“WHEN I WALKED into Adolph Hitler’s salon in the Kaiserhof hotel, I was convinced that I was meeting the future dictator of Germany,” Dorothy Thompson wrote in 1931. “In something like fifty seconds I was quite sure that I was not. It took just about that time to measure the startling insignificance of this man who has set the world agog.”
When she met Hitler—and wrote that spectacularly wrongheaded assessment—Thompson was one of America’s most respected foreign correspondents. She’d covered European politics for a decade, becoming Berlin bureau chief of the New York Post and the Philadelphia Ledger in 1925, the first American woman to run a foreign news bureau. She was also married to novelist Sinclair Lewis, who had won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1930.
Thompson was a savvy reporter with a keen eye and a crisp style, and she’d been angling for an interview with Hitler since 1923, when he was arrested trying to seize power in the failed “Beer Hall Putsch.” For years, Hitler had shown little interest in talking to foreign reporters. But in late 1931, when he was widely seen as Germany’s next leader, he finally agreed to meet with Thompson.
The American journalist did her homework, interviewing German politicians and Nazi supporters, watching Hitler’s speeches and reading Mein Kampf, the screed he’d written in prison. She recognized that he was a “magnificent propagandist” and “an orator with the tongue of the late [William Jennings] Bryan.” She understood his political beliefs and described them, accurately, as “a mixture of fascism, racialist philosophy that teaches that ‘Aryans’ and especially ‘Nordics’ are created to rule the earth, anti-semitism and muddled socialism.” Thompson was well prepared for the interview, but she wasn’t prepared for the man she met, who seemed so…pathetic.
“He is formless, almost faceless, a man whose countenance is a caricature, a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones,” she wrote. “He is inconsequent and voluble, ill-poised, insecure. He is the very prototype of the Little Man. A lock of lank hair falls over an insignificant and slightly retreating forehead. . . .The nose is large, but badly shaped and without character. His movements are awkward, almost undignified and most un-martial. . . .The eyes alone are notable. Dark gray and hyperthyroid—they have the peculiar shine which often distinguishes geniuses, alcoholics, and hysterics.”
To that unflattering description, she added: “There is something irritatingly refined about him. I bet he crooks his little finger when he drinks a cup of tea.”
Thompson looked at Hitler and saw a nonentity, a mere rabble-rouser incapable of leading a great nation. He didn’t carry himself like a powerful politician, and he certainly didn’t seem capable of becoming what many people feared—a future dictator of Germany. He didn’t even possess the political skill necessary to charm an interviewer.
“The interview was difficult, because one cannot carry on a conversation with Adolph Hitler,” she wrote. “He speaks always as though he were addressing a mass meeting. In personal intercourse he is shy, almost embarrassed. In every question, he seeks for a theme that will set him off. Then his eyes focus in some far corner of the room; a hysterical note creeps into his voice, which rises sometimes almost to a scream. He gives the impression of a man in a trance. He bangs the table.”
His answers were so long-winded that she managed to ask only three questions. But one of them elicited a candid and frightening reply.
“When you come to power,” she asked, “will you abolish the constitution of the German Republic?”
“I will get into power legally,” he said. “I will abolish this parliament and the Weimar constitution afterward. I will found an authority-state, from the lowest cell to the highest instance; everywhere there will be responsibility and authority above, discipline and obedience below.”
He was admitting that he planned to create a dictatorship, and she believed he was telling the truth. But she couldn’t believe that this “Little Man” could actually succeed in that grandiose goal. “Imagine a would-be dictator setting out to persuade a sovereign people to vote away their rights.” That idea seemed preposterous to her.
She handicapped his chances in the upcoming election: The possibility that Hitler’s party would win a majority of seats in the Reichstag was, she said, “unlikely.” But if no party received a majority, it was “quite possible” that the Nazis could win enough seats to bring Hitler to power in a coalition with centrist parties. “But it is highly improbable that in this case he will succeed in putting through any of his more radical plans.”
As she interviewed Hitler, she pictured him trying to outmaneuver the skilled politicians who would be part of his ruling coalition. “Oh, Adolph! Adolph!” she thought. “You will be out of luck!”
Hitler is a mere “drummer boy,” she wrote, and “Hitler in a coalition with the Center will be working with statesmen who are not drummer boys but experienced realists. And it is a great deal easier to organize revolts than it is to rule. I predict that Hitler will be extinguished.”
Thompson’s article—“I Saw Hitler!”—appeared in the March 1932 issue of Cosmopolitan, which was then a serious magazine, not a purveyor of sex tips for young women. The article was quickly reprinted in a short book with the same title. Readers of either version came away thinking that the much-hyped demagogue was too peculiar to be a threat to Germany, much less to the United States.
Obviously, Thompson had badly underestimated Hitler. With-in a year of her article’s publication, he’d taken power and begun to crush his opponents, persecute Jews and build a war machine. Recognizing that she’d made an egregious error, Thompson wrote article after article exposing Hitler’s brutality. “It must be said, it must be re-iterated,” she wrote, “that there has been and still is a widespread terror, which extends throughout the whole of Germany.”
One day in the summer of 1934, Thompson was in her room in Berlin’s Adlon Hotel, when she received a call from the front desk: “Madam, there is a gentleman here from the state secret police.”
“Send him up,” Thompson said.
The policeman handed her an order commanding her to leave Germany within 48 hours. It was Hitler’s first expulsion of a foreign reporter and it made front-page news around the world.
“Nearly the entire corps of American and British correspondents went to the railroad station to see her off,” the New York Times reported. “They gave her a bunch of American Beauty roses as a token of their affection and esteem.”
Thompson framed Hitler’s expulsion order and displayed it proudly in her office. The expulsion made her a media superstar. The New York Herald Tribune hired her to write a thrice-weekly column that was syndicated to more than 100 newspapers. She also wrote a monthly column for Ladies’ Home Journal and appeared regularly on NBC radio. In every medium, she denounced the Nazis, demanded that America open its borders to German refugees and supported the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. In 1939 Time magazine published a cover story on Thompson, proclaiming that the journalist and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt “are undoubtedly the most influential women in the U.S.”
Originally published in the October 2015 issue of American History magazine.