Winston Churchill is rightly remembered as the lonely voice of 1930s Britain who recognized the dangers of Nazism and loudly and regularly denounced Adolph Hitler and his thugs while his nation was sleepwalking through the decade.
America had a similar voice, but unfortunately, we hardly have any memory of her.
The voice was that of Dorothy Thompson, the foremost journalist of her age. Unlike Churchill, Thompson’s experience with Hitler and Nazism was up close and personal.
Thompson spoke German and had spent a good part of the 1920s in Germany as a foreign correspondent watching it deteriorate into turmoil. She left for a while (she married Sinclair Lewis in 1927 and lived with him in Vermont for a time) but returned in 1931 and because of her prominence was invited to interview Hitler as he was gaining more and more followers.
She was not impressed. She believed that he was a “little man” who would be outmaneuvered by the more skillful politicians in Germany. In that assessment, she was clearly wrong, but she was correct in seeing Nazism as a barbaric, authoritarian cult that posed a danger not just to Germany but to the world.
In August 1934, a year and a half after Hitler had seized power, Thompson was expelled from Germany, told that because of what she had said and written that Germany could not offer its “hospitality” to her. She had 24 hours to leave. When she boarded her train, almost the whole of the foreign correspondence corps in Berlin at the time came to see her off.
Her expulsion made front-page news around the world, and Thompson had the expulsion order framed and hung in her office in New York.
Thompson spent much of the next decade in loud and unceasing opposition to the Nazis. She had ample megaphones at her disposal. She wrote a thrice-weekly column, On the Record, for the New York Tribune that was syndicated in more than 170 newspapers and read by as many as 10 million people. Thompson was also offered a broadcasting spot on NBC radio as a news commentator, so she was not only read but also heard by most of the nation on a regular basis. In addition, she had a monthly column in Cosmopolitan magazine in which she discussed non-political topics, but that only enhanced her fame and her reach.
Thompson called on America to open their hearts and their doors to those fleeing Nazi persecution. She talked about how life in Germany was becoming intolerable for Jews and other minorities. In 1939 she attended a German America Bund rally in Madison Square Garden and loudly heckled the speakers until an armed guard had to escort her out.
Sadly and to its shame, America turned deaf ears to Thompson’s pleas until it was far too late.
Next week: How Dorothy Thompson got to Germany
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