Molotov and Stalin in full colour propaganda
Otto Katz

Agitprop: The Agitation and Propaganda Department of the Comintern

Claud Cockburn

From Chapter 2 of his second volume of autobiography, Crossing the Line, (MacGibbon & Lee, 1958)

In 1914 people who felt uncertain or chilly about the rights and wrongs of World War I used to be asked by enthusiasts, ‘Would you stand aside while a German raped your sister?’

We have come a long way, and pessimism about sister’s fate has deepened. For years the question people have been told they must answer is, ‘Would you rather have your sister raped by a man from the Kremlin or a man from the Pentagon?’

The person who replies, ‘Neither, thanks, I have other plans for her’ is dubbed a treacherous neutralist; the sort of ditherer who cannot make up his mind which part of Soho he would prefer to be coshed in.

On the choice between Capitalism and Communism, from the Foreword of Crossing the Line

In all this, Otto Katz was first the pupil, later the right-hand man and, ultimately, it was often asserted, the inspirer of Muenzenberg; he was certainly the chief engineer of the Muenzenberg machine. After Hitler moved in on both sides of the Wilhelmstrasse, Katz, who now called himself André Simone, operated from a series of headquarters in Paris. He padded about Paris, Geneva, London, New York and Chicago, exercising and developing an almost necromantic capacity for getting people who naturally loathed and suspected one another organized for joint action. The nature of the – so to speak – material he worked on seemed not to interest him greatly; he was as happy welding mutually hateful novelists and poets into a literary league for the defence of this or that as he was when arranging for a couple of Tory lords and someone from Transport House to turn up on a platform with the editor of L’Humanité. The more improbable the combinaison, the more it charmed him. Indeed, after a visit with him to the United States, the Roman Catholic Prince Loewenstein told me that, though prepared for anything, he had, after all, been startled when he saw Herr Simone-Katz ‘genuflect three times and kiss the ring of a cardinal to whom he then presented a Marxist professor just out of jail in Rio de Janeiro.’

All this time Katz was busy too as a very sharp-shooting press agent and public relations counsellor for the organizations in which he was interested. Almost weekly he brought off the tricky shot of planting a damaging anti-Fascist story in a pro-Fascist newspaper, and under his original impulse his stories ran about the world like snooker-balls. They certainly had ‘impact.’ He regarded journalism simply as a means to an end, a weapon. In this I found him sympathetic. Long before, in New York and Washington, I had come to the conclusion that the real humbug of the press begins only when newspapers pretend to be neutral, impartial fact-purveyors, ‘servants,’ so help me, ‘of the public.’

Arriving in Paris from Spain unexpectedly one day during the Spanish Civil War, I telephoned Katz at the office of the Agence Espagne, the news agency of the Republican Government which he organized and directed. As was usual when one telephoned any office run by Katz, an excited voice said ‘Si, si, mais, s’il vous plaît, be so good speak deutsch, bitten schoen, momentito,’ and then Katz came on the line shouting, ‘Thank God you’re here, come at once, urgent.’ He plunged immediately into business. ‘Have I ever told you that you are considered by many, myself included, the best journalist in the world?’

‘Often, when you wanted to get something for nothing out of me.’

‘Well, what I want now is a tip-top, smashing, eye-witness account of the great anti-Franco revolt which occurred yesterday at Tetuan, the news of it having been hitherto suppressed by censorship.’

I said I had never been to Tetuan and knew of no revolt there.

‘Not the point at all,’ he said impatiently. ‘Nor have I heard of any such thing.’ The point, he explained, was that a crucial moment had been reached in the supply of arms to the battling Spanish Republicans.

Occasionally, despite non-intervention, the government of Léon Blum, under pressure from the Left, agreed that all concerned should shut both eyes tight while military supplies were rushed across the Catalan frontier. At this moment a major battle was being mounted in Spain. On the frontier a big consignment of field guns was ready. The outcome of the battle might depend on its getting through. Next morning a strong deputation of Communist deputies and others was to call on Blum, asking for a little shut-eye. Blum, naturally, was always more malleable when anything happened to suggest that Franco might, after all, lose the war. It was thus essential, Katz pointed out, that a jolt of that kind should be administered now. Something with a clear psychological impact . What better for the purpose than news of a sudden revolt against Franco at the very origin and source of his first onslaught, Spanish Morocco? Why not, for instance, Tetuan? That, he said, would have impact.

There seemed to be just a chance, and we worked on that story at a high pitch of anxiety and excitement. Our chief anxiety was that, with nothing to go on but the plans in our guide-books, which were without contours, we might have Democrats and Fascists firing at one another from either end of an avenue which some travelled night-editor would know had a great hump in the middle. The fighting, accordingly, took place in very short streets and open squares. As we saw it, an important feature of the affair was that sections of the Moorish soldiery, sickened by losses in Spain, had joined with civilian victims of colonial oppression and Spanish anti-Fascists in united, if desperate, action. It meant that the same thing might happen in Spain itself. Katz was insistent we use a lot of names, of both heroes and villains, but express uncertainty over some of them – thus in the confusion of the struggle outside the barracks it had been impossible to ascertain whether Captain Murillo who died so gallantly was the same Captain Murillo who, months ago in Madrid...

In the end it emerged as one of the most factual, inspiring and yet sober pieces of war reporting I ever saw, and the night-editors loved it. When the deputation saw Blum in the morning he had been reading it in newspaper after newspaper and appreciating its significance. He was receptive to the deputation’s suggestions. The guns got through all right, and the Republicans won that battle...

Many people to whom I have at one time and another told this little story of the Tetuan revolt have been themselves revolted, profoundly shocked. Or at least they said they were. When I first published it as part of an article in a weekly paper, Mr. R. H. Crossman, Labour Member of Parliament, referred to it with disgust in a piece he wrote for the News Chronicle. Aware that Mr. Crossman had himself played a considerably role in British wartime propaganda, I was in turn taken aback. Was it, then, possible that throughout the life-and-death struggle with Hitler our propagandists had all along taken the view that their paramount duty was to be gentlemen, and not to tell lies, however damagingly misleading these might be to the enemy? What about, I thought as I noted Mr. Crossman’s disdain for the Tetuan trick, the ‘Man Who Never Was’ and suchlike episodes?

Reading on, I was fascinated to find that what fretted Mr. Crossman was not that the thing had been done, but that I seemed to be quite happy, retrospectively, to have had a hand in it. According to him, it was true that he and colleagues had done that sort of thing during the war, but they had done it with gentlemanly distaste. ‘Black propaganda,’ wrote Mr. Crossman, ‘may be necessary in war, but most of us who practised it detested what we were doing.’

A comfortable ethical position, if you can stop laughing. To me, at least, there seems nothing risible in the spectacle of a man firing off his propaganda-lies as, one presumes, effectively as he knows how, but keeping his conscience clear by ‘detesting’ his own activities. After all, if he does not think the cause for which he is fighting is worth lying for, he does not have to lie at all, any more than the man who sincerely feels that killing is murder is forced to shoot at those enemy soldiers. He can become a conscientious objector, or run away. ‘Paris vaut bien une messe,’ and I do not recall that Henry of Navarre ever claimed that he had detested his own ‘cynical’ behaviour.

At any rate, Katz had none of these inhibitions and did his work con amore.

Part of this account is mistakenly attributed to Arthur Koestler in The Penguin Book of Lies. For an overview of the propaganda activities of the Comintern see the page on Münzenburg by Newland.

The falsification of photographs was so routine during the Dzhugashvili (Stalin) era that even a humble conference attendant could be obliterated. (David King, The Commissar Vanishes)

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