It was March 1933. The national mood was feverish and yet expectant. In the wake of his sweeping victory, the country’s charismatic new leader addressed people desperate for change. Millions crowded around their radios to hear him. What they heard was a damning indictment of what had gone before and a stirring call for national revival….
The action the new leader had in mind was bold, even revolutionary. Jobs would be created by ‘direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of war’; men would be put to work on ‘greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources’…. He would introduce a system of ‘national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and of communications and other utilities’ and ‘a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments’ to bring ‘an end to speculation with other people’s money’ – measures that won enthusiastic cheers from his audience….
Not content with this vision of a militarized nation, he concluded with a stark warning to the nation’s newly elected legislature: ‘An unprecedented demand and need for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from … the normal balance of executive and legislative authority.’ If the legislature did not swiftly pass the measures he proposed to deal with the national emergency, he demanded ‘the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis – broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe’. This line brought forth the loudest applause of all.
Who was this demagogue who so crudely blamed the Depression on corrupt financiers, who so boldly proposed state intervention as the cure for unemployment, who so brazenly threatened to rule by decree if the legislature did not back him, who so cynically used and re-used the words ‘people’ and ‘Nation’ to stoke up the patriotic sentiments of his audience? The answer is Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the speech from which all the above quotations are taken was his inaugural address as he assumed the American presidency on March 4, 1933.
Less than three weeks later, another election victor in another country that had been struck equally hard by the Depression gave a remarkably similar speech, beginning with a review of the country’s dire economic straits, promising radical reforms, urging legislators to transcend petty party-political thinking and concluding with a stirring call for national unity .The resemblances between Adolf Hitler’s speech to the newly elected Reichstag on March 21, 1933, and Roosevelt’s inaugural address are indeed a great deal more striking than the differences. Yet it almost goes without saying that the United States and Germany took wholly different political directions from 1933 until 1945, the year when, both still in office, Roosevelt and Hitler died. Despite Roosevelt’s threat to override Congress if it stood in his way, and despite his three subsequent re-elections, there were only two minor changes to the US Constitution during his presidency: the time between elections and changes of administration was reduced (Amendment 20) and the prohibition of alcohol was repealed (Amendment 21). The most important political consequence of the New Deal was significantly to strengthen the federal government relative to the individual states; democracy as such was not weakened. Indeed, congress rejected Roosevelt’s Judiciary Reorganization Bill. By contrast, the Weimar Constitution had already begun to decompose two or three years before the 1933 general election, with the increasing reliance of Hitler’s predecessors on emergency presidential decrees. By the end of 1934 it had been reduced to a more or less empty shell. While Roosevelt was always in some measure constrained by the legislature, the courts, the federal states and the electorate, Hitler’s will became absolute, untrammelled even by the need for consistency or written expression. What Hitler decided was done, even if the decision was communicated verbally; when he made no decision, officials were supposed to work towards whatever they thought his will might be. Roosevelt had to fight – and fight hard – three more presidential elections. Democracy in Germany, by contrast, became a sham, with orchestrated plebiscites in place of meaningful elections and a Reichstag stuffed with Nazi lackeys. The basic political freedoms of speech, of assembly, of the press and even of belief and thought were done away with. So, too, was the rule of law. Whole sections of German society , above all the Jews, lost their civil as well as political rights. Property rights were also selectively violated. To be sure, the United States was no utopia in the 1930s, particularly for African-Americans. It was the Southern states whose legal prohibitions on interracial sex and marriage provided the Nazis with templates when they sought to ban relationships between ‘Aryans’ and Jews. Yet, to take the most egregious indicator, the number of lynchings of blacks during the 1930s (119 in all) was just 42 per cent of the number in the 1920s and 21 per cent of the number in the 1910s. Whatever else the Depression did, it did not destroy American democracy, nor worsen American racism.*
(*Roosevelt nevertheless opposed the Costigan-Wagner Anti-Lynching Bill for fear that to support it might cost him the Southern states in the 1936 election.)