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Journalist Dorothy Thompson's Warnings About Fascism – Abroad and at Home

The recent release of The U.S. and the Holocaust, the latest documentary from Ken Burns and his partners Lynn Novick and Sarah Botstein — a project where Burns has noted, “I will not work on a more important film than this one in my lifetime”— has raised a number of complex and important questions. Those questions relate in part to the horrific histories on which the film focuses, including the multi-layered entanglements between the U.S. and Nazi Germany that I wrote about in this column, and which contributed to the tragic abandonment of Jewish refugees that I covered in this one.

But alongside those historical issues, the film raises thorny questions about what’s happening in the U.S. today. It asks us to consider how Americans can resist and challenge such rising fascism, both around the world and in our own communities. The era of World War II and the Holocaust offers not only a case study in the destructive effects when we fail to do so quickly or potently enough, but also features, in the groundbreaking and courageous life and career of journalist Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961) an inspiring model for how to call out both global and American fascism.

Thompson’s life and journalism alike were defined by radical activism at every turn. While still a college student at Syracuse in the early 1910s, she began working for women’s suffrage, quickly becoming a leader in the movement which successfully gained women the right to vote in New York in 1917. In the 1920s she moved to Europe to pursue her blossoming journalism career, achieving such milestones as the final interview with Irish Sinn Féin leader Terence MacSwiney just hours before his arrest for sedition. While an early and committed advocate for the Zionist movement in both Europe and the U.S., by the final decades of her life she had come to recognize the struggles and oppression of the Palestinian people and had become a vocal critic of Israel’s human rights violations. All these and many other groundbreaking steps led to Thompson’s nickname, “The First Lady of American Journalism,” and to such recognition as a 1939 Time cover story that declared “she and Eleanor Roosevelt are undoubtedly the most influential women in the U.S.”

By 1939 Thompson had also become closely linked to her most prominent, important, and courageous cause: her vocal opposition to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. Her European journalism career had taken her first to Austria and then to Germany, where she worked as head of the New York Post’s Berlin bureau. In 1931 she met and interviewed the rising young German politician Adolf Hitler, and she was so troubled by what she saw in him that she quickly turned her impressions and concerns into a book, I Saw Hitler! (1932). As ever, Thompson pulled no punches, writing “He 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 and insecure. He is the very prototype of the little man.” The Nazis found the book and Thompson’s perspective offensive, and in August 1934 she became the first U.S. journalist expelled from Nazi Germany.

Read entire article at Saturday Evening Post