Every so often, history serves up an analogy that’s misleading, highly distracting, and only indirectly relevant.
Every so often, history serves up an analogy that’s uncomfortable, a little distracting and yet still very relevant.
In the summer of 1933, just as they will do on Thursday, heads of government and their finance ministers met in London to talk about a global economic crisis. They accomplished little and went home to battle the crisis in their own ways.
More than any other country, Germany — Nazi Germany — then set out on a serious stimulus program. The government built up the military, expanded the autobahn, put up stadiums for the 1936 Berlin Olympics and built monuments to the Nazi Party across Munich and Berlin.
The economic benefits of this vast works program never flowed to most workers, because fascism doesn’t look kindly on collective bargaining. But Germany did escape the Great Depression faster than other countries. Corporate profits boomed, and unemployment sank (and not because of slave labor, which didn’t become widespread until later). Harold James, an economic historian, says that the young liberal economists studying under John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s began to debate whether Hitler had solved unemployment.
It’s true that government spending works to kick-start an economy. But you don’t have to resort to the Nazis to make this argument! Later in the post, Leonhardt acknowledges that Franklin D. Roosevelt also implemented stimulus programs, though later in the decade and more cautiously, thus with less stunning success.
So why, then, frame Obama’s advocacy of stimulus (as the article goes on to do) with the Nazi example? Did it not occur to Leonhardt that this article plays right into the teabaggers’ framing? Obama = socialist = Nazi!
Leonhardt doesn’t get his history quite right, either. While it’s absolutely true that the Nazis banned trade unions, organizing workers instead in the much more employer-friendly German Worker’s Front, that doesn’t negate the real benefits workers enjoyed as the economy bounced back. In 1932, six million Germans were out of work. The resurgent economy – together with the pressure and incentives drawing women out of the workforce – put many working-class men back on the job. Unemployment dropped, and Germans of all classes were able to purchase consumer goods.
Also, the folks subjected to slave labor? They weren’t, by and large, the same people who’d been unemployed in the early thirties. While some were German Jews, the majority of those enslaved were not German citizens.
I’m not arguing that history never holds lessons for the present. It would behoove us, though, to understand what actually happened in the past before we start mining it for analogies.
Perhaps the most important thing one can learn from studying history is that context is crucially important. Apparently the teabaggers equating Obama with Hitler aren’t sharp enough to grasp that. But Leonhardt writes for the Times. What’s his excuse?