Dorothy Thompson, the Journalist Who Warned the World About Adolf Hitler


I write for fun, but not everyone has that luxury.  A great many people in the world write to earn their living and I have always thought that to be a tough way to go:  deadlines are a pain, and I can attest to that after publishing a small journal for a few years.  There is this challenge to stay relevant and also inspired enough to write every day are the fabric of nightmares and sleepless nights, but some people excel at it.temerity

I was struck over this past weekend by the brazen cowardice of the U.S. Congress. It astounded me that a sitting president would tell elected members of Congress that they should go back to some country they “came from” and that

seehearspeak

The U.S. Congress

Congress would sit by silent as brass monkeys.  Yet… that is what happened.

One word that has largely disappeared from our vocabulary is “temerity”  — a sort of reckless boldness, or foolish bravery.  Of course just who it is that is judging whether temerity is actually “reckless” or “foolish” might be up for grabs.  It might appear such to the majority, and yet without a minority willing to exercise temerity we would all be less as a result.

I want to tell you a story about Dorothy Thompson because it’s inspiring in that I-wish-people-were-still-like-that sort of way.  The best way I can think of it so share this piece by Kristin Hunt about Dorothy. At the end of the article is a little game she used to play, you might want to try it, yourself.  As Thompson wrote:

“Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi. But those driven by fear, resentment, insecurity, or self-loathing? They would always fall for fascism.”


Dorothy Thompson, the Journalist Who Warned the World About Adolf Hitler

BY KRISTIN HUNT

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As a crusading journalist, Dorothy Thompson made plenty of enemies—but her most formidable foe was Adolf Hitler. Thompson spent well over a decade agitating against the Nazis in print and on the radio, warning Americans of the threat of fascism years before the official U.S. entry into World War II. Her efforts made her one of the most famous women in the United States—and the first American correspondent Hitler expelled from Germany.

STUMPING FOR SUFFRAGE

Born on July 9, 1893, in Lancaster, New York, to British immigrants, Thompson grew up in a religious household. Her father was a Methodist minister, and he frequently took his eldest daughter on visits to parishioners across the suburbs of upstate New York. When Thompson was just 7 years old, her mother died of sepsis rumored to have been brought on by a botched abortion. Thompson’s father, eager to provide his three children with a maternal figure, soon remarried. But Thompson did not get along with her stepmother, whom she claimed had “an allergy to children.” A few years later, she went to live with her aunts in Chicago, where she attended a junior college called the Lewis Institute.

Thompson was a bright student who showed a passion for literature and discourse. She continued her education at Syracuse University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1914.

Upon graduation, Thompson devoted herself to feminist pursuits. Her first job out of college involved stuffing envelopes for the Woman Suffrage Party in Buffalo, though Thompson soon convinced her bosses to put her in the field. As Jack Alexander would later write in the Saturday Evening Post, “Stumping for suffrage consisted largely in starting arguments in public places, which was, of course, Dorothy’s dish.” She spent the next few years fighting for women’s right to vote and other progressive pursuits, working in New York City and Cincinnati as well as upstate. But activism didn’t pay well, so she also dabbled in advertising and publicity work to help support her younger siblings through college.

Yet Dorothy also nourished dreams of being a journalist. She already had the names and numbers of several editors, after penning op-eds on social justice for the major New York newspapers. She also had a suffragist friend, Barbara De Porte, who was itching to go to Europe in search of stories and adventure. Once they had saved up enough money, the pair boarded a ship to London in 1920, where they embarked upon careers as foreign correspondents.

HITLER: “A MAN WHOSE COUNTENANCE IS A CARICATURE”

Thompson and De Porte both immediately sought freelance work at the International News Service, an American agency with bureaus all over Europe. The I.N.S. assignments suited Thompson, a workhorse who also had incredible luck. In one early success, she landed the last interview with Terence MacSwiney, a leader of the Sinn Fein movement who died in prison on a hunger strike, while visiting relatives in Ireland. She later snagged an exclusive with Karl I, the deposed former king of Hungary, by sneaking into a castle dressed as a Red Cross nurse. After this string of scoops, Thompson landed a job in Vienna as a foreign correspondent for the Philadelphia Public Ledger.

Through this post, she developed a deep understanding of central European politics—bolstered by her fluency in German and 1923 marriage to Hungarian writer Josef Bard—that catapulted her to bureau chief of both the Public Ledger and the New York Evening Post, which shared foreign services. She was, as her biographer Peter Kurth put it, “the first woman to head a foreign news bureau of any importance.”

But a period of change was ahead. Tired of her husband’s many affairs, Thompson filed for divorce in 1927; that same year, she met Sinclair Lewis, the successful novelist of Elmer Gantry and Main Street. He was instantly smitten. In 1928, Thompson accepted one of Lewis’s many proposals and resigned her post to marry him, leaving Germany to start a new life with him in Vermont.

Life in the country did not dull her interest in international affairs, however. Thompson continued to report on foreign politics as a freelancer, making several months-long trips back to Germany in the early 1930s to chronicle the crumbling Weimar Republic. She had been following Hitler’s rise to power since at least 1923, when she attempted to interview the future dictator following the Beer Hall Putsch, a failed government takeover that put Hitler in prison. Her interview request was finally approved in 1931 under strict conditions: She could only ask him three questions, which were to be submitted a full day in advance.

Thompson came away from the interview less than impressed. “When I finally walked into Adolf Hitler’s salon in the Kaiserhof Hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany,” she wrote. “In something less than fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. … He is formless, almost faceless: a man whose countenance is a caricature; a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequential and voluble, ill-poised, insecure—the very prototype of the Little Man.”

While Thompson misjudged Hitler’s appeal (he would be chancellor of Germany in just two years), her biting character assessment stayed with the Führer. He did not initially retaliate, even as the interview circulated among Cosmopolitan readers and the mass paperback market through Thompson’s 1932 book I Saw Hitler!. But in the late summer of 1934, the Nazi government expelled Thompson from the country, informing her that they were “unable to extend to [her] a further right of hospitality.” It served as one of the first significant warnings to foreign journalists in Germany: Criticism of Hitler would no longer be tolerated.

“My offense was to think that Hitler is just an ordinary man, after all,” Thompson wrote shortly afterward in The New York Times. “That is a crime against the reigning cult in Germany, which says Mr. Hitler is a Messiah sent by God to save the German people—an old Jewish idea. To question this mystic mission is so heinous that, if you are a German, you can be sent to jail. I, fortunately, am an American, so I merely was sent to Paris.”

A WOMAN ON A MISSION

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TOPICAL PRESS AGENCY/GETTY IMAGES

Back in the United States, Thompson mounted a one-woman crusade against the Nazis. She denounced the German government frequently and vigorously in her syndicated column, “On the Record,” which ran in 170 newspapers and reached roughly 8 million readers. She also spread her message through regular radio broadcasts for NBC, and a monthly column in Ladies’ Home Journal. In one of her most memorable (and dangerous) stands against Hitler’s movement, she attended a 1939 rally for the German American Bund at Madison Square Garden. Seated among 20,000 Nazi supporters, she loudly ridiculed the speaker, even as uniformed men attempted to escort her out of the arena.

These actions brought Thompson incredible fame and adoration. In 1937, she was invited back to her alma mater to serve as Syracuse University’s first female commencement speaker. She picked up honorary degrees from Columbia, Tufts, and Dartmouth, among others, and became a frequent honored guest at charity dinners and women’s club gatherings. When moviegoers lined up to see the 1942 Spencer Tracy-Katharine Hepburn comedy Woman of the Year, they instantly recognized Thompson in Hepburn’s accomplished, internationally renowned journalist.

But even as Thompson’s popularity continued into World War II, she had already attracted critics. In February 1941, Pacifist mothers paraded her effigy outside the gates of the White House, denouncing her role in “a million boys’ lives in blood and pain.” Other detractors dismissed Thompson’s “perpetual emotion,” a complaint that would pick up steam in her postwar career, as she shifted her focus to anti-Zionism and lost many followers in the process. (That included her editors at The New York Post, who dropped her column in 1947.) Her star had significantly faded by 1961, when she died of a heart attack in Lisbon at the age of 67.

THE GRIMMEST PARTY GAME

In the years that followed, Thompson’s life was often overshadowed by or absorbed in stories of her more celebrated second husband. Her marriage to Lewis, which lasted from 1928 to 1942, coincided with some of Thompson’s busiest and most successful years, and it also inspired one of Lewis’s most enduring (and recently resurgent) novels, It Can’t Happen Here, a dystopian fantasy about a fascist dictator who takes over the United States.

But unlike Lewis’s work, Thompson’s books are now scattered and often difficult to find. As acclaimed as she once was, her name has largely faded in modern times, and frequently appears as a footnote in the wider anti-Nazi cause. One of Thompson’s articles, however, has lasted long past her death, and even gained renewed attention in recent years.

The 1941 Harper’s story “Who Goes Nazi?” found Thompson playing the grimmest party game: Which person in a room would, if it came down to it, support Hitler’s brand of fascism? Drawing on her years of observation, Thompson argued with chilling specificity that the distinction had nothing to do with class, race, or profession. Nazism, she insisted, had to do with something more innate. “Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi,” Thompson wrote. But those driven by fear, resentment, insecurity, or self-loathing? They would always fall for fascism. “It’s an amusing game,” she concluded. “Try it at the next big party you go to.”

After penning this piece a few GOP legislators have had a little to say, but “little” is the watchword. https://www.cnn.com/2019/07/15/politics/gop-rebuke-trump-tweet/index.html

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12 thoughts on “Dorothy Thompson, the Journalist Who Warned the World About Adolf Hitler

    1. a lot of the time it’s about repetition. humans don’t change all that much and we carry with us the hatreds and prejudices of our parents and grandparent. “Normal” is what we grew up with, what surrounded us, and too often normal has been prejudice and distrust rather than love and support. sad but it’s the human condition.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Reblogged this on Filosofa's Word and commented:
    Have you ever heard of Dorothy Thompson? I hadn’t either until our blogging-buddy Mary posted a link to another blog that she thought relevant to my topic-of-the-moment, Trump’s racism. Turns out that Ms. Thompson was a quite notable journalist during WWII, and had the distinction of being the first U.S. journalist to be expelled from Germany by Hitler! This post is noteworthy for three reasons: 1) it is fascinating and I learned much that I didn’t already know; 2) it is very well-written; 3) parts of it are chilling, as you will see, when compared to the situation in the U.S. today. Please take a minute to read and think about this post. Thank you, Peter, for permission to share this with my readers!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Chilling? Yes, for those few who understand what is meant by “history repeats itself.” Sometimes it does with uncanny accuracy. The reasons for Americans openly embracing fascism today may differ in some aspects from those of Weimar republic Germany but three things of importance stand out as similar: racism, fear of “enemies” and economic woes. Dictators seldom address the issue of economic problems for the poor (they don’t have to, they already own and control them) but racism and bigotry are winning playing cards. Failure by the Dems side to impeach Trump indicates that the duopoly has already collapsed and America is a Trump dictatorship in all but a “legal” declaration which is already a guarantee from a GOP controlled justice system. When Trump wins his next term (not if) the pogroms against “enemies of the state” will begin in earnest. Those 4 ladies fingered by Trump may wish by then they had taken his advice and left when still possible to do so. The writing’s on the wall, I don’t have to write any of this tongue in cheek. The only thing that can stop Trumpism is a bloody revolution and Americans, despite their boast of their freedom to bear arms, do not possess that kind of courage, much less organization. The gun lobby is not about to lead a rebellion against Trump. They’ll be chanting, “Lock her up!” and “Send them back!” for that is what cowards and bullies do.

    Liked by 1 person

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