Willi Münzenberg Was the Marxist Rupert Murdoch

In the 1920s and ’30s, German publisher Willi Münzenberg built a network of magazines, newspapers, and film studios that terrified big business interests. It became the largest left-wing media operation in history.

Brodski, Israilewitsch, Portrait of Willi Münzenberg, pencil on paper, 1920, Staatliches Historisches Museum. (Elizaveta Becker/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

A lot of our time is wasted, on the Left, complaining about the media. Not because it isn’t true that most newspapers and broadcasters are intrinsically hostile to the Left. They are, and they will remain so. The problem is more a failure of imagination, where we use privately owned platforms to lament, say, the Guardian. It is of course a liberal paper, speaking for liberals, and it has always been — the emphasis on its failure to report on us in the way that we might like is an after-effect of the absence of a media of our own.

Of course, over the last few years, many have tried to occupy the gap left by that absence — in the UK, Novara, Red Pepper, New Socialist, Double Down News, and, of course, Tribune itself; but our resources are meager by comparison, limiting what we can realistically do to counter the daily blizzard of bullshit. What might happen if we did have those resources?

There is one great historic example of when a left-wing organization had those resources and really went to town with them — that is, the German left-wing press of the Weimar Republic, under the supervision of the man one historian called “a Marxist Rupert Murdoch” — the German Communist Willi Münzenberg. Today, this figure, who ran one of the biggest and most successful media organizations in the world, is mostly forgotten; once remembered in the words of Walter Laqueur as “a cultural impresario of genius,” he now features only in exposé-style books about the “useful idiots” who were “duped” by commie propaganda, with titles such as Red Millionaire (Münzenberg lived modestly, and died penniless).

John Green’s Willi Münzenberg: Fighter against Fascism and Stalinism, just published by Routledge, provides the first book in English on the man that is really useful for the Left. It will win no awards for its prose, but it does something very important for the post-2008 era, when a resurgent Left still has to speak through the mouthpieces of someone else’s politics. It shows us what a truly large-scale left media could look like — and reminds us that the forces ranged against it will often come from within the Left.

The Beginnings of a Media Empire

Münzenberg was rare among the leaders of the German Communist Party (KPD) for coming from a working-class background — his father was a baker in the provincial industrial town of Erfurt, and Münzenberg became a socialist activist while working in a shoe factory as a teenager. He quickly rose through the ranks as a youth organizer on the far left of the Social Democratic Party, and met and befriended Lenin while in exile in Switzerland during the First World War.

When the new German Communist Party was founded after the war, Münzenberg was on, at first, its sectarian ultraleft. After being dismissed from his leadership role in the Communist Youth International when the new party decided to contest elections and seek alliances, Lenin decided that a better use for Münzenberg’s organizational talents would be as the organizer of a relief fund for the famine raging through Ukraine and western Russia in the aftermath of the postrevolutionary civil war. From this strange beginning, Münzenberg gradually constructed the most successful left-wing media organization in history.

The international famine relief efforts were then being led by the US government and Christian charities. Skeptical of their abilities and their likely political effects, Lenin wanted this supplemented by a fundraising effort from trade unions and workers’ parties; Münzenberg built this organization, known as Internationale Arbeiterhilfe (IAH) in German, Mezhrabpom in Russian, and International Workers’ Aid in English, as a truly international body, appealing for money and aid across the socialist and labor organizations of the world. It had great success in famine relief and has been credited with helping to save millions of lives, and was not wound up when the famine ended.

The first attempt to use this network afterward was to run factories in the USSR. This was a total failure, with German enthusiasts coming to villages and industrial towns with wild, unsuitable schemes which quickly crashed against Russian reality. Much more successful was when, using those networks, Münzenberg constructed a trust which gradually started taking over the newspapers of the Left, and opening film studios and distributors, building them into a media as modern, effective, fast, and slick as anything then being operated by the newspaper barons of the capitalist press.

Willi Munzenberg speaks at an International Workers’ Aid rally in Berlin on March 3, 1932. (ADN-Bildarchiv/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

One example of this was in film. Not only did Münzenberg’s film companies such as Prometheus and World Film license and release famous Soviet films such as Battleship Potemkin — a commercial failure in the Soviet Union that the Münzenberg Trust turned into a blockbuster in Germany — they also made their own films, which ranged from Soviet montage classics such as The Mother to the futuristic constructivist science-fiction oddity Aelita, to classics of the German Left such as Mother Krause’s Trip to Happiness and Bertolt Brecht and Slatan Dudow’s wonderful Kuhle Wampe. These films were professional, funny, involving, complex, and experimental, and most were big hits — when they managed to avoid being banned by the German censors.

These went alongside newspapers and, especially, illustrated magazines, such as the widely imitated AIZ, short for Arbeiter Illustrierte Zietung, or Workers Illustrated Newspaper. This began as a jargon-riddled, poorly printed propaganda sheet called Soviet Russia in Pictures, which the Münzenberg Trust, in 1924, turned into something very different. Magazines like AIZ combined good quality paper, modernist design, photomontages by John Heartfield, glossy photo reportage, and good writing, and broke several scandals before the mainstream press.

The look of these papers and magazines was hugely important for Münzenberg, not only in competing with the capitalist press on the newsstand but also in showing the democratic potential of new media. For Münzenberg, photography was a weapon in the class war, and his papers sponsored the popular worker photography movement, which even had its own publication, The Worker Photographer. Networks of clubs and reading groups were created by the trust that spread these ideas well beyond the already converted.

Moreover, front campaigns were regularly created using IAH’s resources and networks. Some of these were, of course, designed to take prominent intellectuals and public figures to the Soviet Union to write breathless “I have seen the future” propaganda pieces, but Green draws attention to more enduring connections, whether the campaign to support British trade unionists during the General Strike of 1926 or the Chinese textile workers in the mass strikes in Shanghai the following year. These culminated in the League Against Imperialism and Colonialism, a network of organizations which, at the famous Bandung Conference of 1955, the Indonesian leader Sukarno would credit as the start of an eventually victorious global liberation movement.

A Different Kind of Media

Throughout the career of the Münzenberg Trust, he and his companies operated with the funding of, but at arm’s length from, the Communist International and the KPD. Even during periods when contact with Social Democrats or Liberals was officially proscribed, Münzenberg’s papers were regularly publishing figures like the pacifist left-liberal Kurt Tucholsky, one of the most respected and widely read writers in Germany. This led to attacks as early as the late 1920s. Münzenberg defended his organizations as being an attempt “to interest those millions of apathetic and indifferent workers, who take no part in political life,” and “who simply have no ear for the propaganda of the Communist Party” in left-wing ideas. Judged in terms of the sales and reach of IAH-linked publications, this was clearly working, certainly more so than in the bitter, hectoring official press, like the Communist daily The Red Flag; but this coded attack on the KPD’s preference for jargon, sectarianism, and preaching to the converted did not pass unnoticed.

As infighting between communists and socialists and the indifference of liberals and conservatives helped Hitler into the Reichstag, it was clear that good magazines and popular films were not enough. Münzenberg fled Germany under a false passport when the Nazis came to power, and spent the rest of his life in France. His finest moment would come in exile, in the campaign his organizations waged against the Reichstag trial of 1933. The Bulgarian Communist Georgi Dimitrov was put on trial under the new Third Reich for allegedly setting fire to the German parliament. The counterevidence that this was nothing but a setup was assembled by Münzenberg in the Brown Book, widely and clandestinely distributed in Germany. This was widely credited with Dimitrov’s acquittal and the humiliation of his accuser, Hermann Goering; holding a free trial was not a mistake the Nazis would make again.

Münzenberg believed that the rise of fascism proved the importance of his ideas about effective propaganda and the need for alliances — he had travelled a long way from his days as a sectarian youth leader. Even in the Weimar Republic, he had refused to use his hugely successful paper the World in the Evening (Welt am Abend) to convey the Comintern line that the Social Democrats were “social fascists,” every bit as bad as actual fascists; when the Nazis came to power on a propaganda blitz of papers, slogans, films, and rallies masterminded by Josef Goebbels, Münzenberg considered himself grimly vindicated. But as an independent-minded, arm’s-length operator, he was distrusted by the Communist leadership. Fatefully, Münzenberg vented some of his frustrations in a July 1933 letter to Stalin. The man who would later insist that the newspaper of the international Communist movement be called For a Lasting Peace, for a People’s Democracy! was obviously not interested in sophisticated media theory. From then on, Green argues, Münzenberg was a marked man, and the Soviet archives reveal that, in 1937, Stalin and a clearly ungrateful Dimitrov had decided to eliminate Münzenberg as a “Trotskyist.”

The German party in exile, meanwhile, clearly considered him too big for his boots; they struck when he published his 1937 book Propaganda as a Weapon. They were particularly affronted by his recognition of the profound psychological effect of Nazi propaganda, and the failure of the Left to effectively combat it. As Münzenberg had written to Stalin in 1933, the Nazis “imitate our exemplary films, and the methods and ways we have organized our celebrations and mass campaigns”; these media campaigns had, he pointed out, led to him “being dubbed an American rabble-rouser.” Worse, as Wilhelm Pieck — later a leader of the East German state — argued in a denunciation of the book, Münzenberg “makes no use of Marxism, but rather an idealistic-psychologising methodology.” Evidently, one defeated fascism by quoting from Marx and Engels and denouncing anyone who didn’t.

Münzenberg quit the party and set up an independent press on the Left that denounced the show trials and, especially, the Nazi-Soviet Pact in his last newspaper, The Future (Die Zukunft). During the fall of France in 1940, Münzenberg was found hanged under suspicious circumstances, in an obscure village; Green makes clear there is no hard evidence that he was murdered, though reminds the reader that both the NKVD and the Gestapo were watching him at all times. Münzenberg had quipped in 1937 that Stalin and his secret policemen would “shoot me as they have the others, then ten years later they’ll say they have made a big mistake.” In the end, it took more like twenty years before he was celebrated as a hero in East Germany, but elsewhere, he gradually came to be forgotten.

His contacts in Britain included Labour MPs like Ellen Wilkinson, George Lansbury, and Aneurin Bevan, with whom Münzenberg once travelled around the United States on a speaking tour to raise awareness of the danger of fascism; as Green reveals in an intriguing chapter on the British secret service’s monitoring of Münzenberg, the Labour Party leadership proscribed International Workers Aid–linked organizations and reported on members who had dealings with them to MI5. But the British left has never really gone in for building institutions in the way IAH did; there has long been a suspicion of the dark arts of media, film, television, and such.

The sale of the Daily Herald by the trade unions in the ’60s left the Morning Star as the British left’s only daily newspaper. In other countries, the 1968 left created lasting media around dailies like TageszeitungIl Manifesto, and Liberation, but here, the only survivor of the New Left’s publications is Time Out, which after most of its staff were sacked gradually declined into its current status as a tourist freesheet. This makes the story of German Communist media very striking — it fought with the enemy’s own weapons, and did so, for a time, very successfully indeed.

The story of Willi Münzenberg is, in some ways, rooted in its time — the cult of the USSR, the huge funding that came with Comintern affiliations, and the novelty of photography and film, which are now entirely normal media that everyone is immersed in from birth. If we were to try something similar, it would look different and use different platforms and different technologies. But Münzenberg’s career as Marxist mogul shows us just some of the scale of what we can do when we decide to make our own media rather than complain about somebody else’s.