The Munzenberg Method, Then and Now

I’ve previously cited the advice given to writer Arthur Koestler (‘Darkness at Noon’) by Stalin’s master propagandist, Willi Munzenberg, in the days when Koestler was stil a Communist:

Don’t argue with them, Make them stink in the nose of the world. Make people curse and abominate them. Make them shudder with horror. That, Arturo, is propaganda!

See also this post about memes, in which I note that:

A very high proportion of political memes today would cause Munzenberg to nod in approval.

Searching to an unrelated post the other day, I ran across this 2007 post from CB author Helen:

Münzenberg was a German Communist, one of the few from a working class background. He was a deputy in the Reichstag and the owner of two newspapers and a publishing firm. He was also the most skilled propagandist the Soviet Union and its cause ever had. He did not write propaganda, he organized it, setting up hundreds of committees, using front organizations to run other front organizations, inspiring intellectuals to become fellow travelers and to manipulate other, innocent and ignorant intellectuals. In other words, he was the man who created the atmosphere in which it is considered to be normal to be on the left of the spectrum and intensely moral to support some of the worst tyrants in the world, as long as they seem to be a left-wing cause.

As Stephen Koch, author of “Double Lives” wrote in the New Criterion:

He wanted to instill the feeling, like a truth of nature, that seriously to criticize or challenge Soviet policy was the unfailing mark of a bad, bigoted, and probably stupid person, while support was equally infallible proof of a forward-looking mind committed to all that was best for humanity and marked by an uplifting refinement of sensibility.

Before 1933 he had been enormously successful in his organizational activity with his biggest achievement being the Sacco-Vanzetti case or, rather, the political activity around it. He took the case of two obscure Italian anarchists who had been accused of robbery and murder (of which Sacco was almost certainly guilty and Vanzetti possibly innocent) and turned it into a left-wing cause célèbre, achieving two things.

The campaign pulled together disparate left-wing and well-meaning individuals and organizations under covert Communist control, in the process destroying the anarchist movement in the United States.

Secondly, it countered the potent myth of the Open Door and the American Dream for immigrants, a rival myth to that of the Soviet utopia, by creating an image of America of a murderous, xenophobic society that destroys innocent immigrants if they happen to have the wrong political view.

We can date the irrational anti-Americanism so prevalent in Britain, Europe and the American left from that campaign. Münzenberg’s work lives on.

Whether or not the above overstates the long-term influence of Munzenberg and the Sacco-Vanzetti case…after all, there were a lot of other influences and factors in play…Stephen Koch’s point is surely a good description of the climate that so much of the media and of academia have been working diligently to create and to impose.

6 thoughts on “The Munzenberg Method, Then and Now”

  1. From the 2007 link:

    In the months leading up to Hitler taking power the entire KPD behaved with exemplary foolishness, underestimating the Nazis and concentrating on internal dissent, purges and the fight with the Social-Democrats. Münzenberg was part of that mess.

    This reminds me of how much time and effort the Gee Ohh Peeee establishment wasted fighting against Donald Trump and his supporters.

    But I’m sure our actual situation is like totally different from 1930s Germany because of at least as many reasons the number of crimes the Bad Orange Man committed.

    So no worries.

  2. IOW, in propaganda, the best defense is a good offense.

    Also from the 2007 link;

    And here is Koestler again, this time in 1951 after very prominently breaking with Communism. He is speaking about the situation of writers who have escaped from totalitarian countries…especially the Soviet-occupied countries in Eastern Europe…and about how the cultures of these writers and their countries can be preserved…

    Which reminds me of some interaction between two Nobel Prize-winning poets, both of who spent some time as diplomats: Czeslaw Milosz of Poland and Pablo Neruda of Chile. They met when both were diplomats in Paris in the late 1940s. Some time after, Czeslaw Milosz resigned his Polish diplomatic post in Paris and “defected”- some call it seeking asylum- to the West. Pablo Neruda, being the loyal Commie that he was all his life (Recall his Ode to Stalin), wrote an article for the French Commie rag disparaging Milosz’s “defection, “which Neruda titled “The Man Who Ran Away.” This was standard practice among Paris intellectuals of the era, who regarded Milosz as either a madman or a CIA agent.

    Milosz mentioned Neruda in “The Captive Mind,” stating that while Neruda knew a lot about Latin America, he had little credibility when he spoke about Eastern Europe. Some 15 years later, Neruda and Milosz ran into each other- at some literary conference, IIRC. Neruda approached him, “Czeslaw!” Milosz turned away. Neruda replied, “But Czeslaw, that was politics.” (Mark Eisner. Neruda: The Poet’s Calling.)

    Munzenberg, for all that he did for the cause, was shot at Stalin’s orders, after Munzenberg exhibited some independence of mind. Your posting about Munzenberg suggests to me that I should finally get around to reading a book or two about Munzenberg.

    Sean McMeekin The Red Millionaire: A Political Biography of Willy Münzenberg, Moscow’s Secret Propaganda Tsar in the West, 1917-1940

    John Green, Willi Münzenberg: Fighter Against Fascism and Stalinism

  3. The links to both Helen and Ali are excellent.

    My thoughts on the current situation run closely to Ali’s and her citation of Bezmenov is the best frame of reference to understand our current situation which is a subversion that relies on a biological metaphor of infection and autoimmunity whereby the body turns on itself. Helen’s analysis of Munzenberg also brings two other points to mind.

    The first is that propaganda still exists. We associate the term with its crude use by the Communists and Nazis, but in reality it is simply a psychological exercise that has been transformed into other forms such as information warfare. The second is that the power of such warfare comes from what Baudelaire said “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world he didn’t exist” only in this case it is an overly educated class who believes they are too smart to fall for such a trickery. Any con man would identify such fools as an easy mark.

    There’s much else that’s applicable to our current day, especially Lenin’s Who/Whom dichotomy

    We live in an era rife with information warfare operations of internal subversion. To pick just the most recent examples we have George Floyd, the COVID epidemic and lockdowns, and Jan. 6. The most current is also the one that is the most readily obvious; the aftermath of the 10/7 attacks, which points to the the still existent power of the legacy media in propaganda. One part of that power is to amplify a relatively small number of protests by scruffy, mentally ill people at elite campuses as some sort of moral crisis when in reality the best response is to state these people need psychiatric help and probably antibiotics.

    The second is more nefarious and centered on the “40,000” civilian dead. Back in October, the New York Times ran with a story regarding the supposed Israeli bombing of a Gaza hospital that killed hundreds of civilians. In a few days the story fell apart when it came out both that it was sourced by a Hamas-run agency and the visual image of the supposed carnage was some burned out cars in a parking lot. The NY Times pulled the story, but the main goal of the exercise was accomplished because it changed the frame of reference from the Hamas atrocities to any death caused by Israel. For the next several months, every media outlet breathlessly ran stories about “tens of thousands” of civilian deaths, a number that they admitted for a while was only sourced based on Haas-provided reports. Now they have dropped even that attribution because that number has been commonly accepted by “everyone”, even in the American government, and has become the basis for the current crisis.

  4. Theory one: subversion, an active process pursued by multiple interests.

    Theory two: entropy, accelerated by weariness, loss of faith, fundamental wandering from the rigors of civilization building and maintenance. Many such tales throughout the Old Testament and other histories.

    Or some of each, with the relative proportions varying over time.

    I suspect a catalyzing failure event is necessary to enable the resumption of decades of hard work restoring civilization.

  5. The essence of Propaganda is not to “Think” but to “Feel.” It is intended to create an emotional response in the target and to disable its reasoning and observation. “Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?”

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