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Thursday, February 15, 2024

Adolf Hitler, Dorothy Thompson, and Tucker Carlson’s Controversial Interview With Vladimir Putin

There’s been no shortage of American journalists who have conducted interviews with dictators, theocrats, and outright monsters.

Image: Dorothy Thompson (via Picryl and available through Public Domain)

In December 1931, the American journalist Dorothy Thompson arrived at the Kaiserhof Hotel in Berlin to interview Adolf Hitler. When Thompson stepped into Hitler’s salon that day, she was convinced she was meeting “the future dictator of Germany.”

Sixty seconds in the company of the future fuhrer caused her to change that assessment.

“It took just that time to measure the startling insignificance of this man who has set the whole world agog,” Thompson wrote in her book I Saw Hitler! “He is inconsequent and voluble, ill poised and insecure. He is the very prototype of the Little Man.”

Thompson might have underestimated Hitler, but she was not seduced by him or his ideas. She’d read Mein Kampf and found it strange and appalling, calling it “‘eight hundred pages of Gothic script, pathetic gestures, inaccurate German, and unlimited self-satisfaction.”

Yet, Thompson was determined to interview Hitler, whose star was ascending ominously in Germany. Because that’s what journalists do. 

Her story is noteworthy considering the fury over Tucker Carlson’s recent interview with Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

There was a stir when it was revealed that Carlson, who had hosted prime-time programs on CNN, PBS, and MSNBC prior to launching a nightly program on Fox News in 2016, was interviewing the infamous head of the Kremlin.

“He is a traitor,” former congressman and current CNN analyst Adam Kinzinger said of Carlson.

Bill Kristol was more subtle. 

“Perhaps we need a total and complete shutdown of Tucker Carlson re-entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on,” the neoconservative pundit stated.

It seemed lost on Kristol that expelling a journalist from his country for doing journalism is something we’d expect from Putin, not a constitutional government grounded in the principles of (classical) liberalism.

Many argue that such rules should not apply to Carlson because he is not a “real” journalist.

It’s true that Carlson is no Walter Cronkite, but he is a journalist. As such, he deserves First Amendment protection, just like actor Sean Penn did when he flew to Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela to interview dictators of those states.

Many would argue that Penn is not a “professional” journalist and was basically a stooge for violent, authoritarian regimes. They’d have a point on both counts, but that doesn’t mean Penn deserved to be exiled for his journalistic efforts.

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost,” Thomas Jefferson famously noted. 

Historically, U.S. courts have agreed with Jefferson, thankfully. Broadly speaking, journalists and publishers have had their rights protected against meddling politicians and bureaucrats who have sought to censor, shut down, or punish those exercising their First Amendment rights.

For this reason, there’s been no shortage of American journalists such as Thompson and Carlson who have conducted interviews with dictators, theocrats, and outright monsters.

The legendary Associated Press reporter Nate Thayer interviewed Pol Pot, who killed millions. Barbara Walters interviewed Syrian President Bashar Assad, who perpetuated numerous war crimes and allegedly ordered the killing of journalists. Dan Rather interviewed Saddam Hussein, who committed genocide against his people.

We can debate whether Carlson’s interview with Putin was good or bad, hard-hitting or softball. And history will ultimately judge whether Carlson’s interview was a heroic act that shed light on a complicated conflict or a self-serving one that played into the hands of a tyrant (or something in between). But there should be no question that Carlson had every right to conduct the interview and threats to sanction the conservative firebrand should be condemned.

Indeed, punishing journalists for doing journalism is something we’d expect from Putin himself and, yes, Hitler.

A few years after her historic interview with Hitler, Thompson received the ultimate journalistic compliment from the Nazis. While sitting in her Berlin hotel room, she received a message from the porter saying a member of Germany’s secret police had arrived to speak with her. She instructed the porter to send the man up, and moments later, she was greeted by an officer in a dark trench coat. 

“He brought an order that I should leave the country immediately,” Thompson later wrote, “for journalistic activities inimical to Germany.” 

Thompson was brave, but she was not a fool. She quickly left the country, making her the first American journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany. 

Vladimir Putin is not a good person, but those who oppose him and want to punish Tucker Carlson should reflect on Thompson’s heroic career and heed Friedrich Nietzsche’s warning: Do not become a monster yourself in your quest to defeat them.

This article first appeared in The Washington Examiner.

  • Jonathan Miltimore is the Editor at Large of at the Foundation for Economic Education.