“They are holding every Jew in Germany as a hostage. Therefore, we who are not Jews must speak, speak our sorrow and indignation and disgust in so many voices that they will be heard.” — journalist Dorothy Thompson, radio broadcast, 1938

Dorothy Thompson, 1939: testifying in Congress to repeal the Neutrality Act.

American journalist Dorothy Thompson, whose birthday it is today, wangled and manipulated her way into an interview with Adolf Hitler in 1931. Before he even became Chancellor. Thompson had been keeping a close eye on him ever since the “beer hall putsch” in 1923, which launched him into national prominence. He was no longer a “Nobody” (to quote J.P. Stern’s excellent book, Hitler: The Fuhrer and the People – which I just wrote about here).

Thompson was one of the few American journalists – hell, European journalists, ANY journalist – who recognized the threat of him instantly, and devoted her career to warning people about him in her regular radio broadcasts, and devoting columns to him.

Her interview with Hitler is absolutely fascinating, and was published in a 1932 issue of Cosmopolitan. It caused a firestorm of horror and revulsion, as well as envy from other journalists. It was a major SCOOP. Her article was eventually published in book form.

“[Hitler] is formless, almost faceless, a man whose countenance is a caricature, a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequent and voluble, ill-poised, insecure. He is the very prototype of the Little Man. A lock of lank hair falls over an insignificant and slightly retreating forehead. . . .The nose is large, but badly shaped and without character. His movements are awkward, almost undignified and most un-martial…The eyes alone are notable. Dark gray and hyperthyroid—-they have the peculiar shine which often distinguishes geniuses, alcoholics, and hysterics…There is something irritatingly refined about him. I bet he crooks his little finger when he drinks a cup of tea.” — Dorothy Thompson, “I Saw Hitler”, 1932

She posed as a Red Cross worker and infiltrated the German High Command, getting interviews with high-ranked generals. She peppered Hitler with requests for an interview until finally he granted her one, probably assuming he could snow her because she was a woman. He underestimated her. Her article has generated criticisms that she underestimated him. He seemed like such a nonentity to her, such a Nobody, no way could he do a lot of damage. This criticism seems to me to ignore the deeper psychological insights her interview provided. What she was seeing, what she saw, was a nobody, a Little Man, not a powerful intimidating warrior at all but … a little prissy guy with a bad haircut who put on airs. There have been many many scholars since the 30s who have examined Hitler as a Nobody, a Little Man, an uneducated and easily-swayed nonentity, who had a “revelation” about Germany’s destiny in the trenches of World War I (which AH describes in Mein Kampf), and then set about bringing his “idealistic” prophetic “vision” to completion. This is a deep topic, and goes far beyond the scope of this “birthday post” but what I want to point out is: Thompson didn’t say “I don’t think he can do much damage.” She knew he and his rhetoric were ALREADY damaging: she perceived it earlier than most people did (journalists, anyway: the populations Hitler targeted felt it immediately). Her perception of him as a man prone to “hysterics”, and her perception that his “refinement” was imposed and bogus … it’s a hit piece on his psychology, it’s a hit piece on him PERSONALLY, it’s saying to him: “I see through your facade, you bully.” It’s particularly damning: women, because they have been trained to sit back and let the men do the work, sometimes have deeper insights into men’s behavior, their facades, their bullshit. Men buy each other’s bullshit. Women don’t. A lot of people took Hitler at face value. Thompson refused to. She got up close, saw the Emperor had no clothes, still perceived the dangerous sway he had over Germany, and called it all out. After the article came out, Hitler was, of course, apoplectic.

Thompson was bureau chief in Berlin. She was considered so dangerous she was expelled from Germany, the first foreign journalist to get that “honor.” She came back to America, continuing to sound the alarm, to urge Americans to take the threat seriously. She testified before Congress in 1939, asking them to repeal the Neutrality Act (see photo above).

Also in 1939, a terrible year, maybe the worst in the 20th century, Thompson attended the Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden organized by the German American Bund Society. 20,000 people were there, arm bands ON, Sieg Heils at the ready. Terrifying. An almost forgotten moment in US history.

Dorothy Thompson was there as a journalist. Journalists are supposed to be objective, right? Put their “biases” aside, right? Well, Thompson had different ideas. She saw her job as a truth-teller and she knew the Nazis were dangerous and if the Nazis won millions would die. So she sat there in the press area, and loudly heckled the speakers. She burst out in derisive laughter at their statements. She caused a scene.

At the 1939 Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden: Dorothy Thompson heckles the speakers.

The Nazis around her were so furious at how she was raining on their fascist parade, a ruckus ensued. She kept heckling. The people around her heckled her. The situation was about to spin out of control when the police intervened and escorted Thompson out of the arena. Just like she was expelled from Germany for speaking out. So think about that: in the land of the free and the brave, she was criticized for speaking the truth, too.

She was married to Sinclair Lewis. Her writings on fascism inspired him to write his spooky prophetic novel It Can’t Happen Here (his point being it most certainly CAN happen here). He predicts the kind of man who could swerve America away from democracy. He senses our vulnerabilities, the cracks in our system through which tyranny could slip. And he was right on the money.

Along those prophetic lines, Thompson wrote a fascinating piece for Harper’s Bazaar called “Who Goes Nazi?” – which actually came up here recently in the comments section. In the article, she looks around a hypothetical dinner party filled with a diverse group of Americans, and guesses which ones will “go Nazi” and which ones would be immune. She may be “off” in some of her assessments (if you look at it through today’s current events), but overall she is eerily on target with the kinds of people for whom fascism or tyranny appeals. Democracy is fragile. Liberty is fragile. What can we do to protect it?

This brave smart woman was on the right side of history. To quote reality television “stars”: Thompson wasn’t “here to make friends.” But she was right about the Nazis and she knew she was right. Let’s be like her. In situations where peer pressure acts as a silencer – where consensus is stifling – think WWDTD? (What Would Dorothy Thompson Do?) Journalists especially should ask themselves that question. They should have asked it during 45’s campaign.

Dorothy Thompson is a role model and a hero to me.

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20 Responses to “They are holding every Jew in Germany as a hostage. Therefore, we who are not Jews must speak, speak our sorrow and indignation and disgust in so many voices that they will be heard.” — journalist Dorothy Thompson, radio broadcast, 1938

  1. Melissa Sutherland says:

    Love her. Was so please to read the Harper’s article. So on point. Could have been written last month. Thanks for this.

    • sheila says:

      Melissa – I mean, she really gets it. What the attraction would be to certain kinds of people. I was really blown away when I read it.

      There’s a biography of her called American Cassandra and that’s really what she was.

    • sheila says:

      I wish Library of America would come out with a collection of her writing. She’s written so much. As far as I can tell they have not – maybe she’s excerpted in their WWII writing collection, which I don’t have.

      I’d love to read all her columns unfolding in real time. Must investigate if this exists. It must, right?

  2. Okay, Sheila, you’ve talked me into it. I’m finally pulling It Can’t Happen Here off the shelf and doing my due diligence.

    Just curious, but what are your favorite anti-totalitarian movies? Mine’s Man on a Tightrope (which never seems to get much play in these conversations but hits me like a ton of bricks…so hard I’ve only watched it twice in twenty years despite being a huge fan of all involved).

    • sheila says:

      NJ – It Can’t Happen Here is really chilling, and he gets so much right.

      Interesting question in re: anti-totalitarian movies! Man on a Tightrope is great. Brazil is pretty great. Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.

      Then there are the big dystopian movies – like Mad Max, Snowpiercer, the TV series Handmaid’s Tale. Blade Runner kind of applies too. Farenheit 451. Orson Welles’ The Trial! I’ll have to think more on it.

      • If we include television I have to say The Americans is the most convincing portrayal of what I’ve seen. The Soviet scenes of course and what happened to Martha, both chilling and painful. But Paige’s conversion and “escape” into the embrace of evil was as devastating (and as well handled) as anything I’ve seen on tv or film. I could only compare it to Judith Hutter going among the English at the end of The Deerslayer and Caddie Compson being spotted among the Nazis in the postscript to The Sound and the Fury except even more depressing because the character was younger and more vulnerable…and just as headstrong.

        And I do like some dystopian fiction/film, especially if Philip K. Dick is involved (as in both Blade Runner movies). But I’m more deeply affected by portrayals of systems that actually exist or have existed, as opposed to what might have been. Reality is the best warning system!

      • Count Pete says:

        Prescient about the coming media world and its potential to create monsters is A Face in the Crowd–and what a performance by Andy Griffith!

  3. Jan S Ostrom says:

    Excellent, I have learned a great truth today. Thank you. Keep up the good work, we need this badly. ✌️

  4. Bill Wolfe says:

    You might enjoy David Simon’s six-episode adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, presented on HBO. The acting is uniformly good and of course the parallels between Lindberg in 1940 and Trump in 2016 are intentional and hard to dismiss. I also like the four-season adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle. For me, this actually does a more frightening job of showing what it would be like if It Happened Here, simply because Man in the High Castle shows us a world where it has happened, as opposed to where it might be about to happen, as in The Plot Against America.

  5. John Vail says:

    Fantastic overview of a woman whom I knew nothing about. Wow, what a script that could be written about her life in that key decade!

    • sheila says:

      John – thanks! she definitely should be more well-known! You’re right – would be a fantastic movie – or mini-series – Dorothy Thompson in the 1930s.

  6. Scott Abraham says:

    Watch this DT interview, then go to Woman of the Year. Katherine Hepburn was spot on:


    Would this be a classic mid-Atlantic accent?

    • sheila says:

      Yes, totally mid-Atlantic! “ah-TALL” for “at all”.

      what a fascinating interview. She was right about everything and it was only 1941.

  7. Jennie Shamburger says:

    Man, those Dorothys…Parker and Thompson…oh to have been seated across from them at the table. I am always in awe of those who speak their truths out loud and with conviction. Thank you for always teaching and inspiring me to dig deeper.

    • sheila says:

      Powerful Dorothys!! Feared Dorothys – with their sharp pens! I am in awe too – and they’re so inspiring in re: speaking the truth even if no one wants to hear it.

      If you’re interested Scott left a clip above of Dorothy Thompson answering questions in 1941 – before America got into the war. It’s so interesting.

  8. Kristen Westergaard says:

    This is fascinating. She sounds fearless and far seeing.sounds like an amazing movie or better yet series could be made of her journey. ,
    Maybe sounds strange, but I am internally conflicted about the heckling at the Nazi gathering. I am certainly no fan of Nazi propaganda or solidarity building, but I am aware of compassionate speakers getting heckled or shouted down because they aren’t n lockstep with an ideology, so I wonder about the practice in general. You always have a thoughtful perspective and I’m wondering what metric you’d use here…

    • sheila says:

      // I am aware of compassionate speakers getting heckled or shouted down because they aren’t n lockstep with an ideology //

      This is very true! and the difficulty of free speech is that you must – yes, MUST – allow for it on “the other side”. You have to be able to tolerate a little bit of speech you don’t like. There are exceptions, of course.

      I think at a certain point these free speech conversations remain too abstract – and when you’re dealing with potential violence – or … guys marching with tiki torches shouting “the Jews will not replace us” … I think it’s perfectly appropriate to express your revulsion and loudly. (The opposite is also true, though, and this is the difficult thing). But I think groups preaching violence/genocidal language towards others? I think they are fair game. They’re breaking the fragile social contract – the contract saying we should be able to tolerate each other, even if we don’t love each other, but we have to put aside all that in order to have a society everyone wants to live in. But there are those who actually AREN’T “for” this. They want to shut up the other side forever.

      They can still speak but they should expect to be heckled. You can’t heckle in Russia – you’d be imprisoned. Killed. this is why Pussy Riot’s acts of civil disobedience and protest-performance-art is so effective. and they are paying the price. but they feel that price is worth it because the stakes are life and death.

      Dorothy Thompson saw first hand how this lock-step ideology took over what was an enlightened democratic country. People were being FAR too blase about it. Her husband’s book has that blase-ness in the title!! So she heckled. I think of Anne Lindbergh’s little misguided book The Wave of the Future – published around this time – while Jews were being killed by the millions. The point of her book was basically that fascism was “the wave of the future” and yes it is scary but something BETTER will come AFTER. it was basically lie-down-and-take-it appeasement – probably written because she was pretty horrified by her husband’s involvement in America First – and the speeches he was making where he blamed thing on the Jews. She begged him to take out this or that section, but he wouldn’t.

      She was destroyed for Wave of the Future – and rightly so. it saddens me to say this because I love her writing. But that kind of “they’re too strong to fight, let’s just let them have at it, and hope for a better day” attitude can be catching. there’s a sort of learned helplessness that comes when humans see other humans goose-stepping by in perfect rows. like: what are we supposed to DO about it??

      Dorothy Thompson ran in intellectual liberal writer circles and she saw that learned helpless attitude everywhere and it drove her crazy.

      But I do understand your point.

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