Racketeers of Europe: Review by Mark Barnes

It is mid-1930s Europe and we have a compilation of the pre-war newspaper articles by William Archer Sholto Douglas, an American fire-eating journalist in the classic mould who travelled around observing the rise and fall of the dictators. Having spent his career writing about the lives and deaths of mobsters in the United States he clearly felt well placed to draw comparisons between organised crime and the visceral world of European politics. The plain fact is his assessments and comparisons were pretty much bang on. In one article he combines the destruction of Nazi vanity and the costumes of the Ku Klux Klan in one fell swoop.

Douglas comes out of the blocks like Jesse Owens and rips the jugular out of any notion of him being unbiased. His utter contempt for the men he disseminates and lampoons is so clear he must have been the sort of journalists the machinery of the regimes he loathed would have been keeping a weather eye on every step and every clunk of a typewriter he made.

The way his dispatches read have me imagining him barking into a radio microphone, wreathed in cigarette smoke with a press ticket stuck in his hatband just like in a scene from a period movie. I suppose I want him to look like a character from The Front Page or any of those diverting films about cynical hacks starring James Stewart or anyone else you care to name.

For all his acidly humorous comparisons, this is a serious body of work by a man who had the dictators well and truly sussed. First published in 1936, the book has lost none of it’s raw energy. Douglas’ Tommy gun prose mows down his opponents with gusto. We have him stripping flesh off Hitler, Horthy and Mussolini while hoping in vain that the moderate powers whoshrivelled under the weight of their yearning for Appeasement would wake up and fight back. Douglas could see genocide and catastrophic war coming. His predictions and withering observations would have been entirely unwelcome. The device that makes politicians into racketeering criminals binds the collection of articles into a warning from history. Not much has changed and it would be interesting to see what Douglas would have made of our times.

This is not a read right through sort of book. There are times when Douglas’ prescient and deeply knowledgeable writings feel like hectoring – hence my imagery of him behind a microphone. But I suggest this book makes a magnificent source of quotes and general background for any students learning about the rise of the dictators and who want a wider view of how events were reported. The book illustrates that there were people in the United States who could see what was happening and who had a way of explaining the growing menace to ordinary people in a way they could appreciate. Indeed Douglas must have been a thorn in the side of the isolationists trying to keep America out of something he could see was going to consume the world. This is a collection of brutal truths devoid of hindsight. For this reason it makes for very uncomfortable reading but knowing there were men like him, a wrecking ball swinging at the fascist edifice, is something to take some comfort from, even now. Douglas was a very clever man, indeed.

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

A Political Travelogue
By WAS Douglas
Stackpole Books
ISBN: 978 0 8117 1321 4

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.