“This act of incendiarism is the most monstrous act of terrorism so far carried out,” reported a 1933 Berlin newspaper. Hitler had been chancellor of Germany for less than a month when an arsonist torched the Reichstag, the German parliamentary building. For the Nazis, who blamed the Communists for the fire, the conflagration proved a godsend, an excuse to accelerate their mastery of Germany. Nazi minister Hermann Göring did not waste time. “The Communist deputies must be hanged this very night.” The following day civil liberties were suspended. Within the month Parliament, purged of Communists and surrounded by storm troopers, gathered in an opera house and approved the so-called Enabling Act, the legal legislation that effectively delivered power to Hitler.
For Nazi opponents, the fire and its aftermath proved how brutally and quickly the Hitlerites were ending democracy. With the hope of stirring an indifferent world, exiled German Communists rapidly published an exposé that attained wide notice. The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror and the Burning of the Reichstag, which appeared at the end of 1933 in several languages, contained a brief history of the Nazis, descriptions of the new concentration camps, names of those already murdered and an account of the Reichstag fire. It was published in the United States by the august firm of Alfred A. Knopf. The book listed no author, but its mastermind was a Communist impresario, Willi Münzenberg.
The Brown Book may have been Münzenberg’s finest hour. Today only the cognoscenti of international Communism remember him; even yesterday he was not well-known. He was a genius of Communist propaganda and front organizations, but rarely took top–or any–billing. Almost from the time he hooked up with Lenin in 1916 as a German socialist youth activist to the end of the 1930s, he lived amid a blizzard of front organizations and publications. Many of these never had a life outside his office. The Brown Book‘s title page claims authorship by “The World Committee for the Victims of German Fascism.” That was Münzenberg and a few friends. Arthur Koestler, who worked with him on the Brown Book, recalled in his own memoirs that Münzenberg, whom he calls “the Red Eminence” of international anti-Fascism, “produced International Committees, Congresses and Movements as a conjurer produces rabbits out of his hat: the Committee for the Relief of the Victims of Fascism; Committees of Vigilance and Democratic Control; International Youth Congresses.” Koestler adds that a biography of Münzenberg, “if it should ever be written would be one of the most revealing documents” of the interwar period.
Some fifty years after Koestler’s words we do have a biography, The Red Millionaire, a reworked dissertation by a professor of Russian studies. The good news is, the facts are here; the bad, the light is harsh and distorting. In the contemporary style of conservative anti-Communism, Sean McMeekin inflates Münzenberg’s role as evil Communist propagandist and damns him every chance he gets. He begins by admitting that Münzenberg is “little remembered,” but continues that not so long ago “the utterance of his name aroused fear, loathing and admiration among the world’s political classes.” Poppycock. McMeekin does not show that and cannot. He writes that Münzenberg ran from his “headquarters” a “seemingly invincible network of Communist front organizations” and that many famous intellectuals “came under his ever-expanding organizational spell.” Balderdash. The spellbound intellectuals McMeekin lists include Albert Einstein, Henri Barbusse and Bertolt Brecht. None needed help from Münzenberg to sign up for the anti-Nazi cause.
McMeekin hypes everything about Münzenberg–his power, impact, deviousness and money. The bigger he is, the more he can slam him. The book’s title illustrates McMeekin’s disingenuousness. “I have found no usage of this term [“The Red Millionaire”] by any of Münzenberg’s rivals or enemies,” the conscientious scholar admits. He does discover, however, that Münzenberg’s wife, Babette Gross, “bandies” the label about in her biography-memoir. She even titles a section of her book “The Red Millionaire.” He does not note that she airs the charge in order to refute it. According to Gross, “There was nothing in Münzenberg’s private life to lend credence to the legend of the ‘Red Millionaire.'” No matter. For McMeekin the legend lives.
In chapter after chapter McMeekin hammers Münzenberg for sins, crimes and malfeasance. For McMeekin, Münzenberg was a master liar, defending the Soviet Union and its insupportable politics through a myriad of newspapers and organizations. Yet McMeekin comes up with little to justify his perpetual outrage. Indeed, for McMeekin, Münzenberg can do no right. If he succeeds at something, he is selling “snake oil” for the money. If he fails–such as in his efforts to promote unwatchable Soviet films–he was an untalented phony. He dubs the Brown Book “a fraudulent hack job,” even though most of it was a decent report on the Nazi regime. He even criticizes Münzenberg for fleeing Germany with the rise of Hitler. This must be a first. Many historians have wondered why targeted victims stayed in Germany; McMeekin wonders why they left. He knows why. Münzenberg’s “preference for self-preservation over martyrdom had long been evident to anyone paying the slightest attention to his career.” McMeekin prefers his protagonist to die in a concentration camp.
By the end of the book McMeekin is foaming at the mouth. Münzenberg used “blood money to whitewash Communist tyranny.” By “shilling so shamelessly for Moscow” he poisoned politics. McMeekin charges him with “crimes against humanity.” He virtually accuses Münzenberg of destroying the World Trade Center. “It is hardly an accident that the kinds of fronts Münzenberg invented…are now exploited by the world’s most formidable terrorist organizations. Nor is it a coincidence that today’s masterminds of suicide bombings cloak their operations in the two most successful ‘progressive’ propaganda themes Münzenberg pioneered…anti-imperialism and antifascism.” What exactly does this mean? That Osama bin Laden studied Münzenberg? That antifascism leads to suicide bombings?
In fact, Münzenberg appears to have harmed no one except himself. By 1939 he had had enough of his Soviet masters. In a sometimes eloquent statement moaning that “regimented, dominated and bullied souls” cannot lead an anti-Nazi struggle, he withdrew from the party. McMeekin characteristically sneers at Münzenberg’s resignation–and hardly cites it. He cannot abide that Münzenberg did not join a conservative think tank but prepared to launch a new socialist group with ex-party members like Koestler. Yet the hour was late for ex-Communist German refugees like Münzenberg; they were unwanted by the Western democracies and wanted by the Nazi and Soviet secret police. With the outbreak of the war and the German invasion of France, Münzenberg, along with other German citizens, was interned in a French camp near Lyons.
With the advance of the Nazis, its inmates were directed in June 1940 to another location farther south. Münzenberg took counsel with several refugees, which included Kurt Wolff, later a distinguished American publisher. Münzenberg thought they should separate and individually try to reach Marseilles and a boat to freedom. The others disagreed, but Münzenberg headed off on his own. Five months later two hunters found Münzenberg’s decaying body less than a hundred miles away in the woods. He had hanged himself or had been hanged. Local authorities ruled it a suicide, and had little interest in pursuing the matter. After the war friends and scholars, including Stephen Koch in his 1994 book Double Lives, explored the mysterious circumstances of Münzenberg’s demise. Suicide seems likely, but McMeekin finds the explanation “unsatisfactory.” In any event, he believes that if Stalin’s agents did not kill him, they would have “sooner or later.” For McMeekin, who comfortably assumes the role of God, so much the better. His book closes intoning that “in Münzenberg’s ghastly death there is a kind of justice.”
What sort of justice? Münzenberg was hardly a saint, but he was certainly not a criminal. In her much more evenhanded book, his wife calls him a “man of contradictions.” In his wonderful memoirs, The Owl of Minerva, Gustav Regler acknowledges that Münzenberg believed that “cynical lying must be fought with equal cynicism,” but also called him a “prophet in the wilderness,” one of the few who foresaw the dangers of Nazism. That seems right. For all his faults, Münzenberg can be viewed as a civilian general in the fight against fascism; he belonged to a generation of writers and activists who joined the Communist movement in their youth and withdrew in the late 1930s. The classic collection of ex-Communist writers, The God That Failed, contains essays by Koestler, Richard Wright, André Gide, Ignazio Silone and others. Does McMeekin believe they all should hang? Koestler had hoped a biography of Münzenberg would reveal something of the interwar period. Instead, we have a tract that reveals only a small-minded and self-righteous professoriate.