Election years, by definition, are pivotal moments in history. So it is that every four years, leaders summon partisans to the polls with assurances this will be the “most important election in American history,” “most important in a generation,” etc., with always the possibility their claims are true. Some electoral clashes obviously are, in fact, more important than others; and aided by hindsight, we can look back and see which ones mattered most, as determined largely by the personalities and electoral seasons in play.
There is no better occasion than this presidential-election year to read David Pietrusza’s treatment of an election cycle that we know was inordinately consequential. His 1932: The Rise of Hitler and FDR—Two Tales of Politics, Betrayal, and Unlikely Destiny is not directly instructive, as another world war does not seem in the offing anytime soon. Still, as in that dark era, great economic and social dislocations have shattered traditional American optimism about the future and the overall trajectory of the country. To capture the era and its lessons, Pietrusza uses the venerable literary device of devoting a book to a key election and the inevitable collision of outsized personages such an event entails (he also wrote a well-received book on the circumstances that brought together Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy in the 1960 election).
Pietrusza does an excellent job of dynamically weaving together, in a single book, the essential life narratives of two of the titanic figures of the twentieth century. He notes how Franklin Roosevelt was deflected from the practice of law—where he specialized, according to his business card, in liquor cases and “chloroforming small dogs”—into a stratospheric political career, thanks in large measure to the famous trail blazed by his fifth cousin, Theodore Roosevelt. Not coincidentally, Democratic leaders tapped Roosevelt with appointments to the very jobs the still-popular TR once held: Assistant Secretary of the Navy, then vice-presidential nominee of their party. While Roosevelt lost the first time he appeared on a national ticket, his golden surname surely was the difference that subsequently allowed him, by the slimmest of margins, to be elected governor of New York in 1928, a year when Democrats were being massacred nationally.
Yet, it was Roosevelt’s superb political and personal skills that carried him to the next level. Years after Roosevelt assembled his group of policy advisers remembered as the “Brains Trust,” many remembered him unkindly as “devious,” and questioned his ultimate loyalty both to those who served him and “liberal progressivism” itself. None of this would matter. His shrewd judgment of people and the times, mellifluous speaking skills, amiable manner and simple charm were assets that, when sharpened and deployed, made him an obvious political winner. After trouncing his Republican opponent in his 1930 reelection for governor, Roosevelt stood out as “simply the party’s best, most electable candidate” for president two years later.
To ensure this ascent, Roosevelt compromised with the Tammany Hall machine that still largely ran New York. And it is here, rising from this swamp, where we see a succession of fascinating personalities who gave indispensable help to Roosevelt’s rise. There is New York Governor Al Smith, nominated for the presidency at the 1924 Democratic convention by Roosevelt himself, who famously branded Smith the “Happy Warrior.” After Roosevelt succeeded Smith as governor, he quickly went from being Smith’s protégé to the cynosure of his envious wrath. Smith would fight furiously and incongruously to deny Roosevelt the 1932 Democratic nomination for president.
Other Roosevelt patrons were even less admirable. Roosevelt was constrained to fend off investigations and accusations against James J. “Gentleman Jimmy” Walker, the scandal-tarred mayor of New York. Another flamboyant FDR wingman, James Michael Curley, would later serve five months of his mayoralty of Boston in a federal prison cell for mail fraud. Denied a spot in the Massachusetts delegation to the 1932 Democratic convention, Curley somehow finagled election to the convention as a delegate from Puerto Rico, and worked to helped win over support for Roosevelt from backers of Al Smith. Also in Roosevelt’s corner was “Ten Percent Tony” Cermak, mayor of Chicago. He would be felled by an assassin’s bullet the following year at a public event alongside Roosevelt in Miami, a bullet whose aim is still unclear (presidential assassination or underworld retribution against Cermak remain dueling theories for the assault).
Juxtaposition with FDR reveals Adolf Hitler as, among other things, a leader with a very different, if firm, north star guiding him. Pietrusza begins by echoing the lamentations of Hitler biographers everywhere: “How might we understand this man?” He urges the reader to “not even pretend to fathom or explain him . . . Let us merely narrate what we can—and hope for the best.” Within these reasonable restraints, Pietrusza adds up the qualities that propelled Hitler: a combination of such things as cunning, tenacity and magnetic speaking skills honed through much practice. There were as well other, simply indescribable traits, qualities which, among their other consequences, would drive two of his love interests to suicide. The nation he ruled would follow suit.
Unlike the attractive and gregarious Roosevelt, Hitler was a tough political sell. When given the up-or-down chance to vote for the man, the German people repeatedly rejected him. This they did in two consecutive presidential elections in 1932 (the second was a run-off election). But Hitler cultivated a movement and a National Socialist Party that steadily gained popular support in the horrific economic conditions of the Depression. As 1932 ended with the German government paralyzed, Paul von Hindenburg, the octogenarian German president and former World War One hero, found himself running out of political options for forming a government. The beloved general despised the former corporal Hitler, whom he had just defeated in that year’s presidential elections. He feared and deplored the gangster tactics already being used by the Nazis to intimidate opponents. But Hindenburg could not deny the growing support the Nazis enjoyed as a political bloc.
In January 1933, the Nazis trumpeted the “miracle of Lippe.” A lopsided National Socialist electoral victory in this small German jurisdiction was fodder for their insistence on a greater role in the national government. Infighting and intrigue left Hindenburg with a shrinking list of available candidates from which to select the next chancellor of a fracturing Weimar Republic. Worn out and nearing death, Hindenburg folded.
As Hitler met with Hindenburg, his henchmen waited to see if his time, and theirs, had arrived. “We shall be able to judge by his face if the interview was happy,” Joseph Goebbels predicted. Then, “Hitler emerged, silent, tears swelling his once-blind eyes. Goebbels knew the answer—Adolf Hitler was chancellor of Germany.” Thousands of storm troopers, SS men, Hitler youth and others marched in celebration in a massive, six-hour, torch-lit ceremony at the Brandenburg Gate, foreshadowing the darkness that was just starting to befall the nation and the globe.
The two leaders came to their respective positions by very different routes. Roosevelt rode the coattails of his distant cousin, made his peace with Tammany Hall, and cultivated his great natural advantages to become a colossal world figure, and the only president elected four times. To impose his unique brand of evil, Hitler exploited brazenly the cauldron of chaos that was Weimar Germany. The two leaders would clash a few years later in a global conflagration in which the better man won, and with him the world.
Andrew Thomas is a Fellow with the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research and Director of the Empower the States Project. A graduate of Harvard Law School, Thomas was twice elected Maricopa County Attorney, district attorney for greater Phoenix, Arizona. He is the author of four books, including Clarence Thomas: A Biography and The People v. Harvard Law: How America’s Oldest Law School Turned Its Back on Free Speech.