Wolfgang Schivelbusch - Three New Deals

Wolfgang Schivelbusch - Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt's America, Mussolini's Italy, and Hitler's Germany, 1933-1939
Rating - 8.8

Following the materialistic excesses of the Roaring Twenties, the world was shaken by the effects of the Great Depression. Three countries, all very different, came up with remarkably similar solutions to the problem of low employment, civilian unrest and economic stagnation. These countries – and a few others, though the three Schivelbusch chooses to examine were the major players – independently determined that vast public works such as an autobahn, militaristic cities that followed the tenants of efficiency and prosperity rather than communal wellbeing, museums, law buildings and palaces were needed to stimulate the population into a renewed sense of confidence in their homeland. Two of the three countries instigated the use of government-mandated symbols that would signify to customers and citizens that the branded company supported the government in their actions, with the inevitable backlash that whoever did not have a Blue Eagle or Swastika on their wall would find themselves blacklisted, condemned, avoided, bankrupt. The countries? Italy, led by Mussolini. Germany, led by Hitler. And the United States of America, led by Roosevelt. Wolfgang Schivelbusch's work, Three New Deals: Reflections on Roosevelt's America, Mussolini's Italy, and Hitler's Germany, 1933-1939, examines the similarities between countries previously considered as very different.

Schivelbusch's main thesis is provocative. His exhaustively researched chapters focus on different aspects of the government in America, Germany and Italy which, although they were nominally directed toward different political goals, actually used almost exactly the same methods to control and inspire the population. His aim is to avoid the reverential tone used to describe Roosevelt's New Deal, but also to lessen the 'evil' associated with Mussolini and Hitler. Without focusing too heavily on the inevitable result of German and Italian fascism and American democracy – though Schivelbusch certainly gives credit where it is due, and necessarily demonises the terrible actions of World War II – what is examined is the rise of three separate political systems, all with different goals, that somehow came to use virtually identical systems.

Propaganda was a tool used heavily by Hitler. Images of Hitler screaming at crowds of thousands have become familiar, along with his carefully manufactured image – the mustache, the armband, the uniform. But it was always used by Roosevelt, from his radio addresses to the aforementioned Blue Eagle system, which was entirely voluntary, with the slight difficulty that if you did not have a Blue Eagle, then you ran the very real risk of being declared un-American. Schivelbusch writes, 'Propaganda is successful when it picks up existing ideas, opinions, and desires and transforms them into a message of salvation.' Prior to Hitler and Roosevelt, propaganda was a tool largely used in the making of war, and not in times of peace. These two heads-of-state, however, altered the usual methods of propaganda to suit the needs of their citizens in an effort to manipulate their desires until they aligned with the government's intent. Schivelbusch recognises that the penalties for wading against the increasing current of propaganda were lighter in America than in Germany or Italy, though even in the United States failure to speak the party line could result in ostracization.

Much of the world, struck into momentary stupefaction following the massive economic collapse that was the Great Depression, actually wished for a return to a more cohesive, inclusive, protectionist state of being. It was believed by no small number of intellectuals that the march of industrialisation, at the time only two generations old, could be halted and reversed, with a William Morris-esque 'arts and craft' nation attainable only if enough effort were made. Roosevelt, Hitler and Mussolini all used their commanding voice and presence, coupled with the dire economic situation of their countries, to persuade their government and citizens to follow their plans.

Concessions are made to the democratic nature of Roosevelt's government over the dictatorial reality of Italy and Germany. At no time does Schivelbusch express a desire to undermine the freer American political system, in fact he shows admiration that Roosevelt was able to achieve what he did while still allowing dissenting opinion, elections, voting and public discussion. To consider Schivelbusch's comparison of America with Italy and Germany as an attack on America is to miss the point. His book is an attempt to examine the remarkable similarities between three very different countries.

According to Hitler, 'Since the time of the medieval cathedrals, we are the first to make renewed demands on the artist for great, bold works.' The United States, at exactly the same time and for much the same reason, built the Federal Triangle, the National Gallery, the National Archives, the Supreme Court Building, the Smithsonian Museum and the Jefferson Memorial, along with other, smaller, architectural achievements. Both Germany and America were preceded by the Soviet push for massive structures which would capture the heart and mind of the people and compel them toward positive service for their country. In Italy, the battaglia del grano, or 'harvest battle', was an annual effort to build nuove citta, or 'new cities' in the Agro Pontino region. These cities were to eschew the traditional concept of the city and instead create cities that 'commemorated a static order, one of permanence and immobility that offered a counterweight to the state of perpetual motion generated by and characteristic of the regime.'

Italy is favoured the least among the three countries. It often seems that Schivelbusch has chosen this triptych for the 'shock' value of comparing 1930s America to Italy and Germany, which is a shame because Schivelbusch's argument is so strong. The vast majority of the book is devoted to a back and forth examination of Germany and America, with Italy thrown in every now and again for added flavour. Added to that is the fact that Italy and Germany were so similar, particularly when compared to America, which adds to the impression of Italy being added merely to cast America in a negative light. Where Schivelbusch does not tread is to compare the America of then to the America of today, or the Germany or Italy of then to the America of today. Very little mention is made of America's current situation, which aids rather than hinders the strength of Schivelbusch's thesis. A novel peppered with snipe attacks against the current administration of America would come across as petty, and it is to Schivelbusch's credit that he refrains from doing so.

Three New Deals is a learned, coherent and surprising look at three of the major countries of the world in the 1930s. Schivelbusch's comparisons are grounded in reality and do not require a Left of Right political leaning to appreciate. The novel manages to stay above politics while commenting upon it, with one sixth of the novel dedicated to listing the exhaustive amount of references throughout the work. Schivelbusch's conclusion that America, Italy and Germany were more similar than different is a remarkable one, a conclusion which bears considering in today's political climate.


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