and proceeded to abuse them in a brutal fashion. A dozen years later, Ware appeared in Washington as an official of the New Deal’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration. In the AAA, Ware recruited a group of talented young men, including Alger Hiss. They were transformed into spies.
The rest is history of a better-known kind, while Münzenberg remains, as he was in life, a man hidden in the shadows.
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