First Person

Memories of Willi Munzenberg

The following are childhood memories of some people who were “Münzenberg Leute”—as they were then called. On my monthly visits to my mother, Münzenberg was too busy and too remote to bother with me. Yet I too fell under his spell when I first met him.

It was Easter 1929 and I was six. I had been invited on a trip to the Brocken—the bare peak in the Harz Mountains where witches, mounted on broomsticks, fly to a satanic party. My aunt Leni delivered me to my mother’s car—parked discreetly round the corner from my grandfather’s flat. I was in seventh heaven; sitting in front next to Emil the chauffeur, occasionally touching the two-tone klaxon and using the speaking horn to my mother and Willi in the back. (This car was the famous Lincoln that appears in most stories about Münzenberg’s lifestyle.)

When we arrived in the mountains, the Brocken road was closed by snow. Over supper in a pub in Wernegerode, Emil and Willi told me wonderful stories about fairies, witches, dwarfs, monks, princesses and strange creatures. When I fell asleep they played Skat. Emil appears in Münzenberg biographies as both chauffeur and bodyguard. To my mother and Münzenberg he was more like a younger brother—and an uncle to me and later to my own family.

The higher-up comrades in the German Communist Party did not trust each other. But those in the inner circle around Münzenberg did, called each other and Münzenberg by du instead of sie and stayed with him through his rise and fall. Emil Berger (1897–1973) came from a Berlin working-class family, served in the war, and was taken prisoner by the British in 1916. Following three happy years on a farm in Essex he came back to finish his training as a mechanic in Berlin. He joined the Communist Party and Münzenberg’s IAH (Internationale Arbeiter-Hilfe; Workers’ International Relief) in 1924. In 1928 he met “Hannchen” (Johanna Engel) who had just started as telephonist in the IAH office in 48 Wilhelmstrasse. She was eighteen.

My grandmother insisted I visit each of my parents on alternate months. My father used to come to Potsdam for my outing; he loved the park of Sans Souci. He avoided meeting my grandfather but he was made welcome by my grandmother. My mother was on good terms with her mother but never came to her parents’ home. When I was small, somebody would take me to Berlin; later at seven or eight I went alone by the suburban train direct from Potsdam. When my mother was late (she was always late) in meeting me at the Potsdamer Bahnhof in Berlin we had an arrangement that I was to walk next door to the Café Joost, where the Hungarian refugee waiters made a great fuss over me. Later again, I walked from the station up the Wilhelmstrasse to the office or through the Tiergarten to the flat in In Den Zelten. In 1930 in Berlin you were more likely to step in horse manure than to be hit by the slow-moving traffic.

In the IAH office I played quietly, making trains with paper clips on the floor and under the desk of Else Lange, the accountant, or Hannchen let me help her connect telephone numbers on her board. I had instructions not to bother my mother and Willi in their offices on the first floor nor to go to the second or third floors where the “Münzenberg People” worked. They were the writers and journalists, all committed communists, who produced articles, pamphlets, illustrated books, novels and films for Willi’s propaganda “concern”. Otto Katz, Egon Erwin Kisch and, later in Paris, Arthur Koestler put Willi’s ideas into reality. My father too had worked for the IAH in 1922–23 (and introduced my mother to Willi). He and many other intellectuals who were attracted to communism came from Jewish middle-class homes and believed that international socialism would abolish anti-Semitism and other bourgeois habits.

In 1926 the IAH became the Neuer Deutscher Verlag (NDV) with Willi and my mother as co-directors. As commercial manager she controlled the finances, including money, usually in US dollars, which passed between the Comintern and the NDV. Münzenberg’s newspapers and illustrated weeklies mostly lost money and were subsidised by the Russians. But other activities like the Universum Library and Metropol, the distributors of Russian films, did make money.

Round the corner from the office in the Wilhelmstrasse was Die Kurbel, an art house showing foreign and German socialist films. When I was ten my mother found out that I was an enthusiastic cinema-goer—The Perils of Pauline, Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, Keaton—and gave me fifty pfennig to see exciting Russian films like The General Line and The Battleship Potemkin. Further along the Unter den Linden was the Russian embassy. During the 1923–24 inflation period the people working for Willi went for lunch in the basement of the embassy; they were paid two to three US dollars a week which, according to my father, was enough to live on.

My mother preferred me to come to her flat at weekends rather than to the office. She and Willi rented a two-floor flat at 9a In Den Zelten, a street between the Tiergarten and the River Spree. The house belonged to Dr Magnus Hirschfeld, a “Sexual-Wissenschaftler”. His scientific institution and his home was next door. In 9a the ground floor and first floor were used to display exotic and unusual erotic items from all over the world. More were in display cases and on the walls in the living room and in the corridor on the second floor.

Along with the erotic exhibits in the flat came the furniture and Frau Krueger. The furniture, including the notorious Biedermeier settee, belonged to Professor Hirschfeld; Frau Krueger was employed by him after she had been sacked by her aristocratic employers when their estate in Mecklenburg went bankrupt. Münzenberg, according to my mother, was amused by the reactions of some visitors to the erotic exhibits. But she added that important visitors, like Gorky and Trotsky, were always met on neutral ground, usually in the Russian embassy.

When I visited the flat, I walked from the station through the Tiergarten to the Stern, then across what was called the Sieg Allee. Frau Krueger looked after me and would produce Bratkartoffel und drei Setzeier for lunch (the eggs must have been smaller then!). According to my aunt Grete, she saw me following Frau Krueger, dusting the exhibits, waving my feather duster and imitating Frau Krueger muttering “Schweinerei”. Frau Krueger held Münzenberg in high esteem—according to her he was em sehr edler Mensch (a noble man). When she was interrogated by the Gestapo after Münzenberg and my mother had fled in February 1933, she never admitted to having seen visiting the flat any of the people whose pictures were shown to her.

One of the more frequent visitors was Heinz Neumann, at that time twenty-eight or twenty-nine years old. He was the Wunderkind of the German Communist Party: he ascended to the executive committee of the party, and then became Stalin’s emissary and instigator of the failed communist Canton uprising of 1928. He not only spoke fluent Russian but also Georgian, as well as the usual French and English. The strategy of the party to fight the Socialists rather than the Nazis, which was a failure, led to his downfall with Stalin and his execution in Moscow in 1939. But in 1929 he moved into the small servant’s room opposite the front door.

I had to sleep on the Biedermeier settee in the living room surrounded by Professor Hirschfeld’s exhibits—I had no idea what they represented. I helped “Uncle Heinz” bring up his things in the small elevator—more books than I had ever seen before. He gave me five marks when we had finished and I added him to my list of favourite uncles.

A few weeks later I was taught a useful lesson not to blurt out things at inopportune times. This was in the old flat of my grandparents at Brauhausberg No. 1. They had gone out and my aunt Trude, my mother’s youngest sister, was baby sitting. I was in the bath when my aunt Grete arrived. Her house was in Babelsbergerstrasse, the other side of the railway, and ten minutes walk away. Grete’s house was used by the party for illegal visitors from abroad. After my cousins Barbara and Judith had been taken from their mother by the other grandparents I was not allowed to go there. But the house did not have a bath: so Tante Grete stripped, got in the bath and told me to “shove over”, and we sang communist KampfLieder. One of my favourites was “Wir fliegen und wir fliegen hoeher fuer die Soviet Union!” While the sisters were laughing and exchanging gossip I overheard the name Heinz Neumann. When I blurted out proudly that Uncle Heinz had given me five marks for helping him, I got a sharp jab in my side and a “Halt’s Maul!” (Shut up) and a warning never say to anything like that to my grandparents.

Although my Tante Grete was the most sympathetic and warm-hearted of the Thuering sisters, her break with her father was never healed. After her five years in Ravensbrueck she lived with her mother in Frankfurt for some time. After our joint bath I did not see her again for sixteen years—but she remained my favourite aunt.

Heinz Neumann’s relationship with Münzenberg was more problematic. Both remained “Linientreuer” (faithful to the party line). However, in 1935 Münzenberg and my mother implored Neumann and Grete to stay in France: Neumann had been imprisoned in Switzerland as an “undesirable alien” and only Russia would accept him. By 1935 Münzenberg had realised that his status as one of the “Old Bolsheviks” was no longer appreciated—particularly by the German Communist leadership of Ulbricht and Pieck. Neumann was even more hated for his policy in the days of Hitler’s takeover. But no entreaties persuaded him and they sailed off to Leningrad.

To the Baltic

In July 1931 my usual summer holiday with my Tante Leni at her holiday house on the Baltic coast was changed. My aunt was ill and my mother arranged an alternative. When I arrived in Berlin I was met by Emil with the office car. But during the short trip to the flat I smelled rather than saw that this was a different car. When we pulled up behind a similar Lincoln outside the house, Emil started laughing at my astonishment. We were all going north, in both cars; my mother drove the “real” office Lincoln with Willi (who could not drive) and Emil and I were to follow. The cars were identical except that the new one had white-walled tyres and red registration numbers rather than the usual black ones. Willi had told Emil to wait some time before following them—“not to cause undue interest”—and to meet in a certain town to change over. After he and my mother had left, Emil showed the new Lincoln to Frau Krueger but she refused “eine kleine Rundfahrt” through the Tiergarten.

As we drove north through the suburbs I pestered Emil with questions until he got fed up and started tickling me so that I was laughing and rolling on the floor. All he would tell me was that the new car was to be loaded on a ship in Stettin and was going to a very important “Uncle Josef” in Russia. After I had been dropped at Zingst and they had loaded the Lincoln in Stettin, all three would drive back to Berlin. Having accepted all this I crawled through the sliding window behind the driver’s seat into the passenger compartment in the back. The double seat was covered in light leather with an armrest in the middle, and there were two individual seats that could be pulled out from the division between driver and passengers, and a pull-out bar with small and larger bottle containers and a selection of different glasses. The floor had thick white pile carpet—Emil made me take my shoes off—and the side and rear windows had permanent white lace curtains as well as dark grey pull-down blinds. There were lights at the side and in the ceiling, and two small cut-glass flower vases. I loved the microphone for communication with the driver—only the passenger could switch it on and off.

In 1946, when I met Emil again in Mexico, and I was driving him over the Sierra Nevada between Vera Cruz and Mexico City, he told me the real story of the new Lincoln and the two previous ones. The Kremlin used Münzenberg’s “concern” to buy the cars through a cover importer in Holland. Emil drove them to Berlin and there they were bullet-proofed in a small factory in Neukoeln. Emil said he drove four cars to Berlin and delivered three for shipping from Stettin. The office Lincoln was the car in which he drove Münzenberg and my mother over the border into the Saar on the night of February 28, 1933. He delivered that last one to Antwerp for shipping to Russia that year: “after all the Russians owned it”. He complained that after the bullet-proofing each car weighed over two tons, handled like a tank and was difficult to stop on gravel and snow.

On our trip to the Baltic, Emil and I caught up with the other Lincoln in Barth, a small market town by the bridge to the Darsser peninsula. As we ate a late lunch in a café in the town square, quite a few onlookers—mainly children—looked at the cars. I still remember walking nonchalantly to the office car, getting in the front and sitting there proudly as my mother drove slowly across the square. Having crossed the railway bridge to the Darss (other traffic could use the bridge in between trains) I was dumped—as I thought—at the Kinderheim in Zingst. “Enjoy yourself and Tante Lily will come for you next week.” My mother never liked wasting time on sentimental occasions—a quick kiss and she was off. I hate Kinderheims and this was no different. Fortunately I was a good swimmer and most of the other children were not so the older boys did not bully me. So I swallowed my Haferbrei (oatgruel) at breakfast and waited for Tante Lily to take me to Ahrenshoop. She was my mother’s friend, and editor of the Universum Library, which was part of the Neuer Deutscher Verlag.

When she turned up I was bowled over. Her car was a white Horch tourer; compared to the Lincoln it was like a steam yacht to a dredger. In the back seat was a borzoi nearly as big as me; in the front seat was her daughter, Erika, of my age. Lily Corpus came from a family of shipowners and, like many of the generation of my mother, was attracted by communism and the comradeship of party members. She was the partner/wife of Johannes R. Becher, a writer and later Kulturminister in East Germany. Ahrenshoop was at the end of a sandy road at the edge of the Darsser Urwald (primeval forest), where there were wild pigs. Children had to be with an adult to visit the tall lighthouse at the tip of the Darsser peninsula.

The small fishing village had been taken over as an artist colony and the old tiny houses had been painted in bright colours. The beach was steep and stony, the surf too dangerous for swimming. People like Lily were sun worshippers and believed in Nacktkultur. In Ahrenshoop they were welcome, while in Zingst they had to go to the furthest beach. Lily was also a modern mother and believed that rationality was the key to bringing up children. Erika and I were allotted points for doing normal things—washing one’s face, brushing teeth, making the bed, finishing breakfast. For reaching twelve points the prize was an ice-cream with either strawberries or blueberries at the local café. When I reached my points before lunch and Erika had not got to six points by bed-time, the points allocation was extended to art and literature—who drew the best picture and made up the best story or poem. Now Erika beat me every time and started to talk to me again. The borzoi was taken for a “walk” after tea by letting him run after the car—he kept up at 50 kmh.

I enjoyed this fortnight with Tante Lily in Ahrenshoop, but I never met her again. I was supposed to meet her and Erika to visit the circus in Berlin just before Christmas 1931. I was to meet them outside the circus. When they had not come and the music for the first number started I went in: the woman at the desk accepted that my “Tante” and her daughter were coming and would pay for me. Poor Lily did not think I would be inside—she waited outside and by nine she had telephoned the police. At half past ten I came out of the circus, caught the underground to the station and arrived in Potsdam just before midnight. After my grandfather gave me a well-deserved spanking, my grandmother told me how my actions had caused alarm and fear to everybody.

Lily Corpus, J.R. Becher and Erika spent the war in Moscow, part of the German emigrant communist leadership who opposed Münzenberg and all other non-Stalinists (like the followers of Trotsky) and who then formed the government of East Germany. The visceral hatred between these communist groups and ex-comrades went deeper than their political opposition to the Nazis and similar parties. When I visited my mother in West Berlin in 1960 and asked about Lily (who was living in East Berlin) she refused to answer.

An Epilogue in Paris

After Hitler’s takeover in 1933 most of the people I have written about went abroad and some underground. For the next seven years I sent and received occasional postcards from my father in England but had no communication from my mother in Paris. Half of our family left Germany; my two cousins, with their grandparents, left for Israel. My Aunt Grete and Heinz Neumann were in Russia and the remaining “Münzenberg Leute” were with him and my mother in Paris. My grandparents hoped that my official status of Halb Jude (Category 1, with two Jewish grandparents) would allow them to look after me until I finished my secondary schooling. But following the Kristallnacht of November 1938 it was decided that I, too, must leave Germany. My passport had been confiscated by the Gestapo and in early January 1939 I was interrogated in their Potsdam office about what and from where I received mail from abroad and who had sent it. They finally mentioned Münzenberg and my mother by name and then showed me pictures of some people I did not know.

After my emigration to England in March 1939 I went to Paris in August for a holiday with my mother. She and Münzenberg lived in a newly-built working-class flat in Issy-les-Moulineux, south-west of Paris. I was then fifteen. My French was good enough to enable me to explore Paris and I was happy.

I have never been able to describe to anyone who did not live under any dictatorship what it was like. When I told Münzenberg about my encounter with the Gestapo he was pleased—their recent anti-Nazi leaflet drop had bothered the German authorities. Emigrants like to hear from their home country what the “man in the street” is thinking—in the case of a dictatorship a stupid query because no one in such a country would tell even their own brother what they think about their government.

Nevertheless the Münzenberg propaganda had effects: in 1938 both my mother and Münzenberg were—in absentia—convicted of anti-German activities and condemned to death. Their “anti-German” activities carried on up to the outbreak of the war.

In their office of Editions de Carrefour, Willi’s secretaries Hanz Schulz and Jopp Fuellenberg put into effect his stream of ideas. My mother handled all their French contacts—official, political and journalist. Her French was nearly perfect and she was the only member of the circle who could drive. (Having sent their Berlin Lincoln to Russia in 1934, they had acquired a green French-made Ford saloon.) Willi did not drive, and spoke in the broad and attractive German Thuringian dialect. But he switched to a rough, nasal but penetrating Hoch Deutsch in public. I only once heard him speaking in public, at a May meeting at Spandau as I sat on Emil’s shoulders.

Willi always met his collaborators, friends and authors in the same restaurant on the Boulevard Haussmann. He loved French food despite his increasingly irksome stomach ulcers, which started after his last Moscow visit in 1936. I was invited to some of these lunches and fell in love with the choice of goodies on the trolley. The conversations were almost entirely about the weakness of the West (Britain and France) in standing up to Hitler, and the position of Russia. On the whole the talk was above my head; but I do remember an occasion when a discussion between Arthur Koestler and Count Karolyi—first in German, but then in an increasingly heated Hungarian until both stood up and glared at each other—made everybody else at the table laugh.

At another luncheon party, at Olof Aschberg’s small chateau outside Paris, I had to eat with Aschberg’s children in the kitchen. Aschberg was a Swedish banker whom Willi had known since the early days of the Russian revolution. He had financed Die Zukunft, a German weekly that Willi started in September 1938. Its purpose was to unite all anti-Nazi emigrant writers and readers. At that luncheon party the discussion was not only about the future of Die Zukunft—which lasted until January 1940—but also how and when to leave France before the war started. Aschberg and his family left for Sweden but Münzenberg wanted to remain, so my mother told me after the war. After that outing, Willi’s advice to me, which he wrote in my autograph book, was (translated): “In life success comes only when you make the right move at the right time with all your daring and force.”

Two days before I was to leave for England, my mother invited me to go with her to Strasbourg. At le Gare d’Est the night train was full of recruits who had been called up and were going to the Maginot Line. Six of them made room when my mother opened the door of a compartment. When she had dealt with a nasty carbuncle on the neck of one of them, they talked freely. They came from farms in Picardy and they did not want to fight the Bosch. One thought Hitler had done great things for Germany. But all thought the Maginot Line would stop any German attack. By 1938 my mother, according to Emil, was speaking Paris patois; while I kept quiet and understood half what they said. They were two or three years older than me and I half agreed with them about their reluctance to go to war. In Namur they left the train.

After breakfast I climbed the single tower of the Strasbourg cathedral, at 140 metres the highest spire in Europe. My mother told me that she had come to pay a local printer (a German party member) who had printed the anti-Nazi leaflets which “trustworthy” boys fastened to balloons which the same printer filled with oxygen in the market place at night. The local police kept away but a local politician made the government in Paris stop this action. The balloon post was Münzenberg’s idea. There were two older balloon departure stations, one in Belgium and one in Holland.

After I came down from the cathedral I took the tram to the Rhine bridge. In a postcard to my father, dated August 23, 1939, I wrote “Ich sitze hier und glotze ueber den Rhein zu meiner Heimat”. My mother laughed when she saw it: “Very sentimental—you are lucky to be out of there.” Of course she was right. On the overcrowded channel ferry to Dover I and most of the English going home were reaching safety of a sort. To most of them England was home, for me it became first a welcome refuge and then my home too.

In my mother’s flat at Issy I slept in Emil’s room. He had recently come to Paris from a hospital in Barcelona. Following his flight from Germany with my mother and Münzenberg, he volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War in the International Brigade. He went to Russia in 1935 for training and was shipped from Odessa to Barcelona as driver-commander of a medium-sized Russian tank. He was injured and lost an eye in the only major tank battle of that war. The Russians wanted their own International Brigade members repatriated to Russia but fortunately Münzenberg and my mother knew the Loyalist Spanish foreign minister and the ambassador and managed to get Emil into France. When the war started in September 1939, he and most of the inner circle around Willi were interned, but not Willi because he was over fifty. Hans Schulz spent the whole war in France with the French partisans. Emil left Marseilles in July 1940 for Algiers and joined my mother and Else Lange in Mexico in 1942. He came back to West Germany in 1954 and finally married Hannchen after her adventurous escape from East Berlin in a truck under twenty tons of gravel. If Willi had been interned with Emil and Hans Schulz he probably would have survived the war.

On August 14, 1939, some of the inner members of Münzenberg’s circle came to the holiday house on the coast between Etretat and Fecamp which my mother rented every summer. It was Willi’s fiftieth birthday. As we celebrated Willi’s birthday, the Germans and the Russians were drawing up their non-aggression pact in Moscow which led to the invasion of Poland and the war. For Willi it was the end of his nearly twenty-year relationship with Russian bolshevism. But on his birthday, we all went down to the beach, my mother and I swam out to the “Needle” and la Porte d’Aval and the men sat on the sand with their trousers rolled up. Not one of them could swim. After lunch we stood round a small fire in the garden and sang—not communist Kampflieder this time but old sentimental German songs about the rosy past.

Peter Gross was born in Berlin in 1923. After his parents divorced in 1925, he was raised by his grandparents. His mother, Babette Gross, lived with Willi Münzenberg until his death in 1940; she wrote a biography of him in 1974. Peter Gross has lived in Australia since 1983.

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