Wilhelm "Willi" Münzenberg (14 August 1889, Erfurt, Germany - June 1940, Saint-Marcellin, France) was a German Communist political activist and publisher. 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 the USSR 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 émigré 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.
Münzenberg was born 14 August 1889 in Erfurt, in the Prussian Province of Saxony (present-day Thuringia). 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). When the SPD split in 1914 between the moderate Majority SPD (MSPD) and the radical Independent SPD (USPD) over the issue of World War I, Münzenberg sided with the USPD.
In 1924, Münzenberg was elected to the Reichstag as a KPD member. He served until the KPD was banned in 1933. Münzenberg was one of the few KPD leaders in 1933, and one of the few of working-class origin, which was a source of immense pride for him.
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. Münzenberg was reputed to have raised millions of dollars for aid to the Soviet Union during the famine through his famous organization Internationale Arbeiter-Hilfe (IAH; "Workers International Relief"), based in Berlin. 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 in 1917-22 and as the OGPU in 1922-34) to advance the Communist cause internationally.
To broaden the Comintern's influence, Münzenberg created numerous front organizations, which he termed "Innocents' Clubs". These front groups, such the Friends of Soviet Russia, the World League Against Imperialism and Workers International Relief were superficially devoted to an undeniably benign cause such as famine relief, anti-imperialism or peace, but 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 World Congress Against War was held in Amsterdam on 27-29 August 1932 and was attended by more than 2,000 delegates from 27 countries. Following the meeting, Münzenberg formed the permanent World Committee Against War and Fascism, based in Berlin. The Executive Committee of the Communist International was uncomfortable with Münzenberg's views and replaced him with Bulgarian Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov. Early the next year, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. The World Committee had to move its headquarters to Paris and Münzenberg resumed the leadership.
Dimitrov was arrested and tried on a charge of responsibility for the 1933 Reichstag fire. The League Against Imperialism organised a counter-trial, which concluded that the Nazis had set the fire themselves.
As he was barred from entering Britain at the time of the trial, Münzenberg went to the United States instead. He toured the northeastern and midwestern US in June 1934 with Welsh Labour figure Aneurin Bevan, his wife 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 Joseph Lyons government declared Kisch as "undesirable as an inhabitant of, or visitor to, the Commonwealth" and attempted to exclude Kisch from Australia. With the government unable to produce any legal proof that Kisch was a communist, its 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, and movie stars such as Paul Muni, Melvyn Douglas, and James Cagney all agreed to sponsor the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.
Münzenberg lived intermittently in Paris from 1933 to 1940. He took 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 had some role in recruiting Kim Philby to work for the Soviet Union, but there is no clear evidence. The argument for the theory is that Philby was recruited to work for Soviet intelligence by 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, urged him to take up an offer from Dimitrov, then residing in Moscow, to return there and assume other missions on behalf of the Comintern. Münzenberg refused.
Having been expelled from the German Communist Party (KPD), 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 antifascism, Die Zukunft, was the intellectual forerunner of Encounter and other Cold War publications. Münzenberg continued to work on behalf of antifascist causes throughout Western Europe, where he played a role in recruiting volunteers and acquiring Soviet arms for the International Brigades which fought for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War.
In June 1940, Münzenberg fled from Paris, where he had been making anti-Nazi broadcasts, 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. There, another camp inmate, unknown to Münzenberg and his colleagues, befriended Münzenberg and proposed that the two of them escape in the chaos of the Armistice. Some sources believe the 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[dubious ]. 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" but 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 after which they lost sight of their comrade.
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 most notable documents in the Bundesbeauftragte für die Stasi-Unterlagen ("Federal Commission For Stasi Documents") archive is a letter referring to information obtained from the prewar Deutsches Institut für Militärgeschichte files in Potsdam. On 10 June 1969, the head of Hauptabteilung I, Generalmajor Kleinjung (de), wrote to Erich Mielke, then Minister of State Security, The letter stated that there was proof that a secret agent of the Gestapo with the code name V 49 had infiltrated Münzenberg's group in 1939. The identity of the agent remains unknown. The widely circulated theory that he was executed by the NKVD was also countered by the theory of Wilhelm Leo's son, Gerhard, in his reminiscences of the French Resistance: that Wilhelm Leo escaped the Chambaran Internment Camp with Münzenberg and confirmed that he committed suicide, as confirmed by French investigators.
Arthur Koestler wrote 1949 about the death of Willi Münzenberg: He "was murdered in the summer of 1940 under the usual lurid and mysterious circumstances; as usual in such cases, the murderers are unknown and there are only indirect clues, all pointing in one direction like magnetic needles to the pole"