Willi Münzenberg was born in Germany on August 14, 1889. When he was 17 he joined the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), whose platform blended the ideas of Karl Marx and Communist League member Ferdinand Lassalle. Soon thereafter, Münzenberg moved to Switzerland where he came into contact with Bolsheviks and other exiled revolutionaries from Russia. Most notably, he met Vladimir Lenin and became his devoted follower. Münzenberg eventually returned to Germany when Swiss authorities designated him as an undesirable foreigner and deported him.
Münzenberg opposed the First World War and, in its immediate aftermath in 1918, joined with a group of fellow socialist radicals to establish the German Communist Party (KPD), which throughout the 1920s would: (a) remain heavily influenced by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and (b) enjoy considerable success in elections to the Reichstag (German Parliament).
Münzenberg also became head of the Young Communist International (YCI), the youth arm of the Communist International (Comintern), the latter of which advocated “struggle by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie and the creation of an international Soviet republic.” When Lenin seized power in Soviet Russia, he told Münzenberg: “I want you to spend millions, many millions” to propagandize the West, particularly Europe.
In 1924 Münzenberg was elected as a KPD member to the Reichstag, where he went on to serve for the next nine years.
To maximize Comintern’s influence, Münzenberg in the Twenties created numerous front organizations such the Friends of Soviet Russia, the World League Against Imperialism, Workers International Workers Relief, and the League Against Imperialism & Colonial Oppression. These groups were ostensibly devoted to benign and uncontroversial causes such as famine relief, anti-imperialism, or peace, but their real purpose was to enlist the support of liberals and moderate socialists in defending the Bolshevik revolution. As Münzenberg once told a fellow Comintern member, “These people [in the front groups] have the belief they are actually doing this [promoting famine relief, etc.] themselves. This belief must be preserved at any price.” Because the members of these front groups were mostly oblivious to the larger objective of promoting Communism, Münzenberg referred to the groups as his “Innocents’ Clubs.” The front groups not only helped advance the Communist cause, but they also helped make Münzenberg a wealthy man by funding his Münzenberg Trust, a vast propaganda network consisting of small newspapers, publishing houses, movie houses, and theaters scattered across the globe. As the Washington Times reports: “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….”
In 1924 Münzenberg launched Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung, which became the most widely read socialist pictorial newspaper in Germany. Moreover, he worked closely with Comintern and the Soviet secret police to advance the Communist cause internationally by means of propaganda.
In 1932 Münzenberg and fellow Communist leftists in Berlin formed the American Committee for the World Congress Against War (ACWCAW), which was sponsored by Comintern to propagandize against the arming of America, Britain, and France in the years preceding World War II. The objective of this Committee was to prevent the Western powers from developing the military force necessary to stop Hitler’s aggression. Under the banner of “peace,” the CWCAW advocated appeasement and negotiation instead.
After the Reichstag Fire of February, 27, 1933, the Nazi Party launched a wave of violence and arrests against KPD members and other left-wing opponents of the regime. Münzenberg, for his part, managed to flee the country and take up residence in France. In 1934 he went to the United States, where he spoke at well-attended rallies in large venues like Madison Square Garden and the Bronx Coliseum.
In the 1930s as well, Münzenberg was one of the founders of the Frankfurt School, an Institute that promoted critical theory (the use of incessant criticism to undermine and delegitimize existing social mores and institutions) and cultural Marxism (the extension of Marxist class struggle to include also the struggles between members of different races, ethnicities, genders, and religions).
In response to the Comintern Seventh World Congress’ proclamation of a “Peoples’ Front Against Fascism” — a.k.a. a “Popular Front” strategy that instructed Communist Parties to form broad alliances with anti-fascist parties — Münzenberg in 1935 dispatched his assistant, fellow Comintern agent Otto Katz, to the United States to garner support for various pro-Soviet and anti-Nazi causes. Katz made his way to Hollywood, and in July 1936 he and poet Dorothy Parker collaborated to form the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. Many artists and writers in the U.S. — e.g., Paul Muni, Melvyn Douglas, and James Cagney — enthusiastically helped sponsor this League. Other Popular Front groups such as the League of American Writers also found many backers in Hollywood.
Until 1936, Münzenberg remained unfailingly loyal to Joseph Stalin and the aims of Soviet foreign policy. Fissures in that devotion began to appear late that year, however. Fellow KPD exile Walter Ulbricht, who had parted ways with Münzenberg over the latter’s refusal to carry out Stalin’s directive to purge the KPD, urged Münzenberg to take up an offer from Georgi Dimitrov, the leader of Comintern, to return to Moscow and help advance the Communist cause from there. But Münzenberg refused, stating that he could not go to the Soviet Union unless he had assurances that he would be permitted to leave Moscow whenever he wished. Not long afterward, Ulbricht traveled to Paris and began purging the Popular Front Committee (PFC) of individuals deemed “disloyal” to Stalin. Within less than two years, nearly every writer who had been willing to work closely with Comintern and Münzenberg (as their publisher) would be driven out or murdered by the Soviet secret police (NKVD).
As Münzenberg’s Stalinist opponents were marginalizing him more and more, Münzenberg in October 1937 wrote a letter to Dimitrov threatening to publicly reveal every detail of the secret work he had done for Comintern. In response, the KPD, which was being reorganized to conform strictly to Stalinist doctrine, condemned Münzenberg as a traitor who had deviated from Marxism–Leninism. Münzenberg responded by resisting, with ever-increasing intensity and acrimony, any attempt to expel him from the Communist movement. This served only to infuriate the Stalinists. In a 1937 diary entry, Dimitrov noted a private conversation in which Stalin had told him: “Münzenberg is a Trotskyist. If he comes [to Moscow], we will arrest him. Give some thought on how to best to lure him here.” And in late 1938, KPD chairman Wilhelm Pieck declared ominously: “The present danger is not Trotskyism but Münzenberg.”
Münzenberg formally severed all ties with the Soviet Union as a result of the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact — a ten-year nonaggression agreement signed on August 23, 1939 — and thereafter became an outspoken critic of Stalin. In Paris, Münzenberg became a leading figure of German émigré anti-fascism, using his new journal, Die Zukunft (The Future), to help spread his message. An article in the Comintern journal Die Internationale emphatically identified Münzenberg as “an enemy.”
After the German army invaded France in May 1940, Münzenberg was interned in Lyon as an anti-fascist. He was subsequently murdered by NKVD agents the following month.
Further Reading: “Willi Münzenberg” (Spartacus Educational).
A Master of Propaganda Who Grew Rich on Soviet Lies
By Arnold Beichman
January 12, 2004