Dorothy Thompson was born in 1893. After her mother died when she was seven, Dorothy was sent to live with her two aunts. She was able to go to college, a rarity for women at the time, and this gave her a sense of obligation to other women. She became a devoted suffragist.
Dorothy began her career in journalism by traveling to Europe. She wrote a number of important feature stories and gained respect for her reporting. While in Germany she saw the rise of the Nazi party. She was able to interview Adolf Hitler and grew alarmed at the prospect of him rising to power. Her dismissive description of him as “the very prototype of the little man” led to her subsequent expulsion from Germany in 1934.
When she returned to the US, Dorothy continued her focus on resisting the rise of fascism. She went from being a reporter to being a regular columnist in newspapers and magazines. She also did radio broadcasts, where she continued to denounce fascism in Europe and in the US. With her columns and broadcasts she reached an audience of millions. She bravely attended a Nazi rally in Madison Square Garden and laughed to heckle the speaker, Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze, until she was escorted out by police for her own safety. She later remarked that she had heard the Nazi’s use the same language before they took power in Germany—and had heard the same “free speech” arguments about letting them have their say. She pointed to the horrific results of allowing such speech to go unchallenged:
I saw an exact duplicate of it in the Berlin Sports Palast in 1931. That meeting was also ‘protected’ by the police of the German Republic. Three years later the people who had been in charge of that meeting were in charge of the Government of Germany, and the German citizens against whom, in 1931, exactly the same statements had been made as were made by Mr. Kunze, were being beaten, expropriated and murdered… Whenever he made one of his blanket indictments against all Americans not purely Aryan, the audience applauded and howled with joy. Between Mr. Kunze’s speech and a wholesale pogrom is a very short step…I laughed because I wanted to demonstrate how perfectly absurd all this defense of ‘free speech’ is, in connection with movements and organizations like this one.
In a 1941 story in Harper’s, Who Goes Nazi?, she imagines a parlor game in which people would guess who would become fascist. She concludes that it’s a matter of moral character:
Kind, good, happy, gentlemanly, secure people never go Nazi. …Believe me, nice people don’t go Nazi. Their race, color, creed, or social condition is not the criterion. It is something in them. Those who haven’t anything in them to tell them what they like and what they don’t—whether it is breeding, or happiness, or wisdom, or a code, however old-fashioned or however modern, go Nazi.
Dorothy was married three times. Her second husband, Sinclair Lewis, the Nobel Prize winning journalist, shared her concerns about the rise of fascism in America. One of Lewis’ novels, It Can’t Happen Here, was about a fascist dictator who takes over the United States. (This novel regained popularity after the 2016 elections in the US.)
Dorothy was certainly well known in her time, but she is largely forgotten today. She died in 1961 at the age of 67, leaving a legacy that is one of opening doors for women in journalism while also providing a woman’s perspective on important international events. She also leaves of legacy of speaking out against fascism in the present within one’s own country and not just elsewhere. With the current rise of right-wing authoritarianism in the US, her warnings against fascism are just as relevant today as they were with the rise of Hitler.
Just imagine what Dorothy Thompson would be writing today. With the Big Lie of a stolen 2020 election and scores of politicians vowing not to acknowledge any election that doesn’t go their way, what would a present-day Dorothy Thompson be saying to resist the rise of fascism in our time? Just imagine what we should be doing to to resist the threat of authoritarianism in order to preserve, or perhaps to establish, a genuine democracy here in the United States.
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“When liberty is taken away by force it can be restored by force. When it is relinquished voluntarily by default it can never be recovered.”—Dorothy Thompson
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.