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Following the leaders

Three New Deals Reflections on Roosevelt's America, Mussolini's Italy, and Hitler's Germany, 1933-1939 Wolfgang Schivelbusch Metropolitan Books: 244 pp., $26

October 29, 2006|Jon Wiener | Jon Wiener is a UC Irvine history professor and a contributing editor for the Nation. He is the author, most recently, of "Historians in Trouble" and editor of "Conspiracy in the Streets: The Extraordinary Trial of the Chicago Eight."

TODAY, every school kid learns that Franklin D. Roosevelt and Adolf Hitler were history's great opposites -- Hitler the evil madman, President Roosevelt the hero of democracy. In his provocative new book, "Three New Deals," historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch asks us to consider the similarities between them -- to go back before Auschwitz, before World War II, to early 1933, when Hitler and FDR took the helm of their respective governments. At that moment, many observers commented on their similarities: Both were "charismatic leaders who held the masses in their sway"; each promised to solve the economic crisis of the Great Depression that had left millions of people in their countries out of work, hungry and fearful.

Of course, Schivelbusch knows that Hitler and FDR were different, but he can't help noticing that both responded to the Depression with the same two-sided program. Each abandoned what we now call "free market capitalism," the belief that the capitalist marketplace automatically corrects itself. In its place, each introduced state regulation of the economy. And each introduced job and social welfare programs, giving the federal government responsibility for alleviating the suffering caused by economic crisis. Previously, private and local charities had ministered to society's downtrodden. Hitler's initial appeal to Germans was not that he would solve the problems of the Depression by killing all the Jews; what he promised was that the Nazis would protect ordinary people from economic suffering by creating a new kind of community (to be sure, one restricted to Aryans) with a strong leader who looked out for their welfare. That's not so different from what the New Deal promised.

There's more: Both FDR and Hitler built monumental public works that symbolized the energy and power of the state; both won unprecedented popular support for a new kind of charismatic leadership with new techniques of media and propaganda. But the author is careful not to call FDR a "fascist" or a national socialist, saying that "to compare is not to equate."

Schivelbusch is a brilliant comparative historian, a prizewinner in Germany for his 2003 book "The Culture of Defeat," which traced fascinating parallels between the American South after the Civil War, France after the Franco-Prussian War ended in 1871 and Germany after World War I. In each case, a government went to war confident of victory; each was stunned by defeat; each ended up rewriting their story as one of a heroic resistance to a brutal and unprincipled opponent; and each dreamed of revenge for the betrayals that led to defeat.

Schivelbusch brings the same comparative cultural focus to the 1930s with less success, although with equally fascinating and provocative ideas. For example, he explores the use of media by FDR and Hitler to create a new kind of bond between ruler and ruled. He cheerfully acknowledges that the differences were more significant than the similarities. FDR's medium was radio -- the famous fireside chats, where the president established what seemed to be an intimate one-to-one relationship with individual listeners -- which led the skeptical leftist writer John Dos Passos to call him "the you-and-me President." At the time, FDR was considered the master of the medium, with a "golden voice" that sounded "fresh," "rich" and "melodious."

Nothing could be more different from Hitler's howling and ranting to thousands of chanting followers at vast public spectacles, with the massed audiences in a state of "quasi-mythic and religious ecstasy." Hitler refused to speak from a radio studio -- for some reason, he considered that decision a matter of principle. This contrast led U.S. theorists in the 1930s to describe radio as a medium that preserved democracy and protected individuals from demagogues who hypnotized the masses.

And yet even here Schivelbusch sees similarities. "The end result" of their different media strategies was the creation of "a new kind of 'electric' connection between the speaker and the mass audience," completely different from what had come before. Nobody in America had felt a strong personal connection to President Hoover, and nobody in Germany felt that kind of connection to President Paul von Hindenburg.

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