Public Works vs. Nature and the Back to the Land Movement

The Great Depression ravaged the economies of the United States and Germany. In an attempt to recover the United States and Germany implemented public works projects to improve not only unemployment rates, but also industry levels and infrastructure. These projects were also used as forms of government propaganda to revive national pride. In Schivelbusch’s chapter on public works he highlights public projects of the United States and Germany as well as the less successful public works attempts of the Soviet Union and Fascist Italy.

In 1933, FDR signed a legislative act that created the Tennessee Valley Authority. The goal of the TVA was to promote regional development in Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky as well as other disenfranchised portions of the South. (( Wolfgang Schivelbusch. “Public Works” in Three New Deals. (New York: Picador, 2006) 153.)). This project sought to integrate technology and agriculture to develop water resources, such as building dams, and to promote land reform that focused on reforesting areas and improving soil quality. ((Wolfgang Schivelbusch. “Public Works” in Three New Deals, 156)).

One of Germany’s public works project was the construction of the Autobahn. Like the United States this construction project also implemented newly-developed technology aimed at modernizing the country. Soon after Hitler rose to power, he planned the construction of a network of highways throughout Germany, with portions to be completed by 1935. ((Wolfgang Schivelbusch. “Public Works” in Three New Deals, 172)). The planners of the Autobahn placed great emphasis on the road’s relationship to the surrounding landscape. They seemed to endorse that the road should emphasize the uniqueness of the landscape and fit in seamlessly with the road’s surrounding terrain, however whether this goal was propaganda or represented actual intentions is something historians debate. ((Wolfgang Schivelbusch. “Public Works” in Three New Deals, 174-175.)). The use of such vague vocabulary by head planners, such as Todt, led to misunderstandings between the differences of “landscape creation” verses landscape preservation. For example, people who protested the construction of the Autobahn for conservation reasons were characterized by the Autobahn planning committee as “faint-hearted nature lovers”. ((Wolfgang Schivelbusch.  “Public Works” in Three New Deals, 176-177.)).

Do you think that Todt’s definition of “landscape creation” (pgs 176-177) contradicted the aims of the back-to-the-land movement as Schivelbusch discusses in chapter 4?

Creating a Modern Public

In the fifth chapter of Three New Deals titled “Public Works,” Wolfgang Schivelbusch compares the motivations for and the goals of the large public projects carried out by Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the United States during the 1930s. Schivelbusch argues that each country’s project responded developments within the Soviet Union, their shared competitor ((Wolfgang Schivelbusch, “Public Works,” in Three New Deals – Reflections on Roosevelt’s America, Mussolini’s Italy, and Hitler’s Germany, 1933-1939) (New York: Picador, 2006), 104)). Although Italy’s drainage of the Pontine Marshes, German’s construction of the autobahn, and the United States’ construction of dams and power plants through the Tennessee Valley Authority Act uniquely reflected each country’s unique social context and needs, all of the projects reflected the modern theme of promoting individualism through collectivism. 

These projects drew the attention of the entire nation while only actually affecting a small portion of the population. Nevertheless, with each project the state created a new national prize and monument around which the people could feel a sense of pride. The projects themselves served as propaganda, they created fantasy’s that masked the national reality. Mussolini galvanized and militarized the Italian people with his “harvest battle” as he marched tractors and people into new cities long before the start of WWII ((Schivelbusch, Three New Deals, 151)). To quote David Lilienthal, a member of the TVA’s board of directors, the new electrical dams and towns created by the TVA  represented “a token of the virility and vigor of democracy” during the depths of the depression and a period where only 20 percent of American home had electricity ((Schivelbusch, Three New Deals, 151)). Hitler preemptively constructed the autobahn before the motorization of Germany ((Schivelbusch, Three New Deals, 170)). These national projects united the people around a sense of achievement while also promoting a sense of individuality. The new Italian agricultural land and towns promoted self sufficiency and an independent lifestyle. In the American and German projects, the myth of widespread electricity and mobility respectively fostered a sense of freedom that technological developments facilitated. All three projects left the majority of the population yearning for a new lifestyle; albeit, a national dream.

As Schivelbush outlines in chapter four titled, “Back to the Country,” the aforementioned states tried to develop the same sense of collective individualism in their efforts to institute economic autarky, national economic stability achieved through individual self-sufficiency ((Schivelbusch, Three New Deals, 107)). Furthermore, each state’s program reinforces one of core characteristics of a modern state outlined by David L. Hoffmann in his book Russian Modernity: Politics, Knowledge, Practices. Hoffman identified the modern state’s ability to “utilize the emotional and mobilizational power of traditional appeals and symbols, themselves disembedded from their original context and recast for political purposes” ((Hoffman, David L, and Yanni Kotsonis. Russian Modernity: Politics, Knowledge, Practices. (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000), 247)). Postwar, modern governments seemingly never acted without some ulterior or latent political motive. What other government programs support this thinking? Could a modern government ever implement policy devoid of propagandistic values? How did/has the public works of Italy, Germany, and the United States changed our view of government programs? Did these public works achieve their goals? How are they viewed today?

Public Works

The management of a country is like managing a machine.  Occasionally its parts need to be fixed or replaced to keep the machine moving forward.  For a country, a leader must install or fix its parts to help the country move forward.  In the, Three New Deals, WolfGang Schivelbusch spent his fifth chapter on public projects that were introduced in the Soviet Union, Fascist Italy, the United States, and Nazi Germany.  Schivelbusch wrote that Italy, the United States, and Germany, under the conditions of the Great Depression, looked to the Soviet Union for innovation and progress.  He stated that the leaders of these countries introduced programs in which they would help their countries move forward.

One of the more intriguing projects that Schivelbusch discussed in his fifth chapter was   on the ‘Autobahn’.  The autobahn, according to Schivelbusch represented what the TVA represented for the United States: “a promise that……had implied not just an increased convenience but also a kind of symbolic salvation.” ((Schivelbusch, Wolfgang.  “Public Works” in Three New Deals.  New York: Picador. 2006, 169.))  The autobahn represented a sense of progress for German people.  It meant that people did not have to rely on the state as much.  What really intrigued me about this is that Germany decided to complete the autobahn before they completed the Volkswagen.  How could a country like Germany install a major highway in before people had cars?  As Schivelbusch stated, it was about capturing peoples imaginations about the possibilities, making people excited for the future and excited about the prospect of driving along the German landscape. ((Schivelbusch, Wolfgang.  “Public Works” in Three New Deals.  New York: Picador. 2006, 172.))  

What strikes me about the autobahn, to me, is that it represented freedom.  It seemed like a way of venturing off into the German land without any care in the world.  Considering that Nazi Germany had repressed many freedoms, it seems strange to me that the Nazis would build a highway that could give Germans a dream of endless possibilities.  Do you think that the autobahn was part of a greater dream of the Nazis?

Public Works

The chapter “Public Works” from Schivelbusch’s Three New Deals covers the transformation of undeveloped land through industrial means as a form of social mobilization. It is first explained that all major powers looked to the Soviet Union’s collectivism for inspiration. Prior to the Great Depression, Western countries perceived the Soviet agenda as “fantasy”- but as capitalism failed those countries leading up the the 1930s, they began to imitate Soviet policies. ((Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. “Public Works” in Three New Deals, 140-141. New York: Picador, 2006.))

Fascism in Italy was the first to take the reigns on this matter through the project of the Agro Pontino. Mussolini’s regime attacked the problematic swampland, transforming it into a productive area through various policy initiatives. They also used it to public effect, presenting the problem as a matter of national participation. Three New Deals contrasts this to the Tennessee Valley Authority, claiming that the Agro Pontino focused more on settlement than development. Following this segue, the reader is presented with a detailed look at the operations of the TVA. Its works are described as “monuments to the New Deal”, a comparison with the symbolism of the public works of the Fascists. ((Schivelbusch, “Public Works”, 160.)) The common vein here, as Schivelbusch argues, was that both regimes used these works as propaganda in themselves, to appeal to the national attitude and move the public to action. ((Schivelbusch, “Public Works”, 167.))

Finally, the German Autobahn is addressed. Finding commonality with the New Deal but difference from Mussolini’s policies in its emphasis on technology, it served as a powerful form of public mobilization. However, emphasis was placed on making it stand out from the environment, unlike the works of the other two nations. What qualities of the Nazi regime, I wonder, led the Germans to try to make more of a distinction?