Metropolitan Books • 2006 • 242 pages • $26.00
During World War II the United States took on the role of the “Arsenal of Democracy,” supplying its allies the wherewithal to battle Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, as well as assuming global leadership in opposing those aggressive fascist regimes that threatened world peace. It is often forgotten, however, that in the 1930s many American and European commentators focused on the many similarities between Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the planned economies in fascist Italy and Nazi Germany.
Historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch takes a fresh look at these similarities in Three New Deals. He is quick to point out that he is not saying that FDR’s New Deal was the same as the Nazi regime. Hitler rapidly established an absolute dictatorship that suppressed all political opposition. In America civil liberties and freedom of the press were never abridged by the Roosevelt administration, however much political and economic power was increasingly concentrated in Washington during the 1930s.
But nonetheless the methods of controlling the economy and influencing public opinion were closely parallel, as Schivelbusch shows. World War I had ushered in a new politicization of society and captured the spirit of many intellectuals and policy advocates in the 1920s and 1930s. Government architecture in Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and FDR’s America were all bigger than life, creating an imagery of power and awe transcending the mundane efforts and achievements of private individuals.
What Schivelbusch brings out is the change in the role and conception of political leadership. Gone was the notion that those in political office were executors of constitutionally limited responsibilities. Now the “leader” spoke and led outside the ordinary restraints of the political process. Both Hitler and Roosevelt appealed to “the people” directly, with the claim that unusual circumstances required extraordinary authority. With his fireside chats FDR took advantage of a popular new technology, radio, to create the impression that he was addressing every American’s hopes and fears; the President thus became a member of every family.
In Germany radios were far less widely used. So Hitler took advantage of that other means of mass communication—giant rallies and ceremonies at which thousands could directly see and hear their Fuehrer. But even in the United States rallies and parades were used to arouse support for the New Deal recovery programs, especially the National Recovery Administration, which tried to impose the same type of fascist planning on business that Mussolini and soon Hitler established in their countries.
Grand government projects were all part of the projection of state power and authority. In Italy Mussolini cleared the Pontine Marshes outside Rome and designed model communities for resettlement of the unemployed. In Germany Hitler oversaw the construction of the autobahn system even though the number of privately owned cars was a fraction of that in the United States. In America the power of government was symbolized by the Tennessee Valley Authority, through which Washington changed the course of rivers, built massive dams, and electrified an entire region of the country. Of course in every one of those projects, the people whose lives were disrupted or uprooted counted for little compared to the task of remaking society according to the central plans of the “leaders.”
Military power was an essential imagery in the rhetoric. Hitler glorified uniformed legions in torch-lit parades. Roosevelt emphasized military imagery in his speeches, such as his 1933 inaugural address, in which he spoke of the Depression as if it were a foreign foe. If Americans did not voluntarily comply with his proposed recovery programs, he would not hesitate to use the full coercive powers of the state to win the “war” against unemployment. He spoke of the Blue Eagle, the symbol of the NRA, as a badge that all patriotic businesses should proudly display to prove they were doing their part and to distinguish them from “enemies” of recovery who refused to go along with the government’s plans.
American and European commentators in the 1930s also pointed out Hitler’s and Roosevelt’s centralization of power. Dictatorship was never imposed in the United States in the same way it was in Nazi Germany, but thoughtful writers wondered if such centralization did not run the risk of undermining the constitutional separation of powers. Unchecked power could easily extinguish freedom in the United States.
Finally, Schivelbusch reminds his readers of a book by John T. Flynn, As We Go Marching, that was published in 1944. Flynn had been a long-time critic of the New Deal. In the book he pointed out the many similarities among the three fascisms. Italian and German fascism were the “bad” kind. But the American brand was dangerously seen as the “good fascism,” Flynn warned. Wrapped in the stars and stripes and presented as a new dawn of American economic vitality and global leadership, complete with unrestrained presidential power, the American brand of fascism threatened to destroy all that the Founding Fathers had built for a country of liberty.
Regulation and planning at home, political and military adventures abroad, and greater power in the hands of the head of state meant a different type of America from what had existed in the past, Flynn feared. Six decades later those dangers seem in many ways even more real than in 1944. Wolfgang Schivelbusch has reminded us that the danger of concentrated political power was understood back in the 1930s. We should pay attention today.