Days of shock and awe, horror and fear
Seventy years ago this month, America's new leader summed up Germany's new leader. "Hitler," Franklin D. Roosevelt told a White House visitor, "is a madman."
But Adolf Hitler's mental health placed far down the list of presidential concerns in the spring of 1933. Roosevelt was flooding Congress with proposals to rescue America from the Great Depression. For what would be known as the "Hundred Days," he and a desperate Congress halted a banking panic, created the nation's biggest public works program, directed billions of dollars for relief to the jobless, and invented a host of institutions restructuring vast sectors of the economy, from Wall Street to the Corn Belt. America, in the words of Stanford historian David Kennedy, was "infused with Roosevelt's own contagious optimism and hope."
At the same time in Berlin, Hitler was infusing the spirit of Germany with a potent mix of fear and hate. During his early weeks as chancellor, Nazis burned the Reichstag and blamed Jews and Communists--an excuse for suspending civil liberties and letting brownshirted gangs roam the streets, beating and sometimes killing.
In March, when FDR became president, the German parliament passed the "Law for Terminating the Suffering of People and Nation," five paragraphs in which it surrendered to Hitler its power to make laws. Days later he took control of Germany's state governments and installed restrictions on Jews, denying them government jobs and curbing their admission to universities. The next month, Hitler declared May Day a paid holiday, the "Day of National Labor," to be celebrated "throughout the centuries." But the next day saw labor union offices across Germany occupied, union funds seized, the unions dissolved, their leaders arrested.
Next came a scene not witnessed since the Middle Ages. At a Berlin bonfire, thousands of students cheered the destruction of 20,000 books out of sync with Nazi thought. Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels saluted them for "committing the evil spirit of the past to the flames."
Time to act. Days later, Hitler called a special legislative session to hear a report on foreign affairs. Many outsiders, including Roosevelt, feared the dictator might repudiate the Versailles Treaty that ended World War I and thus put Europe on the brink of another war. FDR decided to act. All countries, he declared, should pledge to disarm and vow to send no armed force across their borders. "The way to disarm is to disarm," he told Congress. "The way to prevent invasion is to make it impossible." The next day, Hitler told the Reichstag that war is "unlimited madness." Germany, he said, could support "the American president's magnanimous proposal." Roosevelt heard Hitler's speech on the radio and smiled. "I think I have averted a war," he said.
In truth, Hitler never had the slightest desire for a 1933 war. He did, however, like the notion that everyone else should disarm. As for Germany, he had been secretly rearming it for several weeks in hopes it would be ready for a conflict in five years.
FDR's proposal went nowhere. France refused to trust Hitler's naked words. In the autumn of '33, Hitler withdrew from the League of Nations and from disarmament talks. In 1935, he renounced Versailles's disarmament clauses, revealed the existence of a secretly built air force, and ordered the conscription of a half-million-man army. In 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and he was ready for war.
This is the fourth in a series of monthly reports marking the 70th anniversary of U.S. News.
This story appears in the April 28, 2003 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.