Becher, Lilly (1901–1976)

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Becher, Lilly (1901–1976)

German Communist author and publicist. Name variations; Lilly Korpus. Born Lilly Korpus in Nuremberg, Germany, on January 27, 1901; died in East Berlin in 1976; daughter of a naval officer; her mother was the stepdaughter of Albert Ballin; married Johannes R. Becher.

Joined Communist Party of Germany (KPD, 1919); did editorial work on Communist newspapers and journals in Berlin; appointed to high leadership positions within KPD (1924–25); fled to France (1933); worked with Willi Münzenberg in Paris to produce the first documentation of Nazi anti-Semitism, Der gelbe Fleck; fled France for Soviet Union (1935), where she broadcast for Radio Moscow; returned to Germany (1945); editor-in-chief of Neue Berliner Illustrierte; was founding member of Democratic Women's League; chair of German-Soviet Friendship Society.

Looking only at Lilly Becher's early years, spent at the very heart of the German establishment, it would be difficult to predict that her entire adult life would be dedicated to the Communist movement. She was born Lilly Korpus in Nuremberg on January 27, 1901, to a father who was one of the few officers of Jewish origin to serve in the German Navy and a mother who was an adopted daughter of Albert Ballin. Ballin, the Jewish director of the Hamburg-America Line, was an intimate advisor of Kaiser Wilhelm II; an ardent German patriot, Ballin committed suicide in November 1918 when he heard the news of his country's defeat in World War I. Like many of her generation, Becher was radicalized by the immense suffering of the war. In 1919, she joined the fledgling Communist Party of Germany (KPD). After the murder of its founders Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg , the KPD was open to talented, energetic young men and women, and Becher soon found a place for herself in Berlin as an editor of the party newspaper Die rote Fahne (The Red Flag).

During the 1920s and early 1930s, she became a well-known personality in KPD literary and propaganda circles, serving as founder and editor-in-chief of the party's periodical targeting women, Die Arbeiterin (The Woman Worker). She revealed considerable talent as the innovative editor of the Arbeiter-Illustrierte-Zeitung, which blended Marxist propaganda and entertaining stories with the use of eye-catching graphics. During these years, she worked with Willi Münzenberg, known as the resourceful propaganda czar of the KPD. Because of Becher's organizational skills, she held a number of significant KPD leadership positions, including political head of the Berlin-Brandenburg district in 1924–1925. She also published several short stories and novels, using her maiden name Lilly Korpus. By the end of the 1920s, her first marriage, to a Communist functionary, had ended in failure.

Realizing that her name had been placed high on Nazi arrest lists as a "dangerous Bolshevik," Becher fled to Paris within days of the Nazi seizure of power in 1933. She continued working with Münzenberg, and it was the brilliant work of the "Münzenberg firm" of talented writers and propagandists like Lilly Becher that played a significant role in alerting the world to the menace of a Nazified Germany. Becher's most important work during her years in Paris was the book Der gelbe Fleck (The Yellow Spot), the first systematic exposé of the anti-Semitic policies of Nazi Germany. (Although published without an author's name on the title page, Der gelbe Fleck was indeed written by Becher.) In 1935, she was called to Moscow where she continued her propaganda work and married the former expressionist poet Johannes R. Becher (1891–1958). In the Soviet capital, she worked as a translator and editor for the respected literary journal Internationale Literatur—Deutsche Blätter. An adroit cultural politician, Johannes Becher was able to survive the Stalinist terror and save his wife from the gulag. During World War II, the Bechers lived in Moscow, writing anti-Nazi propaganda which they broadcast to Nazi Germany and to the German soldiers on Soviet soil via Radio Moscow.

After the defeat of Nazi Germany in the spring of 1945, the Bechers returned to the Soviet Occupation Zone of Berlin. As honored members of the anti-Fascist ruling elite, they both joined the Socialist Unity Party (SED) when it was created in 1946. After the creation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1949, Johannes rapidly moved up the bureaucratic ladder of SED-dominated cultural life, eventually becoming minister of culture. Lilly returned to journalism, becoming editor-in-chief of the Neue Berliner Illustrierte. She also became active in organizational work, helping to found and run the Democratic Women's League and serving as chair of the German-Soviet Friendship Society. After her husband's death in 1958, Lilly Becher was appointed director of the special archive for his papers established as part of the German Academy of the Arts in East Berlin. After a long career of loyalty to the Stalinized German Communist movement, in 1961 Lilly Becher was awarded the Silver Medal for Service of the GDR. On the occasion of her 65th birthday in 1966, the SED leadership sent her a letter of congratulations. Honored in her final years as a "party veteran," but largely unknown to the younger generation of the GDR, Lilly Becher died in East Berlin in 1976.


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Frey, Gerhard, ed. Prominente ohne Maske DDR. Munich: FZ-Verlag, 1991.

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Müller, Reinhard, ed. Die Säuberung. Moskau 1936: Stenogramm einer geschlossenen Parteiversammlung. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH, 1991.

Pütter, Conrad. Rundfunk gegen das "Dritte Reich": Deutschsprachige Rundfunkaktivitäten im Exil 1933–1945. Ein Handbuch. Munich: K.G. Saur, 1986.

Weber, Hermann. Die Wandlung des deutschen Kommunismus: Die Stalinisiuerung der KPD in der Weimarer Republik. 2 vols. Frankfurt am Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1969.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Becher, Lilly (1901–1976)

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