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Willy Münzenberg—an Old Bolshevik who was also a self-promoting tycoon—became one of the most influential Communist operatives in Europe between the World Wars. He created a variety of front groups that recruited well-known political and cultural figures to work on behalf of the Soviet Union and its causes, and he ran an international media empire that churned out enormous amounts of propaganda and raised money for Communist concerns. Sean McMeekin tells Münzenberg’s extraordinary story, arguing persuasively that...
Willy Münzenberg—an Old Bolshevik who was also a self-promoting tycoon—became one of the most influential Communist operatives in Europe between the World Wars. He created a variety of front groups that recruited well-known political and cultural figures to work on behalf of the Soviet Union and its causes, and he ran an international media empire that churned out enormous amounts of propaganda and raised money for Communist concerns. Sean McMeekin tells Münzenberg’s extraordinary story, arguing persuasively that his financial chicanery and cynical propaganda efforts weakened the non-Communist left, enraged the right, and helped feed a cycle that culminated in Nazism.
Drawing extensively on recently opened Moscow archives, McMeekin describes how Münzenberg parlayed his friendship with Lenin into a personal fortune and how Münzenberg’s mysterious financial manipulations outraged Social Democrats and lent rhetorical ammunition to the Nazis. His book sheds new light on Comintern finances, propaganda strategy, the use of front organizations to infiltrate non-Communist circles, and the breakdown of democracy in the Weimar Republic. It is also an engrossing tale of a Communist con man whose name once aroused fear, loathing, and admiration around the world.
Willi Münzenberg was born on 14 August 1889-the same year as Hitler-in Erfurt, a charming old southeast Prussian town located in what is now Thuringia. He lived there until he was four years old, when his mother Mina's death left Willi at the mercy of his itinerant father, who after a lackluster military career bounced from one mediocre job to another in civilian life. Willi remembered attending eight different elementary schools in various obscure villages near Erfurt, Gotha, and Weimar, none of which made much of an impression on him. He made few friends, and didn't keep those he made for long. He had two older brothers, but they had both started military service by the time Willi was in school and rarely came back to visit. Willi's sister, also much older, passed in and out of his life more frequently than his brothers, but he would eventually lose contact with her, too. His father's second wife, a farmer's daughter from the village of Friemar, did her best with Willi, but he did not take kindly to his stepmother. The principal, and almost unrivaled, influence on Willi's early development wastherefore his father.
This was unfortunate, for the man responsible for bringing Willi Münzenberg into the world was not much of a role model. Himself the bastard son of a hot-tempered and hard-drinking Prussian Junker, Baron von Seckendorf, who in a moment of lust took advantage of his chambermaid, Karl Münzenberg seems to have inherited the baron's recklessness, without, however, the latter's wealth and social standing. As a warrant officer during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, Karl acquired a taste for French wine and for violence. Discharged in 1873, he entered civilian life having internalized all the arrogance of the Prussian officer corps but none of its self-discipline. He worked variously as a gamekeeper, barber, and innkeeper, but his real passion was always for hunting. Powerfully built and easily angered, Karl Münzenberg slept with loaded guns hanging over his bed, and he was known to retrieve them from the bedroom for emphasis if disputes arose with friends during a card game. He was also not above using them to threaten his wife and children. When he flew into a rage, though, any object at hand might be used to administer a beating-sticks, chains, whips, pots and pans. Stories of his erratic and dangerous behavior were legends in the Münzenberg household, and when young Willi went to bed at night, he would sometimes include in his nightly prayers the request that "my father not shoot me dead."
Of course, what we know about Willi's father comes to us only from Münzenberg's autobiographical writings, all tailored in some way to further the socialist cause, so these horror stories of bourgeois patriarchal decadence must be taken with a grain of salt. Violent and irascible Karl Münzenberg may have been, but his son in all likelihood did not cower in bed every night afraid of being murdered in his sleep.
Still, there were undoubtedly grounds for serious conflict between father and son. Unlike his healthy, industrious older brothers, who both uncomplainingly fulfilled their father's command to serve in the army as soon as they met the age requirements, Willi was a nervous, sensitive, physically frail child who showed more interest in reading than in war games. To please his father, Willi would sometimes put on the comically oversized soldier's uniforms his brothers would send home for him, but he never dreamed of entering the army as they had. On his father's command, Willi did take up the piano but ultimately balked at the discipline required. It became clear very quickly that he had neither the talent nor the desire to become a musician, and he remembered the lessons as "torture."
The climactic episode in Willi's short-lived musical career painfully underscored his troubled relationship with his father. While Willi was struggling through "Guter Mond du gehst so stille" one day in preparation for his next lesson, his father asked what song he was playing. Thinking his father was too drunk to tell the difference, Willi offered that he was trying to master "Torgauer Marsch," the old man's favorite tune. For this lie the young smart aleck received a beating he would not soon forget. Swinging wildly at his son with a chain, old Karl Münzenberg missed and smashed an oil lamp instead, shattering it into pieces. Blaming Willi for the broken lamp, he grabbed a rope hanging nearby and threw it at his terrified son, ordering him to hang himself in punishment. In tears, Willi fled into the attic, where his stepmother found him hours later, asleep with the rope still in his hands. There would be no more piano lessons for young Willi.
Ultimately, though, Willi's father may have affected his son's development more through his lengthy absences than by his periodic use of the lash to instill discipline. When the old man wasn't manning the desk at the hostel in a small village near Weimar in which he lived for the longest period, he was usually out drinking or chasing after game in the forest-in truth, he had little time for his son. Left alone for most of his childhood, Willi developed a precocious dramatic imagination. At age four, he staged weddings with young companions from his neighborhood. Without fail, Willi would insist on playing the preacher. When he was a bit older, Willi acted out cowboys-and-Indians and cops-and-robbers scenarios, inspired by the popular Wild West stories of Karl May, and began to conceive of elaborate theatrical scenes involving large numbers of people. At age twelve, he organized a miniature folk festival involving costumes and games in his father's village, and (if we can believe his later boast) induced all the children in town, and nearly half the adults, to take part.
At the inn, meanwhile, young Willi often ran the show when his father was off on the hunt and his stepmother socialized with neighbors. He served the customers, played cards with them, read them stories from the village newspaper, and tried to follow their political discussions. When the Boer War broke out in 1899, Willi immediately absorbed the fanatical anti-British sentiments of most older Germans, read everything he could about the conflict, and one day set off from home on a fanciful quest to join his beloved Boers. When the Prussian police, several days later, returned the young dreamer to his father's inn, old Karl Münzenberg was not amused. Of course, the restless wanderlust of this onetime soldier may have itself inspired his son's fancy; but he had wanted Willi to become a real soldier, not wander off in a childish dream state.
After he had completed his primary schooling at age fifteen, Willi was apprenticed in a barbershop. The barber was a prickly old disciplinarian, a veteran like Willi's father, and his relationship with his young charge ran into predictable difficulties. Willi resented the long hours and subservient attitude required of a barber's apprentice, and his work ethic was not impressive. When a new apprentice arrived, ignorant and servile and yet stronger and more industrious than Willi, the two fought constantly. One day during an argument, the new arrival availed himself of a loose brick and bopped poor Willi on the head. Münzenberg, briefly hospitalized after the incident, had no desire to return to the scene of his humiliation. Doubtless his father would have forced Willi to press on in learning the barber's trade; but while his son was recuperating, the old man, thrashing about in a drunken stupor, accidentally shot himself in the head while cleaning his pistols. From then on, young Willi Münzenberg, for better or for worse, would have to fend for himself.
Following in the footsteps of his older sister, who had come to visit him in the hospital, Willi returned in 1905 to Erfurt, where the economy was now booming, and quickly found unskilled work sorting scrap leather in the Lingel shoe factory. The job wasn't difficult, and the hours were more reasonable than in the barbershop, but the tedium of factory life was hardly suited to a restless, imaginative boy like Willi. Whenever he could, he visited the city's lending library, and for a while spent many of his precious spare hours reading. Mostly he devoured the same old Karl May stories he had always enjoyed, whose promise of adventure and excitement contrasted depressingly with his own dead-end job.
The job did give Willi something he had never had before: a constant supply of companions. In a large manufacturing operation employing some fifteen hundred workers, Willi shared the lowly duties of leather waste sorting with a small contingent of unskilled workers who, for the most part, were just as young and inexperienced as he was. Soon Willi spent all his meal breaks with his fellow scrap sorters, and he even improved on his modest weekly salary of four and a half gold marks by charging a commission for the food he purchased for his companions' daily meals. Willi's evenings, too, were increasingly devoted to social carousing, as his companions played pranks on older townsfolk, spied on and frightened young couples, and read trashy dime novels aloud to each other, taking particular enjoyment in tales of the dark exploits of freemason societies. Inspired by the freemasons, Willi's as yet free-floating group of companions dreamed of instituting their own secret society, and according to Münzenberg would have drunk each other's blood to pledge brotherhood, if they had been able to afford the wine considered necessary to seal such an oath. Short of entwining their collective fate in blood, Willi's factory compatriots did at least decide to found a social club, with Münzenberg as president, that for a time remained dedicated to soccer and card playing.
It was not long before Münzenberg's group of youthful dreamers discovered politics. An older worker in the shoe factory, with whom Willi was sometimes paired up, informed Münzenberg one day about a debating club called Workers Educational Association Propaganda, which met weekly in a pub on Erfurt's Grafengasse. Neither Münzenberg nor his young cohorts knew what the word "propaganda" meant, but it conjured up sufficiently dark images of underground activities and secret handshakes that four or five of them resolved to visit the pub together. The first time around, Münzenberg and his cohorts hesitated downstairs, afraid to ascend to the second floor where the intense group of debaters, mostly unionized metal and shoe factory workers in their twenties, convened. Willi, however, returned the next week with the one other companion whose curiosity outweighed his fear, and they sat through the whole meeting. Neither understood a word of the discussion, but Münzenberg was impressed with the elaborate organizational protocol and the solemn tone of the main speakers. He returned alone two or three more times before he, too, tired of the incomprehensible speeches and decided he would rather spend the time with his friends.
Although he had been too shy to speak up at the first meetings he attended, Münzenberg's evident curiosity and serious bearing had made an impression on Propaganda's chairman, Georg Schumann. Schumann, a radical, was dissatisfied with the moderate political practice of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD). Party Secretary August Bebel, a roughshod former carpenter popular with the SPD's rank-and-file workers, consistently upheld the banner of revolutionary Marxism in his often electrifying speeches-but his rhetoric was rarely backed up by action. Even as the SPD, Europe's largest socialist party, forced through resolutions condemning deviations from Marxist orthodoxy at the congresses of the Second International, its leaders were hamstrung inside Germany by reform-minded union chiefs, whose huge membership rolls and deep pockets gave them effective veto power over the SPD on strike coordination and other social protest actions. Frustrated by his party's reluctance to live up to its revolutionary ideals, Schumann was on the lookout for impressionable young men whose energy could be harnessed against the older, increasingly timid functionaries who staffed the SPD bureaucracy.
When he learned through contacts in Münzenberg's shoe factory that the silent young man who had showed up at several Propaganda meetings had taken ill, Schumann took to visiting Willi regularly, bringing him books, newspapers, and other reading materials to keep him occupied and, not incidentally, to introduce him to Marxist doctrine. Although he was an indifferent student in primary school, Willi had always loved reading, and he devoured the texts Schumann provided him. Away from the factory for four weeks in all, Willi received during his convalescence a haphazard crash course in the classics of German socialism, from the liberal antinationalistic poetry of Heinrich Heine and Ferdinand Freiligath to the abstruse Marxist tomes of Friedrich Engels and Karl Kautsky, along with contemporary polemics and pamphlets. He certainly didn't understand all the theories, but he picked up enough socialist catch phrases to begin proselytizing his pals as soon as he returned to the factory.
After Münzenberg started dragging his unskilled factory comrades down to the pub on Grafengasse, the demographics of Schumann's debating society altered dramatically. By the following summer, the Workers Association-now christened the Erfurt Freie Jugend, or "Free Youth"-counted more than thirty members, twice as many as when Willi had joined. More than half were now under twenty. Willi's teenage friends, although coarser in speech and far less knowledgeable about socialism than the older workers, dominated the debating sessions by sheer force of numbers. While certain older members of the group resented the changes wrought by Münzenberg's aggressive recruiting, Schumann couldn't have been more pleased with the influx of young blood. When Schumann was offered the chairmanship of the Socialist Youth Organization of the whole state of Thuringia early in 1907, he gladly accepted the position and turned the reins of the Erfurt Free Youth over to his successful young protégé.
Why did Willi prove such an effective recruiter? Clearly he had abundant intellectual curiosity and a strong enough personality to dominate his young male colleagues in the factory. But arranging the procurement of lunch supplies and scheduling social functions was one thing; getting hormone-crazed teenagers to devote their free time to intellectually demanding, rigorously organized social activism was something else entirely. The Lingel shoe factory employed both men and women, and if we can believe Willi's later descriptions, life on and near the factory floor presented both sexes with considerable erotic opportunities. In fact, in Willi's own observation, older female workers frequently eyed the youngest boys in the factory, and were not above taking advantage of their inexperience. That Willi himself took no part in such sexual shenanigans is abundantly clear, and it is quite possible that his modesty gave him a moralistic aura that was appealing to other young men offended by the bawdy realities of factory life. For both moral and physical reasons, Willi did not smoke or drink, and his teetotaling can only have accentuated the pristine eccentricity that set him apart.
Willi's intellectual curiosity and eccentricity, however, may have been less important than a certain fanaticism, a moral intensity in his eyes, which was impossible to ignore. In the earliest known photograph of Münzenberg, a Free Youth group snapshot taken at Jena in 1907, Willi is positively dwarfed by the older, taller, stouter Young Socialist leaders of Imperial Germany, but one can see in his eyes a fiery confidence, an unmistakable belief in himself that transforms the apparent absurdity of a diminutive teenager-visionary into the visage of a serious young man with dignity and bearing (figure 1). When he first began to recruit colleagues from the factory to join the Free Youth, Willi later recalled, "it was as if I was overcome with propaganda fever and I wouldn't let up until almost the last young worker in my workspace joined the association and came to the meetings." Georg Schumann could not have chosen a better acolyte.
Excerpted from THE RED MILLIONAIRE by SEAN McMEEKIN Copyright © 2003 by Sean McMeekin. Excerpted by permission.
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