Monday, June 4, 2007

Willi Munzenberg and the genesis of Amnesty International

Charles at Little Green Footballs links to an article about the origin of Amnesty International, by one who was there. Willi Munzenberg features prominently.

Münzenberg perceived, almost intuitively, that societies experiencing the warm secular embrace of industrial modernity were afflicted by a critical depletion of that moral justification which is “one of our deepest needs, one of our most powerful and essential human drives, ignored at our cost and peril”.24 Lacking any formal knowledge of theology, history or sociology, he understood in practice the importance of “righteousness” in human life. Correctly perceiving the dearth of this definitive ingredient among the middle and upper strata of Western European society, he deployed his formidable propaganda machine to the task of producing a sufficiency of convincing, immaculate and soul-enhancing righteous causes to fill the vacuum.

Münzenberg correctly guessed that once a suitable cause had been hammered onto the public consciousness, it would not be difficult to lure his “innocents”—earlier and more brutally dubbed “useful idiots” by Lenin—to contribute their names, prestige and funds to well-organised “innocents’ clubs” manipulated into delivering the desired result by strategically placed activists, preferably not members of the Communist Party. Those invited to join and ostensibly to lead these organisations were invariably well-intentioned, socially respectable personages eager to play a constructive role in the struggle for social justice while satisfying their need for personal moral justification and “who had no idea that their consciences were being orchestrated by operatives of Stalin’s government”.25

Although probably making old-fashioned communists squirm with the placing of non-party members in the vanguard of policy, this approach proved very successful for raising funds and marshalling international support for the Spanish republic. Münzenberg’s propaganda machine portrayed the war as a Manichaean confrontation between the forces of good and evil; between Franco’s obscurantist fascist terror supported by Moorish, German and Italian mercenaries and levies and an enlightened, virtuous and democratic republic defended by idealistic young heroes from every corner of the globe. He convinced the rest of the world that the republic was a social democratic paradise where torture, arbitrary arrests and executions had been banned forever and which was now struggling to defend freedom, democracy, common decency and justice for the people of Spain.

The international campaign succeeded—Stalin’s reservations notwithstanding—mainly because it was carried forward on the shoulders of large numbers of non-party “fellow travellers” and “opinion makers”, journalists, artists, commentators, priests, ministers, academics and actors glad to be invited to stand up and be counted on the side of the Spanish republic.

WITH HINDSIGHT one can now see that the ease with which Alec Digges, an experienced and disciplined member of the Communist Party, was prepared in 1954 to discuss with us the possible creation of Amnesty International, meant either that the idea was very much his own, or that he was simply adding “prisoners of conscience” to Münzenberg’s pre-war repertoire of deserving causes. Did Alec and Willi ever meet? As far as it is known Münzenberg did not go to Spain during the civil war. I did not ask about this because I only learned about Münzenberg’s existence recently, twenty years after Alec’s death. It is not possible to rule out a meeting in 1938, when Alec travelled to Spain via the Brigade’s recruiting office in Paris, but it does seem unlikely that Münzenberg would have discussed such policy matters with the young volunteer.
Munzenberg was previously mentioned here back in February. Maybe I should make a label out of this, from that post: "The amount of 'conventional wisdom' that started out as enemy psyops is amazing." Venona, anyone?

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