How Four Interwar American Journalists Saw the Rise of European TotalitarianismHistorians in the News
tags: Nazism, journalism, European history
Karin Wulf is the director of the John Carter Brown Library and a historian at Brown University. She was previously the executive director of the Omohundro Institute of American History & Culture and a professor of history at William & Mary.
As World War I ended and Americans flocked to Europe, American writers went with them. A circle of reporters, many of them young Midwesterners and Southerners just out of college, arrived in London and Paris and from there dispersed further east. In places like Munich, Vienna, Warsaw and Moscow, they recorded the war’s remnants and uncovered the kindling for future conflicts.
How these journalists—from Dorothy Thompson, the first American reporter expelled from Nazi Germany, to H.R. Knickerbocker, who was once the highest-paid foreign correspondent in the world—thought about the still-new Soviets, the rise of fascism and the fate of democracy was tangled up with their own preconceptions, love lives and other preoccupations. Yet how they wrote about the world after the Great War was how many Americans came to see it.
Reading Deborah Cohen’s new book, Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took on a World at War, during the Russian invasion of Ukraine feels both timely and terribly unsettling, reminding us of all the the world wars we proclaimed would never be forgotten. For Americans, for Westerners, World War II stands as a battle against an extraordinary evil, one against which all military conflicts are measured, and one in which a moral world order—standing against injustice and supporting democracies that ensure a better future for all—was defined.
The conflict catalogued by Thompson, Knickerbocker and their peers was a three-cornered battle between democracy, fascism and communism. The war in Ukraine, meanwhile, “is more sharply democratic governance versus authoritarian governance,” says Cohen. A striking difference between the two, the historian adds, “is the ability to fool oneself about the nature of dictatorship is now much less.” In the 1920s and ’30s, “they had experience with kings and emperors and tyrants of various sorts, but modern dictatorship was a new phenomenon. [And] you can see how badly people misjudged it.”
Last Call is about a generation of American reporters who sprinted toward Europe, and often toward conflict and danger, to tell the story of the early 20th-century rise of fascism, another world war and the colonial independence movements that followed it. They were men and women exuberantly of their time, embracing psychoanalysis as they reflected on journalistic objectivity and questioning themselves and each other as they told the biggest stories of their time.
Cohen spoke with Smithsonian about these trailblazing reporters and how their world is reflected in ours. A condensed and edited version of the conversation is below.
Let’s start by talking about the eerie parallels between a hundred years ago, at the end of World War I, and now.
There are really striking and important parallels between the kinds of insight they had at the time and what journalists, critics and experts, and specialists of all kinds have been warning about in Ukraine: Putin’s expansionism and revanchism [a policy of recovering lost territory or status], especially after the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and of Crimea in 2014. There’s also been great reporting about the Russian kleptocracy, [or corrupt government]. So, in one sense, the attack on Ukraine shouldn’t have been a surprise. But as was true in the 1930s, the Cassandras are only vindicated in hindsight.
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