What FDR had in common with the other charismatic collectivists of the 30s
Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, 1933 – 1939, by Wolfgang Schivelbusch, New York: Metropolitan Books, 242 pages, $26
On May 7, 1933, just two months after the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the New York Times reporter Anne O’Hare McCormick wrote that the atmosphere in Washington was “strangely reminiscent of Rome in the first weeks after the march of the Blackshirts, of Moscow at the beginning of the Five‐Year Plan.… America today literally asks for orders.” The Roosevelt administration, she added, “envisages a federation of industry, labor and government after the fashion of the corporative State as it exists in Italy.”
That article isn’t quoted in Three New Deals, a fascinating study by the German cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch. But it underscores his central argument: that there are surprising similarities between the programs of Roosevelt, Mussolini, and Hitler.
With our knowledge of the horrors of the Holocaust and World War II, we find it almost impossible to consider such claims dispassionately. But in the 1930s, when everyone agreed that capitalism had failed, it wasn’t hard to find common themes and mutual admiration in Washington, Berlin, and Rome, not to mention Moscow. (Three New Deals does not focus as much on the latter.) Nor is that a mere historical curiosity, of no great importance in the era following democracy’s triumph over fascism, National Socialism, and communism. Schivelbusch concludes his essay with the liberal journalist John T. Flynn’s warning, in 1944, that state power feeds on crises and enemies. Since then we have been warned about many crises and many enemies, and we have come to accept a more powerful and more intrusive state than existed before the ’30s.
Schivelbusch finds parallels in the ideas, style, and programs of the disparate regimes — even their architecture. “Neoclassical monumentalism,” he writes, is “the architectural style in which the state visually manifests power and authority.” In Berlin, Moscow, and Rome, “the enemy that was to be eradicated was the laissez‐faire architectural legacy of nineteenth‐century liberalism, an unplanned jumble of styles and structures.” Washington erected plenty of neoclassical monuments in the ’30s, though with less destruction than in the European capitals. Think of the “Man Controlling Trade” sculptures in front of the Federal Trade Commission, with a muscular man restraining an enormous horse. They would have been right at home in Il Duce’s Italy.
“To compare,” Schivelbusch stresses, “is not the same as to equate. America during Roosevelt’s New Deal did not become a one‐party state; it had no secret police; the Constitution remained in force, and there were no concentration camps; the New Deal preserved the institutions of the liberal‐democratic system that National Socialism abolished.” But throughout the ’30s, intellectuals and journalists noted “areas of convergence among the New Deal, Fascism, and National Socialism.” All three were seen as transcending “classic Anglo‐French liberalism” — individualism, free markets, decentralized power.
Since 1776, liberalism had transformed the Western world. As The Nation editorialized in 1900, before it too abandoned the old liberalism, “Freed from the vexatious meddling of governments, men devoted themselves to their natural task, the bettering of their condition, with the wonderful results which surround us” — industry, transportation, telephones and telegraphs, sanitation, abundant food, electricity. But the editor worried that “its material comfort has blinded the eyes of the present generation to the cause which made it possible.” Old liberals died, and younger liberals began to wonder if government couldn’t be a positive force, something to be used rather than constrained.
Others, meanwhile, began to reject liberalism itself. In his 1930s novel The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil wrote, “Misfortune had decreed that… the mood of the times would shift away from the old guidelines of liberalism that had favored Leo Fischel — the great guiding ideals of tolerance, the dignity of man, and free trade — and reason and progress in the Western world would be displaced by racial theories and street slogans.”
The dream of a planned society infected both right and left. Ernst Jünger, an influential right‐wing militarist in Germany, reported his reaction to the Soviet Union: “I told myself: granted, they have no constitution, but they do have a plan. This may be an excellent thing.” As early as 1912, FDR himself praised the Prussian‐German model: “They passed beyond the liberty of the individual to do as he pleased with his own property and found it necessary to check this liberty for the benefit of the freedom of the whole people,” he said in an address to the People’s Forum of Troy, New York.
American Progressives studied at German universities, Schivelbusch writes, and “came to appreciate the Hegelian theory of a strong state and Prussian militarism as the most efficient way of organizing modern societies that could no longer be ruled by anarchic liberal principles.” The pragmatist philosopher William James’ influential 1910 essay “The Moral Equivalent of War” stressed the importance of order, discipline, and planning.
Intellectuals worried about inequality, the poverty of the working class, and the commercial culture created by mass production. (They didn’t seem to notice the tension between the last complaint and the first two.) Liberalism seemed inadequate to deal with such problems. When economic crisis hit — in Italy and Germany after World War I, in the United States with the Great Depression — the anti‐liberals seized the opportunity, arguing that the market had failed and that the time for bold experimentation had arrived.
In the North American Review in 1934, the progressive writer Roger Shaw described the New Deal as “Fascist means to gain liberal ends.” He wasn’t hallucinating. FDR’s adviser Rexford Tugwell wrote in his diary that Mussolini had done “many of the things which seem to me necessary.” Lorena Hickok, a close confidante of Eleanor Roosevelt who lived in the White House for a spell, wrote approvingly of a local official who had said, “If [President] Roosevelt were actually a dictator, we might get somewhere.” She added that if she were younger, she’d like to lead “the Fascist Movement in the United States.” At the National Recovery Administration (NRA), the cartel‐creating agency at the heart of the early New Deal, one report declared forthrightly, “The Fascist Principles are very similar to those we have been evolving here in America.”
Roosevelt himself called Mussolini “admirable” and professed that he was “deeply impressed by what he has accomplished.” The admiration was mutual. In a laudatory review of Roosevelt’s 1933 book Looking Forward, Mussolini wrote, “Reminiscent of Fascism is the principle that the state no longer leaves the economy to its own devices.… Without question, the mood accompanying this sea change resembles that of Fascism.” The chief Nazi newspaper, Volkischer Beobachter, repeatedly praised “Roosevelt’s adoption of National Socialist strains of thought in his economic and social policies” and “the development toward an authoritarian state” based on the “demand that collective good be put before individual self‐interest.”
In Rome, Berlin, and D.C., there was an affinity for military metaphors and military structures. Fascists, National Socialists, and New Dealers had all been young during World War I, and they looked back with longing at the experiments in wartime planning. In his first inaugural address, Roosevelt summoned the nation: “If we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army.… I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis — broad executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”
That was a new tone for a president of the American republic. Schivelbusch argues that “Hitler and Roosevelt were both charismatic leaders who held the masses in their sway — and without this sort of leadership, neither National Socialism nor the New Deal would have been possible.” This plebiscitary style established a direct connection between the leader and the masses. Schivelbusch argues that the dictators of the 1930s differed from “old‐style despots, whose rule was based largely on the coercive force of their praetorian guards.” Mass rallies, fireside radio chats — and in our own time — television can bring the ruler directly to the people in a way that was never possible before.
To that end, all the new regimes of the ’30s undertook unprecedented propaganda efforts. “Propaganda,” Schivelbusch writes “is the means by which charismatic leadership, circumventing intermediary social and political institutions like parliaments, parties, and interest groups, gains direct hold upon the masses.” The NRA’s Blue Eagle campaign, in which businesses that complied with the agency’s code were allowed to display a “Blue Eagle” symbol, was a way to rally the masses and call on everyone to display a visible symbol of support. NRA head Hugh Johnson made its purpose clear: “Those who are not with us are against us.”
Scholars still study that propaganda. Earlier this year a Berlin museum mounted an exhibit titled “Art and Propaganda: The Clash of Nations — 1930 – 45.” According to the critic David D’Arcy, it shows how the German, Italian, Soviet, and American governments “mandated and funded art when image‐building served nation‐building at its most extreme.… The four countries rallied their citizens with images of rebirth and regeneration.” One American poster of a sledgehammer bore the slogan “Work to Keep Free,” which D’Arcy found “chillingly close to ‘Arbeit Macht Frei,’ the sign that greeted prisoners at Auschwitz.” Similarly, a reissue of a classic New Deal documentary, The River (1938), prompted Washington Post critic Philip Kennicott to write that “watching it 70 years later on a new Naxos DVD feels a little creepy.… There are moments, especially involving tractors (the great fetish object of 20th‐century propagandists), when you are certain that this film could have been produced in one of the political film mills of the totalitarian states of Europe.”
Program and propaganda merged in the public works of all three systems. The Tennessee Valley Authority, the autobahn, and the reclamation of the Pontine marshes outside Rome were all showcase projects, another aspect of the “architecture of power” that displayed the vigor and vitality of the regime.
You might ask, “Where is Stalin in this analysis? Why isn’t this book called Four New Deals?” Schivelbusch does mention Moscow repeatedly, as did McCormick in her New York Times piece. But Stalin seized power within an already totalitarian system; he was the victor in a coup. Hitler, Mussolini, and Roosevelt, each in a different way, came to power as strong leaders in a political process. They thus share the “charismatic leadership” that Schivelbusch finds so important.
Schivelbusch is not the first to have noticed such similarities. B.C. Forbes, the founder of the eponymous magazine, denounced “rampant Fascism” in 1933. In 1935 former President Herbert Hoover was using phrases like “Fascist regimentation” in discussing the New Deal. A decade later, he wrote in his memoirs that “the New Deal introduced to Americans the spectacle of Fascist dictation to business, labor and agriculture,” and that measures such as the Agricultural Adjustment Act, “in their consequences of control of products and markets, set up an uncanny Americanized parallel with the agricultural regime of Mussolini and Hitler.” In 1944, in The Road to Serfdom, the economist F.A. Hayek warned that economic planning could lead to totalitarianism. He cautioned Americans and Britons not to think that there was something uniquely evil about the German soul. National Socialism, he said, drew on collectivist ideas that had permeated the Western world for a generation or more.
In 1973 one of the most distinguished American historians, John A. Garraty of Columbia University, created a stir with his article “The New Deal, National Socialism, and the Great Depression.” Garraty was an admirer of Roosevelt but couldn’t help noticing, for instance, the parallels between the Civilian Conservation Corps and similar programs in Germany. Both, he wrote, “were essentially designed to keep young men out of the labor market. Roosevelt described work camps as a means for getting youth ‘off the city street corners,’ Hitler as a way of keeping them from ‘rotting helplessly in the streets.’ In both countries much was made of the beneficial social results of mixing thousands of young people from different walks of life in the camps. Furthermore, both were organized on semimilitary lines with the subsidiary purposes of improving the physical fitness of potential soldiers and stimulating public commitment to national service in an emergency.”
And in 1976, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan incurred the ire of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D‑Mass.), pro‐Roosevelt historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., and The New York Times when he told reporters that “fascism was really the basis of the New Deal.”
But Schivelbusch has explored these connections in greater detail and with more historical distance. As the living memory of National Socialism and the Holocaust recedes, scholars — perhaps especially in Germany — are gradually beginning to apply normal political science to the movements and events of the 1930s. Schivelbusch occasionally overreaches, as when he writes that Roosevelt once referred to Stalin and Mussolini as “his ‘blood brothers.’ ” (In fact, it seems clear in Schivelbusch’s source — Arthur Schlesinger’s The Age of Roosevelt — that FDR was saying communism and fascism were blood brothers to each other, not to him.) But overall, this is a formidable piece of scholarship.
To compare is not to equate, as Schivelbusch says. It’s sobering to note the real parallels among these systems. But it’s even more important to remember that the U.S. did not succumb to dictatorship. Roosevelt may have stretched the Constitution beyond recognition, and he had a taste for planning and power previously unknown in the White House. But he was not a murderous thug. And despite a population that “literally waited for orders,” as McCormick put it, American institutions did not collapse. The Supreme Court declared some New Deal measures unconstitutional. Some business leaders resisted it. Intellectuals on both the right and the left, some of whom ended up in the early libertarian movement, railed against Roosevelt. Republican politicians (those were the days!) tended to oppose both the flow of power to Washington and the shift to executive authority.
Germany had a parliament and political parties and business leaders, and they collapsed in the face of Hitler’s movement. Something was different in the United States. Perhaps it was the fact that the country was formed by people who had left the despots of the Old World to find freedom in the new, and who then made a libertarian revolution. Americans tend to think of themselves as individuals, with equal rights and equal freedom. A nation whose fundamental ideology is, in the words of the recently deceased sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, “antistatism, laissez‐faire, individualism, populism, and egalitarianism” will be far more resistant to illiberal ideologies.