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The Red Millionaire

The Red Millionaire: A Political Biography of Willy Münzenberg, Moscow’s Secret Propaganda Tsar in the West

Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 416
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  • Book Info
    The Red Millionaire
    Book Description:

    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.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13009-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-vii)
    (pp. viii-x)
  5. INTRODUCTION: Who in the World Is Willi Münzenberg?
    (pp. 1-4)

    Willi Münzenberg is little remembered today, but there was a time, not so long ago, when the utterance of his name aroused fear, loathing, and admiration among the world’s political classes. In the ideological warfare that convulsed Europe after the First World War, Münzenberg demonstrated formidable talents in the black arts of propaganda. At the height of his influence, Münzenberg controlled from his Berlin headquarters a seemingly invincible network of Communist front organizations—charities, publishers, newspapers, magazines, theaters, film studios, and cinema houses—which stretched, on paper at least, from Buenos Aires to Tokyo. Many of the interwar period’s most...

  6. PART 1. A Call to Arms

    • CHAPTER 1 Erfurt
      (pp. 7-17)

      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...

    • CHAPTER 2 Zurich
      (pp. 18-73)

      Willi’s first attempt to leave the struggles of Erfurt behind was shortlived. His money was rapidly depleted by the costs of food and lodging as he and his friend made their way southwest through the forests of Thuringia. In Hessen, Willi and his companion stopped in Offenbach-am-Main to look for work. The two were nearly broke when they met up with members of Offenbach’s Youth Socialist group, who arranged a modest disbursement of unemployment relief from the local union for the two wanderers. Willi’s friend, homesick, used the money to return to Erfurt; but Willi was determined to press on....

    • CHAPTER 3 Stuttgart
      (pp. 74-85)

      Münzenberg’s first experiences in postwar Germany were not auspicious. The border crossing at Singen was not well lit, and soon after Münzenberg crossed it on the evening of 12 November, he lost his footing and fell into a muddy ditch. The hands that helped him to his feet belonged to a German soldier, who promptly turned him over to the military police for questioning. The next morning, Münzenberg was marched to departmental headquarters in Singen’s Hauptbahnhof, and was dismayed by the peace and quiet in the town. “I was shocked,” he later recalled, “to see nothing of the Revolution; I...

    • CHAPTER 4 Berlin
      (pp. 86-90)

      Berlin was an obvious destination for Münzenberg once he became a fugitive in Württemberg, and not merely because it was Germany’s political epicenter and home to the headquarters of the KPD Zentrale (though after the crackdown on the Spartacists the party had gone underground). In the disillusioned aftermath of Germany’s defeat in 1918, the Prussian capital teemed with disbanded soldiers, political refugees (many of them Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks, like Vladimir Nabokov), and currency speculators from all over the world, offering in its human chaos a possibility for anonymity unmatched elsewhere in Germany. Everyone, it seemed, was seeking his or...

    • CHAPTER 5 Moscow
      (pp. 91-100)

      After the Bolsheviks evacuated European Petrograd for the ancient Russian capital of Muscovy in March 1918, the Moscow Kremlin rapidly assumed an almost mystical status for socialists all over the world. Inside the stone walls of this great fortress, constructed by Italian architects in the fifteenth century, Lenin’s embattled communist regime holed up as if in hiding from its many domestic and foreign enemies. Outside the gates of the Kremlin, the war raged on, even after the Bolsheviks surrendered to Germany at Brest-Litovsk in March 1918. There was the first armed White resistance to Red rule, launched by the generals...

  7. PART 2. The Red Millionaire

    • CHAPTER 6 Selling the Famine
      (pp. 103-122)

      In May and June 1921, a ghastly drought descended upon European Russia. The Volga flowed at its lowest level in years, its waters only weakly replenished by the spring thaw. Wells ran dry and “grain was burned as it came up from the ground.” Hungry peasants ate this burnt wheat, along with grass, weeds, and bark, to keep from starving. The few existing grain reserves were quickly exhausted, and many famished peasants fled their villages, rampaging through the countryside looking for food. Typhus, cholera, typhoid fever, and smallpox raged through the affected area, rumors of cannibalism were rampant, and famine...

    • CHAPTER 7 Building Socialism
      (pp. 123-143)

      The Volga famine was only the most dramatic example of the social apocalypse in Soviet Russia resulting from Bolshevik policies. Much as agricultural production sank to near zero when the Kremlin stepped up its war on the peasantry after defeating the White armies in the Civil War, so too did the output of industrial and consumer goods in Russia drop precipitously in response to Moscow’s efforts to ban market activity by force. Between 1918 and 1920, a series of Soviet decrees outlawed private trade and retail, while nationalizing (at least in theory) not only agriculture but also industry, mining, banking,...

    • CHAPTER 8 Germany Red or Black
      (pp. 144-162)

      Since his arrest in Stuttgart during the Spartacist uprising of January 1919, Münzenberg had remained largely aloof from German political affairs. Like most Communists in Berlin, he had been caught unawares by the right-wing Kapp Putsch in March 1920 and played no role in the general strike that overthrew the short-lived regime. The following year, Münzenberg was busy preparing his last stand for keeping the Youth International in Berlin when the ill-starred Communist-led uprising known as the “March action” struck Germany like a thunderclap. Wrapped up in youth affairs, Münzenberg did not participate in the acrimonious debate over tactics that...

    • CHAPTER 9 Follow the Money
      (pp. 163-173)

      While the antifascist initiative and the new German “famine relief” drive did much to improve Münzenberg’s political standing in the KPD, neither promised to ease ongoing tensions between the International Worker Relief and other national Communist parties. The pointblank refusal by the French to join the German hunger campaign escalated still further a war Münzenberg was already waging with his enemies over control of Comintern cash flow, which was beginning to dry up now that the Bolsheviks had blown so much of the looted wealth of Imperial Russia on the botched German adventures of 1919, 1921, and 1923. So desperate...

    • CHAPTER 10 Hollywood East
      (pp. 174-192)

      If there was a silver lining buried somewhere inside the scandal-ridden depths of Münzenberg’s commercial empire, we might best look for it in the record of the IAH’s well-publicized foray into the international film business. European cinema was just coming into its own in the 1920s, the golden age of silent film, and fortunately for Münzenberg, the most vibrant production centers in postwar Europe were almost without question his own dual haunts, Berlin and Moscow. Probing for inspiration amidst the cultural ruins of Europe’s two postwar pariah states, German and Russian directors in their turn introduced to the world such...

    • CHAPTER 11 Preempting the Peace
      (pp. 193-203)

      Over the first half-decade of the IAH’s existence, Münzenberg was able to carve out a seemingly viable, though always hotly contested, niche for the organization in the communist world. Whenever humanitarian crises arose, the IAH would lay formal claim to any revenues raised by Comintern member parties in the name of the disaster victims, whether or not the parties actually turned this money over to Münzenberg. This questionable model of fund-raising by wishful thinking was painfully exposed in the Volga funds embezzlement controversy and the turf war with MOPR. It reached ever more absurd apogees in the phantom “Japanese earthquake...

    • CHAPTER 12 The Red Millionaire
      (pp. 204-221)

      On the eve of his triumph at Brussels in February 1927, Münzenberg moved permanently into a luxurious new apartment in Berlin Tiergarten at Zeltenstrasse 9a, in a prestigious neighborhood populated mainly by retired military officers and government officials. Since leaving Switzerland eight years before, he had lived a more or less itinerant life in Berlin, spending long hours and frequently working all night at the IAH lair in the Soviet embassy, often switching apartments so as to frustrate police spies, and leaving the city for weeks at a time on official IAH business. Although the apartment Münzenberg most often stayed...

    • CHAPTER 13 Tango with the Devil
      (pp. 222-252)

      On 29 October 1929, a date that would soon live in infamy as “Black Tuesday,” a careening stock sell-off that had begun the week before on the New York Stock Exchange turned into a rout, and panic descended on most of the world’s financial markets. An economic downturn had begun in Europe as early as 1928, drying up demand for U.S. exports and leaving few outlets for American goods when the Wall Street crash undermined domestic confidence the following autumn. The production crisis was exacerbated further by the doctrinal commitment of Western governments to the gold standard, which left central...

  8. PART 3. Flight

    • CHAPTER 14 The Fire This Time
      (pp. 255-269)

      When Adolf Hitler was ushered into power on 30 January 1933, few in Germany really expected him to be an effective chancellor. Both Hugenberg and Papen, who took the (ostensibly) crucial positions of economics minister and vice chancellor in Hitler’s government, believed the excitable would-be dictator was now under their control. The only other Nazis in the new Cabinet were Wilhelm Frick, the minister of the interior, and Hermann Göring, a minister without portfolio (although he was also Prussian minister of the interior). Hitler, outnumbered by non-Nazis eight to three in the Cabinet, appeared to be a weak “parliamentary” chancellor,...

    • CHAPTER 15 Reckoning
      (pp. 270-294)

      The stunning political developments in Germany in 1933 breathed new life into Münzenberg’s propaganda network, but at the same time they uprooted the institutional framework that had so long sustained it. Reconstituting the once-mighty Münzenberg trust was not as simple as transferring headquarters from Berlin to Paris and winning new Kremlin subsidies for the London countertrial. Without a new, permanent mandate from Moscow, Münzenberg would need to beg continuously for ad hoc funding for his various Paris committees, which were eating up so much Kremlin cash already that there was little left over for the IAH. By November 1933, the...

    • CHAPTER 16 A Paris Exile
      (pp. 295-308)

      As war clouds gathered over Europe in 1938, Münzenberg entered a strange political twilight, where the boundaries between loyalty and disloyalty, truth and falsehood, friends and enemies, were nebulous and ill defined. Although the KPD renegade had no illusions about Hitler’s plans for a war of conquest—made increasingly plain over the course of the year through the Austrian Anschluss in March and the abject Munich agreement of September—Münzenberg no longer knew on whom he could rely politically to oppose Hitler’s advance. Although he had given up on Ulbricht, Münzenberg still thought Dimitrov and Stalin would come around to...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 309-370)
    (pp. 371-380)
    (pp. 381-384)
  12. INDEX
    (pp. 385-397)