A grisly discovery

On October 22, 1940, not far from a tiny French hamlet near Grenoble called Montagne, two hunters out with their dogs stumbled across something gruesome hidden in a small stand of woods. At the foot of a fine old oak sat, upright, the decomposing body of a man. The man had been dead for a long time, and he appeared to have been hanged.

What the hunters found that day would become more than a legend of their town; it would take its place among the enduring mysteries of modern politics. For this was the body of a man named Willi Münzenberg, and Willi Münzenberg had lived and died as one of the unseen powers of twentieth-century Europe. When the hunters found it, his corpse was almost entirely covered with fallen leaves. Only the vile face and the popped stare of strangulation were visible—that and the noose. The reek was awful; the body had plainly been there for months. The knotted cord around its neck seemed to have snapped, probably quite soon after he had been hanged, and when it broke, the body had apparently dropped to the base of the tree. There it had stayed, knees up, all through that summer of the French defeat, sitting oddly undetected until October began to cover it with the drift of autumn and the hunters’ dogs, yelping and whining, discovered the thing.

The French villagers knew nothing about Willi Münzenberg. Münzenberg was and is not a famous name, though this man’s power had given him a potent grip on the workings of fame. Since his radical youth in 1917, Willi Münzenberg had been a largely covert but major actor in the politics of the twentieth century. As a founding organizer of the Communist International and a leader in the structure of Marxist–Leninist power outside Russia, Münzenberg had played an especially influential part in the conspiracies, the maneuvers, the propaganda, the secret policies and actions that had led to this very spot: here to the fall of France; here to Hitler’s war on the West; here to these woods, and this death.

October 1940 came in the bitter first autumn following the French debacle at the hands of the Nazi Wehrmacht. France was huddled in the morose stillness of defeat. The nation’s downfall seemed complete; for the moment, the war had finished its vicious business in France and moved on.

For the dictators, all was going well. Stalin had consolidated his alliance with Hitler. The secret services of the two totalitarians were now working in a sinister collaboration that was defined by their gangster enmity, bound tight in a brotherhood of loathing. Poland had been successfully partitioned between the two; Finland was in Stalin’s hands. The Nazis were driving west, and the war with its horror was focused on England.

For this was also the autumn of the Battle of Britain. All through the months since France had fallen, the Luftwaffe had been carpet-bombing the cities of England. Every night the London sky was lit with tracers and fire; the air was filled with the shattering scream of bombs and the pounding of anti-aircraft defense. The prospect of an English defeat was imminent and real.

But in that French valley of the Isère River, the only gunfire being heard was the occasional muted crack of a hunter’s shotgun kicking its echo across the lovely wooded countryside. And through that countryside the two men from Montagne now rushed back into town, along with their dogs, to alert the gendarmerie to what they had found.

Almost certainly, Willi Münzenberg had died in those woods five months before, on June 21, 1940. Whether he died by suicide or murder is not clear. June 21, 1940, however, was the day that the French government fell to the Nazis, and much rests on this exact coincidence of one man’s death with a nation’s fall. In those days of the French collapse, the countryside around Montagne had been filled with exiles and refugees streaming southward. Everyone was in flight. Yet Willi Münzenberg’s flight differed from most. For one thing, it was being tracked by the secret services of at least three nations. It seems that even in those worst of times, certain important players were exceptionally interested in whether this one man, running, left France alive.

Who was Willi Münzenberg?

Why, in a collapsing world, would several governments have been so interested in this middle-aged man from Germany? Who was Willi Münzenberg?

He was a major German Communist, but he was more. Since around 1921, Lenin had empowered Münzenberg in a series of tasks, some very public, some very secret, that left this dynamic man the de facto director of the Soviet Union’s covertly directed propaganda operations in the West.

The field of covertly directed propaganda operations is an area in the world of secret services which until now has rarely been mapped. As a result, the role of such operations in both the cultural politics of this century and its power politics has rarely been understood. Yet if one follows Münzenberg from Lenin’s side to the forest where he died, his path serves as an Ariadne’s thread through much in twentieth-century politics. The byways of his career link the most secret operations of revolutionary politics to central cultural events of the century. Through Münzenberg, the Kremlin is tied to Bloomsbury; the effects of his operations move from the Elysée to Hollywood and back to the Left Bank, from the life of Ernest Hemingway in Spain to André Gide speaking at the state funeral of Maxim Gorky. It is a thread that snakes through many mysteries, and across many encounters with betrayal, terror, and murder, not least of which is the possible murder of Münzenberg himself. It leads to the Second World War. It leads to the founding events of the Cold War.

Münzenberg was a companion of Lenin’s during their pre-revolutionary days in Switzerland, and he was an important personality in the original Bolshevik circle. In 1915, Lenin was cooling his heels in Bern, fretful and furious as he waited for War to become Revolution. Münzenberg was then a young German radical, unaffiliated except through his talents and his rage. In 1914 he had met Leon Trotsky, and Trotsky, taking his measure, decided to bring him to Lenin himself.

What Trotsky had spotted in the cocky twenty-six-year-old German hothead was a talent for secret work. Münzenberg was presented to the future dictator as a wunderkind, a kid with a knack, like a computer whiz of a later age. Beginning in his teens, Willi had been promiscuously supplying all kinds of revolutionary groups with free-lance clandestine networks: undercover systems for transmitting information, laundering money, forging passports, and beaming people across heavily guarded borders as if by magic. It seemed the boy could spin a network out of nothing. When Lenin met him, Willi’s information was already speeding around Europe totally undetected: Conspiracies traveled in jam jars and cigar boxes; forged papers arrived in food parcels; plans for covert action stayed concealed, but moved. Münzenberg even had managed, quite on his own, to place an operative inside the Vatican. Trotsky understood that here was a young radical Lenin could use.

Lenin was duly impressed and introduced his discovery to Karl Radek, whereupon Münzenberg and Radek became a kind of team. Karl Radek was an exceptionally talkative and calculating Polish radical and literary intellectual. He was destined to become the Revolution’s rationalizer. He was brilliant and glib, the cynically amused protégé of another Pole, Count Felix Dzerzhinsky, that man without humor whom infamy will forever remember as the inventor of the police state.

Among Lenin’s men, the bond that held Dzerzhinsky, Radek, and Stalin together is an affiliation of the very greatest interest. Taken in their ensemble, they represent three of the essential strands that bind the knot of the terror state. Dzerzhinsky was the true believer, the sanctified fanatic of absolute state power. Stalin on the other hand was its ultimate politician, its grand tactician and bureaucrat. Radek was the new state’s propagandist and apologist, the creator of its intellectual rationale, the man who fabricated its “human face,” and much of its lie.

Dzerzhinsky was the founder of the Cheka, later to be renamed the OGPU, then the NKVD, then the KGB, the man who made the secret police the prime instrument of revolutionary justice. It is therefore especially fitting that in the great days of August 1991, the liberation from Marxism–Leninism in Russia should have been celebrated by the crowd tearing down the monumental statue of this monster of sanctimony where it stood in front of KGB headquarters.

Count Felix was the great ideologist of hatred and as such he is easy to hate. The difficult thing, and the more troubling thing, is to imagine how he was able to marshal so very much commitment and love. For Dzerzhinsky was far from being a mere brute; he was not an empty monster. He was a man whose passion, self-sacrifice, and faith won to the Revolution the allegiance of people driven by what were surely among the highest moral aspirations of their time. For the young Whittaker Chambers, as for the young Isaac Babel, Felix Dzerzhinsky was a visionary, a being who was bringing real justice to the real world, empowering life’s highest ideals. In the glory days of the Revolution, when Dzerzhinsky and Lenin were laying the foundations of the totalitarian police state, life in the Cheka seemed invested with the prestige of a righteous elect, both at home and abroad. Abroad, what was “secret work” but the business of the ultimate liberation of humanity? And at home, who were agents of the Cheka but the Revolution’s avenging angels? Indeed, in the days of its innocence, before it became so very obviously the province of murderers and thugs, the revolutionary secret police looked like the natural habitat of the new clerisy, a puritan high-priesthood, devout in its atheism. Here were the avengers of all the ancient evils; here were the enforcers of new heaven, new earth. No leader of the Revolution, not even Lenin himself, was more perfumed with the odor of sanctity than this sardonic and self-exalted Polish aristocrat, a Savonarola who reached his apotheosis in that totalitarian power of which he was a prime inventor. Ascetic, ravaged by revolution, bleak in his unforgiving certainties, radiant with hatred, Dzerzhinsky was Saint Terror.

Dzerzhinsky’s protégé Radek, on the other hand, was the jeering cynic of the Revolution’s rationale. Just as Dzerzhinsky thought that any death was justified if it served the Revolution, so Radek thought that any lie was vindicated in the glow of its truth. The union between them is only apparently improbable. Dzerzhinsky’s sanctity and Radek’s cynicism combined in a fusion of belief and disbelief, faith and scorn, bound together from their earliest days in Warsaw. It is one of the exemplary moral alliances of our era. Meanwhile, outside Russia, in the West, the jovial dynamo who organized that alliance and made it into a new system of power, lying for the truth, was Willi Münzenberg.

Lenin's propagandist

Münzenberg was unusual within the senior ranks of German Communism in having actually sprung from the working class. Very few of the true leading lights of German Communism were the tough proletarians of the Berlin slums who made up the party’s mass base. Most of the real leaders were intellectuals, daughters and sons of the upper-middle class. But Willi was the real thing: the son of an alcoholic tavern-keeper in Thuringia, who while the boy was still young had killed himself one day cleaning his gun while drunk. In his teens, Willi survived as a barber’s apprentice. It is possible that the genuine deprivations of his youth partly explain why Willi, unlike his more privileged peers, never affected the look of poverty once real power came his way. On the contrary: He swept up and down the Kurfürstendamm in an a enormous chauffeur-driven Lincoln limousine; he moved through the halls of power protected by a bodyguard. Like a captain of industry or a Chicago gangster, he was shaved and manicured every day by his own barber. He lived in an upper-class neighborhood of Berlin. His apartment was filled with Biedermeier; his entire manner of life was undimmed by the usual dour Communist style.

Yet despite his elegant surroundings, he was a real Communist, and a tough one at that. Willi’s youthful photographs show a hard but well-dressed young German with a tight compact body about to spring, light on his feet, solid with energy. His head is large for his small body, and squarish; his forehead is high and impressive, crested with short tousled hair. His eyes, though warm, are shrewd. They assess the camera with a sly lethal glint. The line of his mouth could easily turn cruel; his smile seems granted only very conditionally. There is more than a little of the German tough guy about him. Safely behind closed doors, he moved with all the abrupt habits of command, rapping out his orders like a drill sergeant, foul-mouthed and ungrateful, striking the table with stubby strong workman’s hands. Commanding, he was obeyed. He was simultaneously a born executive and a born agitator, and he remained both even after Lenin had made him the “red tycoon,” wearing tailored suits and riding in that limousine. Arthur Koestler, who knew him well, called him “a fiery, demagogical, and irresistible public speaker.” His voice rang to the rafters of the meeting halls of the Weimar Republic. He brought crowds shouting to their feet. He had the incendiary gift. Koestler reports that “he gave the impression that bumping against him would be like colliding with a steam roller. … Willi sauntered into a room with the casualness of a tank bursting through a wall… . His person emanated such authority that I have seen socialist cabinet members, hard-boiled bankers, and Austrian Dukes behave like schoolboys in his presence.”

Münzenberg was “married,” although in the Bohemian style of radicals between the wars, there never had been a wedding ceremony. His wife was a beautiful woman named Babette Gross, fine-boned, very tall, willowy. She was an intensely intelligent aristocratic Prussian; her father had been a rich brewer in Potsdam. She was highly educated; easily and fluently multilingual, as was her sister, Margarete Buber-Neumann, who, after a first marriage to a son of the philosopher Martin Buber, was married a second time to a prominent German Communist: Heinz Neumann, a revolutionary intellectual in the upper reaches of the German party.

Though a fierce radical and committed Communist, Babette was very much an upper-class girl. In youth as in age, the habits of her class must have merged with her politics and her style. To Willi, she must have looked not only beautiful but like the key to a world. Even when I knew Babette Gross, in her great age, the marks of that Prussian father were still stamped on her. She assumed authority in a way that was surely parallel to the way Willi had seized it. They were a pair as man and woman; they must also have been a pair in their feeling for power.

In fact, much in German Communism during its grand epoch between the two wars can be traced to a few intensely intellectual, often academic, families of the upper-middle class, people who belonged more to the world of Thomas Mann and his famous brood than Brecht’s back streets. One thinks not only of Babette and her distinguished sister, but of two brilliant academic clans, the Eislers and the Kuczynskis, both family friends of the Manns, both filled with radical intellectuals who became spies, agents of influence, and covert operators in both the Second World War and the Cold War: Hanns and Gerhart Eisler, and their sister Ruth Fischer; Jürgen and Ruth Kuczynski, guided by their father, Robert René Kuczynski. Robert René was closely associated with Willi all through the Weimar years and remained a virtual “Münzenberg man” even after Hitler scattered the German left, and Robert René became an influential refugee teaching at the London School of Economics, serving the Revolution covered by the duplicities of Münzenberg’s more-or-less legal wing. Kuczynski’s children Jürgen and Ruth walked deeper into the shadow zone around Willi; both took the step into true espionage. During the war Jürgen served as a penetration agent inside the OSS, betraying the Americans. Ruth was trained as a spy in Russia, at a school for covert action founded hand in glove with Willi by the Comintern secret service. She worked in espionage first in China, under cover of Willi’s illegal operations there, and later, during the war, in England. She became famous under her code name “Sonia,” spying against the British, hovering around Bletchley Park. Here were people who instinctively understood the war of ideas in that adversary culture to which Münzenberg came as a stranger, but which he learned to manage and master as few people ever have.

When I met her in 1989, Babette Gross was ninety-one years old and still willowy. Like her sister, she had long since become a lucid and committed anti-Communist. As with her sister, her intelligence was still held in the grip of the tremendous events she had lived through. That July, after long consideration, Gross decided to grant me a full week of interviews in her small apartment on the Einsteinstrasse of Munich. I would arrive every day with my tape-recorder, and she would guide me through the history of the century as seen from the perspective of her place beside Münzenberg. It was strange to hear her speak of Lenin as a living man: “Münzenberg was always very impressed with Lenin’s political skill. You know, Lenin never forgot a name.” Of Trotsky, whom I gather she’d known in Mexico: “He always behaved exactly like a classical French man-of-letters.” Though always very direct and plain, she would sometimes brush near the grand manner: for example, she twice spoke of “my sister, Buber-Neumann.”

She spoke relaxed, idiomatic, excellent English, remarkable in a woman who (at least so far as I can determine) had never lived in an English-speaking country. She was utterly alert, and her self-possession was at once aristocratic and easy. In her many hours of talk with me, her conversation was always exact and searching; her style of political analysis, whether about events unfolding that July in Germany or conspiracies half a century old, was relentless and incisive. No detail escaped her interest. She tolerated no nonsense, and no deviation from the exact truth as she saw it. Listening to Gross talk about current European politics reminded me that this woman had shared a life with a man whose own political briefings, after he broke with Stalin in 1937, used to be held in a private dining room in Paris while senior agents of the intelligence services of several countries gathered round to listen like so many sophomores.

When I knew her in July of 1989, Babette did not have long to live. In the fall and winter of 1989, she was watching the collapse of German Communism as it accelerated and burst past every effort to hold it back. In her phone calls with me during this period, she retained her customary comprehensive attention to the inner workings of the scene. Her entire life had been lived either with or against the events now coming to their tremendous conclusion; she had lived at or near the center of the greatest political drama of her century. Now that drama was moving toward its end. As was her life. She became ill, and ill she went to Berlin for treatment. And so she was in the city of her youth as everything came full circle. Babette Gross was in Berlin as the Wall came down, and having seen the last fall, there she died in January 1990.

Karl Radek seems to have been Münzenberg’s patron in Lenin’s inner circle and was the means of his rise, though at the ripe age of thirty Radek wasn’t all that much Münzenberg’s senior. Before the Revolution, Radek’s position among Lenin’s men was rather like that of a press agent. The Bolsheviks were newspaper addicts, every one of them. It was one of their most characteristic obsessions. The sealed train that carried Lenin to the Finland Station was stacked to the ceiling with every paper in every language. The revolutionary passengers behind the drawn curtains of the cars passed the rocking hours reading every report. Radek’s skill at this stage consisted of inventing the right news angle; planting the right story at the right time; heading off this or that opponent with this or that burst of bad publicity. Chewing on his pipe-stem, sneering at the journalists he conned and flattered, the youth was already an adept in the uses of information and disinformation. Radek and Münzenberg together escorted Lenin to the crowded platform in Zurich and the train into which the Bolsheviks were sealed (“like a bacillus in a tube,” Churchill said) for their trip north through Germany, en route to their revolution. Radek was placed in the compartment beside the future dictator, while Münzenberg stayed behind, apparently because of a problem over his German nationality. Just before the train pulled out, it was to Münzenberg that either Radek or Lenin himself turned and shrugged off the famous line: “Six months from now we either will be in power or hanging from the gallows.” So it was. After Lenin captured the Revolution, he was able to make his protégés two of the most powerful people in the world.

Münzenberg found himself in power. He was a man of action who was deprived of life when deprived of the resources of command. Unlike his allies Radek, Bukharin, and of course Lenin himself, he was in no way an intellectual. He had none of an intellectual’s feeling for how to mine isolation, how to make even powerlessness a kind of opportunity. He was also a provincial. Though he orchestrated the voice of the International, he never spoke anything but his native German, and it was rather rough German at that, thick with a country accent. He had no particular literary skills. Hundreds of books were written to order for him, some memorable, and some even of lasting importance. He himself could barely bang together a more or less four-square paragraph. Virtually everything published under his own name was ghost-written.

The type of personality required to organize life in the shadowland of secret services is less that of the buccaneer than the executive. So it was with William Donovan of the OSS; so it was with Sir William Stephenson, Churchill’s “Intrepid.” So it was with Münzenberg. The Central Party Archives show that Willi’s front organizations and networks of fellow travelers and propagandists were thoroughly intertwined with the secret services of the Comintern, and with the Soviets’ other covert agencies as well. But Willi was not the man in the trenchcoat; that he left to others, people who reported to him, or to his men. Still less was he some shuffling bureaucrat from le Carré. He thought like a tycoon. Had he not been a revolutionary, he would have made a brilliant self-made millionaire. His saluting staff, his Biedermeier, his hovering barber and his limousine, all make one think less of le Carré’s Karla than of Henry Luce.

Both before Hilter and after, Münzenberg’s true role in the world was a closely guarded secret, though in keeping with his particular talent, it was concealed in conspicuousness. His talent was for propaganda, albeit of a special kind. For Willi Münzenberg was the first grand master of two quite new kinds of secret-service work, essential to this century, and to the Soviets: the covertly controlled propaganda front, and the secretly manipulated fellow traveler. His goal was to create for the right-thinking non-Communist West the dominating political prejudice of the era: the belief that any opinion that happened to serve the foreign policy of the Soviet Union was derived from the most essential elements of human decency. He wanted to instill the feeling, like a truth of nature, that seriously to criticize or challenge Soviet policy was the unfailing mark of a bad, bigoted, and probably stupid person, while support was equally infallible proof of a forward-looking mind committed to all that was best for humanity and marked by an uplifting refinement of sensibility.

To create his networks of fronts and fellow travelers Münzenberg used every resource of propaganda, from highbrow cultural opinion to funny hats and balloons. He organized the media: newspapers, film, radio, books, magazines, the theater. Every kind of “opinion maker” was involved: writers, artists, actors, commentators, priests, ministers, professors, “business leaders,” scientists, psychologists, anyone at all whose opinion the public was likely to respect.

Münzenberg’s own public life was very visible. Before his flight from Germany after the Reichstag Fire in 1933, he was a German publisher, and in fact a big-time publisher, controlling an impressive network of left-wing publications. He was also a politician. As a Leninist he naturally despised representative democracy and intended to destroy it. But he found it useful to serve in the Reichstag, holding down an exceptionally safe seat provided by the party. The gloomy Sessions Chamber of the Reichstag, the hall where German democracy gathered, was a stuffy place, lined with dry wood paneling and hung with musty brocaded curtains. On February 27, 1933, that wood and brocade would kindle into a bonfire momentous enough to grant Hitler totalitarian power and give shape to the ideological clash that led to the Second World War. But until then, the Reichstag regularly rang with the voice of Münzenberg’s radical anger. He flourished there, striding past his rival and secret admirer Goebbels, whitened by glaring flashbulbs, ready to tangle yet again in the checkmated politics of a Weimar Republic that it seemed nobody important had the smallest wish to save. Certainly not Goebbels. And certainly not Münzenberg.

Lastly, Münzenberg was nominally in charge of a Communist relief organization known as Workers International Relief, or the WIR. To invoke only a few of the organizations that were its clones, it was also known by its Russian acronym, MRP, which was in turn affiliated with an organization known as MOPR, or as the Red Aid, known in America as the International Labor Defense, or ILD. WIR was not taken very seriously by the grandees of power in Europe. It appeared to be a merely idealistic, or at least unexceptionable, institution, a sort of Red Cross for the Revolution, sponsoring good deeds for the hard left: cultural events to awaken the world’s conscience; fundraisers for the persecuted; mobile soup kitchens for strikers in bleak factory yards.

Soup kitchens were the least of it.

Willi Münzenberg’s true, and secret, job in the political world, the job insiders did take seriously, was to manage the unseen ties between this propaganda and great power.

His heyday lasted for a little less than fifteen years, from the Sacco–Vanzetti case in America to the Spanish Civil War. During that time, he was amazingly successful at mobilizing the intelligentsia of the West on behalf of a moralistic set of political attitudes responsive to Soviet needs. In the process, he organized and defined the “enlightened” moral agenda of his era. In a sense, Münzenberg’s apparatus was as instrumental as any other single factor in giving direction to the political attitudes we now call The Thirties. Hundreds of groups and committees and publications operated under his auspices, or those of his agents. The writers, artists, journalists, scientists, educators, clerics, columnists, filmmakers, and publishers, either under his influence or regularly manipulated by his “Münzenberg men,” present a startling list of notables from that era, from Ernest Hemingway to John Dos Passos to Lillian Hellman to George Grosz to Erwin Piscator to André Malraux to André Gide to Bertolt Brecht to Dorothy Parker … to Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, and Anthony Blunt. Indeed, the entire cultural and intellectual apparatus of “idealistic” Stalinism outside Russia, and much of its secret apparat, operated within a system Münzenberg had guided into place.

Of course most of the fellow travelers who were run by these agents, and certainly most of the people who poured their idealism into the Münzenberg fronts, had no idea that their consciences were being orchestrated by operatives of Stalin’s government. Most were true believers, people with dreams about a radical new Soviet-led, socialist “humanism.” With a light sneer, Münzenberg dubbed this vast soft horde of the radical devout “innocents.” His own phrase for the fronts he created to guide and direct their morally committed but politically naïve commitments was “Innocents’ Clubs.” The phrase is revealing. It points to all those thousands who were not, in the jargon of the secret trades, “witting.” This was virtually everyone. In any covertly run front organization the number of people who know, really know, the agenda, and the true identity of its shapers, must be very, very few. The fewer the better.

But the word “innocence” also suggests a motive. I refer to the need for righteousness, righteousness in the biblical sense. The thirst for moral justification for one’s life in the world is one of our deepest needs, one of our most powerful and essentially human drives, ignored at our cost and peril. In his “Innocents’ Clubs,” Münzenberg provided two generations of people on the left with what we might call the forum of righteousness. More perhaps than any other person of his era, he developed what may well be the leading moral illusion of the twentieth century: the notion that in the modern age the principal arena of the moral life, the true realm of good and evil, is politics. He was the unseen organizer of that variety of politics, indispensable to the adversary culture, which we might call Righteousness Politics. “Innocents’ Clubs”: The very phrase suggests how the political issues Münzenberg manipulated came for many to serve as a substitute for religious belief. He offered everyone, anyone, a role in the search for justice in our century. By defining guilt, he offered his followers innocence, and they seized upon it by the millions.

Except that in this forum, high, serious, honorable moral commitments found themselves joined, covertly, to profoundly sinister events. Münzenberg served Stalinism with every resource of propaganda and invented more, from the protest march to the mock-trial to the politicized writers’ congress to the politicized arts festival to the celebrity letterhead to the ad hoc committee for causes numberless. As Koestler said, Münzenberg “produced Committees as a conjurer produces rabbits out of his hat.” And his models for molding progressive opinion endured, outlasting him, running on their own moral momentum. Plainly, a phenomenon such as the Bertrand Russell War Crimes Tribunal, held in Stockholm during the Vietnam War, was set up in conscious or unconscious emulation of Münzenberg’s paradigm. In fact, much of the Peace Movement of the Vietnam Era, with its marches and interlocking committees, worked in the same way. Early in this century, Willi had uncovered the tremendous power available to those who know how to set the agenda of the Good. But he also knew, as his fate demonstrates, that this is a form of power that can be used for evil ends.

The Comintern

The instrument through which Münzenberg organized this cultural power was the Communist International, or, as it was almost always known, the Comintern. The Comintern was in many ways the quintessential Leninist institution, shaped from its inception by the two leading passions of Lenin’s political personality: his obsession with secrecy, and his preoccupation with absolute power. Its aims were never even remotely democratic, never even remotely meliorist, and never were intended to provide any real assistance, however minute, to any branch of the left not entirely under Soviet control.

Lenin created the Comintern in 1919 as a means of spreading the Russian Revolution and of consolidating Marxism–Leninism’s dominance over the worldwide left. The new dictator’s purpose was to gather the world’s radicals into one grand network of Communist parties under the control of the Revolution, his Revolution. In his fantasy, Lenin saw the Comintern laying a kind of long fuse that would snake from Russia into Europe, and above all to that grand, glorious, but unexploded bomb that weighed most on his mind: Germany. The powder keg of Europe: It was one of Lenin’s favorite clichés. Iskra, so one of the most important early revolutionary journals was named: “The Spark.” Lenin proposed to make the keg blow with a spark set by him and sent sizzling through the Comintern’s invisible incendiary network, a vitalizing fire that would burn from his office straight in to the great German ammunition dump. Luckily for the Europe of the Twenties, the fuse fizzled. Even so, the Comintern’s network had been well and truly laid down, and by the time Stalin came along it was still in place, ready for the new dictator to use. Europe, meanwhile, had run out of luck.

So the “First Congress” of the Comintern in 1919 was a meeting supposed to initiate the transformation of the world. Despite this ambitious aim, it was not a very impressive convocation. It was neither representative nor particularly international. Lenin slouched on the podium of a crowded little hall near the Moscow Courts of Justice and presided over thirty-five scrappy “delegates” —mainly foreign socialists who happened to be in town. Few had any real connection to their national politics. One English “delegate” was merely Cicherin’s secretary, a Russian emigré who’d once been a tailor in England. The Japanese were “represented” by a man with the un-Nipponese name of Rutgers, who’d chanced once to spend some months in Japan. At one point Lenin slipped a note to his ally Angelica Balabanoff ordering her to take the platform and “announce the affiliation of the Italian Socialist Party.” She stared back. There was no such group in the room, nor had she been in contact with them. “There was,” wrote one English witness, “a make-believe side to the whole affair.”

The Congress was make-believe because Lenin did not want it otherwise. On the contrary. The last thing he wanted would have been some dreary posse of international socialists weakening his grip with the babble of their little ideas, their niggling opinions, their trifling—a favorite word, “trifling”— reservations. The “congress” was a façade, held to give the look of a broad base for what Lenin always intended to be a compact, secret, strictly obedient weapon under the control of his government. Once the brow-beaten delegates dispersed, he simply dashed off an article in Pravda blandly announcing that “the Soviets have conquered throughout the whole world.”

That was the imaginary Comintern. The real Comintern was a corps of disciplined professional revolutionaries, put in place to enforce Leninist hegemony throughout the socialist movement worldwide. To this end it ran its own propaganda network and had its own secret service, with both branches intimately linked to each other and to the other Soviet secret services. Their work was at once legal and illegal, and in Münzenberg’s case, the two often mingled in special ingenuity. The Comintern’s secret service was known as the OMS, and Münzenberg worked in steady collaboration with it; the Central Party Archives show Münzenberg’s enterprises intermingled and surrounded by elaborate secret-service work. Münzenberg worked in close collaboration with the director of the OMS, Mirov-Abramov. In addition, substantial evidence strongly indicates that his principal lieutenants were covertly linked to branches of the Soviet services outside the Comintern. One of Münzenberg’s tasks was to invent ways to blur the distinction between legal and illegal work and, trailing clouds of deniability, install his men in the resulting never-never land.

While the cultural network had a very public face, it worked in tandem with deep-cover espionage networks. The evidence is strong that two of Münzenberg’s principal lieutenants, Louis Gibarti and Otto Katz, were not only “Münzenberg-men,” and so agents of the Comintern, but (probably without Willi knowing for sure) agents of the NKVD as well. Gibarti and Katz: an extraordinary team. They did know something about trenchcoats, and careful tracking of their artful dodging through the first half of the twentieth century will turn up surprise after surprise. Gibarti was an elegant but slightly seedy Hungarian, affable, multilingual, and outspoken. He looked, said Babette, like “an opera cavalier.” Gibarti ranks as a founding father of the modern mingling of propaganda with espionage and covert action. Though his modus operandi made him seem like a “legal”—in contrast to illegal—Comintern agent, Gibarti’s “perfectly legal” organizations were pioneers in the art of doing secret-service business in the open. It was Gibarti, for example, who in 1934 guided a young recruit named Kim Philby through a “perfectly legal” front in Paris and on to Vienna, where Philby took up his first real job as a secret agent.

“Legal” operations, meanwhile, might pursue their propaganda ends while supplying illegal operations with cover. Consider, for example, those honey-hives of the intellectuals, bookstores. In the early days, the Comintern often used bookstores simultaneously as propaganda outlets and as fronts for transmitting information for the espionage apparat. In Shanghai, Richard Sorge made use of such an establishment within the network; its wonderful name, the “Zeitgeist Bookshop.” In New York during the Thirties, a then Communist bookseller named Walter Goldwater was approached by Whittaker Chambers, using the name “Hugh Jones,” and asked to establish a bookstore near Columbia University, the back room of which was to be used for the apparatus of espionage. Similarly, Münzenberg was a pioneer in the creation of a “Press Agency” which on the one hand might place perfectly legitimate journalism from independent writers and sources in legitimate journals, and on the other hand place fabricated stories which the apparat wanted placed for propaganda, and serve as cover for working agents, and serve as cover for the flow of information obtained in espionage. Münzenberg’s man Gibarti seems to have helped invent this sort of front.

But Münzenberg’s information network controlled newspapers and radio stations, ran film companies, created book clubs, ran magazines, sponsored publicity tours, dispatched journalists, and commissioned books. It planted articles and created organizations to give direction to the “innocent.” To use the jargon of a different age, it was a media combine. Yet it differed in a number of ways from the BBC, Time Inc., or even from an explicit instrument of political propaganda like Radio Liberty. For example, many people working for it did not publicly acknowledge the connection. Many operated under aliases. Many led classic double lives, sometimes totally changing their identities, concealing their true mission from their friends, even their spouses, and certainly from employers, who often included unsuspecting editors, publishers, and producers whose ideas were very remote from the real agenda. They were, in short, secret agents, people who lived and worked, however publicly, in a secret world: the realm of intelligence gathering, covert action, undercover penetration, clandestine influence, quiet sabotage, discreet blackmail—what the American counter-spy James Jesus Angleton, quoting T. S. Eliot, called “a wilderness of mirrors.” Nor did the work stop with the media. Münzenberg also courted business people who could be used in industrial espionage, both in Europe and the United States. Given Lenin’s obsession with electrification, for example, an early target was General Electric. And back when the revolution was still young, it was Münzenberg’s task to create for much of this vast unseen enterprise a persuasive public face.

Münzenberg clearly understood that the Revolution required something more than winning over “the masses.” Speaking to a Comintern packed with intellectuals, he pounded at his point: “We must organize the intellectuals.” The revolution needed middle-class opinion makers—artists, journalists, “people of good will,” novelists, actors, playwrights … humanists, people whose innocent sensitivities weren’t yet cauterized to nervelessness by the genuine white-hot radical steel. Lenin himself recoiled at this idea. Here were the people he loathed most—he who loathed so many people. Middle-class do-gooders? Bourgeois intellectuals clutching their precious “freedom of conscience”? Lenin would kill and imprison them by the thousands. It took him a while—until 1921— to consent to use them, too. “We must avoid being a purely Communist organization,” Münzenberg explained to his men. “We must bring in other names, other groups, to make persecution more difficult.” Middle-class opinion makers, liberal sympathizers, however much echt Bolsheviks despised them, must be used. Co-option may have struck hard-line Leninists as soft, but as Münzenberg pointed out, the powder keg was not blowing despite all kinds of sparks. Münzenberg dismissed these impatient purists and the fanaticism of absolutes with sardonic weariness. “I too,” he drawled, “prefer the red hundreds.”

Finally, there was the pursuit and organization of that special category of influential opinion maker, the fellow traveler. Little though he liked bourgeois humanists, or indeed any kind of humanist, Lenin came to see what Stalin never doubted: that to achieve its end, the Revolution outside Russia would need to exploit non-Communist sympathizers, especially leaders in culture, sympathizers capable of setting the agenda of the Good. Western opinion could never be marshaled strictly from a Bolshevik platform. The world’s idealists would never trust a leadership so obviously defined by fanaticism, so plainly committed to pure post-legal force majeure, so manifestly bound to hatred. The image of the “human face” needed to be created by “spokesmen” who attracted sympathy, not fear; famous, prestigious, and “independent” spokesmen who would reassure the non-Communist world that despite appearances all was well, Utopia really was a-building; that they had been over to see the future, and the socialist future was sweet and good.

These spokesmen would have to be organized, promoted, and made reliable. It was essential that closely controlled fellow travelers such as Romain Rolland and Henri Barbusse, Lincoln Steffens and Heinrich Mann, be made to believe in their own independence, an independence they would of course rarely exercise. Every resource of manipulation, from rudimentary group psychology to plain bribery, was used to keep these ranks of the famous and influential left safely Stalinist in everything except name. As for the name, that had to be avoided at all costs. That would destroy the most useful thing about them, which was the deceptive but indispensable look of their “independence.”

Managing these “independent spokesmen,” keeping them saying the right things to support the cumbersome Big Lie they served—all this could be a very tricky business, and Münzenberg devoted all his ingenuity to it. “When it came to the manipulation of fellow travelers,” Babette Gross writes, “[Münzenberg] left nothing to chance.” From the tightly interlocked sets of fellow travelers in Hollywood to the systems of Parisian left-wing cultural chic, he arranged the celebrities into guided and controlled networks, assigning agents to their management, focusing on given communities in the arts, in journalism, in the academy. Here again, non-paranoiac Westerners may have some difficulty grasping that an elaborate secret-service network was set up to keep this large number of celebrity sympathizers appearing in the right places and reading the right lines. It is quite true that once a fashionable opinion was properly launched, it would quite spontaneously develop and grow among the ranks of enlightened people. Gibarti is said to have called this ripple effect in cultural politics “rabbit breeding.” But the original instigation of that fashion, its placement among the leaders of cultural politics—this was the province of professionals.

All this of course had to be secret and denied. And in addition the public charade, there was the deeper matter of managing what we might call the denial within. Every device of vanity and venality, misused trust and intellectual obfuscation was employed. But there was something more. The fellow travelers needed to believe too that their Stalinism was an indispensable part of their own integrity, a key to the working of their intelligence, and to the practice of their arts. They needed to believe. In order for this to happen, the apparatus had to seize on the most salient moral claims of the adversary culture from which almost all these people emerged, and make it theirs. If Americans in the adversary culture understood that the oppression of blacks was the society’s great institutionalized crime, Stalinism would take the highest of high ground on the “Negro question.” No matter that Stalin ruled a country where a significant part of the population languished in slave labor camps. If the English adversary culture saw philistinism and middle-class repression as the enemy, Stalinism would embrace iconoclastic taste and sexual liberty as nobody else did; the Bohemianism and flamboyant homosexuality of Guy Burgess were an indispensable part of his slick Stalinism and central to his place in Bloomsbury. No matter that Soviet sexual policy and taste were intolerant to a degree that made Colonel Blimp look liberated.

The net effect of these façades was to bind Stalinism to the self-evident truths of a given adversary culture, and make that Stalinism feel indispensable to an enlightened life. The role of this in the “denial within” could be very potent. It could be addictive.

But direct management was also required. Agents were often specifically trained to enter the life of this or that “independent thinker”—assuming the independent thinker was famous or influential enough. The idea was to influence and monitor the fellow traveler’s life, and, if possible, run it. With the more important cultural grandees, intimate friends, sexual partners, and even wives could be assigned: political operatives put in place to manipulate the great man in question, while remaining in regular contact with Münzenberg’s people.

The Russian writer and historian Nina Berberova writes with astringent authority about a cohort of agents or near-agents, the women whom she calls the “Ladies of the Kremlin.” These were women who became influential figures in European and American intellectual life partly on their own, but above all through the men in their lives. The men, most often, were famous writers, “spokesmen for the West.” Meanwhile, the consorts whom they most trusted were guided by the Soviet services.

Leading this list were two members of the minor Russian aristocracy: the Baroness Moura Budberg, who was mistress to both Maxim Gorky and H. G. Wells, and the Princess Maria Pavlova Koudachova, who first became secretary, later mistress, wife, and at last widow to the once enormously celebrated pacifist novelist Romain Rolland. Mme Berberova proposes a number of other candidates for inclusion among the “Kremlin Ladies”: The wives of both Paul Eluard and Ferdinand Léger are among them. Perhaps. Certainly one of the most important was Elsa Triolet, sister of Mayakovsky’s great love Lily Brik, who in Louis Aragon found her very own “great poet.” With Aragon, Triolet presided over the high chic of European Stalinism for thirty years, knave to Aragon’s fool, intimate with the most repellent figures in the Stalinist apparatus.

In America, one might add to the list the name of Ella Winter, who began her career in politics being introduced by Felix Frankfurter to Lincoln Steffens in the midst of the Versailles Conference. Steffens fell in love with her, and their relation lasted the rest of his life. Throughout the Twenties, Winter moved more and more obviously into the role of a classic fellow traveler, resolutely guiding the famous muckraker into the paths of her Stalinism as she did so. By the time of his death, it must be said that Lincoln Steffens had become a creature, an intellectual abject.

After Steffens’s death, Winter proceeded to another marriage that was exceptionally useful from the apparat’s point of view. This one put her in a leading position managing the networks of Stalinist fellow travelers in Hollywood, a long-standing special concern of the apparatus, with much attention from Gibarti, Katz, and many others. Winter met and married a very successful Hollywood screenwriter, Donald Ogden Stewart—a companion to Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos; a runner with the bulls at Pamplona in the company of the circle immortalized in The Sun Also Rises. Stalinism and Hemingway aside, Stewart was an attractive but malleable guilt-ridden lightweight. And at his side, Ella Winter was ideally placed for an active life among networks of Stalinist opinion in the film colony.

Ella Winter worked closely with Münzenberg’s men, especially those who were active in Hollywood. She knew Otto Katz well, and Gibarti referred to Ella Winter as “one of the most trusted party agents for the West Coast.” Gibarti had every reason to know.

So Münzenberg had been among the most potent organizers of the apparatus of the Comintern. He was so successful, in fact, that by 1921 the Comintern’s head, Gregori Zinoviev, was beginning to feel threatened. At the 1921 Congress, Zinoviev momentarily maneuvered Münzenberg out of his main party position of the time, running the Young Communist League. It turned out to be a fortunate fall: It left Willi free for his new and great political role—as director of the Comintern’s propaganda combine.

The combine was a network for molding opinion and (not least) for secret political action. It included not only press agencies but newspapers, magazines, and film production companies, and had offices around the world, with branches in Moscow (staffed mainly by Germans) and its headquarters in Berlin. Münzenberg assembled what amounted to a huge, secretly co-ordinated media consortium. It came to be known, with cheerless Bolshevik irony, as “The Münzenberg Trust.”

The story of the Trust has rarely been told. Arthur Koestler only hints at its complexity in his autobiographical book, The Invisible Writing:

Out of the pamphlets issued in support of the relief campaign grew the Trust’s own publishing firms, its book clubs, its multitudes of magazines and newspapers. By 1926, Willi owned two daily newspapers in Germany with mass circulations, Berlin am Morgen and Welt am Abend; the Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, a weekly with a circulation of one million, the Communist counterpart of Life; a series of other magazines including technical magazines for photographers, radio amateurs, etc., all with an indirect Communist slant. In Japan, to quote a remote country as an example, the Trust directly or indirectly controlled nineteen magazines and newspapers. It also financed Communist avant-garde plays which were in great vogue at the time.

In the United States, The Nation magazine was for many years edited or greatly influenced by people, ranging from Louis Fischer to Julio Alvárez del Vayo, whose careers were shaped in close collaboration with Münzenberg and his men. It was a propaganda combine extending from Moscow to Berlin to Paris to London to New York to Hollywood to Shanghai to Delhi.

Nor did Willi limit himself to print. Münzenberg’s impact was no less powerful in the theater and the graphic arts. From George Grosz to Erwin Piscator, much of vanguard Weimar culture was funded by Münzenberg. Then there was his impact upon the emergent cinema of the left. At a very early stage of its existence Münzenberg used one of his many dummy corporations—Aufbau, Industrie & Handels, A.G.—quietly to buy up distribution rights in the USSR to almost all German films then on the market. The revenues from this shrewd investment soon engendered the capital needed for a German-based distribution company called Prometheus Films, the instrument through which Soviet cinema of the grand epoch was released and promoted in the West. Prometheus’s first release was Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, with a score commissioned by Münzenberg’s in-house composer, Edmund Meisel. Eisenstein’s great prestige in the democracies was very much a creation of the Münzenberg machine. Prometheus soon became a production company for German film as well, and in 1927 Münzenberg added yet another subsidiary, Welt Film, for the equivalent of sixteen-millimeter non-theatrical distribution. Through this company the Trust encouraged the creation of college film societies in England and America, all featuring Soviet cinema, the gathering places for a new left-wing university elite, where Potemkin and October were screened in basements against bedsheets. In the United States, a parallel organization used many names and passed through many forms, until it ended, rather innocuously, as a company called Brandon Films.

Then in 1924 Willi moved even more dramatically. A complete production company was established in Moscow, capitalized, staffed, and controlled by Münzenberg; that is, by the Comintern. Following the Russian acronym for WIR, which was MRP, the company was Mezhropohmfilm Russ and it became the prime production house of Soviet cinema in its grand epoch, the studio for Vertov, Dovzhenko, Pudovkin. Mezhropohmfilm made real movies, including a number of very great ones, for real audiences. Meanwhile its networks provided legal cover for many secret agents with quite different missions, and with the addition of this third pillar to his tripod, Münzenberg’s hegemony over Soviet cinema became close to complete, and firmly located on the Berlin–Moscow axis.

The Sacco-Vanzetti Case

Like Lenin, like Stalin, Münzenberg was almost laughably ignorant about the United States. He visited it only once in his life, in 1934, and was surprised to discover how agreeable, how free and open a place it was, compared to what he had known. Yet even at remote control, Willi managed to insinuate his plans and people into the moral life of America with durable results. Around 1925, the Comintern entrusted Münzenberg and his propaganda machine with a little-known but large role in giving shape and political function to the Communist Party of the United States as it was to be under Stalin. At that time, the American party, that congregation of the militant naïve, home and battleground for John Reed and Louise Bryant, needed to be re-assembled. It had been left in a shattered state by its late-Leninist internal struggles combined with devastating police action inflicted on it by what later became the FBI.

The course adopted then is revealing. No effort was made to create a mass-based movement appropriate to the seizure of power in America. It is plain that Stalin had no serious interest or belief in an American “revolution.” He never attempted to create an American party or Communist movement capable of even remotely challenging the constitutional power, as he would do in Germany, Italy, France, Greece, and the Balkans. That was not to be the American party’s job. The apparatus of American Communism would be directed instead toward discrediting American politics and culture and assisting the growth of Soviet power elsewhere. It sought not revolutionary power inside America but moral authority developed through the propaganda of righteousness in politics. It sought not the outright destruction of the American democracy, however much that might be desired, but practical influence on its culture, the placement of agents who would over the long term seek to smoothe and promote the advance of Soviet influence and assist the apparatus in its work of espionage. The American right may have given itself nightmares about the red flag flying over the Capitol and commissars storming the East Room, but I know of no evidence showing that such a thing was ever really part of Stalin’s dream; his 1927 remark, made to gullible visitors, that the Sacco–Vanzetti scandal showed America in pre-revolutionary turmoil, was surely a matter of atmospherics. Lenin’s mind was centered upon Germany; Stalin’s was on Russia and its vast sphere of power. America lay beyond, a very distant albeit important place, an irritating mystery. An irritating myth. And it was in the arena of myth, not that of the seizure of power, that America had the Soviets’ full and frightened attention.

For the world proletariat of 1925, the leading counter-myth to the myth of revolution was, by far, the idea of America. That vision—the notion of the melting pot, the Golden Door, the Land of Opportunity— is what held the real political attention of the International. To the Bolsheviks, this was the true American menace. And in 1925, the task of the American party was to counteract it.

So Münzenberg’s first idea was to create and sustain a worldwide anti-American campaign that would focus its appeal upon the mythology of the country’s immigration. The purpose of such a campaign would be to instill a reflexive loathing of the United States and its people as a prime tropism of left-wing enlightenment. To undermine the myth of the Land of Opportunity, the United States would be shown as an almost insanely xenophobic place, murderously hostile to foreigners.

To this end, Münzenberg surveyed his options, in search of a cause that would disgrace America in the eyes of the proletarian foreign-born. He found it in the obscure case of two anarchist immigrants who’d got themselves into some very bad trouble: Niccola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.

Every so often, talking with me in Munich, Babette Gross would drop a remark that made the foundations of the world seem to shift a little. One of these was over Sacco and Vanzetti. The Sacco–Vanzetti case? “It was,” she said with a dry shrug, “Münzenberg’s idea.”

Münzenberg’s idea! Is that possible? Together with the Dreyfus case, this is perhaps the most famous legal struggle in the whole history of modern propaganda and injustice. It seemed at first incredi

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 12 Number 3 , on page 16
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