Public Works- How Well Did Government Intervention Work? Could The Private Sector Have Done It Better?

The economic collapse in 1928 left the United States close to ruin. Jobs didn’t come easily, and when they did, workers often found themselves over worked, under paid, and without viable options for social and economic upward mobility. The same can be said for Nazi Germany. Suffering both from the crushing debt accumulated after the First World War and the global effects of the American economic collapse, the German people found themselves in a similar situation to the Americans. A liberal approach to economic stimulation (fair competition among corporations) where the free market would take control and hopefully ‘right the ship’ of both floundering countries did not suit Hitler or Roosevelt. Instead, both men funneled government money, time, and resources into major infrastructure building programs. Schivelbusch highlights two of these programs: the Tennessee Valley Authority in the United States, and The Autobhan in Germany. Both of these programs brought significant economic stimulation in terms of job creation, infrastructure development, and efficient land usage. They also instilled national pride.

President Roosevelt created the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1933 with the aim to redevelop 39,000 square miles of land that boasted an average median per capita income 50% lower than the national average. ((Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. “Public Works” in Three New Deals, 153-154 New York: Picador, 2006.)) The government, in effect, took control of the rivers, dams, and other infrastructure created in the area, which it in turn re-developed into lakes, rivers, and usable waterways for “commerce that now nourish their business enterprises.” ((Schivelbusch, “Public Works”, 159.)).  Doesn’t sound like a terrible deal. A poor, decrepit area gets a government funded revitalization which puts millions to work building dams and creating man-made lakes. The bigger point, however, which Schivelbusch points out, is that it showed Democracy’s ability to “surpass totalitarianism’s achievements in the realm of planning.” ((Schivelbusch, “Public Works”, 162)). This flex of “democratic muscle” created a greater sense of national pride, which contributed to the rising morale of the American people as a whole in the post depression era.

The German Autobahn provided a “symbolic salvation” ((Schivelbusch, “Public Works”, 169)) for the National Socialist party. As Schivelbusch points out, much like Roosevelt, Hitler put the reputation and legitimacy of his regime in a grandiose project meant to revitalize both the economy and national pride of his people. What some might call a major flaw in Hitler’s plan, however, arguably made his achievement greater. Hitler ordered the construction of the Autobahn in 1933, a year in which the automobile existed as more of a novelty to the German people rather than an every day convenience (or perhaps a hassle) as it did to the Americans. Despite this, the creation of the Autobahn, much like the revitalization of the Tennessee Valley, prompted an economic boom- in 1938, the Volkswagen came into being. Hitler’s Autobahn, which could be seen as a highway to nowhere, ended up stimulating the German automotive industry; to paraphrase a voice heard in a cornfield in Iowa, “since he built it, they came.”

The Autobahn and the Tennessee Valley redevelopment both provided massive economic stimulation, national pride, and long term industry revitalization. Which of these endeavors did more for their respective country? Did Hitler’s highway building (and eventual creation of a booming automotive industry) do more to revitalize Germany than Roosevelt’s redevelopment of the Tennessee Valley? Or, had Hitler and Roosevelt relied on a liberal, capitalist approach to the crisis, would either leader have seen similar success? Could the private sector of either the United States or Germany breathe life back into the economy of each state as the government did?


Political Leadership

The desire to make such historical comparisons is especially evident when examining the political systems of systems of Europe and the United States in the period surrounding World War II. Yoram Gorlizki and Hans Mommsen’s article “The Political (Dis)Orders of Stalinism and National Socialism” and Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s book Three New Deals make comparisons between the political systems of Hitler, Stalin and Roosevelt.

Both the pieces look at the leadership qualities of Hitler and compare them to another notable leader during the same time. With new Soviet archival information, Gorlizki and Mommsen argue that the Soviet Union under Stalin and Germany under Hitler were fundamentally different in leadership, country development patterns, and how WWII impacted the their systems ((Yoram Gorlizki and Hans Mommsen, “The Political (Dis)Order of Stalinism and National Socialism,” in Beyond Totalitarianism, ed. Michael Geyer and Shela Fitzpatrick (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 42.)). This difference is in part a result of the countries differences in “socioeconomic development and national integration” when Hitler and Stalin came to power ((Ibid., 43-44.)). According to Gorlizki and Mommsen Hitler did not micromanage and work closely with the day-to-day procedures and functions the government ((Ibid.,64-65.)). This laissez-faire approach was quite the opposite of how Stalin preferred managed his political system. They cite that Hitler’s great strengths were in his charisma and ability to exploit propaganda opportunities which the party relied heavily upon to generate support for the National Socialist party ((Ibid., 55,64.)).

Like Gorlizki and Mommsen, Schivelbusch also evaluates the Hitler’s ability to captivate an audience through public speaking. He had the ability to create a sense of commonality between himself and German citizens. Joachim Fest described a typical speech by Hitler as “a hybrid between a circus, grand opera, and Catholic liturgy” ((Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Three New Deals (New York: Picador, 2006), 62.)). These speeches were highly rehearsed and followed a common formula which was meant to engage and create emotion with the live audiences. This was then compared/contrasted with Roosevelt’s Fireside chats which were also highly rehearsed and meant to create a connection between Roosevelt and the individual. This reflected a technological and cultural transition in the United States. ((Ibid.,70-72.))

Schivelbusch makes the strong statement that without such charisma and ability to engage an audience the New Deal and National Socialism would not have been possible. To what extent do you agree?

A Crisis of Leadership

Gorlizki and Mommsen along with Schivelbusch present information regarding the political rise and eventual control of the Nazi Party in Germany under Hitler, and the Communist Party in the USSR under Stalin. Mommsen and Gorlizki conclude that, in addition to a variety of economic, agricultural, and social reasons, Stalin and his party maintained control over its subordinates so well through the “centralized and institutionally integrated party” ((Gorlizki and Mommsen, 85)) which essentially formed the core of the state. Gorlizki and Mommsen go on to discuss the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party in Germany, and they contend that “the state
and ideology relied to a far greater extent for what coherence they had on the
cult of the Fuhrer.” ((Gorlizki and Mommsen, 85)) This concept of a “cult of the Fuhrer” is a concept touched upon (and explained in detail) by Schivelbusch. In Schivelbusch’s chapter entitled “Leaders”, he contends that Adolf Hitler had an extraordinary ability to “speak to the soul of the people” ((Schivelbusch, 54)), which (as Gorlizki and Mommsen mentioned) helped create the “cult of the Fuhrer”, or, in more simple terms, the love of the German people for their leader contributed greatly to the success garnered by Hitler and the Nazi party; the people of Germany, (unlike the people of the USSR, who as pointed out by Mommsen and Gorlizki became infatuated with, and allowed for the development of “the party”), allowed Hitler to become larger than life.

The idea of leadership and its evolution and importance in the USSR and Germany is an important area to look at in order to bring context to our class, but since Schivelbusch touched on Roosevelt, it would be interesting to bring more context to the American political sphere of that time, and see how closely the opinions of Roosevelt held by the American people parralled with the opinions of German and Soviet citizens with regard to their respective rulers.

Commonalities vs. Sameness

In Three New Deals, author Wolfganf Schivelbusch  argues how three powerful states were all led by common ideals leading up to WWII.  This is not to confuse with ‘same’ ideals in any sense.  While these terms may seem alike, Schivelbusch clearly states there is a difference.  He argues that while the United States, Germany, and Italy had common features the three cannot be considered identical in any way.  It is difficult to place the United States, a democratic society, in the same category as two authoritative countries, but Schivelbusch continues to explain how they represent one another while being different at the same time.

Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal consisted of a series of acts that were established to help the United States recover from the Great Depression.  While the New Deal looks as it could help the recovery process, it ultimately did nothing but create criticism both internationally and domestically.  Much of the criticism was towards FDR and his Fascist and National Socialist fascinations.  Schivelbusch argues how Germany and Italy identified the similarities of FDR’s economic solutions and supported his dictatorial leadership style.  While these solutions may have been similar to those of the Fascist or National Socialist, they are not identical in any matter.

Another element Schivelbusch recognizes that is common within these three states is the use of  propaganda, particularly war propaganda.  War propaganda was used create a sense of nationalism through the respected states, and Italy and Germany seemed to create a strong idea of nationalism.  Stated, “fascism and National Socialism saw themselves as the continuation of solders’ solidarity, as heroic, messianic movements that would invigorate nations still ruled by outdated ideas with new revolutionary spirit.  Politics was a call to arms on the home front” (39).  FDR and the United States did not have anywhere near the strength of the Germans or Italians, but was convinced he could spread it.