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The Red Millionaire
By Steven Martinovich
One of the most potent weapons in the arsenal of totalitarian regimes is propaganda. Along with preaching to the choir, propaganda subverts the enemy, saps their strength and sows dissension. The Soviet Union pioneered modern propaganda techniques and one of its foremost practitioners was Willi Münzenberg, a German communist who in the 1920s and 30s built a minor media empire designed to promote the Communist Party's line in Europe and the United States.
As Sean McMeekin's The Red Millionaire: A Political Biography of Willi Münzenberg, Moscow's Secret Propaganda Tsar in the West illustrates, the secret to being a successful propagandist -- besides ideological commitment -- is perhaps to have a bit of the flimflam man in you and Mü]nzenberg had both in spades. He was introduced to the socialist cause at an early age; a path that eventually led him to be a member of Vladimir Lenin's trusted inner circle in Switzerland. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, Münzenberg's devotion to the Soviet Union and the cause of international communism was unquestioned.
As good of a follower he was, Münzenberg was an even better con man. With the help of secret funding and logistical support from the Soviet Union, he managed to assemble a number of front organizations, newspapers and business interests into an effective network to promote communism. Along with prominent socialists and communists, he was able to recruit some of the leading intellectual lights of the day -- such as Albert Einstein -- to sign on to his campaigns, giving he and his efforts strong credibility.
His best known campaign, and the one that launched his career, was the Foreign Committee for the Organization of Worker Relief for the Hungry in Soviet Russia, ostensibly created to aid the victims of the 1921 famine in the Volga region. It was in most aspects an utter failure: most of the money raised went into buying failing businesses in the Soviet Union, it was unable to distract attention from the superb job that the American Relief Administration was conducting, and ultimately few people were fed by its efforts. It did, however, allow Münzenberg to create an international network that funneled money from around the world -- much of it from the United States -- into the service of promoting the Soviet Union.
As McMeekin illustrates, Münzenberg's efforts -- on orders from his Soviet paymasters -- did as much to hinder the cause of international communism as they did to aid it. At a time when German leftists needed to be united against the threat of Nazism, Joseph Stalin ordered Münzenberg and his fellow communists to use their resources to attack socialists and not their real enemy. Thanks to the resultant infighting, the Nazis were gradually able to gain enough power that their enemies -- and sometimes allies -- on the far left were no longer a threat. Münzenberg only barely made it to France as Gestapo agents fanned out to arrest him and his fellow travelers.
Stalin, The Red Millionaire documents, was ultimately the greatest danger that Münzenberg faced. After purging the Soviet Union of prominent communists who owed their position to Lenin, Stalin turned his attention to those in Europe and further abroad. Münzenberg, angry and disappointed by Stalin's alliance with Adolph Hitler, turned his back on the Soviet Union, though not communism itself, a decision that all but guaranteed his death by the countless NKVD agents that prowled across the world. The man, who was considered one of the most feared men just a few years earlier, was found dead in 1940 in a French field under what could only be considered suspicious circumstances.
The Red Millionaire is a well-researched and documented look at how the Soviet propaganda machine operated during its early years and a compelling look at one of the men who was its foremost operators. McMeekin does an admirable job in peeling away the layers that made up Münzenberg, illustrating both the man behind the famous name and his real legacy to the world. The Red Millionaire, along with being accessible history for non-academics, serves also as a cautionary tale for those who would serve evil. Totalitarian ideologies, as the example of Münzenberg shows, are just as capable of devouring the true believers as they are the innocent.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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