Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt's America, Mussolini's Italy, and Hitler's Germany, 1933-1939
  • Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt's America, Mussolini's Italy, and Hitler's Germany, 1933-1939
  • Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt's America, Mussolini's Italy, and Hitler's Germany, 1933-1939

Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt's America, Mussolini's Italy, and Hitler's Germany, 1933-1939

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by Wolfgang Schivelbusch

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From a world-renowned cultural historian, an original look at the hidden commonalities among Fascism, Nazism, and the New Deal

Today Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal is regarded as the democratic ideal, the positive American response to an economic crisis that propelled Germany and Italy toward Fascism. Yet in the 1930s, shocking as it may seem, these

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From a world-renowned cultural historian, an original look at the hidden commonalities among Fascism, Nazism, and the New Deal

Today Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal is regarded as the democratic ideal, the positive American response to an economic crisis that propelled Germany and Italy toward Fascism. Yet in the 1930s, shocking as it may seem, these regimes were hardly considered antithetical. Now, Wolfgang Schivelbusch investigates the shared elements of these three "new deals" to offer a striking explanation for the popularity of Europe's totalitarian systems.

Returning to the Depression, Schivelbusch traces the emergence of a new type of state: bolstered by mass propaganda, led by a charismatic figure, and projecting stability and power. He uncovers stunning similarities among the three regimes: the symbolic importance of gigantic public works programs like the TVA dams and the German autobahn, which not only put people back to work but embodied the state's authority; the seductive persuasiveness of Roosevelt's fireside chats and Mussolini's radio talks; the vogue for monumental architecture stamped on Washington, as on Berlin; and the omnipresent banners enlisting citizens as loyal followers of the state.

Far from equating Roosevelt, Hitler, and Mussolini or minimizing their acute differences, Schivelbusch proposes that the populist and paternalist qualities common to their states hold the key to the puzzling allegiance once granted to Europe's most tyrannical regimes.

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Can the New Deal possibly have anything in common with Nazism and Fascism? Yes, argues Schivelbusch, winner of German's Heinrich Mann Prize, who points out that all three were spearheaded by a charismatic man who relied on mass propaganda to get his ideas across. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

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On Comparisons

In September 1946, Sigfried Giedion, probably the most renowned historian of modern architecture, gave a lecture before the Royal Institute of British Architects in London. The editors of the Architectural Review were so taken with Giedion's ideas that they convened a symposium to discuss them, inviting such leading architects and architectural historians as Walter Gropius, Henry-Russell Hitchcock, Gregor Paulsson, William Holford, Lucio Costa, and Alfred Roth, as well as Giedion himself. The symposium took for its title that of Gideon's original lecture: "The Need for a New Monumentality."

For the first time in the history of modern architecture, the discipline was subjecting itself to fundamental self-criticism. The chief insight to emerge was that modernists, in their struggle against the historicism of the nineteenth century, had perhaps focused too exclusively on architecture's technical, functional side, to the exclusion of the complex set of desires and expectations that transcends everyday utility and distinguishes architecture from mechanics or engineering. "The people," wrote Giedion, "want buildings representing their social, ceremonial, and community life. They want their buildings to be more than a functional fulfillment. They seek the expression of their aspiration for joy, for luxury, and for excitement. Monumentality consists in the eternal need of the people to create symbols that reveal their inner life, their actions, and their social conceptions. . . . This demand for monumentality cannot, in the long run, be suppressed."1

Most of the participants agreed that they should have been more receptive to such expectations in the years before World War II. In the wake of World War I, modern architects had aspired to provide structural expressions of social revolution to the masses, by and for whom it had been carried out. But the masses had never understood—much less liked—modern architecture. And during the Great Depression, capitalism's period of crisis, they were drawn to modernism's bitterest enemies, National Socialism and Fascism, because these offered them something they wanted and needed, something that modernism had refused to provide them: monumentality.

The conflation of monumental—that is, backward-looking, neoclassical—architecture with the Third Reich and the other totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century reflects the political and ideological oppositions of the 1920s and '30s—as does the association of modern architecture with liberal democracy and the social-welfare state. The underlying assumptions entailed therein remained unquestioned into the 1970s. Even as late as the 1990s Bruno Zevi, the Italian patriarch of modern architecture, expressed "disgust" and "contempt" for an academic conference devoted to 1930s—read: Fascist/totalitarian—neoclassicism. In an article in the leading Italian architecture journal, L'architettura, he accused the organizers of "obfuscation, ignorance, arrogance, and idiocy," adding that the conference didn't deserve to be taken seriously because it promoted "excrement, shit, vomit, and spew."2

For decades critics ignored, or chose to ignore, the fact that neither Italian Fascism nor early Soviet Communism fit the paradigm. They also disregarded the affinities many leading practitioners of the modernist New Architecture movement in Germany—including Mies van der Rohe—had felt with Fascism during the initial years of the Third Reich. It took an entire generation after World War II before scholars, as part of a general effort to locate Nazism within a wider historical context, came to today's consensus that the earlier equations were too simplistic. Suddenly they woke up to the fact that neoclassical, monumental buildings had been constructed in Washington, Paris, London, and Geneva during the 1930s, just as they had in Berlin, Moscow, and Rome. They recognized that Mussolini's program of architectural functionalism, or "rationalism," was nothing other than an extension of modernism and that even the Third Reich, the great exemplar of antimodern philistinism, had taken a modernist approach when dealing with function rather than representation. They acknowledged that there had been architecturally modern Fascists and architecturally traditional liberals and that 1930s neoclassical monumentalism was just as widespread as the modernism that the Museum of Modern Art had dubbed the International Style in 1932. Instead of reducing neoclassicism to a side effect of totalitarianism, scholars became more interested in how various national, political, and ideological systems applied what Giorgio Ciucci calls "the specific aesthetics of power."3 Architectural historian Louis Craig's term "government international" sums up this style well, as does Franco Borsi's assertion that "monumental architecture could signify equally the strength of the institutions in the democracies and the aggressive power of the state in the dictatorships."4

Critics began to ask why a majority of democratic nations in 1927 rejected modernist designs for the headquarters of the League of Nations, choosing instead a neoclassical, monumental one, why the Third Republic in France built the neoclassical Palais de Chaillot for the 1937 World's Fair, and why the architecture of Washington, D.C., received a monumentalist infusion under Roosevelt's New Deal. The answers were the same. Scholars gradually recognized neoclassical monumentalism—whether of the 1930s, the Renaissance, the French Revolution, or the Napoleonic empire—for what it is: the architectural style in which the state visually manifests power and authority. Although neoclassicism temporarily lost its hold with the rise of nineteenth-century liberal capitalism, in which the state restricted itself to a supervisory role and allowed the private sector to determine architectural aesthetics, it regained it in the twentieth century, beginning with increased state regulation of the economy in the years before World War I, continuing through the state's mobilization of the economy during the war, and culminating with its near-total intervention during the Depression.* The various state solutions to that crisis amounted to a defeat for liberal capitalism and a triumph for governmental authority.

Both the revolutionary states of Bolshevism and Fascism, as well as the reformist ones of the capitalist democracies, needed an architecture that would tower on behalf of, but also above, the people like a temple, inspiring trust, respect, and a quasi-religious sense of deeper meaning and community—while at the same time showing the rest of the world who it was dealing with. A concrete embodiment of the competition between political systems was the constellation formed by the three most spectacular buildings at the 1937 World's Fair in Paris. The monumental Palais de Chaillot, for which the government of the Third Republic had torn down the old Trocadéro, was strategically placed at the end of the central axis, flanked by the "massive pavilions" of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. The Palais symbolized France's self-perception as a major power, unwilling to back down before the two dictatorships, or rather, firmly holding center stage while shunting its rivals off to the sides.5

The primary sites for monumental construction and self-representation in the 1930s were capitals. Paris had already undergone a major monumental reconstruction under Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the 1860s and could thus be left relatively untouched. But in Germany, the Soviet Union, and Italy, the regimes planned Haussmannesque transformations of Berlin, Moscow, and Rome. With varying degrees of radicalism, roads were constructed and expanded, and urban thoroughfares were laid out in widths previously reserved for city squares. Quaint old buildings, derided by Mussolini as "picturesque garbage," were torn down to make room for colossi such as the Hall of the People in Nazi Berlin and the Soviet Palace in Moscow, which aimed to set new records for height and volume.6 (The Soviet Palace, for instance, was to stand over 1,345 feet tall, crowned by a 229-foot statue of Lenin.) Finally, city planners implemented state measures concerning traffic and hygiene suggested by prominent Sovietophile architects such as Corbusier, Gropius, and Ernst May. These were "plans of war," as Lazar Kaganovich, the man Stalin put in charge of the redevelopment of Moscow, characterized the Soviet General Plan of 1935.7 The enemy that was to be eradicated was the laissez-faire architectural legacy of nineteenth-century liberalism, an unplanned jumble of styles and structures.

Not every regime pursued this struggle with the same resolve, and nowhere was total victory achieved. Fascism made the least progress toward its stated goal—assuming it was meant seriously—of tearing down much of Rome's medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque architecture and uncovering the antique city, which would then be blended in with new monumental structures.8 Adolf Hitler and Albert Speer's attempt to replace Berlin with a new Nazi capital called Germania was hardly more successful, largely because military defeat interrupted construction before it could truly get under way. It was Stalinism that best succeeded in giving the national capital the desired face-lift. But even in Moscow, the state's most ambitious project, the Soviet Palace, was never realized.

Washington, D.C., saw a similar rash of construction projects. Most of the large-scale neoclassical buildings associated with the city of today were built between 1933 and 1939. They include the Federal Triangle, the National Gallery, the National Archives, the Supreme Court Building, various departmental and other government buildings, the Smithsonian Museum complex, and the Jefferson Memorial. In contrast to concurrent activity in Berlin, Rome, and Moscow, and to Haussmann's remodeling of Paris seventy years earlier, the basic layout of the city remained unchanged, and no historical buildings were demolished. For more than a hundred years, Washington had remained an impressive network of streets with a small village attached. What took place in the 1930s, then, was neither a war against the existing city nor a renewal based on the destruction of a previous urban layer but the architectural closing of empty spaces that had long been reserved for the construction of the capital.

The work undertaken between 1933 and 1939 explicitly harkened back to a plan for Washington conceived in 1902; that plan in turn was based on one drawn up in 1791 at George Washington's behest by architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant, who had fought with the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. Raised at Versailles, L'Enfant brought to the job his childhood impressions of the Baroque palace gardens with their broad avenues and their interplay of straight, curved, and diagonal lines, which yielded an impressive variety of perspectives. Architectural historian John W. Reps has described it as a "supreme irony" that an architectural style "originally conceived to magnify the glories of despotic kings and emperors came to be applied as a national symbol of a country whose philosophical basis was so firmly rooted in democratic equality."9

It is no less ironic that the Baroque monumentality L'Enfant imported from Europe to America allowed the city of Washington to make the transition to the twentieth century with far less destruction than in the European capitals. The vision for Washington essentially took a giant leap from pre- to postliberal monumentalism. Daniel Burnham, the man behind the 1902 plan,10 summed up his philosophy in a curt imperative worthy of any of Hitler, Mussolini, or Stalin's urban developers: "Make no little plans, they have no power to stir men's souls."11

* * *

There are two lessons to be derived from the history of 1930s monumental architecture and its varying reception in the decades after 1945. The first shows how the same stylistic, formal, and technological developments—within architecture and elsewhere—can be used to serve radically different political systems. The second lesson demonstrates how poorly later generations are able to distinguish between form and content, especially when the object of historical study, as is the case with a defeated dictatorship, elicits general condemnation. Little has changed since Hegel's complaint about the flaw in "abstract thinking": that it cannot conceive of a handsome murderer.

Around the time that simplistic equations of monumentalism and totalitarianism fell out of fashion, historical research took a new direction. Fascism, National Socialism, and Stalinism were no longer seen as examples of sheer evil, and the complexities of their economic, social, psychological, and cultural structures came in for closer examination. Scholars discovered that Fascism and Nazism possessed, alongside their repressive and murderous tendencies, a social-egalitarian component and that the mass popularity of both regimes in the 1930s was due more to the latter than to the former. This scholarly recognition of the "socialist" side of National Socialism, as well as the engagement with Nazism's belief that its racial doctrine entailed the promise of equality for all members of the German people, or Volk, seemed shocking only because that side of Nazism had been so fully suppressed after 1945.

Much the same process—in reverse—was evident in reevaluations of U.S. history. The New Deal, idealized as the heroic benevolent alternative to the regimes in Germany and Italy, began to attract some criticism. Once historians were willing to consider the multiple components of National Socialism and Fascism, instead of merely categorizing both as "totalitarian," they also began to look beyond the simplistic dichotomy of liberal democracy on the one hand and repressive dictatorship on the other. This new scholarly direction tended to dispatch the legend of Roosevelt as infallible statesman and invited discussion of the New Deal as a series of economic misadventures, achieved through the force of mass propaganda and owing its success solely to America's victory in World War II. Still, these revisionist efforts to place the New Deal, Fascism, and National Socialism in a more differentiated historical context had little impact: in all three cases, the ideologically inspired visions of the past held sway.

The existence of this more nuanced approach could have opened up possibilities for investigating the points of convergence between Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the deromanticized New Deal. But only on the margins did historians risk these comparisons. In the 1970s there were occasional forays in this direction among American and German historians, and in the 1980s among a small school of Italian academics interested in comparing Fascism and the New Deal.12 John A. Garraty, a newcomer to the topics of both the New Deal and Nazism, published an article in 1973 comparing Roosevelt's programs and certain aspects of American political culture during his administration with those of the Third Reich. The affinities Garraty suggested were these: a strong leader; an ideology stressing the nation, the people, and the land; state control of economic and social affairs; and, finally, the quality and quantity of government propaganda. Garraty was careful to stress the obvious: that to compare 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 concentrations camps; the New Deal preserved the institutions of the liberal-democratic system that National Socialism abolished.13 For all his careful distinctions, however, Garraty's article, published in a major American historical journal, found little echo. The scent of sulfur surrounding Hitler and Mussolini was still too strong for historians to approach the facts directly and compare them.

Critics in the 1930s did not have the scruples we have today: of course, they had no way of knowing the genocidal course history would take. They were much more susceptible to the appeal of movements that offered protection—even false protection—against chaos than they were positively attracted to democracy. Or to put it another way, the defining historical moment for the mind of the 1930s was not the future defeat of Nazism in 1945 but the Great Depression in 1929. In the wake of global economic disaster, there was no particular reason to prefer the political system most closely associated with capitalism—liberal democracy—to new systems that promised a brighter future. On the contrary, people were more inclined to ask themselves whether democracy was inevitably doomed by the economic breakdown of liberal capitalism.

Indeed, the ideas discussed in Europe's remaining democracies show how willing many people within the liberal camp were to try to save the situation by jettisoning liberal ballast. Some suggested reintroducing state-directed economies like those during World War I; others proposed imitating various Fascist models. In 1933 Harold Macmillan, the conservative MP and later British prime minister, advocated a broad program of economic reforms that he described as "orderly capitalism." Critics argued, not without merit, that such ideas amounted to corporatism, the political system adopted by Italian Fascism.14

Europe's democratic left was affected even more profoundly than its liberal center by Nazism's rise to power in Germany. While the leaders of Europe's socialist parties were content merely to wring their hands over Hitler's success, refusing to acknowledge any failings on their own part, the younger party members and intellectuals were harshly self-critical. The most vocal anti-Fascists among the socialists were also those who called for socialism to learn from Fascism and National Socialism. Men like Stafford Cripps in England, Marcel Déat and Barthélémy Montagnon in France, and Henri de Man in Belgium were united in their contempt for the ossified party apparatus, which they saw as having robbed socialism of its spirit and strength. To their minds, it was no wonder that the masses that had once rallied behind socialism had been won over by Fascism. Not only had Fascism co-opted socialism's youthful vitality, sense of purpose, and readiness for conflict and sacrifice, it had also united its followers in mass movements whose appeal extended beyond the proletariat.15 As the socialist dissidents saw it, the task now was to retake from Fascism what Fascism had taken from socialism, or as one might say, to conclude the cycle of borrowing begun by Mussolini when he, the once ardent socialist, created Fascism as his new form of socialism.16

* * *

The specific lesson to be learned from Fascism and National Socialism was that it was possible to create a kind of national, non-class-specific socialism. Marcel Déat envisioned "a form of society that was not yet socialist but no longer capitalist," organized into a strong centralized state that controlled capital without appropriating it.17 John Middleton Murry, one of the most prominent internal critics of the British Labour Party, was optimistic on the question of whether change would be democratic or dictatorial:

A government of national security, which achieves the goal of economic separation of property and control, is just as compatible with the preservation of the democratic "form" as fascist social transformation is with the conservation of political freedoms.

Like many of his contemporaries in the early 1930s, Murry did not see Fascism as a system that necessarily included repression and terror. For the unorthodox minority of the left, Fascism was an intermediary path between socialism and liberalism whose initial propensity toward violence—on the analogy of the French and Russian revolutions—could be explained as the birth pangs of a radical new movement.18

Commentators freely noted areas of convergence among the New Deal, Fascism, and National Socialism. All three were considered postliberal state-capitalist or state-socialist systems, more closely related to one another than to classic Anglo-French liberalism. Hitler, Mussolini, and Roosevelt were seen as examples of plebiscite-based leadership: autocrats who came to power via varying but thoroughly legal means. No one, of course, failed to recognize the differences between the mass political parties of Fascism and National Socialism, with their legions of paramilitary thugs and organized mechanisms of state repression, and the pluralistic conglomeration that was the New Deal administration. Yet both liberal and Fascist commentators identified a number of similarities between the socially oriented policies of the New Deal and Fascist ideas of collective consolidation. The consensus among political scientists and economists of the time was that the United States, under Roosevelt in the spring and summer of 1933, had, in a process of voluntary consolidation, transformed itself into a postliberal state.

This synchronicity ended with America's entry into World War II and the Allies' victory over Fascism and National Socialism. Memories of the New Deal's common roots with its enemies were repressed, and postwar America was free to enjoy a myth of immaculate conception when it came to the birth of the liberal-democratic welfare state. Roosevelt, no longer named in the same breath with Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin, posthumously became the patron saint of liberal democracy in its triumphant struggle against the forces of evil.

Largely repressed as it has been, a comparative perspective on the New Deal, on the one hand, and the Fascist and National Socialist regimes, on the other, may now be ripe for reconsideration. Certainly it can begin to provide answers to some of the questions that have persisted in the postwar years: How did the New Deal manage to become so successful an alternative to the totalitarian regimes of the 1930s? And what accounts for the widespread allegiances these regimes inspired, at least initially? To what extent was the New Deal's effectiveness due to its ability to incorporate the very elements that rendered these regimes so popular—a new vision of the nation based on collectivism, on economic and social planning, and embodied both in a charismatic leader and in monumental public works? The features with which totalitarianism was later most closely identified—political pressure to conform, repression, state terrorizing of dissidents, secret police units, and concentration camps—were not the things that made these regimes desirable. The people were attracted by the feeling of being treated as equals instead of being ignored and by the sense that they no longer had to fend for themselves but, rather, could enjoy the protection, security, and solidarity afforded by the new classless community of the nation. The New Deal, Fascist Italy, and Nazi Germany all profited from the illusion of the nation as an egalitarian community whose members looked out for one another's welfare under the watchful eyes of a strong leader.

The intention here is not to suggest that the New Deal's vision of national and social collectivism rendered America a version of the Italian or German models. Such an argument would be as absurd as claiming that Fascism and National Socialism were in fact liberal-democratic, given their adoption of American methods of advertising and mass persuasion. To identify areas of commonality is not to argue for sameness. As Garrity enjoined, to compare is not to equate.

Copyright © 2006 by Wolfgang Schivelbusch

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Meet the Author

Wolfgang Schivelbusch, winner of the Heinrich Mann Prize, Germany's most prestigious nonfiction award, is an independent scholar who divides his time between New York and Berlin. His books include The Railway Journey, Disenchanted Night, and The Culture of Defeat (0-312-42319-5), called "a work of brooding brilliance" by The

New York Times.

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