Willy Münzenberg’s Death in Rudolf Leonhard’s Dreams: Notes to In derselben Nacht (2001)
One of the most prominent leaders of the Communist International, Willy Münzenberg, was found dead in a French forest near Caugnet on Oct. 21, 1940; apparently, he had been hanged. Although the circumstances of his death were never completely solved, there is much evidence that indicates that the NKVD (the predecessor of the KGB) murdered him and made “his death to look like a suicide” (“Willy Münzenberg”). In 2001, the East German author Steffen Mensching (born in 1958) edited and published an interesting manuscript that he had found in Rudolf Leonhard’s unpublished works – a 1200-page (covered on both sides) long sequence of dream notes from May 1941 to April 1944, a time when the German writer Leonhard (1889-1953) was imprisoned in the French concentration camp Le Vernet. After the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939, the French government had become less tolerant towards German communists living in exile in France; after Hitler’s invasion of that country in 1940, Leonhard was considered dangerous for two reasons, being a communist and being German.
Leonhard’s dreams are, as critics stated, not just fantasy: “Der Terror der Naziherrschaft und des Krieges tauchen in mehr und weniger verschlüsselter Form auf: ein Kaleidoskop der Zeitgeschichte, aber auch Bruchstücke einer Biografie.” / (“The terror of the Nazis’ rule and the war emerge in more or less coded form: a kaleidoscope of the history of the time, but also pieces of a biography.”) (Schlicht) Dreams cannot be used as evidence in a criminal case. Nevertheless, as I will show in my paper, it can be assumed from these dream notes that Leonhard, who was not a member of the Party, but a passionate communist and close to leaders of the German Communist party who were imprisoned with him in camp Le Vernet, had information about the NKVD’s involvement in Münzenberg’s assassination.
Born in a poor German working class family in 1889, Willy Münzenberg made a career in the German communist movement due to his immense talent for organizing things and his inexhaustible energy in political debates. To avoid fighting in World War I, which would have contradicted his internationalist principles, he fled to Switzerland. After the war, he returned to Germany and became a parliamentarian of the communist party in the Reichstag as well as an expert for public relations and finances of the Communist Internationale, which he had helped create. In those functions, he worked hard to promote and finance important projects as, for instance, the great campaign of solidarity for Sacco and Vanzetti, the food shipments to Russia during the period of starvation in 1921, and support for the victims of the Japanese earthquake in 1923 and for the workers who participated in the general strike in England in 1936. He became famous with his successful campaign in the defense of Dimitrov and the other communists accused by the Nazis of having burnt down the Reichstag.
In Swiss exile, Münzenberg had met Trotzky, who introduced him to Lenin; soon Münzenberg had become a part of Lenin’s most loyal circle of revolutionaries – probably one of the reasons for Münzenberg’s rise in the German Communist party during the Weimar Republic and also for his later assassination (nobody from this circle who still was alive at the time of Stalin’s purges survived them). Soon, Münzenberg started to think independently. For instance, after the revolution of 1918, while Lenin still imagined that all of Europe over night would catch fire from proletarian revolts, Münzenberg was one of the first to understand that Communism could only spread out in the West in an indirect and gradual way, through causes that appeared impartial and nonpolitical, “thanks to the widely involuntary complicity of some very prestigious intellectuals who signed manifests in favor of peace, culture and concord between the peoples” (Muñoz Molina, 200).This point of view contradicted the politics of the German Communist party whose leaders were convinced until the moment when Hitler established a dictatorship in Germany in 1933 “that the Nazis were a minor adversary because the true enemy of the working class were the social democrats.” (Muñoz Molina 204) Münzenberg considered this sectarianism of his comrades suicidal – an opinion they would not forgive him. When the Nazis took power in 1933, he escaped to Paris. There, he worked non-stop for creating the Popular Front -- a great alliance of all democratic people who were willing to resist the fascist power -- for instance by editing books attacking Nazi Germany and by organizing grandiose international peace conferences. In 1938, he was expelled from the German Communist party with the phony accusation of working in secret for Hitler’s police, but in reality it was for his intellectual independence. Two years later, fleeing from the approaching German troops through Southern France, accompanied by a mysterious young communist, a “Red-Headed Youth” (Koch 330), who would disappear afterwards forever, he died violently. Although it cannot be proven, it seems likely, as Stephen Koch showed, that this young man without a name murdered Münzenberg, carrying out orders by the NKVD. As Mensching stated in his afterword to the book:
L. [Leonhard] schätzte Willy Münzenberg. Beide trafen sich in den französischen Exil-Jahren regelmäßig. In Verlagsangelegenheiten, im SDS , in Volksfrontkreisen, bei Treffen zur Unterstützung der Spanischen Republik, gemeinsamen Bekannten: Heinrich Mann, Feuchtwanger, Piscator. L. war auch mit Babette Gross [Münzenbergs Frau, Autor des Artikels] vertraut, mehrmals nennt er sie in seinen Tagebüchern. / (L. [Leonhard] cherished Willy Münzenberg. Both met regularly in the years of French exile. In matters of publishing, in the SDS [organization for the protection of German writers], in circles of the popular front, at meetings for the support of the Spanish Republic, with common acquaintances: Heinrich Mann, Feuchtwanger, Piscator. L. also was familiar with Babette Gross [Münzenberg’s wife, author of this study]; repeatedly, he mentions her in his journals.) (508)
Asking the important question, why Babette Gross didn’t mention Leonhard in her biography Willy Münzenberg. Eine politische Biografie (1967), Mensching assumes that Leonhard’s role in regard to Münzenberg’s death might have seemed dubious to her. He explains: “Der ‘Fall M.’ steckt voller Spekulationen. Selbstmord? Mord? Gestapo? NKWD? KPD-Abwehr? Die Lektüre der Traumnotate legt nahe, daß L. und einige Genossen in Le Vernet um die Todesumstände Willy Münzenbergs wußten.” / (“The ‘case M.’ is full of speculation. Suicide? Murder? Gestapo? NKVD? KPD-defense? Reading the dream notes allows the assumption that L. and some comrades in Le Vernet knew about the circumstances of Willy Münzenberg’s death.”) (509)
Münzenberg’s name is mentioned eleven times in Leonhard’s dream notes. With the exception of Leonhard’s parents, sister, and wife, there are more references only to the writer Walter Hasenclever, a friend in whose apartment Leonhard had lived in Paris and who committed suicide after the German invasion of France.
Some references show Münzenberg in normal daily activities, as for instance in Leonhard’s dream from August 31, 1941: “Ich sehe vom Fenster aus Willy Münzenberg mit einem Manne im Garten stehn; der andre sagt zu Willy: ‘Dem Mann meiner Schwester darf ich nicht erlauben, [dass der Salon] benutzt wird’.” / (“From the window, I see Willy Münzenberg standing with a man in the garden; the man says to Willy: ‘I should not allow the husband of my sister to use [the saloon]’.”) (42) That Leonhard calls him “Willy” indicates that they were friends.
Other dream fragments refer to Münzenberg in bizarre settings or circumstances that are hard to interpret, for instance, on September 9, 1943, when Leonhard dreams: “Ich habe ein Zerwürfnis mit Münzenberg. Marianne ist gehässig. Die Gefahr einer Ansteckung ist gross. In den ganz genau rund gewölbten, aber nicht grossen, Himmel sind – wie Bazillen in mikroskopierten Wassertropfen – alle Keilstriche eingeritzt.” / (“I have an argument with Münzenberg. Marianne is spiteful. The danger of infection is big. In the sky, arched completely round but not large, there are – like germs in a microscopic drop of water—all lines of cuneiform writing carved in.”) (405) We might ask: Who is Marianne? What disease (or ideas) is Leonhard afraid of being infected with? And by whom (Münzenberg or Marianne)? What are the lines of cuneiform writing carved in the sky? The censor, who according to Freud’s theory on dream-work scrambles the unconscious expressions by condensation, displacement and transformation, has worked in these dreams so hard that these questions are impossible to answer.
Finally, there are several fragments of dreams that do refer more or less clearly to Münzenberg’s violent death, as for instance in a note on April 14, 1942. This fragment starts, “Wir sitzen in einem Blockhaus an einem Flusse, in graugelbem Licht und trüber Luft. Mitten im Gespräch tritt ein wilder, vierschrötiger Mensch, der einen breiten blitzenden Türkensäbel gefährlich schwenkt, hinter mich und fragt mich drohend: ‘Wirst du auch deine ganze Kraft der Sache geben?’” / (“We sit in a log cabin at a river, in gray- yellow light and hazy air. In the middle of the conversation, a wild, square built man, flashing dangerously a large Turkish sword, steps behind me and asks me threatening: ‘Are you sure you will lend all your strength to the Sache?’”) (159) The word “die Sache” is an expression of what we called in the East Germany “Parteichinesisch” / (“Party Chinese”) and means something like “the holy cause of the communist revolution.” Helga Königsdorf, in her novel Im Schatten des Regenbogens (1993) for instance, points to the religious sense of the expression when the protagonist Alice recalls her joining the Party: “Als ihr der Alte damals die Hand gedrückt hatte, erlebte sie einen Moment tiefer religiöser Hingabe. Sie spürte, dass es noch eine höhere Liebe gab als die Liebe zwischen Mann und Frau. Die Liebe zur Sache. Was das auch immer war.” / (“In those days when the old man shook her hand, she experienced a moment of deep religious devotion. She felt that there was a higher love than the love between a man and a woman, the love of die Sache. Whatever that was.”) (86, italics added by the author of this article). Leonhard’s description of his dream from April 14, 1942 continues:
Ich antworte ruhig, dass ich sie [seine Kraft für die Sache] immer gegeben habe und weiter geben werde. Ich weiss nicht, ob das ein abgeschmackter Scherz oder Ernst ist; da aber ein Mensch ohne Kopf – wenigstens sieht es so aus, als ob er ohne Kopf ist – an unserm Tische sitzt, bin ich nicht ohne Furcht. / (I answer quietly that I always did lend it [his strength for the Sache] and that I will continue lending it. I don’t know if that is a vulgar joke or serious, but because there is a man without a head – at least, it looks as if he is without a head – sitting at our table, I am not without fear.) (159)
A few lines later, it seems that the man without a head, whose horrible sight moves the dreamer to swear allegiance to “die Sache”, must be Münzenberg:
Am nächsten Morgen bin ich im selben Zimmer mit einem Genossen allein. Er sitzt am Tisch, über Papieren und stellt mir viele Fragen. Ich antworte auf alle rasch und bereitwillig. […] An einer Stelle des Gesprächs leitet er seine Frage ein: ‘Wir haben Dir infolge der Umstände von einer Handlung gegen einen Mann Kenntnis geben müssen, von der sonst nur die Mitglieder des engsten Kerns des Vereins unterrichtet werden. –‘ Ich verstehe seine Absicht und antworte: ‘Ich weiß natürlich nichts davon; ich werde immer sagen, dass mir der Mann nichts davon erzählt hat, obwohl ich ihn oft gesehn habe.’ Aber nun erst ist mein Misstrauen geweckt, und ich frage ihn: ‘Sag mal, ist das eine Besprechung oder ein Verhör?’ / (The next morning, I am alone with a comrade in the same room. He is sitting at the table over papers and asks me many questions. I answer all of them fast and unhesitating. […] At one point of the conversation, he begins his question: ‘Because of the circumstances, we had to inform you about an action against a man about which usually only the members of the nucleus of the organization have been informed. -‘ I understand his intention and answer: ’I know, of course, nothing about it; I always will say that the man has not talked about this to me although I have seen him a lot.’ But only now my distrust is awakened and I ask him: ‘Tell me, is this a discussion or an interrogation?’) (159)
That this secretiveness about an “action against a man” is a hint at Münzenberg’s assassination becomes even more lucid in the dream fragment from May, 21, 1942. Leonhard dreams, “Der Freund soll morgen hingerichtet werden, aus politischen Gründen, und zwar bei uns, in der alten Wohnung am Markte.” / (“The friend is supposed to be executed tomorrow, for political reasons, in fact, at our place, in the old apartment at the market.”) A few lines farther down, the dream reads: “Ich werde weggehn, der Freund wird hingerichtet werden, ich werde ihn nicht wieder vorfinden; ich ziehe mich an, wehre das Kind ab, und weine und weine.” / (“I will go away; the friend will be executed; I will not find him anymore; I get dressed, push the child away and cry and cry.”) (174) In the following dream note from May 22, 1942, only one day later, Münzenberg’s name will be mentioned several times and it turns out that the dreamer himself is supposed to kill him. First, he sees himself abducted by Münzenberg for unknown reasons. After he had spent weeks sleeping deeply under covers in a bed, he wakes up on Christmas Eve and talks to his wife about his abduction and from what dangers it was supposed to protect them. The dream continues:
Später kommt Münzenberg selbst, durch einen engen Korridor, in das Zimmer, wie in einen Hinterhalt; es soll mit ihm abgerechnet werden. Ich selbst habe eine Pistole bekommen, mit der ich ihn von seinem Eintritt an in Schach halte. Als er am Tisch sitzt, will ich diese Pistole einstecken, es gelingt mir aber nicht, sie zu sichern, und ich habe das – doch irrtümliche--Gefühl, dass sie losgehn wird. Die Auseinandersetzung verläuft programmgemäß […], bis es zur Geldfrage kommt, da begehrt Münzenberg, der mit blassem, nervös bewegtem, ein wenig verfallnem Gesicht vor dem Tische sitzt, auf; er werde den Laden [er meint den Carrefour-Verlag] weiterführen, erklärt er. / (Later on, Münzenberg himself is coming, through a narrow floor, into the room like into an ambush; old scores are supposed to be settled with him. I received a pistol with which I am keeping him in check from the moment that he enters the room. When he is sitting at the table I want to put the pistol in my pocket, but I do not succeed in securing it and I have the – although erroneous – feeling that it will go off. The argument proceeds as planned […] until it arrives at the financial question; here, Münzenberg, who is sitting at the table with a pale, nervously-moving, a little emaciated face, protests; he will continue the store [he means the Carrefour Publishing House], he explains. (175-6)
Steffen Mensching states about this dream correctly, “Wo und wann immer Münzenberg in den Träumen auftaucht, ist die Atmosphäre verdächtig, halbillegal, von Verrat, Agententätigkeit, Abweichung umwittert.” / (“Where and whenever Münzenberg appears in the dreams, the atmosphere is ominous, half-illegal; it has the smell of betrayal, activity as a foreign agent, aberration.”) (510) Hinting at the fact that Münzenberg was not only accused of political heresy and of spying for the Gestapo, but also of financial irregularities, Mensching adds, “Keine der von der Parteiführung ausgestreuten Unterstellungen fehlt.” / (“None of the allegations spread out by the party leadership is missing.”) (510) In another dream fragment from July 24, 1941, approximately nine months after Münzenberg’s corpse had been found, even the location of Münzenberg’s assassination is mentioned:
Es ist ein Mord begangen worden; ich kenne die Mörder und die Gründe des Mordes, bin aber an dem Morde selbst nicht beteiligt. In einem spärlichen Walde höre ich sagen: ‘Aber es ist unverzeihlich, dass sie die Pferdehaut über die Stelle’ (- an der der Mord geschah-) ‘deckten, an der es nun ewig nach Blut riechen wird’. Ich hatte grade ein grosses Stück glatthaariger rotweisser Pferdehaut sorgfältig über ein andres Stück Tierhaut gebreitet, ich lasse es und gehe links quer durch den dünnen Wald. Ich schrecke zurück; Menschen, eine schwarz gekleidete Familie, kreuzen meinen Weg; wenn sie mich mit der Pferdehaut haben hantieren sehn, bin ich unweigerlich in die Mordsache verwickelt. / (A murder has been committed. I know the murderers and the reasons for the assassination, but I am not involved in it. In a sparse forest, I hear someone say: ‘But it is inexcusable that they put the horse hide over the spot’ (-at which the murder was committed-), ‘where it will smell of blood now forever’. I just had spread out carefully a big piece of smooth red-white horse hide over another piece of animal skin; I leave it alone and go crossways to the left through the thin forest. I shrink away; people, a black-dressed family, are crossing my way; if they have seen me tampering with the horse hide, I will be inevitably involved in the murder case.) (32)
These fragments of dreams, of course, only suggest, do not prove that Leonhard was informed about Münzenberg’s murder by the cadres of the German Communist Party with whom he was living in Compound B for political prisoners in the camp Le Vernet. Nevertheless, they indicate that he at least knew something about Münzenberg’s end, and the knowledge was painful for him. In addition, he seems to be concerned about two more things: first, that he might be suspected of involvement in the crime himself. And second, he obviously worries about his ability to keep the shocking knowledge, whatever its details were, a secret.
As Mensching points out, it is out of the question that Leonhard himself was one of the assassins since he was imprisoned in the camp Le Vernet until November 1940 – one month after Münzenberg’s corpse, with the deadly sling around his neck, had been found. And in contrast to the camp Les Milles from which Münzenberg, accompanied by the mysterious red-headed young communist, had run away, the camp Le Vernet didn’t allow prisoners to take vacations from the camp for a few days. According to Mensching, the question must be asked, “Befand sich ein Täter unter den Internierten?” / (“Was there an assassin among the interned?”) (510) To make this question plausible, he quotes from another dream fragment by Leonhard who noted on November 23, 1942,
Einer von uns hat einen Totschlag begangen, einen ganz [so formulierte es sich im Erwachen] ‘formalistischen’ Totschlag, im Verlaufe einer Flucht. Die Tat wird nicht herauskommen, wenn wir Dinge (wie kleines Gebäck) wie Vorgänge jeweils richtig parallel schalten. / (One of us committed manslaughter, a completely [as the words formed themselves during waking up] ‘formalist’ manslaughter, during an escape. The deed will not come out if we arrange the things (like little cookies) each time correctly in a row.) (Leonhard 250)
Mensching concludes from this dream: “Nicht allein die Aktion wurde besprochen, auch die Technik ihrer Geheimhaltung. Aber gab es in der Tat eine Tat? Träume können unter Umständen Indizien sein, Beweise niemals.” / (“Not only the action was talked about, also the technique of keeping it secret. But, was there indeed a deed? Dreams can possibly be clues, never a proof.”) (510) Let’s look at another dream fragment that even points more strongly than the one with the horse hide to Leonhard’s fear of being implicated in Münzenberg’s murder. On January 24, 1943, he notes: “Ich stehe unter Mordanklage vor einem Militärgericht. […] Ich empfinde es als schrecklich, den Blicken der Leute ausgesetzt zu sein, die mich als den Mörder anstarren, und ich bin doch gar keiner.” / (“Accused of having committed a murder, I stand in front of a military court. I find it horrible to be exposed to the eyes of the people who stare at me as the murderer, and I am not.”) (269) Towards the end of this same dream fragment, Münzenberg’s name appears: “diese ganze Sache hat mir wahrscheinlich Willy Münzenberg eingebrockt.” / (“probably Willy Münzenberg got me in this predicament.”) (271) The repetition of mentioning of a murder, sometimes directly connected with Münzenberg’s name, and the circumstances of it described so lucidly, indicate that Leonhard very likely knew that there was “indeed a deed.”
Leonhard’s second obvious concern, that he might not be able to keep secret his knowledge of Münzenberg’s violent death might be connected to the fact that he as “Reporter seines inneren Nachtlebens” / (“reporter of his inner night life”) (Dieckmann 3) penned down his dreams. A former avid reader of psychoanalytic literature (Mensching 501), Leonhard must have known that people are not in control of their mind. Repressed memories and emotions appear in disguised form during dreaming. Writing down what he remembered after waking up taught Leonhard about his secret wishes, fears, reflexes and/or repressed memories -- a kind of self-analysis with the obvious purpose of preventing him from going crazy under the miserable conditions -- but it also made him vulnerable, given the danger of violating the strict party discipline. In one dream, he struggles to make a knot into a “Perlenkette” / (“necklace of pearls”), a difficult procedure, “weil sie mit einer sehr süssen breiigen Masse ganz bedeckt ist.” / (“because it is completely covered with a very sweet mushy mass.”) (260) After having noted this dream, Leonhard interprets: “[Erinnerung wohl an das tägliche schwierige Verknoten der Manuskriptdeckel.]” / (“[Probably a memory about the daily difficult interlacing of the covers of the manuscript].”) (260). As Mensching states correctly, “Die Arbeit am Traumbuch […] ging einher mit der ständigen Sorge um die Sicherung des Konvoluts.” / (“The work at the dream book went along with the constant concern about the safety of the convolute.”) (510)
One might argue that, given the fact that the majority of the leading German communists who lived in exile in the Soviet Union during the time of the purges from 1936 to 1938 were liquidated, Leonhard in his dreams might simply have suspected Münzenberg’s liquidation at the hands of the NKVD – a suspicion that, perhaps, spurred on his dreams. From their co-operation and friendship as left-wing intellectuals in Paris, he must have known that Münzenberg was summoned to Moscow during this time, more than once, and that he had refused to go. This argument would be strengthened by the fact that Stalin’s purges at this point were mainly directed against those “die zu irgend einem Zeitpunkt der Politik Stalins widersprochen hatten” / (“who, at any time, had contradicted the politics of Stalin”) (Weber 23), even if they had renounced their dissent since then. Münzenberg had criticized Stalin strongly for his dictatorial rule and for severe errors in the politics of the Popular Front without ever having taken anything back or offered his apologies! However, it speaks against this argument that information about the number of murdered German Communists and the extent of the NKVD’s terror was not available until Stalin’s death in 1953. Leonhard cannot have known it at the time when he recorded his dreams in camp Le Vernet during the early 1940s.
Perhaps, there is another clue that hints at the main source of material (memory or suspicion), which was reworked by his subconscious mind into the formation of Leonhard’s dreams. Many of the dream fragments are followed by short interpretations in square brackets that hint at certain concrete events that happened on the day or just a few days before the dream and very often include specific names. As recent research has shown, although the specific causes of the incorporation of day-time experiences into dreams remain unknown, it is a fact that new memories are stored in dreams as an adaptation to stressful events. Analyzing recorded dreams of 212 persons, Geneviève Alain concluded that “the temporal relationship between daily events and dream incorporation seems to be defined by two types of effects: the day-residue effect, which refers to the incorporation into dreams of material from the immediately preceding day, and the dream-lag effect, which corresponds to the incorporation into dreams of daytime experiences occurring approximately on week prior to the dream” (2). In the case of Leonhard’s dreams, which strongly seem to confirm these findings, the question is: Why are the many dream fragments that clearly refer to the mysterious crime against a friend and its cover-up, never followed by one of those short interpretations in square brackets? Who is the “einer von uns” / (“one of us”) who did the “Totschlag” / (“manslaughter”)? Can Leonhard really not remember the name of the murderer when he records this dream or is he too afraid to write it down? Who is “Wir” / (“We”) who is planning its cover-up in a shrewdly ingenious way like arranging “kleine Gebäckstücke” / (“little cookies”)? Why are there no names or explanations in square brackets after those most dramatic dream notes? Only those referring to Adolf Hitler are as dramatic as these.
To summarize, although dreams cannot be considered pieces of circumstantial evidence, several details of Leonhard’s recorded dreams indicate that the author not only suspected, but also knew something about the NKVD’s involvement in Willy Münzenberg’s violent death. In this respect, the book is an important contribution to the growing literature about Willy Münzenberg and the controversy about his end.
1 SDS is an abbreviation for “Schutzverband Deutscher Schriftsteller”. This “Organization for the Protection of German Writers” was founded in October 1933 in Paris to help German writers living in exile. Rudolf Leonhard was elected as chairman and worked in this function very actively until the organization was forbidden in 1939. (Giersberg 36)
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