“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.