A Century Ago, American Reporters Foresaw the Rise of Authoritarianism in Europe

A new book tells the stories of four interwar writers who laid the groundwork for modern journalism

Typewriter against background of featured journalists' newspaper articles
Last Call at the Hotel Imperial centers on journalists Dorothy Thompson, John Gunther, H.R. Knickerbocker and Jimmy Vincent Sheean. Illustration by Meilan Solly / Photos via Getty Images and Newspapers.com

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.

Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took On a World at War

A prize-winning historian’s revelatory account of a close-knit band of wildly famous American reporters who, in the run-up to World War II, took on dictators and rewrote the rules of modern journalism

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.

Adolf Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Josef Goebbels, on the balcony of the Hotel Imperial in Vienna in January 1938
Adolf Hitler and his minister of propaganda, Josef Goebbels, on the balcony of the Hotel Imperial in Vienna in January 1938 Photo by Imagno / Getty Images

Today, we know the features of dictatorship: their control of the press, the cult of personality and their dangerous expansionism. Knowing those things now is part of what we bring to this situation. In the 1920s and ’30s, people really had to figure them out. They had this idea that Hitler would calm down and become a regular leader, that there was an impulse to moderation, or that the dictators would actually destroy each other, that they were mostly a danger to each other—Mussolini versus Hitler or Hitler versus the Austrian dictator [Engelbert] Dollfuss.

Your book is ultimately about a circle of colleagues and frenemies who sometimes gathered in places like the bar of Vienna’s famous Hotel Imperial. Tell us about the individual big personalities.

They were all born around the turn of the 20th century, and they came from the Midwest and from small towns in the South, so they’re not your East Coast Ivy League establishment types. They live out the 20th century in lockstep. They were in their 20s in the 1920s and in their 30s in the 1930s.

They go to Europe as very young people and end up becoming the most important and famous journalists of their era. There are four reporters at the heart of my book, plus one agitator and provocateur. John Gunther is probably the best known of them today. He is famous for having written books that sold literally in the millions, among them Inside Europe, Inside Asia and Inside U.S.A., which were continent-wide current events books that centered on personalities. And then he published Death Be Not Proud in 1949, which was the story of the death of his [17-year-old] son, Johnny, from a brain tumor. For decades, it was required reading in American schools.

H.R. Knickerbocker interviews Josef Stalin's mother, Ekaterina Djougachvili, in the 1930s.
H.R. Knickerbocker interviews Josef Stalin's mother, Ekaterina Djougachvili, in the 1930s. Photo by Keystone-France / Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images

Gunther’s very good friend was the journalist H.R. Knickerbocker. He worked for William Randolph Hearst’s International News Service for much of his career. And he covered every important story that happened from the early 1920s on. In 1923, he literally walked into the beer hall in Munich where Hitler’s putsch [a violent attempt to overthrow a government] was underway.

Knickerbocker’s boss in Berlin was the journalist Dorothy Thompson, the first American woman to lead a major overseas news bureau. She interviewed everyone starting with [Sigmund] Freud, every Eastern European leader and Hitler. Anyone who was of importance in those years sat down for a conversation with her. She was the first American reporter to be expelled from Nazi Germany in 1934, because Hitler didn’t like the way in which she portrayed him as a sort of weak little man. And he also didn’t like the fact that she had reported on violence against Jews, right after the Nazi takeover in January 1933. After she was kicked out of Germany, she went back to the United States and became the first woman to have a major opinion column of her own, “On the Record,” which in the late 1930s was reaching an estimated eight to nine million people thrice weekly. She was a major force in calling for the U.S. to enter what was then the European war, the Second World War.

Dorothy Thompson interviews New York City Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia on October 1, 1940.
Dorothy Thompson interviews New York City Mayor Fiorello H. La Guardia on October 1, 1940. Photo by CBS via Getty Images

The fourth figure was Jimmy [Vincent] Sheean. He, too, had reported some of the major stories of the day. He was in Italy with the rise of fascism. And, in 1927, he was in China as the Chinese communists were battling it out against Chinese nationalists. He became most famous for a book that he wrote about his reporting, published in 1935, entitled Personal History—one of those era-defining books. At the heart of this book was the search for the engaged individual to find his place in world events.

How did these reporters become a real community?

This is a book about a group of friends, friends who reported these stories, who crisscrossed the map, running into each other at putsches, riots, rebellions and economic crashes. They shared notes and they hung out late at night in reporters’ bars. But it’s also a book about a marriage, the marriage between John and Frances Gunther. She was the provocateur, a sometime foreign correspondent who became one of the most important anti-British Empire campaigners in the United States. She took up two anti-imperial causes. One was the Indian nationalist cause. She was a good friend of [Jawaharlal] Nehru. She also promoted Zionism, and both of those causes were linked chiefly by opposition to the British Empire. It’s about other marriages as well, in a way all of their marriages, but that is the central one. There are other people who are on the outer circle, like William Shirer, who today is still known for The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.

John Gunther in 1941
John Gunther in 1941 Bettman via Getty Images

What makes them a circle is they are in extremis together. They’re at the barricades, they’re driving cars through barbed wire streets, they’re in revolutions, in bombings. And they’re also stuck out there when many Americans aren’t there. There are diplomats, there’s a certain number of businessmen.

Another important thing that binds them together is that all of them begin to feel that the line between themselves and the events they’re reporting on begins to dissolve. This is something that they talk about all of the time. They share a kind of American derring-do and irreverence, and the sort of desire to figure out what is going on in the world. Thompson said that nothing that was human was foreign to us.

What are some of the biggest stories these writers broke? How can we measure their importance or influence beyond these scoops?

Because they were everywhere, they had a finger in every one of the big stories from Europe. Knickerbocker predicted the German-Soviet Pact. Knickerbocker also broke a major news story, which is still disputed, about the assets that Nazi leaders had squirreled away abroad, claiming that Himmler and Heydrich and all sorts of the big Nazi brass put their money in Argentina and Switzerland and U.S. bank accounts. Gunther reported every moment of the assassination of the Austrian dictator Dollfuss. So they’re always on the front page.

But their biggest story is really twofold. It’s the rise of the dictators, which is the story that they follow from the time that they’re very young reporters in the 1920s. And it’s also the rise of anti-colonial nationalism. They view the British Empire with this sort of American skepticism that was really common in the Midwest. And so, when they go out to North Africa, or when they go to Syria, in general, fights against imperialism are their story.

What about their reporting on anti-Semitism?

That’s huge. They recognize that anti-Semitism is part and parcel of the ways in which fascists, especially Nazis, are rallying the masses—not just Nazis, but Polish fascism, Hungarian fascism. They see how important anti-Semitism is, and that it’s not a kind of incidental thing for Hitler, that it’s absolutely at the core, the ideological core.

We’ve inherited a line of argument, which goes like this: Why didn’t Americans know, why didn’t the Associated Press report more loudly about what was happening to Jews in Europe? What you find though, if you look at the reporting of this group and many other reporters, is that these stories are being told. They’re just often ending up on page 7, 8, 9, 10. And, that’s not the reporters always so much as it is really the editors.

When Gunther is in Berlin after the Nazi takeover in 1933, he sends all of these stories about attacks on Jews. And Thompson reported some of the earliest and most important work on this. The editors of the Chicago Daily News though say, look, we need more diversified copy. We cannot be just publishing things all the time about anti-Semitism. Sheean essentially said in the later ’30s that the Nazis wanted to wipe Jews off the face of the map, and he thought it wasn’t very hard to imagine a future where that happened.

Were these writers participating in something new: a new form of journalism, or a new approach to foreign reporting?

The idea that American papers had to hire American reporters to report from abroad after the First World War wasn’t entirely new, but the scale was totally different. There were American newspapers that were, rather than relying on the wire services, building up their own bureaus abroad.

Vincent Sheean in 1958
Vincent Sheean in 1958 Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

But these reporters do two really important and very new things. Objectivity and subjectivity are always warring in the history of the American press. And so, respectable papers that they work for in the early ’20s are schooling their young reporters on the importance of understanding both sides. They come to Europe with that in mind and very quickly, in some cases like Sheean, simply discard that. At the riots at the Western Wall in [Jerusalem in] 1929, he decides there’s a wrong here, and I cannot fail to report that. In discarding objectivity, they embrace subjectivity, especially Thompson and Sheean.

The second important thing is that they create a kind of journalism that we often think about as starting with the New Journalism of the ’60s and ’70s that is highly emotional, that puts the reader right there with a reporter on the spot, that is about the reporter’s own feelings as much as it is about what they’re seeing. And that really is an innovation.

How did women writers gain opportunities and earn a significant place in foreign reporting?

So there’s Thompson, Janet Flanner, Emily Hahn, Frances Gunther, Rebecca West (a British woman but mostly spending a lot of time in America because she likes the atmosphere), Sigrid Schultz, Lee Miller, and on and on. They’re sort of sent into the world as university-educated reporters with the idea that all of the old arrangements are irrelevant. It’s like they have the flapper spirit but brought into a professional context. They’re helped by the fact that this is an unsettled and newish arena for work. While you still have the grizzled old-timers, there were so many people flooding into foreign reporting, stringing for big newspapers. The women march in and seize that opportunity.

Woman war correspondents who covered the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II (from left to right): Mary Welsh, Dixie Tighe, Kathleen Harriman, Helen Kirkpatrick, Lee Miller and Tania Long
Woman war correspondents who covered the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II (from left to right): Mary Welsh, Dixie Tighe, Kathleen Harriman, Helen Kirkpatrick, Lee Miller and Tania Long Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

There’s another important thing, too, which is that emotional style of reporting we’ve just been talking about. And it’s hard to know whether that’s the cause or a consequence of the number of women who are in that field, but it’s really distinctive from what you see in the 1950s, when you have a much more buttoned-up return to a so-called objective set of journalistic values. Thompson, who is just flat out emotional in her writing, was invoking mothers and babies, talking about the crises of civilization. She’s extraordinarily moral. She was the child of a minister, as was Knickerbocker. There’s a kind of opening for women there, with that emotionalism.

How did these writers help shape American perceptions of Europe and global politics both before and after World War II?

They do shape a kind of vision of Europe that is rather a basket case. Some of the ideas that European historians have spent a long time counteracting come from this period, about nationalism as the most important fixture of Eastern Europe. For their American readers, they really raise the alarm about Europe being run on the one hand by out-of-control dictators or on the other by doddering septuagenarians. There is this image that Gunther uses in 1939, which is that Europe was a train with all the shades pulled down inside, hurling toward a destination, and no one even knows where it’s going or who’s driving it.

In their memoiristic writing, they do something else that’s important, which is they come back from Europe fully steeped in psychoanalytic ideas, the idea that repression is at the root of both personal unhappiness and political instability. They’re taking Freudianism to a place that Freud doesn’t intend. Thompson was sensitive to the whole fascist family policy that was about increasing the number of children and returning women to traditional spheres of home and heart. Gunther was asking why is it that people bow down to this? A psychoanalyst would say that people like to subsume themselves in the leader. And so, in a sense, what’s happening to them is not just that there’s geopolitical havoc and economic collapse, but this sense that a project of authoritarian rule was to reconfigure people’s souls.