The Great Depression was a period of economic contraction between 1929 and the start of the Second World War. The trigger for the Great Depression was the Wall Street Crash of October 1929; this led to a collapse in confidence, bank losses and an unprecedented fall in output, spending and a rise in unemployment. The crash originated in the US, but soon spread to all major economies. The economic disaster and mass unemployment caused political upheaval across the globe. Most notably, the Great Depression was an important factor in the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party in Germany. In the US, Roosevelt’s New Deal began to minimise the effects of the depression, but many people continued to experience economic and social hardship.
People of the Great Depression
Herbert Hoover (1874 – 1964) Hoover served as President from 1929 to 1933. He had the misfortune to witness the start of the Great Depression in the first year of his presidency. However, as output fell and unemployment rose, he appeared unsure of what, if anything he could do to rectify the situation. He raised taxes and reluctantly approved the Smoot-Hawley tariffs – both policies reduced spending and trade, exacerbating the initial downturn. Illustrating Hoover’s unpopularity and blame for the Great Depression the shanty towns of unemployed which sprang up during the Great Depression were termed ‘Hoovervilles.’
Franklin D Roosevelt (1882–1945) Roosevelt was elected the US President in 1932 with a promise to do something about the economic impact of the Great Depression. He expanded the role of the Federal Government and increased spending on public works to try and provide unemployment. His ‘fireside chats’ on the radio offered a glimmer of hope and stability to a nation shocked by the extent of the economic downturn.
John Maynard Keynes (1883 – 1946) Keynes was one of the most influential economists of the Twentieth Century. The Great Depression left classical economists stumped as faith in free markets appeared to be misplaced. Keynes saw the Great Depression as a trigger to create a new way of economic thinking. Keynes advocated government intervention to kickstart economies in a slump. He was mostly ignored in the 1930s, but his General Theory (1936) laid the foundations of Keynesian economics and a new branch of macroeconomics.
Fredrich Hayek (1899 – 1992) Austrian / British economist, LSE and Chicago University. Along with Ludwig Von Mises, Hayek took an opposite view to Keynes arguing that government intervention in the economy only aggravated the problem. The Austrian school of economics advocated a ‘liquidationist’ approach – allowing banks to fail and allowing markets to correct themselves. Milton Friedman was later critical of this ‘do nothing’ approach.
Irving Fisher (1867 – 1947) American neo-classical economist. Fisher worked on a model of debt deflation for explaining the great depression and the bursting of a credit bubble. Fisher was one of the first ‘celebrity’ economists. However, his reputation suffered from his misplaced prediction that the stock market had reached a ‘permanently high plateau’ – just before the Wall Street Crash.
Andrew Mellon (1855 – 1937) US Secretary of the Treasury 1921-31. Mellon was a key figure in the US economy during the 1920s. He reformed the tax system, cutting income and corporation tax and seeking to reduce the federal debt. His policies were a factor in the 1920s boom. After the crash of 1929, his measures to halt the Great Depression were ineffective and only exacerbated the economic downturn.
Eleanor Roosevelt (1884–1962) Wife and political aide of American president F.D.Roosevelt. Roosevelt was an active First Lady, giving speeches, writing a column and meeting with the unemployed. She helped to reassure workers that the Roosevelt administration was committed to trying to solve their plight. In 1933, she defused a situation with the Bonus Army – a situation Hoover had responded to by sending in the army. Roosevelt was also sympathetic to civil rights for African-Americans and other minorities.
Charles Coughlin (1891-1979) A Catholic Priest who was an influential figure in American media. His radio broadcasts were widely listened to. Initially, he supported Roosevelt’s New Deal, but during the 1930s became increasingly polemic – criticising Roosevelt’s links to big business. He was fiercely anti-communist and increasingly supportive of nationalism – expressing sympathy for aspects of Hitler and Mussolini. His perceived anti-semitism and sympathy for extreme nationalism caused national broadcasters to drop him, but he continued with a self-funding radio station. His strident tone was a forerunner of later ‘radio shock jocks.’
Huey Long (1893 – 1935) Long was a firebrand, populist senator from Louisville. He was one of the few senators to criticise Roosevelt’s New Deal for being too conservative. Long wanted a new policy called “Share our wealth” to limit the wealth of individuals and share among the poor to deal with the effects of the Great Depression. An outspoken character, Long was effective in increasing state spending on education, healthcare and raising rates of voter registration through eliminating the Poll tax. He was assassinated in 1935.
Fritz Julius Kuhn. (1896 – 1951) American German who led the German-American Bund party. He expressed support for Hitler and on an anti-semitic, anticommunist, nationalist platform sought to attract followers in a similar style to Hitler. His outreach peaked in 1939 when he attracted 20,000 people to a rally in Madison Square, New York. However, his rallies attracted violent protests, and he was investigated for tax fraud. Later exiled to Germany, he died in a German prison shortly after the end of the Second World War.
John Steinbeck (1902–1968) American writer who captured the social change experienced in the US around the time of the Great Depression. Famous works include Of Mice and Men (1937), The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and East of Eden (1952). These books captured the grim economic realities of the Great Depression and vividly captured the harsh economic realities faced by low-income workers.
Dorothy Lange (1895 – 1965) Lange was a documentary photographer who is best known for her work during the Great Depression to document the effects on workers and the unemployed. Working for the FSA, she documented the plight of migrant workers. Her photos, such as her iconic 1936 photo ‘migrant mother’ was widely publicised and had a significant effect on public opinion.
Babe Ruth (1895-1948) In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Babe Ruth, was at the height of his powers. He transformed the sport of baseball (struggling from the Black Sox scandal), and set numerous baseball records for big hitting. His sporting prowess and cheerful character gave hope to millions of fans during the Great Depression.
Katharine Hepburn (1907 – 2003) American actress. Hepburn starred in many films including The African Queen (1951) The Rainmaker (1956) and On Golden Pond (1981) and won multiple Academy Awards for her roles. Hepburn’s independence of mind and assertiveness helped redefine women’s roles in Hollywood and post-war America.
- Causes of the Great Depression – at Economics Help
Roaring Twenties – ‘Jazz Era’ (1920-1929) The Roaring Twenties was a period of economic expansion and social change. New styles of music, dance and dress. Including Calvin Coolidge, Louis Armstrong, Al Capone and Coco Chanel.
Inter-war era (1918 to 1939) A period of peace in between the two world wars. Characterised by an economic boom and bust, and the growth of polarising ideologies. Includes; Hitler, Churchill, Gandhi, Roosevelt and Mussolini.
People of the Twentieth Century (1901–2000) Famous people of the turbulent century. Including Lenin, Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt and Thatcher.