A positive propagandist
Amid current fears of a fascist revival, Nicolas Jacobs is spellbound by a biography of one of its arch opponents in the 1920s and 30s
12 March, 2020 — By Nicolas Jacobs
Willi Münzenberg in 1929
WILLI Münzenberg was born in Erfurt, Germany, in 1889 and was found dead in the southern French countryside in June 1940, after Stalin had appointed Vyacheslav Molotov as his foreign secretary in May 1939 instead of the Jewish Maxim Litvinov, a preliminary to the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939.
Münzenberg had been both the architect and largely the builder of the Popular Front, the movement to maximize support of the Soviet Union (“Land of the Future”) among all classes, especially influential European and American intellectuals like HG Wells, John Strachey, André Gide, Romain Rolland, Sherwood Anderson and Lincoln Steffens (who famously said of Soviet Russia: “I’ve seen the future and it works”).
As the most powerful and brilliant propaganda chief, rivalling his counterpart Joseph Goebbels, Münzenberg’s existence after the Hitler-Stalin Pact, estranged as he then was from the Soviets, would have been an intolerable threat to the Kremlin’s new policy – which is why it is generally accepted, though it has never been proved, that Münzenberg was Stalin’s victim, by far not the only German Communist to be killed on the orders of the paranoid general secretary (many such German exiles in Soviet Russia already been shot, sent to the Gulag, or returned as gifts to Nazi Germany).
However, it was not as a German that Münzenberg was executed. He was a major figure in the Russian Revolution and stands alongside Bucharin, Zinoviev and his friend Radek, outstanding leaders already executed by Stalin in the late 30s.
Münzenberg’s parents ran a bakery in a village near the town of Erfurt. Willi educated himself through the extensive educational facilities of the German Social Democratic Party. In Switzerland during the First World War, he came under the powerful influence of Lenin and became editor of the journal of the Youth International. In 1917 he spent six months in prison in Zürich and joined the Communist Spartakus Group as soon as he returned to Germany.
In 1920 he first went to Moscow as general secretary of the Youth International, where the following year he was removed and encouraged by Lenin to organise International Workers’ Aid, also known as Workers’ International Relief, to relieve the dire effects of the Russian Famine of those years.
From 1924 he was simultaneously a Communist deputy in the German parliament, and from 1927 in the party’s central committee, and at the same time working for the Communist International, founding the film company which brought famous Soviet films such as Storm over Asia and Battleship Potemkin to the West, and numerous journals and publishing houses, including a workers’ illustrated newspaper which would one day influence our own Picture Post (the Germans being the pioneers of combining print and photography).
In 1927 Münzenberg organised the first international congress against colonialism and imperialism, which followed the founding of the League Against Imperialism the year before. This brought Münzenberg into contact with leading British radicals like Fenner Brockway and George Lansbury, Ellen Wilkinson and Harry Pollitt. He was already in touch with the major French writers Romain Rolland and Henri Barbusse, and Upton Sinclair from the USA. Albert Einstein was another supporter.
In 1933 Münzenberg emigrated to Paris where after the Reichstag Fire in February, he began to organise the Reichstag Fire Inquiry. This took place in London under the aegis of the distinguished lawyer DN Pritt and almost certainly contributed to the not-guilty verdict at the Berlin trial, and the freeing of the accused Bulgarian Communists.
The rest of Münzenberg’s life contains a series of inventive initiatives involving the Popular Front’s belated struggle against Hitler.
For too long the German Communists had slandered the Social Democrats as “social fascists”, and refused to work together. Münzenberg had always opposed such a policy and in 1938 was expelled from the party’s central committee and from the party in 1939.
In May 1940 he was fleeing the German occupation of France, on his way to Marseille or to Switzerland. He had been interned near Lyon, managed to escape with a few others, and was never seen alive again.
His body was found months later beneath an oak tree deep in the country.
This is a fascinating, clearly written and spell-binding biography (with excellent illustrations) which does justice to a truly remarkable and inspiring man.
• Willi Münzenberg – Fighter against Fascism and Stalinism. By John Green, Routledge, £34.99