Puppets on a string

January 27, 1995

Many of the intellectuals who denounced Hitler and later proved such loud critics of the West were covertly manipulated by one of Stalin's master spies. Stephen Koch explains how he followed the trail of what he believes is one of the world's epic conspiracies.

It was a moment of vagrant curiosity about Noel Coward that eight years ago first made me stumble into the shadowy realm of the Soviet Union's clandestine manipulations of public opinion. Even Coward, that irrepressible British patriot, was touched by this cultural and political force, and it was a question about Coward that set my research in motion. The result became Double Lives, my study of the dynamic German communist and secret-service genius, Willi Munzenberg, a founder of the Comintern, and of the gallery of cynics and idealists whom Munzenberg and his men wove into a set of covertly controlled propaganda networks of opinion-makers in the service of Soviet power.

At an early stage of the new Marxist-Leninist regime, it became clear to Lenin and Stalin that to flourish and spread outside Russia the Revolution needed to co-opt and use non-communist opinion in every area. Among right-thinking intellectuals, a bias in favour of the Revolution had to be created in the West. Both the Revolution outside Russia and the consolidation of Soviet power required active Soviet manipulation, often with its source of direction kept covert.

Munzenberg was the central person outside Russia assigned this propaganda task. He brought to it buoyant energy, the mind of a tycoon, and genius that fused a talent for secret work with a flair for high publicity. Wittingly or unwittingly, writers, journalists, intellectuals, movie-makers, clerics, any leader of public discourse were targets for enlistment in Munzenberg's carefully and covertly controlled networks of fellow travellers and collaborators. The system Munzenberg invented survived the vicissitudes of the century, and even the regime's last darts could snare the unhappy Richard Gott and permit Oleg Gordievsky to speak of revelations to come.

As I began research, it began slowly to dawn on me that Munzenberg's once vast system was one of the more shadowy big stories left from the totalitarian era. Exploring it left me repeatedly astonished and changed. For one thing, Munzenberg's web at first seemed ubiquitous. It wasn't of course, but its reach was astonishing. From Hollywood to New York, from London and Berlin to Shanghai, the Comintern propaganda web guided public opinion on an array of causes that ranged from the Sacco and Vanzetti campaign to the pacifist movement of the early 1930s, to much in the anti-fascist movement of the 1930s, to the Spanish Civil War. In varying degrees of awareness, some of the most noteworthy people of the era were caught in Willi's web: Gide, Malraux, Hemingway, Lillian Hellman, H. G. Wells, Paul Nizan, the brothers Mann.

Munzenberg's own story ended in 1940, when he was almost certainly murdered by the NKVD, the forerunner of the KGB, in the south of France on the day France fell by which time he was the archetype of the man who knew too much.

How did Noel Coward get me going? A startling 1951 entry in Coward's diaries reports a day ruined by the telephone ringing off the hook. In Prague, at the infamous Slansky show trials, one of the communists about to be liquidated, Munzenberg's chief lieutenant, later nemesis, Otto Katz, had "confessed" to innumerable imaginary crimes, finishing with a flourish, claiming to have been lured into the British Secret Intelligence Services, and treason against the Revolution, by Noel Coward.

What on earth, the press wanted to know, was going on? Then and thereafter, Coward said nothing: "I wanted to reply to the press," he wrote, "that owing to recent dental surgery, my lips are sealed." By asking the same question, I took my first step into the wilderness of mirrors.

As it turned out, Coward had indeed crossed paths with Otto Katz, perfectly legitimately, seeking information about the German underground during the phoney war when Coward was chief of the British Propaganda Office in Paris. The real revelation was of Katz: one of the most phenomenal secret agents of the century. Months of detective work went into uncovering Otto's sinister path through culture and politics, from his origins as a friend of Kafka and Marlene Dietrich, to his manoeuvres in Berlin, London, Hollywood, Paris and Mexico; and finally to his complex, treacherous relation to Munzenberg.

My research was itself an adventure. I became a spy, prying open the cabinets of the past, probing my contacts, testing the combination locks of old lies and conspiracies until, in the silence of some archive, I turned an unexpected page, the tumblers of deception dropped into place, and an ancient encrusted door swung open at last.

Yet as I worked, I found myself struggling against some powerfully ingrained taboos. I have spent my life in the community of artists and intellectuals which was Willi's target. The shibboleths he shaped shaped me too. People I knew simply assumed that that amazingly gifted writer Whittaker Chambers must have been some sort of sickening moral freak. I recall my troubled hesitation before daring to check Chambers's Witness out of the Columbia University Library. (Of course I had never read it). I was halfway across the College Walk before it occurred to me that my unease before the taboo was part of my subject. My subject was likewise littered with forbidden words. Munzenberg was the past master of the communist front. Decent enlightened people like us did not use phrases like "communist front". It was weeks before I could type it out on the page. And perhaps only an American can understand my hours at the desk trying to contrive some way to write Double Lives without invoking the dread name of Alger Hiss.

All this began to open a new perspective on my own generation and time. I am 53, and thus a man of the 1960s. Between 1961 and 1966 I trudged, I am happy to say, through many a march for civil rights. Later I kept on marching, in my footsoldierly fashion, against American involvement in Vietnam. As a writer and novelist, I was swept up, albeit in argumentative ambivalence, in that triumph of radical rhetoric over liberalism that swept American intellectual life -- and much of the West -- in 1968.

To have lived through that meant I found the figure in the carpet of Double Lives peculiarly absorbing and troubling. Many of the 1960s prime moral myths were born in Munzenberg's shop. The mythologies of pacifism, the anti-fascist movement, the Spanish Civil War, and all the many ways in which hard-left ideas can be made to mingle with enlightened good intentions had found new fulfilment in my own generation. The weary rituals of anti-Americanism, dating to the Sacco-Vanzetti case and sweeping forward to the Cold War, had plain origins in what I was bringing to light. I found myself reconsidering the conventional wisdom on the Cold War. Was organised opposition to Stalin and his successors really so reprehensible? This led me to think in a new way about being American. I found myself changing from being a genteel anti-communist into a real one.

All this added up to a new orientation towards the much-discussed 1960s revolution. It was Munzenberg's great achievement overtly and covertly to exploit liberal goodwill for Stalinist ends.

Nobody I knew in the 1960s would ever have been so uncool as to endorse the Soviets. Yet, as 1968 drew nigh who were the models of "independent leftism?" Mao, Castro, "Uncle Ho". All politicians in the moral universe of Stalin; all sustained by precisely the kind of mendacious language that Munzenberg and the Soviet services have woven too well into the enlightened discourse of the West. Lurking in those fine feelings had been an unrecognised movement towards the totalitarian. In truth, the language of the New Left was in some significant measure the language of the Popular Front revived.

Munzenberg's operations had a powerful echo in what was the great moral drama of my generation: radicalism's revived and successful rhetorical attack, its inveterate war, against the liberal imagination. To have recognised this has been for many to move from left to right. I can understand this, but I refuse. To me it involves conceding victory to Munzenberg, to his effort to bind liberalism to a Marxist-Leninist juggernaut. I began this process as a centrist liberal, and a centrist liberal I remain.

Nonetheless, at the century's end, that radical imagination which dominated my youth stands near total discredit. Double Lives was my long encounter with that fact. It was an encounter Munzenberg enacted as conspiracy. We in the 1960s relived it as the moral crisis of the age.

Stephen Koch is chairman of the writing division of the school of arts, Columbia University, New York.

Double Lives: Stalin, Willi Munzenberg and the seduction of the Intellectuals is published by Harper Collins, price Pounds 20.

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