Great Depression

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The Great Depression is the name given to the severe economic crisis in the USA that began on October 24, 1929 with " Black Thursday " and dominated the 1930s. It was part or origin of the global economic crisis , in English the term is also used synonymously for it.

This article deals with the political, cultural and social development of the USA during the time of the Great Depression (1929–1941). Detailed information on the causes and economic consequences of the crisis, as well as attempts to overcome them, can be found in the article Great Depression .


The USA experienced the 1920s as a time of great economic prosperity . Under the presidency of Republican Calvin Coolidge , unregulated capitalism , self-regulation, and the so-called “ laissez-faire ” (i.e., non-interfering with the economy) policies became definitive. The 1928 elections won Herbert Hoover with a promise to continue in this way and so the continuance of the " prosperity secure."


In the 1920s, there was a significant expansion in the production of consumer goods and agricultural products in the USA. At the same time there was a very unequal distribution of wealth ; the majority of the population had too little wealth to create a sufficient sales market with their own financial means. The expansion of the consumer goods industry was based in part on the fact that many US citizens financed some of their consumption through credit. While consumer loans were $ 100 million in 1919, that figure rose to over $ 7 billion by 1929. The US stock market crash in October 1929 ( Black Thursday ) is commonly seen as the trigger for the Great Depression . The cause was unbridled speculation that led to a speculative bubble . In addition, there were frauds such as falsification of balance sheets and chain deals (see also pyramid scheme ). With the stock market crash, confidence in the economy began to wane. Banks were more cautious about lending, consumers became more hesitant and spent less, so companies cut production and laid off workers. The Federal Reserve raised interest rates. Many banks were too careless in lending and went bankrupt. In addition, the banking system was destabilized by bank runs . With the collapse of the banking system, it became increasingly difficult for businesses and consumers to get credit. This developed into an economic downward spiral that led to the economic depression .

The crisis also affected Germany : Germany's solvency was severely affected by the withdrawal of short-term American capital. There was a worldwide recession ( world economic crisis ). The world economy only returned to the 1929 level in indicators such as industrial production , share prices and the global gross national product during the Second World War .

For economic details see the article Great Depression .


Herbert Hoover, successor to President Calvin Coolidge, was felt by broad sections of the population to be too weak and too indecisive to face the massive economic and social problems caused by the Great Depression. The Democratic candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt won the 1932 presidential election . He was to become one of the most important presidents of the United States. Until his death in 1945, he was re-elected three times. To counter the crisis, he adopted two so-called " New Deal " programs.

Since stock market speculation and unbridled capitalism were blamed by the population for the crisis, there was general distrust of the big corporations. The widespread social misery also led to a radicalization of US society. Alternative social ideals and mass movements were very popular during this time: The Communist Party of the USA achieved its greatest popularity; There were also influential right-wing and fascist organizations such as the Union Party of Father Coughlin . The society was determined, however, by a " left turn", which was expressed in a socially oriented government policy (compare social ), but also in the social movements of the Popular Front .


Impoverished people in front of an empty shop in San Francisco , California , photo by Dorothea Lange , 1935

When the economy collapsed in 1932, around 25% of all Americans were unemployed, or around 15 million people; before the economic crisis, unemployment was 9%. Most of them worked in poorly paid, precarious jobs to keep themselves and their families afloat: average wages fell by 60%. Farm income had fallen by 50%.

Within the framework of the New Deal, Roosevelt quickly promoted social reforms which, although long implemented in Europe , were revolutionary for the USA. At the heart of the social reforms is the Social Security Act of 1935, which introduced old-age, unemployment and accident insurance that was paid for by workers and employers.

The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was passed by Congress in 1933 to ease the situation for farmers, which had already deteriorated in the 1920s.

As part of the First New Deal , there were “job creation schemes”, first under the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and then under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) of the Second New Deal . The latter in particular had the primary aim of removing the unemployed from among those receiving state social assistance. Not only were public buildings, bridges, airports and roads built, but cultural projects were also promoted. So there was the Federal Theater Project (" Federal Theater Project "), the Federal Art Project (" Federal Art Project ") and the Federal Writers' Project (" Federal Writer Project ").

Left-wing critics in particular criticized the fact that many of the reforms were only half-hearted and did not go far enough. To date, there is no social network in the USA that conforms to European standards.


In response to the economic crisis, a strongly socially critical and politicized culture developed, which was reflected in literature, photography, film, theater, painting and music. Still considered John Steinbeck's novel " The Grapes of Wrath " ( "The Grapes of Wrath" in 1939; filmed 1940) as a symbol of the Great Depression, although it strongly attacked time of its construction because of its social criticism and in California has even been temporarily banned. Dorothea Lange's photographs reflected the misery of the unemployed and migrants from the Dust Bowl . Folk singer Woody Guthrie became a national legend with his songs.

Numerous careers of cultural workers who had moved in the left-wing political spectrum in the 1930s / 40s fell victim to the “ communist hunt ” of the 1950s because they were associated with the Communist Party. They were interrogated and received some direct and some indirect professional bans (e.g. in the form of boycotts by the film industry).

On the other hand, the mass entertainment also focused on distraction in order to be able to forget the emergency for at least a moment. Four-year-old Shirley Temple became a movie star in 1932, which dominated the decade. Also musicals were very popular. However, these often had hidden socially critical allusions.

Important cultural workers of this time

See also


  • Ben Bernanke: Essays on the Great Depression. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ 2000, ISBN 0-691-01698-4 (English).
  • Michael A. Bernstein: The Great Depression: Delayed Recovery and Economic Change in America, 1929-1939. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1989, ISBN 978-0-521-37985-4 .
  • Kenneth J. Bindas: Modernity and the Great Depression: The Transformation of American Society, 1930-1941 . University Press of Kansas, Lawrence 2017, ISBN 978-0-7006-2400-3 .
  • Michael Denning: The Cultural Front. The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century , London 1996. ISBN 1-85984-815-X (English).
  • Robert S. McElvaine: The Great Depression. America 1929-1941 , Toronto 1984. ISBN 0-8129-1061-3 (English).
  • David Kennedy: Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 , Oxford University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-9650868-9-5 (English).
  • Charles P. Kindleberger : The World in Depression . Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1987 (expanded edition), ISBN 0-14-022681-8 . German translation: Die Weltwirtschaftskrise , dtv, Munich 1984 (3rd edition), ISBN 3-423-04124-2 ; NA: Die Weltwirtschaftskrise 1929–1939 , Finanzbuch, Munich 2010, ISBN 978-3-89879-614-9 .
  • Peter Temin: Lessons from the Great Depression. , Cambridge: MIT Press, 1989. ISBN 0-262-26119-7 (English).
  • Abigail Trollinger: Becoming Entitled: Relief, Unemployment, and Reform during the Great Depression. Temple University Press, Philadelphia 2020, ISBN 978-1-4399-1953-8 .

Web links

Commons : Great Depression  - Collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Berkin, Miller, Cherny, Gormly, Making America, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008, ISBN 978-0-618-98065-9 , pp. 721, 722.