Walter Kendall 2001

The Communist International and the Turn from ‘Social-Fascism’ to the Popular Front

Source: Revolutionary History, Volume 8, no 1, 2001. It is an edited extract from Walter Kendall’s book World Revolution: The Russian Revolution and the Communist International, 1898-1935. This book was not published, but a copy of the manuscript was given by the author to Al Richardson, the late editor of Revolutionary History, and is now in the Richardson archive in the University of London’s Senate House Library. Another copy was passed to the British Library. Prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

I: The Charade of the Reichstag Fire Trial

One important feature of the ‘anti-fascist’ campaign was the movement ‘in defence’ of Georgi Dimitrov, ‘chief executive’ of the West European Bureau, launched by the Münzenberg apparat in the spring of 1933. Before this campaign began, Dimitrov was quite unknown outside the inner circles of the Comintern apparat. By contrast, burly ‘Teddy’ Thälmann, Stalin’s choice as ‘leader’ of the German Communist Party (KPD), was a figure of international renown. Both were held prisoner in Hitler’s jails. Yet the Comintern decided to campaign for the release of Dimitrov and not of Thälmann. Why?

It is true, of course, that Dimitrov was but one of several Communist defendants in the projected Reichstag Fire Trial. This, however, is a hardly sufficient explanation. It has been reported that under interrogation Dimitrov surrendered several aides to his captors. Certainly, he possessed far too many secrets of the Comintern apparat to be left safely in Nazi hands. In due course, it became apparent that Nazis and Communists, Germans and Russians, would be able to reach some mutual accommodation regarding Dimitrov’s fate. [1]

Thälmann was a very different case. If the Nazis were to release Thälmann, this would represent a major victory for the Comintern, a most important fillip to the few remaining cadres of the KPD still struggling desperately for survival in the face of repression. The Nazis had no wish to release Thälmann. Nor is there any good reason to suppose that either the Russians or the Comintern wished to see Thälmann go free. In Hitler’s jail Thälmann was a martyr, a most valuable asset to the Comintern cause. Out of jail he might emerge as a devastating critic of the Comintern policies which brought not only the KPD, but also Germany and, in due course, the whole of Europe, to so tragic a pass.

The Nazi case against Dimitrov and his associates was not in any case a strong one. It consisted, to use Soviet parlance, of an ‘amalgam’. The Nazis first adduced some evidence that the Dutch revolutionary Van der Lubbe, as a gesture of protest against Nazi rule, had started the Reichstag Fire. Then, in a rather unconvincing fashion, they sought to prove that Van der Lubbe, a left-wing revolutionary, a critic outside the ranks of the Comintern, had acted under the orders of the other defendants, Dimitrov, Popov, Tanev and Ernst Torgler, a deputy of the KPD. Otto Katz, [2] on Münzenberg’s instructions, now scoured Germany and the Netherlands for evidence with which to blacken Van der Lubbe’s character. When evidence was not forthcoming, Katz simply manufactured it. Münzenberg then gave these lies the widest possible distribution through the Comintern propaganda apparatus. Meanwhile, the Communist ‘Defence’ campaign was carefully orchestrated to exclude Van der Lubbe altogether, to add its own heavy weight to the Nazi contention that Van der Lubbe was the arsonist who had started the Reichstag Fire.

Dimitrov was not treated kindly in prison, yet by Nazi standards he received specially favoured treatment. Here he ‘took to studying German law and history... at the same time he read with interest the classics of German and world literature, Goethe, Shakespeare, Byron, Walter Scott... as well as books on Homer, Sophocles, Dante, Cervantes, Schiller and many others’. The Germans in due course put Dimitrov on trial. By this time, it appears probable that Dimitrov was already assured of his eventual release. [3]

At the time of his arrest, the Communists had denounced the Dutch revolutionary Van der Lubbe as ‘the tool of the Nazis’, had charged on worthless evidence that he was the homosexual lover of the Nazi leader Röhm, alleged that: ‘Van der Lubbe will confess to everything his employers ask him to confess... He will say against Dimitrov everything that is wanted. He will inculpate everyone whom his National Socialist friends wish to destroy.’ This was nothing but callous, cruel and defamatory nonsense. In the event, Van der Lubbe, even after months of intensive interrogation, refused to incriminate Dimitrov and his colleagues in any way, and this despite the fact that in this fashion he could have surely saved his own life. It was only in consequence of Van der Lubbe’s refusal to go along either with Nazi threats or with Nazi blandishments that in the end an undercover deal between the Communists and Nazis was successfully concluded. Van der Lubbe was to die; Dimitrov and his immediate associates were to go free. In his final plea before a Nazi court, Ernst Torgler, a Communist deputy, was to go so far as to state that had he known of Van der Lubbe’s plan to burn the Reichstag he would have been the first to denounce him to the police. Dimitrov in his concluding speech, already aware that the Public Prosecutor was proposing his own acquittal, and that the result of the trial would be that he would go free, denounced the 24-year-old Van der Lubbe with quite astonishing fury. The Dutch revolutionary, a member of the Young Communist League until April 1931, was declared by Dimitrov to be a ‘fool... carrying out his clumsy attempts at arson’, a ‘stupid tool’, a ‘miserable Faust... a declassed worker, a rebellious member of the scum of society’, a ‘creature’ with whom the four Communist defendants had ‘nothing in common’. As if this were not enough, Dimitrov, firm in the certainty of his own acquittal and that of his friends, went on to demand that Van der Lubbe be condemned. Not content with joining the Nazis in pronouncing Van der Lubbe guilty, Communist propaganda continued to pursue this hapless victim of Nazi Terror even beyond the grave – and this at a time when even the Nazis themselves had called off their campaign of persecution. In its volume entitled The Reichstag Fire Trial, the World Committee Against Fascism went out of its way to charge that Van der Lubbe died in ‘uttermost fear’, that unable to stand amidst his own ‘piercing shrieks’, he was ‘dragged to the scaffold by the headsmen’. No evidence was advanced for these assertions, and they appear to be without any shred of truth whatever. In January 1934, the Nazi-controlled German press published its own official account of the circumstances of Van der Lubbe’s execution. Not even Dr Goebbels’ Nazi propaganda machine found it necessary to report other than that the Dutch revolutionary Van der Lubbe had ‘listened calmly to the reading of the sentence and mounted the scaffold quietly and unaided’. [4]

Meantime, whilst van der Lubbe was left defenceless, Münzenberg brought to bear on behalf of Dimitrov all the talent and organisational resources he had deployed on behalf of ‘Noullens’ (Ruegg) a few years earlier. The campaign could be conducted with a great deal of confident bravura, not least because at a relatively early date Münzenberg must have been assured that the eventual outcome would be Dimitrov’s release.

Dimitrov was now used as a focus for the whole ‘anti-fascist’ campaign. Placed on trial at Leipzig in Nazi Germany in September 1933, after a forthright and courageous self-defence, Dimitrov was acquitted on 23 December. Three of the four other defendants, the Bulgarians Popov and Tanev and the German Communist Torgler, were acquitted at the same time. The Dutch revolutionary Van der Lubbe, without influential protectors, denounced in much the same fashion by Communists and Nazis alike, was sentenced to death, and was beheaded on 10 January 1934. The Nazis might have been expected to deport Dimitrov to Bulgaria where he was a ‘wanted man’ under sentence of death for his part in the 1923 uprising. A long jail sentence at the very least would have been the certain result. Instead, the Germans delayed a short while, and then, in February 1934, despatched Dimitrov by air directly to Moscow. [5]

The Russian government was now engaged in a thoroughgoing re-evaluation of its whole foreign policy. Germany, in the face of Soviet and KPD denunciations, had entered the League of Nations only in 1926. Hitler, following an immensely successful popular referendum, now put the Soviet and KPD policy into effect, and in October 1933 took Germany out of the League. This ‘anti-Western’ orientation did not at all bring with it a counterbalancing turn to the East, a rapprochement with Russia, as Stalin must have hoped, and had perhaps been given good reason to expect. In January 1934, the Germans concluded a non-aggression pact with the Poles, a measure clearly aimed at strengthening the position of Poland in the face of the Soviet Union.

In February 1934, the Austrian Socialists took up arms against the Fascist Dollfuss dictatorship, only to go down to a crushing defeat. That same month, the ‘Socialists are Fascists’ policy of the Comintern brought France to the very brink of a fascist take-over. Only at the last moment was the ‘party line’ reversed, and the French Communists instructed to close the breach they had opened in the working-class ranks, the breach through which in Germany Hitler, unopposed, had marched straight to power. [6]

In October 1933, the month Germany withdrew from the League of Nations, the French Foreign Minister Paul Boncourt proposed to Moscow a treaty of mutual defence against resurgent Nazi Germany. In November, the Roosevelt administration in the United States conferred diplomatic recognition on the Soviet Union. In September 1934, Russia joined the League of Nations, filling the place Nazi Germany had left vacant less than a year before. On 2 May 1935, a Franco-Russian Pact of Mutual Assistance was signed in Paris. On 15 May in Moscow, Pierre Laval met Joseph Stalin, and obtained from him a declaration that stated: ‘Stalin understands and fully approves the policy of national defence adopted by the French government in order to maintain its armed forces at the level necessary for security.’ This unilateral Russian declaration represented a reversal of all that the Bolshevik party, the Comintern and its Executive Committee (ECCI), the Amsterdam Anti-War Congress and the French Communist Party (PCF), had hitherto asserted on the topic of ‘national defence’. A Russian treaty with Czechoslovakia now followed that concluded with France.

The Thirteenth Plenum of the ECCI convened in Moscow in November-December 1933 in the midst of all this diplomatic turmoil. The Plenum reaffirmed the characterisation of Social Democracy as ‘Social-Fascism’, confirmed that the policy of the KPD in Germany had been correct, and decided to call the long overdue Seventh Congress of the Comintern ‘during the second half of 1934’. [7] In the months that followed, the Russian state, having failed to conclude a deal with the Nazis, made a decisive turn towards the ‘West’. The imminent evocation of revolution which had been the keynote of ‘Social Fascism’ was now put entirely to one side. The Popular Front, designed to swing mass support behind the new Russian foreign policy initiatives, was adopted in its place. The ECCI, the constitutional authority of the world Communist movement, the body which should have met to decide the foreign policy initiatives of the Russian party as much as those of any other, was simply ignored. The principles of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ on which the Comintern was allegedly based were overturned. The decisions of the First, Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Congresses regarding the refusal of Communist parties to participate in national defence, to vote for war credits or otherwise to support capitalist governments, were simply placed on one side as if they had never existed at all. By July-August 1935 when the Seventh Congress eventually convened, Social Democracy, hitherto the ‘main enemy’ of the Comintern, was henceforward to be wooed as a friend. Indeed the love match was to go further, bourgeois liberals, conservatives, even outright reactionaries, all could be brought into the fold, provided only that they would support the cause of a military alliance with the Soviet Union directed against the growing might of Nazi Germany.

New times demand new faces. Nothing more epitomised the new career on which Dimitrov, to his own surprise, now found himself launched than this. Stalin required a new leader of the Comintern, one untainted in the public eye with the catastrophic ‘social-fascist’ policies that he was engaged in putting to one side. Dimitrov’s ‘anti-fascism’ appeared beyond reproach. It had been demonstrated in a Nazi court, relayed around the world by the Münzenberg apparat, and widely praised, even by the organs of the capitalist press. Dimitrov, promoted to General Secretary of the Comintern, could be used to incarnate in his own person the turn to the new ‘Popular Front’, ‘anti-fascist’ line now getting under way. [8]

Even better, as Stalin and a few close associates were well aware, Dimitrov was a flawed man. The public image of the hero of the Reichstag Fire Trial was by no means entirely in accord with the facts. The man the innocents believed to be the architect of the Popular Front was in fact a longstanding leader of a party with a history of pronounced sectarianism, one that went back well before 1917. In April 1925, the Bulgarian party, of which Dimitrov was a leader, had exploded a bomb during a service in Sofia Cathedral, killing 100 people, and injuring 300 more. [9] At his trial, Dimitrov posed as a natural innocent, a hapless Bulgarian émigré, exiled unhappily in Germany. [10] In fact, Dimitrov was a long-serving Comintern functionary, the chief of the West European Bureau of the ECCI in Berlin. More than any other single person, Dimitrov was directly responsible for holding the KPD to the ‘Socialists are Fascists’ policy, which had opened the door through which Hitler and the Nazi Party marched directly to power. [11] In earlier days, Dimitrov had been known as a ‘most servile flatterer’ of Zinoviev, and this at a time when Zinoviev possessed no hold over him. [12] In the present circumstances, Dimitrov’s loyalty to Stalin, through thick and thin, come what may, was doubly, and even trebly assured.

The Comintern’s ‘anti-fascist’ policy resulted from the catastrophe it had brought upon the working-class movement in Germany. ‘Anti-fascism’ was developed into the Popular Front as a consequence of the changes in Russian foreign policy that Hitler’s victory itself brought about. The Popular Front ‘anti-fascist’ campaign was the least ‘Communist’, and yet by far the most successful, of any ever waged by the Comintern.

The PCF at the Amsterdam Anti-War Congress in August 1932 had denounced ‘war budgets, a vote for which is a dishonour and a crime’. Now, following the Stalin – Laval discussions in May 1935, the PCF discovered that ‘anti-fascism’ made it necessary to vote war credits to a ‘bourgeois’ government, and to give positive adherence to the cause of national defence. The League of Nations had been depicted by the World Anti-War Congress ‘as the immediate mouthpiece of the imperialist powers’ whose words ‘are words of peace, but its acts are acts of war’. [13] Russia’s decision to join the League was now presented by Communist parties everywhere as a further strengthening of the ‘anti-fascist front’. The diplomatic recognition conferred on Russia by Roosevelt was another ‘anti-fascist’ victory. This was soon followed by the US Communist Party’s belated recognition that Roosevelt was not a ‘fascist’ after all. ‘Anti-fascism’ provided the smokescreen under cover of which the Communist Party in Britain moved from putting up candidates against the ‘fascist’ Labour Party to withdrawing its candidates against Labour and Tory alike in the interests of ‘anti-fascist unity’.

Henceforward, the Comintern presented world politics in the most simple Manichean terms. The concerns of Communist parties shifted from domestic questions to those of foreign policy. The positively demonological role attributed to Nazi Germany by Comintern propaganda was deliberately designed to make it easier to attribute to Stalin’s Russia the role of some twentieth-century Sir Galahad sans peur et sans reproche. All this, of course, was a caricature of reality. Yet as Münzenberg, Katz and no doubt Stalin perceived, it possessed great ‘clarity of impact’, and that was precisely what Russia’s needs required.

The British Communists who had produced some 80 ‘delegates’ for the Amsterdam proceedings in August 1932, recruited a further 64 to attend the European Anti-Fascist Congress at the Salle Pleyel in Paris in June 1933. The headquarters for this ‘delegation’ were established in the premises of the Minority Movement, a British subsidiary of the Red International of Labour Unions. Another ‘delegation’ was mustered for the World Youth Anti-War Congress mounted in Paris during September 1933, and yet another for the International Women’s Conference against Fascism and War in August 1934. [14] In that same month of August 1934, Sheffield, a Yorkshire steel town, was used as the venue for a National Youth Congress Against War and Fascism organised as a follow-up to the Paris proceedings of the previous September. [15]

Under the auspices of the Workers International Relief (WIR – IAH), there now appeared in Britain a Relief Committee for the Victims of German Fascism, a British section of the World Committee established by Münzenberg on the Boulevard Montparnasse in Paris. In September 1933, the Relief Committee acted as the publishing agent for Münzenberg’s Brown Book of the Hitler Terror. Isobel Brown, a longstanding Communist Party functionary, was Secretary of the Workers International Relief. Alongside Isobel Brown as Joint-Secretary of the Relief Committee, there appeared Dorothy Woodman, an intimate friend of Kingsley Martin, the editor of the highly influential New Statesman. The Independent Labour Party appointed Jennie Lee, later the wife of Aneurin Bevan, as its representative. Ellen Wilkinson, later a minister in the 1945 Labour government, was prevailed upon to act as Treasurer. ‘Anti-fascism’ began to prove highly popular amongst sections of the leisured, literary, professional and cultured middle classes, and even more so amongst socialist militants. Before the end of 1933, the Relief Committee was able to muster on its platforms, alongside such Communist Party professionals as Ted Bramley and Isobel Brown, figures such as the Labour MP Sir Stafford Cripps, the intellectual Lancelot Hogben, and the leader of the ILP, James Maxton. By May 1934, the coverage had extended to include Aneurin Bevan, the Grand Rabbi Fraenkel, JBS Haldane, Naomi Mitchison, Lord Marley, the Under-Secretary of State for War in the second Labour government, Ellen Wilkinson and others. [16]

The Relief Committee for the Victims of German Fascism was one extremely effective means of mobilising hitherto unattached individuals in the service of the Comintern. The Reichstag Trial Defence Committee, despite its strange title, was to prove another. In this endeavour, Dorothy Woodman was again involved, on this occasion accompanied by Kingsley Martin in person, along with Harold Laski. Ivor Montagu, an upper-class Communist and ping-pong enthusiast of wealthy merchant banking vintage, was also prominent in the affairs of the Defence Committee.

During the Reichstag Trial itself, Münzenberg, whether by the good fortune of accidental discovery or by the device of artificial manufacture is not clear, provided for the defence ‘campaign’ a ‘sister’ to Georgi Dimitrov. This ‘sister’ was forthwith despatched on a wide-ranging propaganda tour. In Britain, the Reichstag Trial Defence Committee provided a welcoming delegation. Dorothy Woodman accommodated Dimitrov’s ‘sister’ at her London flat. After the acquittal, Dorothy Woodman and Ivor Montagu flew to Leipzig to make arrangements for Dimitrov’s release. [17] A few years later, Tanev and Popov, the defendants alongside Dimitrov in the Leipzig Fire Trial, and with him political refugees in Russia, were once again arrested and sentenced to long terms in Russian labour camps. Their once vocal supporters now remained silent, and raised not a single voice in their defence. [18]

‘Anti-fascism’ enabled the Communist Party to break out of the isolation enforced upon it by ‘social-fascism’, and to penetrate quite new social strata. Already by July 1934, a delegation to the German Embassy to protest against the continued imprisonment of the Communists Thälmann and Torgler was headed by Dowager Lady Barlow, and included figures such as Professor Lascelles Abercrombie, W Collard, Mrs Haden Guest, Lord Listowel, Evelyn Sharpe-Nevinson and Marie Seaton. Signatories of the letter delivered to the German Embassy on this occasion included Norman Angell, JA Hobson, CEM Joad, DN Pritt, Dora Russell and others. [19]

In March 1934, Lord Marley left Britain to conduct a 20-day tour of the USA ‘in defence’ of Thälmann. When Marley returned, Aneurin Bevan MP, the inimitable Willi Münzenberg, and a former Socialist minister in one of the governments of the Weimar Republic, set out to barnstorm around North America in Marley’s place. By the summer of 1935, the Relief Committee had at its disposal a sound film Free Thälmann, which it showed at its meetings around the country. The same film was surely used in other countries in just the same way. In June that year, in Strasbourg, close by the Franco-German border, an International Thälmann Day was celebrated. [20] The intention, however, seems to have been more propagandistic than practical.

The attention devoted by Comintern fronts to the professional middle classes was now supplemented by activity directed towards their children at university. The Students Vanguard, a Communist magazine for university students, was put into production sometime around the end of 1932. Early in 1933, the party set up its own Federation of Student Societies as a rival to the longstanding, more broadly-based University Labour Federation. [21]

Comintern attention to the universities was not new. Rather it now began to take a very different form. The Comintern had sought to influence students, notably at Cambridge, but also at Oxford, from a very early date. At Cambridge, Maurice Dobb was always an important figure. Philip Spratt, an undergraduate at Downing College in 1921, joined the Communist Party whilst at Cambridge, went to work for the Labour Research Department, and in 1926 was despatched by the CPGB on a Comintern mission to India. [22] However, until the early 1930s, the CPGB as a matter of policy paid but little attention to the organisation of students as a specific social group. After the Amsterdam Congress and Hitler’s rise to power, all this began to change.

Canvassing for a three-week-long student trip to Russia was under way in the universities as early as May 1933, a matter of months after the Nazis’ rise to power. In the September of that year, the CPGB was already able to muster 25 students for the 75-strong ‘delegation’ despatched to the World Youth Anti-War Congress in Paris. In April 1934, a Communist Party faction was present amongst students attending an International and Student Work Conference held at Flensburg in Nazi Germany. Fifty-eight individuals from 11 British universities attended a further World Congress Against War and Fascism held at Brussels on 29-31 December 1934. [23]

‘Anti-fascism’ thus provided the idiom under cover of which the first important Communist penetration of the British universities was made. However, by now ‘work’ for the Comintern took second place to ‘work’ for the Russian state. In the 1920s, Philip Spratt had gone to work for the Labour Research Department, and then travelled overseas to organise the Communist Party of India. In 1934, ‘Kim’ Philby enrolled directly in the service of the Russian state apparatus. So too did his colleagues Burgess, Maclean and others at the same time and thereafter. [24]

The professional middle classes were now much sought after by the Comintern, as were students and teachers. The technique, if not always original, was often direct. Eudocio Ravines, a hard-up Peruvian student with Communist leanings was approached by Henri Barbusse in Paris. ‘Do you have enough to live on?’, Barbusse enquired. The next month, Ravines found himself ‘working in the offices of the International des Travailleurs de L'Enseignement’, a Comintern front organisation, and ‘was assigned a monthly salary of a thousand francs’. [25] Writers were not to be neglected, either. An International Association of Proletarian Writers had been established in Moscow during the mid-1920s. Hitherto it had established no firm foothold on British soil. Now, early in 1933, there appeared for the first time a magazine titled Storm – Stories of the Workers’ Struggles, ‘The Only Magazine of Revolutionary Fiction’. [26] Opening shop at the end of the ‘Socialists are Fascists’ era, not least with the foundation of the Left Book Club in Britain, the literary fronts of the Comintern were soon to become propaganda agencies of real importance.

The Comintern did not restrict its work amongst the intelligentsia to writers alone. Organisations were also established to cater for actors, playwrights and musicians, Comintern counterparts of organisations already in being as a means of state control of the arts in the USSR. An International Union of Revolutionary Theatres (IURT), with headquarters in Moscow, was in operation already in 1932. Out of the ranks of IURT, in 1932, was created first the International Music Bureau, then the International Union of Revolutionary Musicians, with the composer Hans Eisler (the brother of Ruth Fischer) as World Chairman. The First International Music Conference was convened in Moscow during November 1932. Individuals from countries as diverse as Austria, the USA, France, Hungary, Belgium, Japan, Mexico, Lithuania and the Netherlands were present for the occasion. Already in 1933, the International Music Bureau of IURT had produced its own songbook, An International Collection of Revolutionary Songs. Out of this operation there appeared in Britain, under Comintern control, a Workers Music Association. In the same fashion in the USA, an American Music League is made manifest, an affiliate of the International Music Bureau in Moscow. [27] The same procedures were certainly repeated in many other countries as well.

The emergence of students, writers, theatre and music ‘fronts’ at the beginning of 1933 suggests that special funding for these activities had been provided as part of the ‘budget’ for the British section of the anti-war movement launched at the World Anti-War Congress held at Amsterdam in August 1932. Other aspects of the work of the British party seem to have received increased funding from the Comintern around the same time. The reason seems plain enough. Once Hitler had crushed the KPD, its role as pre-eminent ‘frontier guard’ of the Soviet Union passed to the parties in France, Britain and the USA. Henceforward these were funded on a scale vastly greater than before. In the mid-1930s, the size of their membership and the extent of their influence on public opinion increased markedly as a result. [28]

An observer from another planet briefly visiting our world early in 1933, and returning in mid-1935, would have found the Russo-Comintern metamorphosis from ‘social-fascism’ to the Popular Front complete. In these years, the whole world Communist movement had turned around 180 degrees on its axis, and appeared to be heading in a direction totally different from before. In fact, this appearance was pure illusion. The Comintern had pursued one course whilst Russia could rely on the tacit understanding of the Weimar Republic. It was forced to pursue quite another when the Russo-German entente dissolved. The interests of the party-state oligarchy ruling Russia were being pursued as before. In changed circumstances, however, the same ends were being pursued by different means. Our percipient extra-galactic observer would not have failed to report that whilst the goods in the shop window had changed completely, the organisation of the firm, and its immediate and long-term objectives, remained just the same.

As suggested in this article, and as official Communist historians confirm, Dimitrov was in fact in charge of the West European Bureau of the Comintern in Berlin from the spring of 1919 to the beginning of 1933. Thus the latter-day leading advocate of the Popular Front was by strange paradox the very same man who had on the spot imposed the disastrous ‘social fascist’ policy on the KPD which opened the door to Hitler’s conquest of power, and without which it certainly would not have been possible. [29]

II: The London Commission of Enquiry into the Reichstag Fire Trial

In the spring and summer of 1933, Münzenberg, on behalf of MOPR [30] in Moscow, began to organise his own Legal Commission of Enquiry into the Reichstag Fire. The Commission of Enquiry opened its proceedings in the London offices of the Law Society not long before the trial of the alleged incendiaries was about to commence. DN Pritt, a blindly pro-Soviet lawyer, served as Chairman of the investigating team. Involved also as members of the Commission were the Italian parliamentarian Nitti, Branting, son of the former Swedish Socialist premier, Gaston Bergery and Moro-Giafferi from France, Arthur Garfield Hayes from the USA, Pierre Vermeylen from Belgium, Van Huidt, a prominent lawyer from Denmark, and Bakker-Nort, a deputy from the Netherlands. Called as witnesses were a great many others, some being individuals of considerable stature in their own right. The Commission of Enquiry opened its hearings on 14 September. After examining a number of ‘witnesses’, the Enquiry, much in the manner of the later Moscow Trials, although in reverse order, declared the absent Communist accused innocent, and implied that the Nazis themselves were guilty on 20 September. The ‘verdict’ was published post-haste in no less than 15 languages. [31] The Leipzig Trial opened the next day to a very bad press.

The first major step in the new anti-German, [32] pro-Entente turn was the mounting of a European Anti-Fascist Congress. Originally planned for Prague, the congress was later scheduled for Copenhagen, and was eventually held over the two days of 4-5 June 1933 at the Salle Pleyel, a concert hall not far from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. The congress, like its predecessor in Amsterdam, was extremely well attended, the whole Comintern apparat devoting itself to making a success of the proceedings. The speeches were translated into seven languages. To heighten dramatic effect, those allegedly attending from Germany wore masks, the better to hide their identity from the Gestapo. [33] ‘Social-fascists’, however, continued to come under attack. At least one Italian Socialist who attended was set upon by stewards, beaten up, and tossed out of the hall. [34]

In the course of the Salle Pleyel proceedings, a World Committee Against War and Fascism was ‘elected’, and the so-called Amsterdam-Pleyel movement was launched. [35] Proposals were adopted to establish Leagues Against War and Fascism around the world. Thereafter, little by little, the anti-fascist committees which resulted were fused with the anti-war committees which had been the outcome of the Amsterdam proceedings during the previous year. Many who joined a movement to oppose the Treaty of Versailles in August 1932, before a full year was out found themselves members of a new movement pledged to its defence.

There can be no doubt that anti-fascism was popular. Socialists, trade unionists and democrats of every persuasion were profoundly shocked by the events unfolding in Germany day by day.

Hitler’s persecution of the Jews in particular produced many new adherents for the Communist cause. The large Jewish community in Germany maintained close links with other Jewish communities around the world. An important proportion of the world’s Jewish population had links with Russia from which country their parents or grandparents had emigrated around the turn of the century. Anti-fascism could thus be coupled with an attitude of adoration of Russia, ‘the Soviet Union, the land where no anti-Semitism exists’. In this fashion, support for Russian foreign policy was mobilised under the guise of anti-fascism. ‘Marxist-Leninists’ in the Jewish community denounced the concept of Zion in Palestine, only to take it up in a yet more extreme form in the Soviet Union.

This was a particularly cruel and dishonest hoax, as the Communist – Nazi Pact of 1939, and the bloody onslaught on Jewish culture which we now know took place during the Russian Purges, make plain. The Münzenberg – Comintern scenario was no less effective for that. Jews contributed an important contingent to those mobilised by the Münzenberg apparat to Russia’s cause under cover of the Amsterdam-Pleyel movement in the years of 1932-33 and thereafter.

* * *

Postscript: During my time at Oxford, I attended a lecture given by Willi Münzenberg’s widow. In the course of the subsequent discussion, I asked her how it was that in Berlin he appeared to operate his vast publishing and propaganda empire largely independent of KPD, and even Comintern, control. According to the evidence of Koestler and others, this seems to have been even more so when he shifted his base of operations to Paris after Hitler’s conquest of power in Germany. Münzenberg’s widow replied that on his frequent visits to Moscow he seemed to deal more frequently with the officials of the Foreign Office than those of any other organisations. This seems to be a question which merits much further research and investigation.


1. On this, see A Koestler, The Invisible Writing (London, 1953), p 203. Koestler was on Münzenberg’s personal staff, and hence privy to much otherwise secret information. See also F Borkenau, European Communism (London, 1953), pp 227-28; R Fischer, Stalin and German Communism (London, 1948), pp 308-09.

2. For the role of Katz in the Comintern campaign against Van der Lubbe, see P Barton, Prague a l'heure du Moscow (Paris, 1953), pp 55-58. French, Dutch and Belgian radicals drew attention to Katz’s activity at this time, but their statements were drowned in the flood of Comintern propaganda. Communist propaganda accepted the Nazi charge that Van der Lubbe started the Reichstag Fire, and added to it the additional charge that the Nazis themselves were involved. For example, Daily Worker (London edition, unless otherwise noted), 18 September 1933, 23 December 1933; The Brown Book of the Hitler Terror (London, 1933), pp 54-62.

3. Dimitrov, writes one of his Bulgarian Communist biographers, was ‘subjected to refined measures of torment... deprived of the cash he had on him and not allowed to receive newspapers’. For a month Dimitrov was deprived of his spectacles. Then they were returned. He was allowed to correspond with Henri Barbusse, with his mother in Moscow, and with others, including the Comintern functionary Vasil Kolarov, and to receive visitors. Dimitrov was forced to wear handcuffs constantly, a real hardship. Nevertheless, he was given a pen, and remained able to write. In comparison with the treatment accorded the average Communist in a Nazi jail, this was favourable treatment indeed. On this, see D Elazar (ed), George Dimitrov (Sofia, 1972), pp 117-18.

4. On all this, see The Brown Book, pp 54-62, 138; The Reichstag Fire Trial (London, 1934), pp 237, 240, 272. See also Daily Worker, 18 September 1933; L'Humanité (Paris), 9 and 17 December 1933; Barton, Prague a l'heure du Moscow, pp 55-56. In his final plea, Dimitrov demanded that the court ‘1. Recognise the absolute innocence of Torgler, Popov, Tanev and himself. 2. Regard Van der Lubbe as the tool of the foes of the working class...’ – in short find him guilty, condemn him to death (Daily Worker, 18 December 1933).

5. The three Bulgarians Dimitrov, Popov and Tanev were granted Russian citizenship on 15 February 1934, and flown to Moscow on 27 February. Torgler continued to be held by the Nazis. On this, see Elazar (ed), George Dimitrov, pp 143, 148; Spass Roussinov, ‘Introduction’ to G Dimitrov, Selected Works, Volume 1 (Sofia, 1967), p x; B Lazitch and MM Drachkovitch, Biographical Dictionary of the Comintern (Stanford, 1973), pp 78, 319, 336.

6. Thus: ‘Dimitrov met Maurice Thorez (Secretary of the French Communist Party) in Archangelskoe (near Moscow) in the middle of May 1934... [and] outlined before him the whole perspective of action, thus helping the party adopt the Comintern’s new formulations, to start negotiations with the leadership of the Socialist Party.’ The quotation is from Elazar, the official Bulgarian Communist biographer of Dimitrov (Elazar (ed), George Dimitrov, p 158).

7. Thirteenth Plenum of the ECCI: Theses and Decisions (London, 1934), p 4. The Plenum met between 28 November and 12 December 1933.

8. Dimitrov reached Moscow on 27 February 1934. On 29 April, he was appointed to the Political Secretariat of the ECCI, placed in charge of the Central European Secretariat. On 23 May, he was appointed to the Praesidium, and on 28 May appointed to deliver the keynote speech at the forthcoming Seventh World Congress. ‘As the most authoritative member of the Political Secretariat, he took over in fact the leadership of the Comintern.’ (Elazar (ed), George Dimitrov, p 150)

9. On the bomb incident, see Borkenau, European Communism, pp 238-42; EH Carr, Socialism in One Country, 1924-1926, Volume 3 (London, 1972), pp 409-11.

10. Dimitrov admitted only an association with Inprecorr, to ‘being in touch with the International Workers Relief’, and to ‘occasional contact... with the International Secretariat of the Red Relief’. Edith Bone in Berlin had been ‘doing translations for Georgi Dimitrov’s office’. The Nazis seem to have been unaware of Dimitrov’s relationship with the West European Bureau, a truly astonishing oversight. On this, E Bone, Seven Years Solitary (London, 1957), p 30; G Nollau, International Communism (New York, 1961), pp 144-45.

11. Thus in the edition of Dimitrov’s Selected Works published by the Communist Party in Bulgaria we find on page 443 an item by Dimitrov dated 15 July 1929, about the time of his appointment to command the West European Bureau. On page 444 we find an item dated 20 March 1933. There is nothing in between. On this see also the muted references to Dimitrov’s ‘new views’ and his ‘earlier views’ contained in Elazar, and the instances of Dimitrov’s advocacy of social fascism in Valtin. On this, Dimitrov, Selected Works, Volume 1, pp 443-44; Elazar (ed), George Dimitrov, pp 148-51; J Valtin, Out of the Night (New York, 1941), pp 201-03.

12. A Ciliga, The Russian Enigma (London, 1940), p 61.

13. Report and Manifesto of the World Anti-War Congress at Amsterdam, 27-29 August 1932 (London, 1932), pp 10, 12.

14. For a revealing account of the fraudulent fashion in which such ‘delegates’ were ‘elected’, in this case in respect of the United States, see HM Wicks, Eclipse of October (London, 1958), pp 315-16.

15. For the British events, see Report and Manifesto of the World Anti-War Congress at Amsterdam, pp 13-15, Daily Worker, 3 June 1933, 21 September 1933, 6 and 7 August 1934; Labour Party, The Communist Solar System (London, 1933), p 17.

16. On all this, see Daily Worker, 14 and 20 July 1933, 2 September 1933, 12 October 1933, 12 May 1934, 4 June 1934, 22 September 1934, 2 October, 1934; also New Leader (London) 26 May 1933, 30 June 1933; Koestler, The Invisible Writing, pp 198-201; Labour Party, The Communist Solar System, p 21.

17. For these details, see Marxism Today, August 1972, p 257; Daily Worker, 4 June 1933.

18. On this shameful episode, see R Conquest, The Great Terror (London, 1971), p 582; Lazitch and Drachkovitch, Biographical Dictionary of the Comintern, pp 319, 336, Nollau, International Communism, p 144; Valtin, Out of the Night, p 201. Tanev was killed during the Second World War. Popov was returned to Bulgaria in 1954, and was employed in the Foreign Office until his retirement.

19. Daily Worker, 14 July 1934.

20. Daily Worker (New York), 8 February 1934, 10 July 1934, cited in Helmut Gruber, ‘Willi Münzenberg: Propagandist For and Against the Comintern’, Survey, April 1965, pp 193-94; Daily Worker, 22 September 1934, Michael Foot, Aneurin Bevan, Volume 1 (London, 1962), p 172; Sight and Sound, 2/1976, p 73.

21. Student Vanguard (London), May 1933, p 2, October 1933, p 4; Daily Worker, 2 May 1933, 5 and 20 December 1933, 8 January 1934; Pat Sloan, John Cornford: A Memoir (London, 1938), pp 97-115.

22. P Spratt, Blowing up India (Calcutta, 1955), pp 1-40.

23. On this, see Student Vanguard, May 1933, p 7; Daily Worker, 21 September 1933, 27 April 1934, 20 December 1934.

24. The phenomenon itself is well known. For the view of a former Soviet intelligence operative, see A Orlov, Handbook of Intelligence and Guerrilla Warfare (Newport, 1963), pp 46, 108.

25. E Ravines, The Yenan Way (New York, 1951), pp 35-36.

26. The second issue of Storm is dated April 1933.

27. On these matters, see the precise Comintern source references provided in F Bentley, Thirty Years of Treason (London, 1971), pp 80-91.

28. On this, for example, see WG Krivitsky, I Was Stalin’s Agent (London, 1939), p 70.

29. For the evidence, see FI Firsov, ‘Georgi Dimitrov and the West European Bureau of the Comintern’, in Georgi Dimitrov an Outstanding Militant of the Comintern (Sofia, 1972), pp 48-78 and especially p 48.

30. The International Organisation for Aid to Revolutionaries (MOPR) , or Red Aid, had been set up in 1922 by the Soviet authorities to assist revolutionaries persecuted by bourgeois regimes.

31. The commission accepted the Nazi charge that Van Der Lubbe was guilty. On these events, see Daily Worker, 15-21 September 1933; R Gaucher, L'histoire Secrète du Parti Communiste Française (Paris, 1974), pp 254-55; Gruber, ‘Willi Münzenberg’, p 192.

32. The Russians sought to mobilise foreign opinion against fascism only in Germany. The fascist government of Italy, with which the Russian state had maintained amicable relations since 1923-24, was largely ignored.

33. On the preparations and the proceedings, see Daily Worker, 26 April – 23 May 1933, 2 June 1933, also Valtin, Out of the Night, pp 470-76; Inprecorr, 1932, pp 553-54, 574-75.

34. Alfonso Leonetti, an anti-fascist journalist, attended the congress properly furnished with a press card. The Italian Communists thereupon denounced him as a ‘social-fascist’, beat him up, and threw him out of the hall. Thus the Communists in Paris treated him much as the fascists had done beforehand in Milan. L'Humanité, the French Communist daily, published a statement justifying this behaviour on 21 June 1933. For an account of these events and the text of the statement in L'Humanité, see Il Ponte, February-March 1975, pp 224-26.

35. For a comment by Barbusse on the origins and internal politics of this organisation, see Ravines, The Yenan Way, pp 113-14.