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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.
David Boaz is executive
vice president of the Cato Institute and editor of Toward Liberty:
The Idea That Is Changing the World (Cato).