Double Lives, by Stephen Koch
Double Lives: Spies and Writers in the Secret Soviet War of Ideas against the West.
by Stephen Koch.
Free Press. 400 pp. $24.95.
The end of the cold war has begun to generate a vast flood of “revisionist” literature, the gravamen of which is that for decades the West was largely fighting a phantom of its own fevered imagination. This is a view which had been around for some time, of course, but the peaceful collapse of the Soviet empire has given it a new and sustained lease on life. Stephen Koch’s Double Lives thus appears at a particularly opportune moment. By exploring and documenting the phenomenon of “soft” Soviet penetration of the West over decades, it acts as a corrective to the new wave of cold-war revisionism (and also to some of the more unsophisticated varieties of anti-Communist literature).
The theme of this book, simply stated, is that after an early period of post-revolutionary euphoria which led to disasters in Germany and Hungary, Moscow recognized that a full-dress Marxist revolution in the West was neither possible nor likely. After 1921, it therefore concluded that Soviet national interests were best advanced by manipulating Western states through non-Communist (and even non-revolutionary) personalities, institutions, and sources—“useful idiots,” in Lenin’s phrase.
The principal architect of this policy was a German by the name of Willi Münzenberg, who for two decades ran a bewilderingly complex array of front organizations, publishing houses, film companies, and aid campaigns from Berlin and later Paris. He was, Koch rightly remarks, “one of the unseen powers of 20th-century Europe,” and this book is in many ways his biography, written with the help of his nonagenarian widow.
But it is much more than that. Münzenberg was the generalissimo of a small army of agents (“Münzenberg’s men,” Koch calls them) who effectively influenced the policies of all of the major Western powers, including the United States, between 1921 and 1946. For this aspect of the tale, Koch draws upon the recently declassified Central Party Archives in Moscow, which include the papers of the Communist International (Comintern), and constructs highly persuasive and occasionally surprising accounts of a number of the major causes célèbres of interwar politics.
In Koch’s telling, Münzenberg’s particular genius was to recognize how ostensibly nonpolitical attitudes and impulses among Western intellectuals, clergy, artists, and also society leaders, businessmen, and politicians could be put to use for covert Soviet purposes. Münzenberg’s goal, Koch writes, was
to create for the right-thinking non-Communist West . . . the belief that . . . 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 mankind by an uplifting refinement of sensibility.
Münzenberg was also the first Communist operative to grasp how social snobbery and high fashion could be marshaled to serve Soviet purposes. This was particularly true in the Popular Front period (1935-39), which, Koch acidly observes,
wed high political righteousness to the drape of a sable coat, the Revolution with a perfect crease, confident with the easy aromatic grace that comes with a look of complete success . . . the Communism of country houses, the anti-fascism of evening gowns.
Once a fashionable opinion was launched, it could be depended upon to reproduce of its own accord; Münzenberg accurately referred to the creation of front groups as “rabbit breeding.”
Münzenberg’s first success in pursuing his brand of “righteousness politics” was to organize a vast relief effort in Western Europe to combat the 1919-21 famine in the Soviet Union—a famine that had been produced by the disastrous agricultural policies of the Communists. Münzenberg’s real achievement lay not so much in assuring the survival of the Soviet state, much less in piloting vitally-needed foodstuffs or medicines past an ideological cordon sanitaire. Rather, it lay in neutralizing the political fallout of the disaster itself. Thanks to Münzenberg’s committees in Western Europe and the United States, Moscow was allowed to have it both ways: it was rescued by the very societies it planned to destroy, and at the same time it was permitted to point the finger of responsibility for the famine at the White armies, at Western intervention—at anything but its own economic and agricultural policies.
The same bifurcation between the apparent and real motivations behind Soviet policy can be seen at work again and again in this book, and nowhere more dramatically than in the case of the Spanish civil war. There, Koch argues, Stalin’s objective was very decidedly not the victory of the Republic but the creation of front groups in Western Europe and the United States to raise money for other, less noble causes, as well as to wrap Stalinism—by now somewhat shopworn from the show trials in Moscow of former Bolshevik leaders—“in Byronic illusion.”
Indeed, Koch insists that Soviet “anti-fascism” in general was nothing but an illusion. In an especially audacious claim, he writes that Stalin sought an understanding with Hitler not in 1939, as most historians think, but from the very beginning of the Nazi regime. To justify this assertion, Koch produces what appears to be incontrovertible evidence: continuous contacts between the two dictators—hidden even from their own diplomats—from 1934 on. Stalin’s real objective, he writes, was to deflect Hitler westward, while reaching an agreement with him on the division of Eastern Europe. Thus, the “anti-fascist” pose so vigorously upheld by the Soviets was intended not to stem the spread of German power, but merely to ensure the pro-Soviet allegiances of “enlightened” circles in the West.
A somewhat similar approach explains Soviet policy toward developments in Great Britain and the United States. In Britain, Münzenberg’s men were utterly uninterested in the prospects for a Marxist labor movement or even a serious left-wing political alternative; instead, they preferred to concentrate on recruiting students at Oxford and Cambridge to penetrate the British establishment in the eventual service of Soviet espionage. An analogous movement in the United States produced the Ware-Hiss-Chambers ring, much of it made up of Ivy League graduates in New Deal Washington.
This part of the story is, of course, already well known. But Koch adds a new twist to the cultural dimensions of Soviet policy toward the United States. As early as the 1920’s, Münzenberg and his people recognized that the principal countermyth to the Soviet Revolution was “the idea of America” (emphasis in original). Thus, sensational events like the Sacco-Vanzetti case or the trial of the Scottsboro boys were seized upon not with a view toward establishing the innocence of the accused, but
to instill a reflexive loathing of the United States and its people. . . . To undermine the myth of the Land of Opportunity, the United States would be shown as an almost insanely xenophobic place, murderously hostile to foreigners.
During the 1930’s, Münzenberg’s chief agent in the United States was a Czech Communist by the name of Otto Katz, whose base of operations was—of all places—Hollywood. Katz’s purpose, in Koch’s words, was “to find lucrative berths for favored people in the German Communist Diaspora, to generate publicity for the Popular Front, to Stalinize the glamor culture,” and—not least—“to tap Hollywood’s great guilty wealth as a cash cow for the apparatus, an abundant provider of untraceable dollars.” In all of these activities he succeeded, and brilliantly so.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Münzenberg’s career lay in the sheer scale and audacity of his enterprises. They included funding and indirectly guiding the ideology of publications like Week in England and the daily PM in the United States, the Left Book Club in Britain, and glossy society magazines like Vu in France. More impressive than his entrepreneurial imagination, however, was his insight into human nature. For even though the Soviet Union is gone, and there is no Willi Münzenberg on the scene, the same “righteousness politics” continues to drive many Western intellectuals and politicians. Clearly the phenomenon explored here by Koch predates Communism and would seem destined long to survive it.
Inevitably, so ambitious a book suffers from methodological weaknesses. Some of the sources are incomplete or still partially classified; in other cases, crucial documents are missing. Moreover, although the author teaches writing at Columbia University, his own prose style is often crude and infelicitous. There is a tendency toward repetition, and a few too many obvious points are bludgeoned home by the promiscuous use of italics. The narrative is also somewhat disorganized. Yet none of these things succeeds in discounting the overall importance of Double Lives, a true and necessary chronicle of a shameful age.