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- 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?


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?