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Dorothy Thompson and German Writers in Defense of Democracy

by Karina von Tippelskirch (Author)
Monographs 300 Pages

Table Of Content


Karina von Tippelskirch

Dorothy Thompson
and German Writers
in Defense of Democracy

About the author

Karina von Tippelskirch, Dr. Phil., Associate Professor of German, Syracuse University. Her fields of interest include 20th century and contemporary German literature and culture, translation, transnational literary and cultural transfer. Her research focuses on exile literature, the literary representation of the Holocaust, the interface of German, German-Jewish, and Yiddish litera-ture and American expatriate writers in Austria and Germany.xt

About the book

Drawing on a wealth of archival material, this book investigates work and life of Dorothy Thompson, the eminent journalist who in 1928 married American novelist Sinclair Lewis. In the following decade, she became the most influential American woman next to Eleanor Roosevelt. Thompson's extensive network of friends and collaborators included prominent personalities on both sides of the Atlantic: Hamilton Fish Armstrong, Lion Feuchtwanger, Marcel Fodor, Ben Huebsch, Annette Kolb, Fritz Kortner, Thomas Mann, H. L. Mencken, Helmuth James von Moltke, Eugenie Schwarzwald, Christa Winsloe, and Carl Zuckmayer. Her prolific public engagement against Hitler and on behalf of refugees and exiled writers was based on the conviction that one was not possible without the other. A fierce opponent of isolationism, she declared that indifference towards totalitarianism or the refugee crisis would destroy democracy not only abroad but also in the United States.

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Foreword

Eighty years after Dorothy Thompson dispatched her articles from Europe to American newspapers we still read them with astonishment. This is not journalism written for the day, but clear-sighted analysis of conditions that led to political, economic, and cultural crises in her time—and could do so again.

Thompson’s resolve was driven by a strong social conscience formed in the various Methodist parsonages her father pastored in Upstate New York, and while pursuing her solid liberal arts education and her early activism in behalf of women’s suffrage.

In the early 1920s, first as a freelance journalist in Budapest and Vienna, and soon thereafter as head of a foreign news bureau in Berlin, she foresaw that anti-Semitism would lead to persecution of Jewish citizens. In 1934 her fearless reporting on National Socialist brutality led to her expulsion from Germany.

Back in the United States her prestige only grew. Through her widely read columns and her lecture tours from coast to coast, she reached millions and was called the most influential woman of her day aside from Eleanor Roosevelt.

Thompson proposed measures to resolve the refugee crisis, which expanded after the beginning of World War II. She was able to induce the highest officials, including the president of the United States, to assist individuals and aid organizations; and with great generosity she supported many of them herself.

Drawing from a wealth of letters, journals, articles, books, lectures, and radio talks by Thompson, this study focuses on her efforts to enlighten the American public about the true nature of National Socialism, always reminding her readers to make a distinction between National Socialism and Germany.

Thompson initiated cultural transfer from Germany to the United States through her publications, including reviews and articles on such authors as Thomas Mann, Carl Zuckmayer, and Lion Feuchtwanger, many of whom she knew personally. With her powerful personality, she was able to influence an ever-widening circle of European politicians, intellectuals, and writers. In this way she also initiated cultural transfer from the United States to Germany.

Sigrid Bauschinger

Professor Emerita in German Studies

University of Massachusetts

November 1, 2016←11 | 12→ ←12 | 13→

Introduction

On August 25, 1934, American journalist Dorothy Thompson received a visitor at the Hotel Adlon where she usually stayed in Berlin. “He was a young man in a trench coat like Hitler’s. He brought an order that I should leave the country immediately, within forty-eight hours, for journalistic activities inimical to Germany.”1 Thompson consulted American ambassador William E. Dodd who told her to take the letter seriously. On the following day she left the city where she had lived between 1925 and 1928 and which she visited numerous times thereafter. If her expulsion was intended to rid the Third Reich of a prominent critic, the outcome was the opposite. Thompson was recognized as the first American journalist to be forced from Nazi Germany. The incident made front-page news abroad and increased her reputation as one of the strongest opponents of Hitler and National Socialism. It moreover fueled her passion to fight back.

At the heart of the book at hand are Thompson’s fight against Hitler and totalitarianism, her engagement in behalf of the democratic culture of Germany, and her numerous and varied collaborations with German-speaking writers and intellectuals who escaped, in many cases with Thompson’s direct support, to the United States. The study also investigates the foundations of Thompson’s position towards Germany. From whence did her affinity for German culture originate? What was the impact of the eight consecutive years that she spent abroad, from 1920 to 1928, on her identity and her views on Central Europe? What propelled her to become such an outspoken critic of Hitler and National Socialism? Who were her allies, role models, and collaborators? How did her friendships and alliances with German writers and intellectuals shape her views, and what was her influence on them? What did Thompson’s ideas, actions, and collaborations contribute to transatlantic cultural transfer in general and German literature in exile in particular?

A Roving Reporter’s Rise to Fame

Like many aspiring American writers, Thompson relocated to Europe after World War I. She was part of a vanguard of women forging careers as news writers and←13 | 14→ photographers during the first decades of the twentieth century. Her journalistic career took off in the early 1920s in Vienna, where she speedily worked her way up from an unsalaried special correspondent to a full-time correspondent at the Curtis Publishing Agency’s Philadelphia Public Ledger. She spent the fall of 1922 in Berlin, covering the Ledger’s Berlin office for the regular correspondent who was on leave in the United States. Within three years she returned to Berlin as Central European bureau chief for the Philadelphia Public Ledger and the New York Evening Post. She is often called the first woman to have headed a major American news office abroad, a credit she vigorously rejected. In a December 1925 interview for an article in the Nation, she pointedly remarked: “There seems to me to be nothing extraordinary or of significance in the fact that a woman should be a foreign newspaper correspondent; indeed, I am surprised that the Nation should invite such an article on such a subject and thus lend itself to the specious feminism of the women’s magazines, which persists in finding cause for jubilation every time a woman becomes, for the first time, an iceman, a road surveyor, or a senator…. The see-what-the-little-darling-has-done-now-attitude ought to be outlawed.”2

It is more productive to discuss Thompson not in terms of her own undeniable greatness, but rather in the context of the significant cultural and political currents of her era, one of which was women’s emancipation. Thompson was not the only successful female foreign correspondent of her era. In the first decades of the twentieth century, when women in ever greater numbers entered professional careers previously reserved for men, questions related to gender, gender relationships, sexuality, and how to redefine womanhood became crucial. This study explores Thompson’s changing views on women’s emancipation in the context of historical developments and cultural trends on both sides of the Atlantic.

Although she was active in the women’s rights movement and fought for emancipation, Thompson grew increasingly critical of women advancing in careers while forgoing childcare or motherhood. The study identifies tensions between her life as an influential journalist, writer, and public intellectual and her desire for a more private, personal family life. It seeks to explain her antifeminist statements, by which she contradicted her own behavior as a career woman. I argue that Thompson was strongly influenced by the emergence of the New Woman in the 1920s and 1930s, especially in Berlin. The liberal sexual culture of the Weimar Republic permitted her to explore the nature of her own sexuality in a lesbian relationship. In the aftermath of two unconventional failed marriages, a difficult relationship to her son, and her decision to distance herself from her on own lesbi←14 | 15→an tendencies, she increasingly detached herself from feminism; she furthermore grew critical of homosexuality. These positions, and the articles and interviews in which she discouraged women from pursuing careers, precluded Thompson’s becoming a role model for the next generation of feminists and contributed to the lack of scholarly attention and critical works since her death in the early 1960s.

However, during her lifetime Thompson’s fame increased immensely when in 1928 she and novelist Sinclair Lewis married and formed “America’s most famous literary couple.”3 Resigning her Berlin post, she returned with Lewis to the United States, where she soon missed Europe and the fast-paced work environment and camaraderie she had enjoyed among foreign correspondents. After a brief reorientation period and the birth in 1930 of her and Lewis’s son, Michael, she took to writing as a freelance journalist, turning out extensive, well researched articles, which were published in a variety of outlets, among them Foreign Affairs, Harper’s Monthly Magazine, Ladies’ Home Journal, and the Saturday Evening Post.

Within the next five years, Thompson reinvented herself in America as an expert on Germany and “one of the nation’s most powerful voices denouncing Hitlerism and demanding American interventionism against the Fascist threat.”4 She warned of the National Socialist program, calling it in her famous 1931 interview with Hitler “a mixture of Fascism, racialist philosophy that teaches that ‘Arians,’ especially ‘Nordics,’ are created to rule the earth, anti-Semitism, and muddled socialism.”5 But she refused to take seriously the man whom she deemed ludicrous, a position in which she was hardly alone.

Nagorski’s investigation of eyewitness accounts of the rise of the Nazis, Hitlerland, describes the vastly diverse reactions among Americans to Hitler.6 They ranged from sympathy to alarm, from apologies and minimization to open calls to arms against the National Socialist regime. The most extreme example of a German-American expatriate who supported Hitler is Hans (“Putzi”) Hanfstaengl. Harvard educated, he was the son of a father from a prominent Bavarian family and a mother from a prominent American family. In the 1920s Hanfstaengl became one of Hitler’s closest confidants in Munich. He was instrumental in Hitler’s early career and later served as his press secretary. In this role he arranged←15 | 16→ Thompson’s interview with Hitler in late 1931.7 When he fell out of favor with the Nazis in 1937, Hanfstaengl feared for his life and departed Germany for the United States. He is mentioned here as a prime example of the German Americans on the far right. His actions were counteracted by numerous American foreign correspondents who recognized the political dangers of National Socialism early on. Hamilton Fish Armstrong, the editor of Foreign Affairs who interviewed Hitler in 1933, John Gunther, Hubert Renfro (H. R.) Knickerbocker, Edgar Ansel Mowrer, Vincent Sheean, William L. Shirer, Sigrid Schultz, and others published alarming reports on the brutality of the Third Reich. But Thompson stands out for the persistence of her fierce criticism of Hitler’s regime—and for her massive support of émigrés.

Exile, Networks, and Culture Transfer

For those escaping the Third Reich, meeting the right people became a matter of life or death. Nobel laureate Herta Müller writes, in her essay “Herzwort und Kopfwort” (Heart Word and Head Word, 2013), of the role played by good or bad happenstance: “To be lucky or unlucky meant at the time to be able to stay alive or to die … One calls it lucky or unlucky coincidence, but these were people. A lucky coincidence meant people with a bit of compassion, and that permitted the next step. Unlucky coincidence meant officious and capricious people, and that was fatal.”8 When contemplating from a distance of more than eighty years the unpredictability of emigration and exile, it is important to apprehend their temporal character. Contemplating the disparity between the exile experience and the term ascribed to it after 1933, Paul North notes:

Whatever else it may do or mean, at different times and in different contexts, this word, ‘Exil’, gives a name and a determinate description—does it not?—and thus confers a more permanent status on a contingent historical event…. It transforms a blow of experience into an article of knowledge. The great interruption of habits and identifications that ‘Exil’ means to say becomes with this word, at least in part, habituatable once more, making an expulsion into a destination, turning a voyage without a final terminus into a reference to a return.9←16 | 17→

Contingency and dependence on others are central experiences of refugees and also have been central topoi in the literature of exile throughout its history. Within the context of flight from Nazi Germany and exile in the United States, the vital role of some individuals and organizations that came to the aid of those who were fleeing from Fascism and the Holocaust was recognized only years, or decades, later.

One of these outstanding individuals was Varian Fry, dispatched to Marseilles after the French defeat and the armistice with Germany in the summer of 1940 by the Emergency Rescue Committee (ERC), a New York-based private American aid organization. His assignment was to help about two hundred imperiled European intellectuals, artists, musicians, writers, scientists, and politicians to escape from Vichy, France. Though ill-prepared for this difficult task, Fry and a local group of American expatriates, French resisters, and European refugees succeeded in organizing the escape of almost two thousand people while providing aid and hope to many more. Among those rescued were Hannah Arendt (at that time not yet famous), André Breton, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Leonard Frank, Lion Feuchtwanger, Wanda Landowska, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Jacques Lipchitz, Golo Mann, Heinrich Mann, Hertha Pauli, Anna Seghers, Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel and her husband Franz Werfel, Kurt Wolff, and their families, to name a few.10 To this day, the given numbers of people rescued by Fry and the ERC vary greatly—from 1,500 to 4,000—an indication of the difficulties of researching these less formalized organizational networks, which often enough where forced to operate at the margins of legality.11 Fry received no recognition in the United States or in Germany during his lifetime. The only←17 | 18→ country to honor him before his death in 1967 was France.12 Diplomats such as Hiram Bingham IV, Chiune Sugihara, and Raoul Wallenberg also helped by providing thousands of life-saving visas to persecuted Jews. Like Fry they were often ignored or, worse, disregarded by their governments for not following official orders and for potentially disrupting political and diplomatic relationships. Only years after World War II ended were they recognized for their courage and humanity.13

When Thompson began writing on Germany in the years following World War I, the country’s image abroad was badly tarnished. She writes about “a very strong resistance” and the animosity that had to be overcome when writing about Germany in the 1920s. “I believe that, in my unimportant way, I helped somewhat to overcome that resistance.”14 These statements are surprising when considering that they come from an article Thompson published in the New York Times two days after her expulsion from Berlin in 1934. It is remarkable that she held on to her support of Germany throughout the next decades. Even when she urged the United States to engage politically against Nazi Germany and to enter the war, she maintained that one had to differentiate between Nazis and Germans. This allowed her to argue forcefully for the rescue of refugees, including persecuted Germans and Austrians, when American immigration policies prevented many from reaching the United States.15 Given the importance and duration of her engagement in behalf of Germany, its democratic culture, and its representatives, and the many individuals whom she personally supported, the lack of scholarly attention to Thompson in German studies is striking.16←18 | 19→

Previous Publications on Thompson

The majority of publications on Thompson appeared, not surprisingly for a journalist, in magazines, as book chapters, or as books of general biographical and historical interest. The following survey of articles from popular outlets shows how they shaped Thompson’s public image. They are taken into consideration here because her biographies employed them, and they subsequently found their way into scholarly studies. Some of the tropes discussed below continue to be repeated in writing about her without being questioned.

Summary

Drawing on a wealth of archival material, this book investigates work and life of Dorothy Thompson, the eminent journalist who in 1928 married American novelist Sinclair Lewis. In the following decade she became the most influential American woman next to Eleanor Roosevelt. Thompson's extensive network of friends and collaborators included prominent personalities on both sides of the Atlantic: Hamilton Fish Armstrong, Lion Feuchtwanger, Marcel Fodor, Ben Huebsch, Annette Kolb, Fritz Kortner, Thomas Mann, H. L. Mencken, Helmuth James von Moltke, Eugenie Schwarzwald, Christa Winsloe, and Carl Zuckmayer. Her prolific public engagement against Hitler and on behalf of refugees and exiled writers was based on the conviction that one was not possible without the other. A fierce opponent of isolationism, she declared that indifference towards totalitarianism or the refugee crisis would destroy democracy not only abroad but also in the United States.

Biographical notes

Karina von Tippelskirch (Author)

Karina von Tippelskirch, Dr. Phil., Associate Professor of German, Syracuse University. Her fields of interest include 20th century and contemporary German literature and culture, translation, transnational literary and cultural transfer. Her research focuses on exile literature, the literary representation of the Holocaust, the interface of German, German-Jewish, and Yiddish literature and American expatriate writers in Austria and Germany.

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Title: Dorothy Thompson and German Writers in Defense of Democracy