Wilhelm "Willi" Münzenberg (14 August 1889, Erfurt – June 1940, Saint-Marcellin, France) was a communist political activist. Münzenberg was the first head of the Young Communist International in 1919-20 and established the famine-relief and propaganda organization Workers International Relief in 1921. He was a leading propagandist for the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) during the Weimar Era, but later grew disenchanted with Communism due to Joseph Stalin's Great Purge of the 1930s. Condemned by Stalin to be purged and arrested for treason, Münzenberg left the KPD and in Paris became a leader of the German emigre anti-fascism and anti-Stalinist community until forced to flee the Nazi advance into France in 1940. Arrested and imprisoned by the Daladier government in France, he escaped prison camp only to be found dead a few months later in a forest near the commune of Saint-Marcellin, France.
Willi Münzenberg was born 14 August 1889 in Erfurt, Saxony the son of a tavern keeper, Münzenberg grew up in poverty. As a young man, he became involved with trade unions and in the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Following the SPD split in 1914 between the moderate majority (known as the Majority SPD, MSPD) and the radical minority (known as the Independent SPD, USPD) over the issue of the First World War, Münzenberg sided with the Independent faction.
In 1924, Münzenberg was elected to the Reichstag, and served as a member until the banning of the KPD in 1933. Münzenberg was one of the few KPD leaders of working-class origin, a fact that was a source of immense pride for Münzenberg.
During the Weimar period, Münzenberg earned the reputation of a brilliant propagandist. His first major success was an effort to raise money and food for the victims of the Russian famine of 1921. Through his famous Berlin organization, Internationale Arbeiter-Hilfe (International Workers’ Aid or IAH, also known as Worker's International Relief or WIR), based in Berlin, Münzenberg was reputed to have sent millions of dollars’ worth of aid to the Soviet Union during the famine. In 1924 he launched Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung, which became the most widely read socialist pictorial newspaper in Germany. In addition, Münzenberg worked closely with the Comintern and the Soviet secret police (known as the Cheka between 1917–22 and as the OGPU 1922–34) to advance the communist cause internationally.
In order to broaden the Comintern's influence, Münzenberg created numerous front organizations he termed "Innocents' Clubs". These front groups, such the Friends of Soviet Russia, the World League Against Imperialism, and the International Worker's Relief Fund, were superficially devoted to an undeniably benign cause such as famine relief, anti-imperialism, or peace, though in fact Münzenberg created them to enlist the support of liberals and moderate socialists in defending the Bolshevik revolution. As he told a fellow Comintern member, "These people have the belief they are actually doing this themselves. This belief must be preserved at any price." The front organizations in turn helped fund the acquisition of the "Münzenberg Trust", a collection of small newspapers, publishing houses, movie houses, and theatres in locations around the world. Münzenberg, referred to by some as the Red Millionaire, used the businesses to pay for a limousine and an elegantly furnished apartment for himself.
After directing the Comintern's handling of the Sacco and Vanzetti case in 1925, Münzenberg took charge of the League Against Imperialism, created in Brussels in 1927. The League Against Imperialism organised a Counter-trial which concluded that the Nazis had set the 1933 Reichstag fire themselves. Barred from entering Britain for the trial, Münzenberg toured the northeastern and midwestern United States on a June 1934 speaking tour with Welsh Labour figure Aneurin Bevan, Babette Gross and SPD lawyer Kurt Rosenfeld. Speaking at well-attended rallies at venues like Madison Square Garden and the Bronx Coliseum, he appeared alongside Sinclair Lewis and Malcolm Cowley.
Later in 1934, Münzenberg's influence reached the antipodes when his Comintern machine sent Egon Kisch to the All-Australian Conference of the Movement Against War and Fascism (an Australian Communist Party Front organization). What could have been a low-key visit from an unknown Czech writer quickly polarized Australian society when the Conservative Lyons government declared Kisch as "undesirable as an inhabitant of, or visitor to, the Commonwealth" and attempted to exclude Kisch from Australia. Unable to produce any legal proof that Kisch was a communist, the government case collapsed and Kisch became a popular speaker disseminating Münzenberg's Comintern message. However attempts to foster a United Front against fascism in Australia eventually came to nothing.
Münzenberg instructed his assistant, fellow Comintern agent Otto Katz, to travel to the United States to garner support for various pro-Soviet and anti-Nazi causes, as part of the 1935 Comintern Seventh World Congress' proclamation of a "Peoples' Front Against Fascism", aka the Popular Front. Katz made his way to Hollywood, and in July 1936 he formed the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League with Dorothy Parker. Many artists and writers in the U.S. flocked to join the Popular Front, the Anti-Nazi League, and related groups such as the League of American Writers, while movie stars such as Paul Muni, Melvin Douglas, and James Cagney all agreed to sponsor the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.
Münzenberg lived intermittently in Paris, France from 1933 to 1940. During this time he took on a common-law wife, Babette Gross, a party member who had separated from her husband shortly after her marriage. It has been suggested that during his years in exile, Münzenberg may have had some role in recruiting Kim Philby to work for the Soviet Union, but there is no clear evidence for this. The argument for this theory is that Philby was recruited to work for Soviet intelligence through one of the "Münzenberg Trust"'s front organizations, the World Society for the Relief of the Victims of German Fascism based in Paris.
Until 1936, Münzenberg remained loyal to Joseph Stalin and to the aims of Soviet foreign policy. In late 1936, 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 him to take up an offer by Bulgarian Communist party leader Georgi Dimitrov, then residing in Moscow, to return there and assume other missions on behalf of the Comintern. Münzenberg refused, stating that he could not go to the Soviet Union unless he had assurances that he could leave Moscow when he was ready. He was also concerned that controls on his movements while in Moscow and the inevitable delays in getting permission to visit others would greatly impede his work, and he may also have suspected that he would be implicated and liquidated in the same Stalinist purges his disinformation organizations had previously sought to obscure through propaganda statements. Ulbricht appears to have been well aware of Münzenberg's probable fate if he returned to Moscow, since he had been communicating to Moscow reports on Münzenberg 'deviance' from Stalinist orthodoxy. (One of Ulbricht's coworkers allegedly stated to a party cell that "Wenn Münzenberg gefahren wäre, wäre er schon erschossen”, i.e. "if Münzenberg had gone [to Moscow] he would have already been shot by now.") In Paris, Ulbricht revealed to Otto Klepper, the German jurist and former Prussian minister of finance that "Wir schicken ihn nur nach Moskau, damit er erledigt wird” ("We're sending him to Moscow, so that he is liquidated").
Shortly after urging Münzenberg to visit Moscow, Ulbricht traveled to Republican Spain, where his work consisted of identifying 'disloyal' German communists (or anyone not totally loyal to Stalin) who were fighting on the Republican side in Spain; these men were either returned to the Soviet Union to face a tribunal or were executed on the spot. From Spain Ulbricht went directly to Paris, where – over protest from some Committee members – he began purging the Popular Front Committee (PFC) of individuals 'disloyal' to Stalin. In less than two years "virtually all the writers who had been willing to work closely with the Comintern and their publisher Willi Münzenberg would be driven out or murdered by the NKVD."
Münzenberg was becoming increasingly marginalized by the actions of his Stalinist opponents, and in an October 1937 letter to Dimitrov, he threatened to reveal every detail of his secret work for the Comintern to the public in order to show that he was being falsely accused. In the KPD, which was rapidly being reorganized to conform to Stalinist doctrine, Münzenberg was officially condemned as a traitor who had deviated from Marxism-Leninism. Münzenberg responded by resisting any attempt to expel him from the Communist movement, and his protests and arguments grew in acrimony and intensity. In late 1938 the chairman of the KPD Wilhelm Pieck concluded during a meeting of party leadership "Hauptgefahr jetzt nicht Trotzkismus, sondern Münzenberg” (The present danger is not Trotskyism, but Münzenberg.)" Unknown to Münzenberg or the leaders of the KPD, Münzenberg's fate had already been determined in 1937 by Stalin. In that year Dimitrov had noted in his diary of a private conversation with Stalin regarding Münzenberg, in which Stalin had exclaimed that "Münzenberg is a Trotskyist. If he comes (to Moscow), we will arrest him. Give some thought on how to best to lure him here."
Having been expelled from the German Communist Party (KPD) on trumped-up charges, Münzenberg finally moved into open opposition to Stalin. A final article on the disgraced propagandist in the Comintern journal Die Internationale warned "Unser fester Wille, die Einheit unter den Antifaschistischen herzustellen, unser Gefühl der Verantwortlichkeit vor dem deutschen Volk macht es uns daher zur Pflicht, vor Münzenberg zu warnen. Er ist ein Feind! (Our unshaking determination to unify anti-Fascists, our sense of duty before the German people obliges us to warn them about Münzenberg. He is an enemy!"
Back in Paris, Münzenberg became a genuine leader of German émigré anti-fascism, and a confirmed anti-Stalinist. His new journal, Die Zukunft, was the intellectual forerunner of Encounter and other Cold War publications. Münzenberg continued to work on behalf of anti-fascist causes throughout Western Europe, where he played a role in organizing the recruitment and acquisition of Soviet arms for the International Brigades to fight for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.
But his time was running out. His closest professional associates in the party, Karl Radek, Heinz Neumann, and countless others were arrested and either shot or worked to death in Soviet labor camps. Margarete Buber-Neumann, Heinz Neumann's wife and the sister of his common-law wife Babette Gross, was arrested and imprisoned in Karaganda. The NKVD eventually arranged for her to be handed over to Hitler in 1940, inadvertently saving her life. After spending the war in the relative safety of Ravensbruck concentration camp, Buber-Neumann fled at the end of the war, reaching safety with Anglo-American forces just ahead of the advancing Soviet troops.
In June 1940, Münzenberg fled from Paris, where he had been making anti-Nazi broadcasts, in order to escape the advance of German forces. While in the south of France, he was imprisoned by the Daladier government at Camp Militaire de Chambaran, an internment camp located in the great Forêt des Chambarans (Chambaran Forest) near the commune of Roybon in southeastern France. It was there that another camp inmate unknown to Münzenberg or his colleagues, (most likely, a German communist émigré named Heinz Hirth), befriended Münzenberg, and proposed that the two of them escape in the chaos of the Armistice. Some sources believe this unknown communist was actually an agent of Lavrentiy Beria's NKVD. Münzenberg agreed, and he, the stranger, and several of Münzenberg's colleagues (including Valentin Hartig, a former SPD official, and Hans Siemsen, Münzenberg's Brown Books collaborator) fled southward, in the direction of the Swiss border. Münzenberg disappeared a few days later; it was the last anyone saw of him alive.
On October 17, 1940, in the Bois de Caugnet between Saint-Antoine-l'Abbaye and Montagne, near Saint Marcellin, French hunters discovered Münzenberg's partially decomposed corpse at the foot of an oak tree. The initial newspaper report stated that the cause of death was strangulation caused by a 'knotted cord', though other sources state that the cause of death was a garrote (a weapon usually formed from a knotted rope or cord). The body was found resting upright on the knees, with a knotted cord draped over the skull. The knotted cord had apparently snapped soon after the body had been suspended from an overhead branch. The police investigation of the circumstances of his death, including the brief coroner's report, did not interrogate Münzenberg's fellow camp inmates, and cause of death was listed officially as suicide. However, several eyewitnesses at the prison camp, including Valentin Hartig and Hans Siemsen, reported that Münzenberg remained in high spirits both during his days at Chambaran and in the first days of his flight to freedom, whereupon they lost sight of their comrade. This tends to support the conclusion that Münzenberg was intentionally killed, either by Soviet NKVD agents or by party members acting on Stalin's orders.
Following the end of World War II, members of Münzenberg's circle that had survived both Stalin's purges and the war were closely tracked by the Abteilung Personalpolitik of the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschland (SED), the predecessor to the Stasi, the state security service of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). Among the most notable of these was the return to Paris of Münzenberg's former companion, Babette Gross, who since 1940 had been living in Mexico with the former Prussian finance minister Otto Klepper, and who married him after returning to Paris in 1947. SED agents reported that Gross was "spreading rumors" that Münzenberg had been murdered by Soviet state security agents.
Another theory is that Münzenberg was killed by German agents working for the Gestapo, who had apparently infiltrated his organization in 1939. One of the more interesting documents in the BStU (Bundesbeauftragte für die Stasi-Unterlagen, or East German Stasi state security files) is a letter referring to information obtained from the prewar Deutschen Institut für Militärgeschichte files in Potsdam. The letter was authored by the head of Haupabteilung I, Generalmajor Kleinjung, to Erich Mielke, who at the time was the Minister of State Security. Kleinjung informed him on 10 June 1969 that there was proof that a secret agent of the Gestapo with the code name ”V 49” had infiltrated into Münzenberg’s group in 1939. The identity of agent "V 49" remains unknown.
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- Münzenberg was disappointed that the 2nd Congress was unable to take up the matter of the Young Communist movement due to insufficient time and called an informal conference to discuss the so-called "youth question" for 7 August 1920. See: John Riddell (ed.), Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite!: Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920. In Two Volumes. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1991; vol. 2, pg. 773.
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- McMeekin, Sean, pp. 304-306: No attempt was made by the coroner to examine the neck vertebrae or the knotted cord to determine the traumatic force used to cause Münzenberg's death, a determination that could have provided evidence of foul play vs. an act of suicide.
- McMeekin, pp. 369-370: Only one alleged witness, Heinz Hirth, who first reported his version of Münzenberg's death in 1945 in a special report to the postwar KPD, asserted that the latter was suffering "extraordinary nervous tension". Hirth, who stated that he joined up with Münzenberg "in order to keep watch on him" stated that Münzenberg belatedly acknowledged his deviation from the party, confessing to Hirth that "he had committed very great errors that he could never make good", whereupon he began crying uncontrollably. Hirth claimed that the very next day he found Münzenberg's body hanging from a tree.
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