A few days after war was declared in September 1939, Winston Churchill sat listening with interest to the much-traveled American journalist John Gunther. Hitler was on the march and Churchill must have had a lot on his mind, but Gunther’s book Inside Europe, first published in 1936, had made him an instant authority on European affairs. Since he had been in Moscow on the very day the Nazi-Soviet pact was announced, August 24, 1939, Churchill was keen to get Gunther’s impression of how this stunning, globe-shaking maneuver had been received on the streets of Moscow.
What exactly Gunther told Churchill is not known, but what Churchill said to Gunther was memorable. “Russia”, he declared, brooding aloud about the Soviet Union, and rehearsing lines that would later become famous in a more polished form, was “a mystery in a mystery in a mystery.”
Gunther’s audience with Churchill was no fluke, no one-off. During the 1930s and 1940s John Gunther, reporter extraordinary, was probably the most famous American newsman of them all. He was proud to be numbered on the death list kept by Hitler’s Gestapo in Germany, and even more proud of the illustrious company he kept back in the United States. Gunther was a friend of both Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.
Gunther made his name with Inside Europe, the huge eve-of-war success that won him his talk with Churchill. But he followed it by assiduously anatomizing the globe, continent by continent, with Inside Asia (1939), Inside Latin America (1941), Inside Africa (1955) and Inside Russia Today (1957). While the later works show signs of being rushed when set beside Inside Europe, they were packed with information and good writing, if not with comparable insight. Gunther remained at least a minor celebrity up until his death at age 68 in May 1970.
Gunther was, after all, one of modern America’s first journalist stars. In his heyday in New York he threw parties at his home for the likes of John Steinbeck, Salvador Dali, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Inside Russia was dedicated to his good friend Greta Garbo. He spent perhaps more time than was sensible with gossip columnists Walter Winchell and Elsa Maxwell in places like the Stork Club and 21. Even so, his books were translated into ninety languages and sold millions of copies around the world.
For all his continuing fame, nothing Gunther wrote after World War II (except perhaps Death Be Not Proud, a memoir about his teenage son’s struggle with a fatal cancer) achieved the success of Inside Europe, a remarkably prescient early warning of what the Nazis had in store for Germany, Europe and the world. Just as a writer like Robert D. Kaplan has in our own day played the role of a modern Cassandra by pointing to the tribalization of politics and the descent of entire Third World regions into anarchy, in his day Gunther warned of the ugly European forces that were leading step by perilous step to World War II.
Inside Europe wasn’t a paperback, but it sold briskly all the same. It was particularly popular in Great Britain, especially when it first appeared in 1936. At the cheaper end of the British market in the 1930s books were selling for sixpence, but this was a thumping 500-page hardback retailing at thirty shillings, or sixty times that price. That didn’t slow sales one bit. According to a recent account of its history, in its first year Inside Europe sold 65,000 copies at about a thousand copies per week and continued to sell during 1937 at the same rate. By 1939 it had sold nearly 120,000 copies and continued to turn over throughout World War II. John Gunther was the best-selling American author of non-fiction in Britain since Mark Twain.
There were three reasons for this success. The first was timing. Appearing in January 1936 in London published by Hamish Hamilton, and later by Harper & Brothers in the United States, Inside Europe provided a close literary echo, scene by scene and act by fateful act, of the international drama of the times. Running steadily through thirty regularly updated impressions and several editions, its publishing history climaxed in the “Peace Edition” of October 1938—the month when German troops marched into Czechoslovakia.
In the words of historian John Lukacs, “1938 was Hitler’s year.” It saw the annexation of Austria, Neville Chamberlain’s capitulation at Munich and the occupation of Czechoslovakia. Readers of the October 1938 “Peace Edition” were able to follow these developments almost as they happened. Not only were they given brilliant thumbnail sketches of the Nazis in Germany (along with a matchless photograph of Herman Göring at a reception, an enormous thug draped with braids and medals confronting a demurely gowned lady from Japan), but there were also incisive studies, accompanied by two dozen photographs, of the whole tragicomic gallery in Austria, Czechoslovakia, France, Spain, Italy, the Balkans and Eastern Europe. Gunther managed also to nail the United Kingdom itself, where, through May 1940, the struggle between Churchill and his domestic opponents had yet to play out.
As far as the photographs are concerned, the one striking exception to their high illustrative quality overall is the shot of Josef Stalin. This is a typical blurry Soviet retouch job, where the crude hand of some studio helot can be seen brushing the hair, brightening the eyes and putting a smile on the despot’s face. All too lamentably, this pictorial failing extends to the text in Gunther’s last chapters about Stalin and the USSR—a fact to which we will return in due course.
The second reason for the book’s success was that its content had real depth. Though Gunther’s later work was often based on visits of only days or weeks, Inside Europe drew on a dozen years of research and reporting from every European capital; on personally investigating Hitler’s Austrian background and personally witnessing events like the Reichstag fire trial; on continually sharing information with journalist colleagues such as Dorothy Thompson, Vincent Sheean, H.R. Knickerbocker and William Shirer; and on meetings with literary acquaintances like Sinclair Lewis and Rebecca West.
The third reason for the book’s success was its style and tone. Gunther was a master of muckraking American journalism, having grown up in Chicago and having cut his journalistic teeth at the old Chicago Daily News before going off to Europe in 1924. At the end of the 1920s, during a brief visit home to America, he collaborated with James Mulroy at the News on an article titled “The High Cost of Hoodlums”, which appeared in the October 1929 issue of Harper’s. It described how on the streets of Chicago you could have an enemy “bumped off” for as little as $50, though the rate for a newspaper man like himself might be as high as $1,000. In Inside: The Biography of John Gunther (1992), Ken Cuthbertson wrote:
Despite the fact that “The High Cost of Hoodlums” was written sixty years ago, it retains its vitality as a superb historical snapshot of the Chicago of 1929. . . . It provided a highly readable behind-the-scenes look at how 600 hoodlums had succeeded in terrorizing Chicago’s three million citizens.
The era of Chicago gangsterism turned out to be perfect preparation for understanding European fascism. Indeed, one way to look at Inside Europe is to see it as “a highly readable behind-the-scenes look” at how another, somewhat larger—but not proportionally larger—bunch of hoodlums was terrorizing Germany and, before long, the entire continent of Europe. As BBC producer Brian Miller described it in 2001, the “racy mixture of politics and Capitol Hill gossip” put together by Drew Pearson and Robert Allen in 1931 for their book, Washington Merry Go Round, successfully pioneered muckraking book journalism in the United States. Cass Canfield, president of Harper & Brothers in New York, thought the same approach might usefully be tried on Europe’s dictators. He chose Gunther to write the book, and a fortunate choice it was. Gunther’s powerful style ensured that Inside Europe broke through the suffocating British climate of active censorship and intimidation—“this fog of untruth, or else of censorship, which was really a kind of self-censorship”, as Miller put it—that was depriving British readers of the facts about Hitler and the drift toward war.
Gunther had been in Vienna since 1930 and had several things going for him. In the first place, he was fast and could meet deadlines. Second, according to Miller, “he was not subject to conservative proprietorial censorship because both his publishers . . . were liberally minded and inclined to let him write whatever he liked, provided it ‘took the lid off’ something.” Third, “he was not subject to censorship and intimidation by dictators themselves because he made quick raids into their territories and only wrote when safely back in England or the USA.”
Inside Europe was both a huge commercial success, finally selling more than half a million copies, and a book that gave him political access everywhere. Not only Churchill welcomed him. In 1941, after returning from Latin America, Gunther was called in by Under Secretary of State Sumner Welles to brief President Roosevelt on the region. Welles had provided Gunther letters of introduction to a dozen national leaders, and now Gunther was supposed to report what he had found: Hitler had boasted of building “a new Germany” in Brazil, and Nazi sympathizers were everywhere.
As it happened, Roosevelt was less receptive than Churchill, and Gunther hardly got a word in edgewise. Instead he was treated to a rambling 45-minute lecture on foreign affairs during which, Gunther later wrote, “I kept thinking that FDR looked like a caricature of himself, with the long jaw tilting upward, the V-shaped opening of the mouth when he laughed, the two long deep parentheses that closed the ends of his lips.” Seizing his chance when the President paused for breath, Gunther reminded FDR that he was just back from a visit to every country south of the border. “What?” said Roosevelt with a laugh “Even Paraguay?” Gunther had indeed been to Paraguay and had an entertaining tale to tell, but neither Roosevelt nor Welles took much interest in it.
Then Came Duranty
When John Gunther headed for Europe in 1924, it was after a two-year spell with the Chicago Daily News working alongside Ben Hecht and Carl Sandburg. In London, Gunther met Dorothy Thompson, a strong influence and lifelong friend, and had an affair with Rebecca West, nine years his senior, who opened both his mind and doors into British literary circles. In London, too, Gunther married his first wife, Frances—the beginning of a stressful relationship that ended in 1944. During those years he reported from Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Istanbul and Moscow. It was in Moscow in 1928 that Gunther first met the New York Times representative Walter Duranty, an influence on him, unlike that of Hecht, Sandburg, Thompson and West, that proved less than entirely helpful.
Every American who went to Moscow in those days, it seems, met Walter Duranty. Visiting Duranty’s apartment Gunther reported,
When one dines with him in Moscow, an extremely pretty girl, smart in semi-evening frock, opens the door, shaking hands. She then disappears again, and late in the evening, asks Walter if he wants to get to work, she has finished the Izvestia proofs. Then they go to bed together. In the morning, she shines the shoes. Mistress, secretary, servant. An unholy trinity for you! Of course, by Moscow law, since they share the same residence, she’s his wife, too.
The pretty girl’s name was Katya, by whom Duranty later had a son. The mild irregularity of this arrangement he witnessed was merely the tip of an iceberg. In Paris in the years before 1914, Duranty was a close friend of Aleister Crowley, a genuine madman fascinated by excretory functions, sexually aroused by blood and torture, and a “master” of the occult. Duranty and Crowley shared the same woman, Jane Cheron, and all three of them were heavily into opium, sex and black magic. Indeed, when Duranty was escorting Gunther around Moscow in 1928, he remained in some sort of marital relation with Cheron, who was still in France. Did Gunther know any of this?
Perhaps he did, and perhaps he didn’t care, for Duranty was a famous raconteur, and the pleasure of his company seems to have swept all doubts aside. In Stalin’s Apologist (1990), Sally J. Taylor tells how forty years later Gunther and his second wife Jane visited Duranty where he was living in Orlando, Florida. He came over to the motel where the Gunthers were staying, and, according to Jane, Duranty was “enchanting, in his very best form.” They all stayed up until four o’clock in the morning, with Walter being “terribly funny, and very very wicked.” After Duranty left their motel, John turned to his wife and said, “Walter is just a scamp!”
But Duranty was not, alas, just a scamp. He was also a man many regarded then and now as a scoundrel. Not for nothing did Malcolm Muggeridge call him “the greatest liar of any journalist I have met in fifty years of journalism”, or Joseph Alsop describe him as a “fashionable prostitute”, or Robert Conquest, later, call for every word he ever wrote about the Soviets and collectivization to be challenged again and again. It’s possible that Duranty was in the pay of the Soviets, though another long-term New York Times correspondent, Harrison Salisbury, who looked into such things during his own stay in Moscow, denied that Duranty was ever in the pay of anybody except the New York Times.
Perhaps. Yet it is inescapable that Duranty’s immediate reward for faithfully covering up mass murder in the Ukraine was the indulgence of the regime, the tumultuous applause he received in the Waldorf-Astoria in 1933 for assisting the process of American diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union, and a call from Stalin himself four weeks after Duranty’s return to Moscow offering the unprecedented privilege of a second interview. Stalin’s words at the time, however accurately or inaccurately rendered by Duranty afterwards, were something Duranty quoted with pride for the rest of his life:
You have done a good job in your reporting the USSR, though you are not a Marxist, because you try to tell the truth about our country and to understand it and to explain it to your readers. I might say that you bet on our horse to win when others thought it had no chance and I am sure you have not lost by it.
All of this raises questions about the journalistic and literary culture of the time. How did it come to be that someone from the world of Aleister Crowley and the Parisian bohemian demimonde was the New York Times’ resident commentator in Moscow on Russia under Bolshevik rule? How did such a man become the best-read authority in the United States on how Stalin was implementing a planned economy? Why was such a man invited to Washington in July 1932 to advise Roosevelt about Soviet gold production?
Whatever the answers to those questions, it is plain that Duranty rubbed off on Gunther. The reason seems to have had something to do with the fact that both Gunther and Duranty were the sort of men who would rather write anything than not write at all. More, I suspect, than is the case today, many journalists of Gunther’s time were novelists manqué. Only fiction was prestigious, and readable fiction was not about economic trends, voting patterns or industrial production. Duranty tried to write both novels and short stories, and in Hollywood, in the years of his decline in the 1940s, he teamed up with Mary Loos, a niece of the screenwriter Anita Loos, to crank out stories and scripts.
The same literary interests drove Gunther. He never stopped writing novels—The Red Pavilion (1926), The Golden Fleece (1963), The Lost City (1964). Most of them sank without trace. Through Rebecca West and Dorothy Thompson, he knew dozens of novelists and yearned for literary recognition. When success first came to him, however, it was not for fiction but for his reportorial colossus Inside Europe (though he must have enjoyed a Popular Front gathering of the League of American Writers in 1938 when he was invited on stage and dined beforehand with Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald).
Indeed, when Cass Canfield approached him in 1935 to write Inside Europe, Gunther turned him down—twice. “In those days I was more interested in fiction than in journalism and my dreams were tied up in a long novel about Vienna that I hoped to write.” Only when offered the then huge sum of $5,000 did Gunther reluctantly accept. Yet when he finally sat down to write, his approach was personal and novelistic almost as much as analytic and interpretive. Events in Europe were being shaped by a cast of extraordinary characters, Gunther believed, and Inside Europe was to be about their beliefs, motives and charisma.
To get under way, he agreed to produce three articles, and “the three articles”, wrote Gunther years later, “turned out to be the three chief personality chapters in the book—Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin.” What drove him was the need to show the force of their personalities and how they wielded power over other men. In a letter to Canfield he said that this approach “derives from something deeper in me than political conviction; it comes from the fact, for good or ill, I instinctively think of myself as a novelist.”
Such an honest man. We have still today, particularly in America, journalists who aspire to be literary stars, who write books ostensibly of reporting but without the sources required of the journalists’ canon. Gunther admitted his penchant for fiction. Not everyone does.
Inside Europe is still riveting more than seventy years after it was published. His descriptions of Hitler, Léon Blum and so many others strike us today, perhaps, as elegant and as of unerring fidelity. But at the time these descriptions were close to a form of prophecy.
Beyond getting the essence of the major players in the coming war, Gunther had also spent time in Bucharest and knew the ominous mixture of Ruritanian farce and fascist menace to be found in what was then usually spelled Rumania. Only two streets away from King Carol’s palace, one could see well-dressed members of the Iron Guard lounging in a café, sipping Turkish coffee and talking about revolution. Founded in 1927, the program of the Iron Guard, as Gunther perfectly described it, “was a fanatic, obstreperous sub-Fascism on a strong nationalist and anti-Semitic basis. Its members trooped through the countryside, wore white costumes, carried burning crosses, impressed the ignorant peasantry, aroused the students in the towns.”
So far so good, and it continues like that for hundreds of pages. But then one comes to Stalin—and it’s pure, undiluted Walter Duranty. Stalin has, we are told,
Guts. Durability. Physique. Patience. Tenacity. Concentration. If he has nerves, they are veins in rock. His perseverance, as Walter Duranty says, is ‘inhuman.’ When candour suits his purpose, no man can be more candid. He has the courage to admit his errors, something few other dictators dare do. In his article ‘Dizzy from Success’ he was quite frank to admit that the collectivization of the peasants had progressed too quickly.
Now this is a gem. The magnanimity of Stalin is shown by his “frankness” in “admitting” that collectivization had “progressed too quickly.” Gunther sums up the desperate suicidal resistance of the peasants in the following four sentences: “The peasants tried to revolt. The revolt might have brought the Soviet Union down. But it collapsed on the iron will of Stalin. The peasants killed their animals, then they killed themselves.”
Yes, John Gunther actually wrote that it wasn’t Stalin, or the Communist Party, or the NKVD, or the Red Army troops who seized their grain, herded them without food or water onto railway wagons, and shot them if they resisted; they “killed themselves.”
Even so, Inside Europe was a major achievement. It brought to public notice the Empire of Evil that was about to expand and take over the whole of central Europe. It powerfully confirmed the Nazi menace Churchill had toiled for years to publicize. And Gunther’s Inside Europe played no small part in bringing American elite opinion out of the dangerous miasma of isolationism into which much of it had fallen. That such a perceptive—and persuasive—journalistic observer could be drawn into Duranty’s deceptions about Stalin admits of no simple explanation. It may however be because one of Gunther’s greatest personal virtues, loyalty, here became also a vice. He could never bring himself to believe (or even imagine) that, however entertaining Duranty may have been down through the years, and however firmly supportive during the painfully protracted death of Gunther’s son, his old friend from the 1920s was also a thorough scoundrel whose writings about Stalin were full of lies.