The label “The Great Depression” applies largely to world-wide economic conditions after the Great War. France and Russia were badly damaged by the war (and both Russia and the Ottoman Empire continued to experience wartime conditions for several years after the Armistice). Germany was economically devastated and was further stifled by required reparation payments to France and Great Britain. Inflation in Germany was so bad after the way that Germany money was—literally—less valuable than the paper on which it was printed. The British Empire also required time to recover from the cost of the war in lives, dire medical conditions, industries that had been converted to wartime production, and disrupted transportation of raw materials and goods around the world.
The United States’ economy was booming from the economic benefits of a world war. Food, cotton, and many other products had been very profitable during the war and immediately after. But in the 1920s, customers did not always exist for American productivity; food and cotton and manufactured supplies began to pile up in warehouses. The problem worsened as European economies recovered from the war. Surpluses grew, prices fell, and jobs began to be cut. Powerful flooding further aggravated agricultural concerns in 1927. The historic Stock Market Crash of October 1929 was merely the final dramatic symptom of a Depression that had already begun. The banks that collapsed due to the stock market crash were already teetering on the edge of failure. In many parts of the country, the stock market crash was not even front-page news.
But economic depression was not the only kind of depression that the world faced in the 1920s. The Great War undercut everything that Europeans and North Americans had been saying about science and technology since the Enlightenment. Victorian optimism about an improving world was crushed by the War. Supposedly the most civilized and educated leaders had caused the war and had failed to stop it once it started. Science and technology had been used to cause and increase suffering. Optimism about solutions to all the world’s problems had been misplaced. Survivors of the Great War lacked the hope and encouragement that their parents and grandparents had invested in the future.
Some elements of this depression began during the Victorian Age. Cameras made naturalistic painting unnecessary, so painters began to experiment in abstract art, such as impressionism. After the war, further adventures in art were explored, such as expressionism and cubism. All of these reflected, to a degree, rejection of the schools of art that had dominated European culture since the Renaissance. Likewise, in music, the change began during the Victorian Age. Especially in France, which lost a brief war to Germany in 1870, rejection of German music led to a new style of music which was also called impressionism. After the war, more jarring forms of music emerged, discordant and irregular in rhythm. Pessimism and absurdism began to emerge in literature and theater after the war. Writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald described the darker side of life, while other writers went to greater extremes to reflect their depression, turning away from the confident optimism that prevailed from the Enlightenment through the Victorian Age.
Science contributed to the depression. For several generations, it had seemed that science had achieved all its major discoveries; it appeared that science would now simply define its procedures, making knowledge more complete and more reliable with each new generation. Einstein’s theories of relativity changed all that. Suddenly it was seen that Euclid’s geometry and Newton’s physics only apply to the world we move through in our common experience. The rules are not the same at the very large or at the very small. Subatomic particles follow rules that seem to defy everything we thought we know about the real world. In biology, the prevailing theory of evolution presented men and women as nothing more than animals which were a little more successful than other kinds of animals. Now Sigmund Freud added to the recipe for darkness, arguing that strange and mysterious things are happening in our minds beyond the thoughts of which we were already aware.
In all this doubt and uncertainty—but especially in the turmoil of the economic Depression—large numbers of people put their trust in the power and authority of politicians and government to provide answers. Out of this misplaced trust came totalitarian governments—political powers that exercised control over vast portions of citizens’ lives. Modern technology made this kind of control more possible than ever before. Governments began by controlling communication—newspapers, magazines, books, radio broadcasts, and other way people shared thoughts and ideas. The same governments also controlled education. Stalin and the Communist Party gained that kind of power in the Soviet Union, followed by Mussolini and the Fascist Party in Italy, and Hitler and the Nazi Party in Germany. In each of these countries, competing political parties were outlawed. Disagreeing with the government was not allowed. A person who spoke a contrary idea might be jailed as a criminal, or might be hospitalized as mentally ill (only released when that person was “cured” and agreed with the government), or might simply disappear. The government announced its economic successes, and no one was in a position to contradict those announcements. Even after the Second World War, an entire generations of historians continued to report that under the Fascists the trains ran on time. Finally, researchers took the trouble to fact-check that claim and to prove it false.
People from the United States visited the Soviet Union. They saw the new factories, they read the government reports, and they met no one who dared to seem unhappy with the new system. Therefore, they returned to the United States saying, “I have seen the future, and it works!” A Communist Party grew in the United States during the Depression, while other citizens advocated other forms of socialism. The Republicans in power seemed unable to help American citizens, especially when a devastating drought struck the central farmlands of the country in 1930 and 1931. Despairing voters turned to Franklin Roosevelt and the Democratic Party, hoping that the promises of a New Deal could be kept.
Roosevelt and the Democrats believed that some problems are so big that only the government is big enough to solve them. New Deal programs included several government ages that hired workers—building schools and parks and armories, paving roads, digging ditches, and contributing in other ways to the infrastructure. Artists were hired to paint murals in government buildings, especially post offices. Writers were hired to interview the last surviving former slaves, to record the memories of pioneers, and to pen travelogues of the various states. Women were gathered to sew and to learn how to can fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, Social Security was created—collecting a tax from workers and their employers to pay other people (mainly the disabled and the elderly) not to work. Farmers were paid not to plant crops. Lands seized for tax default were offered to homeless farm families under generous programs that helped them to reestablish themselves on the land.
Historians debate whether the New Deal ended the Depression or prolonged it. Since the Second World War ended the economic struggle of the Depression (as well as some New Deal programs), a clear conclusion about the value of the New Deal cannot be found. But Roosevelt and the New Deal Democrats did not seek or establish a totalitarian state. They did not outlaw the Republican Party, or even the Communist Party. Instead, Roosevelt spoke in favor of four freedoms: “Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.” Even while expanding government’s presence and power in the lives of its people, the New Deal continued to focus on freedom for American citizens. J.