Magazine article The Spectator

The Red Millionaire: A Political Biography of Willi Munzenberg, Moscow's Secret Propaganda Tsar in the West

Magazine article The Spectator

The Red Millionaire: A Political Biography of Willi Munzenberg, Moscow's Secret Propaganda Tsar in the West

Article excerpt

His master's voice THE RED MILLIONAIRE: A POLITICAL BIOGRAPHY OF WILLI MUNZENBERG, MOSCOW'S SECRET PROPAGANDA TSAR IN THE WEST by Sean McMeekin Yale, £22.50, pp. 397, ISBN 0300098472

It is a measure of the hypermnesia of the Nazi period - and of the concomitant amnesia of the history of communism - that Willi Munzenberg seems to have vanished into the oubliettes of history while his opposite number, Joseph Goebbels, has become a household name. The irony is all the more piquant because Goebbels, who secretly admired Munzenberg, is now credited with perfecting the arts of propaganda which, in fact, his communist rival invented. A founding organiser of the Comintern, Munzenberg operated, from Berlin and Paris, a highly structured covert propaganda network which involved newspapers, films, hooks, magazines and the theatre, artists, businessmen, writers, actors, professors and priests. His web of influence and spin extended to Bloomsbury, the Elysee Palace, Hollywood, the literati supporters of the Spanish Republicans, Thomas and Heinrich Mann, and Arthur Koestler. In particular, it is to Munzenberg that we owe those two cornerstones of communist propaganda, the front organisation and the covertly manipulated fellow traveller.

From the very beginning, Munzenberg was at the heart of the communist project. He accompanied Lenin to the crowded station in Zurich from which the future Soviet leader was sent in a sealed train - 'like a bacillus in a tube,' Churchill said - to overthrow Russian tsarism. And when Lenin seized power, Munzenberg became one of the most powerful men in the international communist apparatus, his first main propaganda operation being to counteract the terrible publicity generated by the famine which ravaged the lives of 25 million peasants in the Volga region in 1921. He did this by creating a 'Foreign Committee for the Organisation of Worker Relief for the Hungry in Soviet Russia', a communist front organisation whose real raison d'etre was to distract attention from the aid dispensed by Herbert Hoover's American Relief Administration.

Once the famine was brought under control, Munzenberg used the huge media network he had assembled for more general propaganda purposes. …

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