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Q&A: Karina von Tippelskirch on Journalist Dorothy Thompson
Journalist Dorothy Thompson, a 1914 alumna of Syracuse University, is not well known today, but before and during World War II, she was one of the U.S.’s most influential women, along with First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. In her new book, “Dorothy Thompson and German Writers in Defense of Democracy” (Peter Lang GmbH, Internatiionaler Verlag der Wissenschaften, 2018), Associate Professor of German Karina von Tippelskirch investigates Thompson’s early and fierce opposition to Adolf Hitler, and how she acted as an agent of cultural transference between Germany and the United States.
01What led to your interest in writing about Dorothy Thompson, especially her involvement with German writers before and during World War II?
In my research on exile literature, I focus on authors who went into exile to escape the Nazis, among them writers such as Hannah Arendt, Thomas Mann, Erich Maria Remarque and Joseph Roth. Studying their works, correspondence and other archival documents, I learned also about Americans, many of them expatriates, who helped persecuted artists, intellectuals, politicians and writers to escape from Nazi-occupied Europe. Dorothy Thompson’s name came up frequently, which is why I became curious who she was. It was only later that I understood how famous she had been in the 1930s and 1940s in the United States.
02What made Thompson a key figure in the network of intellectuals who opposed Nazism?
Thompson built her career as a foreign correspondent between 1920 and 1928 in Austria and Germany. She became in 1925 head of the Berlin bureau of the Philadelphia Public Ledger and the New York Post, a major foreign news office. In this position, she covered nine European countries and met heads of states, politicians, economists, scientists and other important public figures. Her fluency in German and her interest in art, literature, music and theater brought her in touch with numerous artists, intellectuals, politicians and writers. She resigned from her post in Berlin when she and the novelist Sinclair Lewis got married.
As a frequent visitor to Germany, Thompson witnessed the growing danger of the right-wing political parties in Germany. In December 1931, she interviewed Hitler, not yet the German chancellor. The interview, published in early 1932 under the title “I Saw Hitler,” and a series of high-profile articles on the terror against Jews and political opponents in Germany, which she published in the Jewish Daily Bulletin in the spring of 1933, led to her expulsion from Berlin in 1934. She was the first Western journalist forced out of Nazi Germany, which contributed further to her fame and to her resolve to take on Hitler and his party wherever she could.
To support Hitler’s victims was of equal importance to Thompson. She personally and publicly came to the aid of Jews, political opponents and exiled writers whose works were burned and banned in Germany. She also collaborated in such organizations as the American PEN and the Emergency Rescue Committee, the predecessor to the International Rescue Committee, which is active to this day.
03A synopsis of your book speaks about transatlantic cultural transfer. What is meant by this, and what part did Thompson play in it?
Exiles and expatriates act as catalysts between cultures. They bring traditions, talent, knowledge and new ideas from one cultural space to the new places they inhabit. Strong cultural agents, such as writers, artists, scholars, scientists and journalists, often have a lasting impact on the culture of their host countries. Exiles and expatriates contribute to innovation because they approach problems from different angles and perspectives.
In Thompson’s case, it is obvious that she had an early affinity for German, which is why she ended up in Vienna, and from there she began a career that would not have been possible in the United States. She and other female journalists established themselves abroad as foreign correspondents and were able to continue their journalistic careers after they returned home. Thompson’s views on politics and on literature and culture remained deeply influenced by German thinkers and writers, and she became an advocate of them here in the United States.
04How does Thompson’s story relate to current issues, such as the global refugee crisis, domestic fears of extremism and infiltration from abroad, and prevalent hostility in Western democracies toward immigrants from cultural and political conflict zones?
Thompson’s writing, especially her well-researched longer articles, offer insights not only into the past but also for pressing questions today. The nationalist and ethnic violence of the 20th century and the responses to it—or their failure—should inform political decision making today.
After the annexation of Austria in 1938, when the number of refugees in Europe reached a new peak, Thompson wrote that the situation needed more than charitable work, it needed political and non-sectarian solutions on an international scale. Failure to counteract totalitarianism and indifference toward its victims meant to her an erosion of democratic and Christian principles, and by this a danger to the foundation of the United States. As a result of her engagement, she was attacked by isolationist and anti-Semitic political groups, one of which was the America First Committee, famously supported by aviator Charles A. Lindbergh.
05Thompson isn't very well known today, and yet she seems like she could be an inspirational figure for young women. Why do you think her star faded, after she was once known as the country’s most influential woman next to Eleanor Roosevelt?
I don’t think that Thompson would have approved narrowing her work’s scope to an inspiration for young women. She was a suffragist, feminist and pioneering female journalist, yet she rejected what she called in 1925 “the specious feminism of the women’s magazines, which persists in finding cause for jubilation every time when 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.”
What Thompson wanted were equal rights—for women and men, gentiles and Jews, people of different races and opinions. She didn’t want to be singled out based on her gender, and sought recognition based on her professional achievements. By her own words, she never wrote to be popular, but she wanted to have an impact on the world, which she did.
That Thompson is not widely read today has several reasons, which I discuss at the end of the book. The most important is that journalism is topical and does not age well. We still read the books by the writers Thompson knew and supported. Sinclair Lewis’ “It Can’t Happen Here,” for example, a book which Lewis would not have written without her, became a bestseller after the 2016 elections. But when do we read journalists of another era, or even last week’s newspaper?
But the principled positions that Thompson took in defense of democracy, freedom of expression, women’s and human rights have not lost their importance. President Obama cited her at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2015: “It is not the fact of liberty but the way in which liberty is exercised that ultimately determines whether liberty itself survives.” As a Syracuse alumna and the first woman who delivered a commencement speech at her alma mater, she can inspire SU students and shine a bright light on the history of the university.
06Many of Thompson’s papers reside in the Special Collections Research Center at the Syracuse University Libraries. Was this a big resource for you in researching your book?
Thompson bequeathed her papers to her alma mater and thereby contributed to several significant collections at the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) at Syracuse University Library. My book is based on the wealth of materials housed at the SCRC, and I also conducted research at other archives with corresponding materials in Germany and the United States. The book could not have been written without the professional support that I received from so many archivists and librarians, especially here at SU. I can only encourage students and faculty member to explore and use the rich collections of the SCRC.
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