On this day in 1937, journalist Dorothy Thompson delivered a chilling, first-person account of the rise of Adolph Hitler.
Speaking to members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, she told how Hitler and his henchmen had methodically taken over the German courts, the parliament, the labor unions, and the press.
The context was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ill-fated plan to pack the Supreme Court with justices favorably disposed to his New Deal legislation. Critics saw it as a naked power play and accused him of undermining American democracy — with Thompson prominent among them.
“Wherever that concentration of power happens, it is easy to get a totalitarian state”
She had witnessed the rise of fascism as a foreign correspondent in the early 1930s, where she reported on Weimer Germany from the inside, including Hitler’s rapid rise from beer hall rabble-rouser to chancellor.
In 1931 she met and interviewed Hitler — and came away thoroughly unimpressed. In her book I Saw Hitler, she described him as “formless, almost faceless, a man whose countenance is a caricature, a man whose framework seems cartilaginous, without bones. He is inconsequent and voluble, ill poised and insecure. He is the very prototype of the little man.”
Three years later, the Gestapo kicked her out of the country.
On March 31, 1937, Thompson warned the Senators about the unchecked concentration of political power.
As she told them, “this is the way” that dictators seize power.
“The modern coup d’état . . . does not destroy the legal apparatus of the State,” she told them. “The modern revolution is not made by violence. It keeps it, for the coup d’état wishes to appear legal.”
The previous year, Thompson had begun working as a news commentator for NBC radio — her broadcasts reached millions across America, and she also became one of the country’s most sought-after public speakers. Her words carried weight.
Thompson’s broadcasts reached millions across America, and she became one of the country’s most sought-after public speakers. Her words carried weight.
Thompson’s experiences provided the inspiration for her husband Sinclair Lewis’ satirical novel It Can’t Happen Here, about a fascist demagogue who whips up popular resentment and takes over the United States.
You can read the entire transcript and her testimony and exchanges with the Senators here, on the Speaking While Female Speech Bank.
As Thompson told the Senators on this day 84 years ago, a “modern coup d’état” was not just a dystopian conceit— because indeed, it can happen here.
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