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Truth Is the First Casualty of War. These Reporters Tried to Save It.

The Reporters Who Took On a World at War
By Deborah Cohen

For Ernest Hemingway, successful writing required creating something that no one else had created before — but it also hinged on two elements beyond one’s control: luck and timing. By this standard, the historian Deborah Cohen has scored big-time: her book “Last Call at the Hotel Imperial” is bringing out disturbingly prescient material at exactly the right moment.

Cohen’s ambitious ensemble biography documents the intertwined careers, friendships and sex lives of four hugely influential correspondents and commentators primarily covering Europe in the lead-up to World War II. Like Hemingway (who occasionally barges in), the book’s four stars — John Gunther, H. R. Knickerbocker, James Vincent “Jimmy” Sheean and Dorothy Thompson — hailed from provincial America, but took Europe by storm after World War I.

It would be hard to overstate the collective power and visibility of these reporters in their heyday. When Gunther died, The New York Times wrote that he had “traveled more miles, crossed more borders, interviewed more statesmen, wrote more books and sold more copies than any other single journalist of his time.” Thompson’s “On the Record” column appeared in 170 newspapers; her late-1930s NBC radio broadcasts reached millions of listeners. She didn’t just interview Churchill; she was his weekend guest. Cohen recounts an amusing anecdote in which Thompson and her then-husband, Sinclair Lewis, were in bed one morning when President Franklin Roosevelt telephoned. Lewis “handed the phone over to her, the cord stretched tight across his throat, and there he lay for a half-hour … pinned to the bed while his wife … gabbed on with the president, making the country’s foreign policy.”

Yet like many zeitgeist-encapsulating power brokers of the past, the four have been unjustly forgotten today. Later generations of journalists owed a debt to these pioneers, who helped invent modern conflict reporting. “This was before journalism became institutionalized,” Gunther later said. “We correspondents were strictly on our own. We avoided official handouts. We were scavengers, buzzards, out to get the news, no matter whose wings got clipped.”

Wing-clipping was a polite term for some of the reporting he and his colleagues did, especially once the Third Reich picked up steam. As fascism swept across the continent, these reporters were unsparing in their coverage of what Nazism was unleashing. Hitler personally banned Sheean’s writings. Gunther’s portrayal of the Führer in his best seller “Inside Europe” earned him a place of honor on the Gestapo’s hit list.

Not that these correspondents didn’t make missteps. Knickerbocker was accused of being a Mussolini apologist in the early days of the Fascist leader’s regime. In 1932, Thompson predicted that “Little Man” Hitler’s bid for power would fizzle out. Just imagine, she wrote, “a would-be dictator setting out to persuade a sovereign people to vote away their rights.” The very idea was farcical. Never mind that Hitler had told her — on the record — that he intended to “get into power legally” and “abolish this parliament and the Weimar constitution afterward,” then “found an authority state” that demanded total obedience from its subjects. (Cohen oddly leaves this crucial interview excerpt out of “Hotel Imperial,” but it’s been documented elsewhere.) Yet Thompson was relentless in her subsequent coverage of the Reich’s brutality and the global threat that Hitler posed. In 1934, she earned the distinction of being the first foreign correspondent banished from Nazi Germany. She proudly framed her expulsion order.

Despite their reach and determination, however, the correspondents despaired over the limited impact of their reporting. Isolationists in America would not be budged; the war machine gathered strength abroad; the appetite for authoritarianism continued to grow. Cohen describes Gunther’s incredulousness that the same people who had demanded liberty and equality were now “clamoring for fascism.” Why, Gunther asked, “would people who distrust authority choose to subsume themselves in a strongman?” Meanwhile, Thompson warned that fascism could just as easily manifest in America, writing: “Nazism has nothing to do with race and nationality. It appeals to a certain type of mind.”

Much of “Hotel Imperial” is a distressing, immersive recounting of how denial, passivity and pacification aided the rise of authoritarian regimes. Cohen has tasked herself with the same outsized challenge that faced her subjects in real time: making the deluge of prewar events around the globe comprehensible to readers. (Dumb it down, the Moscow-based correspondent Walter Duranty advised Gunther: “You’re writing for the sort of people who think Prague is a ham.”) At times, Cohen succeeds; at others, torrents of historical details overwhelm the narrative, which Cohen has additionally burdened with extensive documentation of the correspondents’ sex lives, psychoanalysis adventures and marital woes. These sometimes pages-long interludes are speed bumps in the book, often coming just as electrifying and horrific events crescendo. The effect on the reader is comparable to the unsatisfying sex that Cohen documents in such tedious detail. Another challenge for Cohen (and for all authors of group biographies of this magnitude): stage-managing so many characters and story lines. Perhaps with this in mind, Cohen kindly includes a quick-reference “dramatis personae” guide at the front of the book.

Despite these handicaps, “Last Call at the Hotel Imperial” is intermittently engrossing. Cohen’s recounting of Gunther’s on-site reporting during the 1934 coup attempt by Austrian Nazis — culminating in the siege and occupation of the Chancellery, and the gruesome murder of Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss — is un-put-downable. Equally riveting: Cohen’s recounting of the Night of Long Knives, and Thompson’s daring trip to Germany to report on the massacre’s aftermath, despite her place on Goebbels’s blacklist.

Grim reminders abound about the cyclical nature of history: how racial and economic resentments can lead to monstrous movements; and, above all, how human beings remain impervious to even the starkest of warnings. On a more cynical note, “Hotel Imperial” also reminds readers that the news industry was, and remains, a business. In the eyes of Thompson and crew, dictators needed to be toppled — but they also made great copy. A former journalist himself, Mussolini gave out interviews like candy (Knickerbocker alone scored four audiences with Il Duce), but a rare Hitler “get” caused a surge of envy within the correspondent community, sold thousands of newspapers and gave journalists material for best-selling books. “Last Call at the Hotel Imperial” depicts several queasy instances of dictator-cultivation. “You’re a “journalistic whore,” Gunther told Knickerbocker at one point — even though he too coveted Mussolini scoops.

World War II is almost an afterthought in Cohen’s book, largely because the careers of her four subjects began to stall once hostilities began. Gunther, Knickerbocker, Sheean and Thompson had been reporter-prophets of the prewar era, but coverage of the war itself was dominated by a new wave of correspondents like Edward Murrow, Ernie Pyle and Eric Sevareid. From their emeritus perches, Gunther and his colleagues could now say “I told you so,” but were forced to wonder what their years of warnings had yielded: After all, tens of millions of people still died in what became the deadliest conflict of all time. Cohen describes a heartbreaking scene in which Gunther and Sheean, in 1945, see members of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombing crews celebrating at the Stork Club.

“‘Do you think they realize they’ve killed more humans than anyone else in history?’ John asked Jimmy.

“‘No chance of it,’ Jimmy answered. ‘Look at their faces.’”

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