Believe it or not, I actually see more parallels between FDR and Hitler than I do with Hitler and other superficially similar despots and tyrants. I think to understand the analogy, you must seem them as two sides of the same coin. They rose to power from the ashes of World War I and the Great Depression, stepping into a power vacuum that needed to be filled by a strong and decisive leader, with a steady hand. It may seem an unlikely story, with their radically divergent backgrounds and life stories, but necessity is the mother of invention, and these two men reinvented themselves, and gave the country what it thought it wanted. But only one delivered on most of his promises.
Hitler grew up relatively poor, and after his father died at 13, was raised by a single mother. Young Adolf was a very bad student, and did not do well in school. He was painfully average and unremarkable, and for many years, was lost and directionless. He eventually decided to be an artist, but between the ages of sixteen and nineteen, young Adolf neither worked to earn his keep, nor formally studied, but had gained an interest in politics and history. During this time he unsuccessfully applied for admission to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. He had grown up without a disciplined hand to guide him, and had lived a life so unremarkable, it was the perfect breeding ground for hate, resentment, unchecked ego, and ruthless ambition. Hitler was going to be somebody, whatever it took! He was a self-made man and had carefully crafted every aspect of himself, and his fingerprints can be seen all over the Nazi Party aesthetic and fastidious attention to detail. They are perhaps, the most carefully worded message the world has ever seen. All brilliantly branded by Adolf Hitler himself.
On the other side of the ocean, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born a scion of a very wealthy and powerful American family, fawned over and cultivated…bred…for success and future positions of power. He attended the elite institutions of Groton School and Harvard College. In 1905, he married Eleanor Roosevelt, with whom he had six children. He entered politics in 1910, serving in the New York State Senate, and then as Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President Woodrow Wilson. In 1920, Roosevelt ran for vice president alongside presidential candidate James M. Cox but the Cox/Roosevelt ticket lost to the Republican ticket of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge. Roosevelt was stricken with polio in 1921, which cost him the use of his legs and put his political career on hold for several years. Roosevelt attempted to recover from this illness, and founded a treatment center for polio patients in Warm Springs, Georgia. After returning to political life by placing Alfred E. Smith’s name into nomination at the 1924 Democratic National Convention, Roosevelt was asked by Smith to run for Governor of New York in the 1928 election. Roosevelt served as a reform governor from 1929 to 1932, and promoted the enactment of programs to combat the Great Depression that occurred during his governorship. From birth, Roosevelt had been bred to lead and succeed, but also was taught that the wealthy have an obligation to help those less fortunate, and should always be committed to making everyone’s life easier and more comfortable. This last detail is perhaps the most important in understanding the psyches of these two men. To borrow the famous trope, one was the devil on the shoulder of his country, with the sweet voice of an angel. Although far from flawless, the other was closer to an angel on his country’s shoulder, as he labored tirelessly on their behalf. One was motivated solely by personal vengeance and ego, the other by a genuine commitment to improving the conditions of his country and providing relief. (and no doubt, some vanity and legacy building as well).
Where the two men come together, is in the circumstance of despair, which made both of their respective countries desperate and willing to listen to anyone who could promise to end their nation’s agony. Hitler and FDR inherited desperate countries in the midst of cataclysmic financial despair, and at a time when former leaders were seen as weak and ineffectual and also to blame for their country’s turmoil (America: Herbert Hoover + Germany: Paul von Hindenburg). There was an historic power vacuum and it set the stage for a perfect storm scenario, allowing a strong and decisive leader to step in and save the nation. America needed a savior, just as Germany needed a Führer.
Working on both sides of the ocean, both enjoyed considerable and unprecedented power, virtually unchecked or questioned. Both countries needed a Messiah or a Moses to deliver them from their despair. They both had countries at their disposal, and both could have hypothetically gone either way. They had the power, the skill, the ironclad will, the confidence, the charisma, and most importantly, the keys to the city and mandate of the people. But that’s where their paths would split, as one man chose the path of evil and destruction, and the other chose good will and charity to provide comfort and relief to his country’s tired, poor, and huddled masses. Hitler set to the business of sowing the seeds of hatred, and convincing a country it could be powerful once again, if only it rid itself of the “Jewish Problem,” Hitler saw a defeated and vulnerable country with no self-esteem, and exploited it by flattering their vanity and praising them for the virtue of their heritage, and persuaded them to embrace their racial and cultural superiority. Finally, he convinced them to hunt down and punish their Jewish and minority neighbors, massacre them in camps, and even fight another World War all for the glory of country and racial superiority. All this was conceived and executed in less than ten years, and resulted in the deaths of millions and another catastrophic collapse of Germany.
If Hitler represents the devil on each of our shoulders, FDR is our angel, truly delivering us from despair. Both rose to power from out of the ashes of the first World War. Germany lost, and was plunged into financial ruin and widespread poveryy and misery. The country was literally hungry for a solution…any solution…the Final Solution. America had won the war, and their fates couldn’t have been any more different. Unlike Germany’s dire conditions, the United States spent the next decade enjoying unprecedented wealth and lavish indulgence, using peacetime as a celebratory Bacchanalian festival of pleasure and good times. The ‘roaring twenties’ came to a tragic and abrupt end on October 24, 1929 when the Stock Market crashed cataclysmically, and the country was thoroughly unprepared for the consequences, and found itself unable to recover. The free and unregulated ’20s had stripped away safety measures and failsafes, and provided a means for Black Tuesday to occur. The Great Crash, or the Stock Market Crash of 1929 was the most devastating stock market crash in the history of the United States, when taking into consideration the full extent and duration of its fallout. The country was plunged into economic despair, and Americans were desperate, with an unemployment rate at an unimaginable 33% and people unable to feed their families. The country was vulnerable and looking for answers. The country was so crippled and hungry, it might have done just about anything to make itself stronger. Germany was in the same place. Germans had been so desperate, they allowed themselves to be deceived by an evil and unscrupulous con man, who was so good at being bad, he convinced them to kill the innocent and help him conquer the world. Could we have done such things had FDR been a Hitler, and motivated by personal vengeance and retribution towards Jews? Could America have punished its minorities? It did. FDR managed to convince America it needed to inter its Japanese population for the safety of the American people. And we listened. We allowed it to happen, Although a gross injustice, America was spared further shame, as FDR tried hard to work in our best interests, and use whatever tools at his disposal. To solve the country’s woes, it was going to take unprecedented moves, and swift, decisive action. It was going to take a leader with enough courage to think outside the box, and deliver something so audacious, it might actually work. And he did. We call it The New Deal. Roosevelt defeated incumbent Republican president Herbert Hoover in November 1932, at the depth of the Great Depression.
Energized by his personal victory over polio, FDR used his persistent optimism and activism to renew the national spirit. In his first hundred days in office, which began March 4, 1933, Roosevelt spearheaded major legislation and issued a profusion of executive orders that instituted the New Deal—a variety of programs designed to produce relief (government jobs for the unemployed), recovery (economic growth), and reform (through regulation of Wall Street, banks and transportation). He created numerous programs to support the unemployed and farmers, and to encourage labor union growth while more closely regulating business and high finance. The repeal of Prohibition added to his popularity, helping him win reelection by a landslide in 1936. The economy improved rapidly from 1933 to 1937, and although it worsened and fluctuated afterwards, the relief was delivered, and the medicine had mostly done its work. The country was on the mend, and strong enough to breathe on its own. Then Pearl Harbor. Perhaps no one had made the connection between the two men’s similar power-grabs and sweeping reforms and legislation, but now there was no ignoring the fact that these two leaders of strong and powerful nations were now at odds, and there would only be one victor. After World War I, America had become very isolationist and pacifist, and was very wary of engaging in any conflict. The stories coming over from Europe were sad and regretable, but not urgent enough to compel the country to take up arms and join England and the rest of the Allies in opposing this madman, Adolf Hitler. And then came the “date that will live in infamy.” Some conspiracy nuts actually point to FDR and suggest he orchestrated Pearl Harbor to give Americans the motivation to join the war. The economy had slumped, and the President knew he needed more than another jobs package. Although he never shared it with us, Roosevelt knew that although lethal and repugnant, war was also very profitable. It might just be what the country needed. It was a war fought ideologically, to protect our freedoms and that of our neighbors, but also fought economically, to make America rich again and ensure our continued success.
Hitler and Roosevelt would clash on the field of battle by proxy, yet neither of them would live to see the end of the war. Yet before they died, they each effectively saw who won. FDR died unexpectedly, but the narrative and legacy were continued by his successor, Harry Truman. The end was in sight for Roosevelt, and it was now just a matter of endgame. Germany was broken and all but defeated, and had retreated back into the depths of Germany. Hitler was isolated and cut off in his bunker, as the Americans approached from the West and the Russians came in from the East. The war was won in all but over in Europe, but still stubbornly raged in the Pacific. Franklin Delano Roosevelt died suddenly on April 12, 1945, just two weeks before Hitler took his own life. FDR knew he had won. Or at least set the stage for Truman to win. Truman was left with having to make one of the hardest decisions any President can ever make: using a catastrophic weapon of mass destruction to annihilate nearly 200,000 innocent people in order to end the war and save countless other innocent lives. It was a no-win situation, and only time will decide if it was the right decision. Either way, it achieved its intended goal, and the war was ostensibly over. If Truman’s difficult choice to end life so catastrophically was hard, perhaps Hitler’s decision to end his own life was easy. Adolf Hitler was a fierce man of conviction and unwavering pride, and he would not suffer such indignity at the hands of mixed-bred and impure weaklings. There was no room for defeat, and he would never be anyone’s prisoner. Functioning as Dictator of Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler had effectively started World War II with its invasion of its neighbor, Poland, to the East. His invasion of France, England, Scandanavia, Northern Africa, and elsewhere ensured that his will was world domination, and he was willing to fight any country who stood in his way. Back at home, and in surrounding countries, Hitler had build a vast and extensive network or labor and death facilities, called ‘Concentration Camps” where his troops enacted ‘The Final Solution’ — the mass extermination of European Jewry and other undesirable races and minorities. The Nazis were responsible for exterminating at least six million Jews, and at least 6-8 million other non-Jewish minorities. There had never been any systematic slaughter of this magnitude in the world before Adolf Hitler, nor since, and that is the greatest worst legacy any man could ever have. His Holocaust would never be forgotten, nor would he. Perhaps that’s all he ever wanted: our attention.