I’ve been spending a lot of time in 1933. Not literally. Unlike my fictional characters, I am not a time traveler. But I’ve been reading about the Great Depression and FDR’s rise to the presidency. As always, when I dive into history, I am fascinated by the complicated interplay of events—both monumental and mundane—that form the mosaic of an era.
When FDR was inaugurated on March 4, the nation was in crisis. Thousands of banks had failed and unemployment was at 25 percent. Roosevelt’s brilliant speech called for broad executive power to combat the Great Depression and declared “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Speaking on that day, at that moment, on that topic, those words brought hope to millions. Looking back, we know that new fears–and global war–would require FDR’s continuing leadership and courage.
Here’s a sampling of what else was going on in 1933:
On January 5, construction begins on the Golden Gate Bridge. On January 30, just over a month before FDR’s inauguration, Hitler is appointed Chancellor of Germany. It is also the date of the first radio broadcast of The Lone Ranger. In February, the Reichstag is set afire. Hitler uses this as an excuse to arrest opponents without charges, dissolve political organizations, and limit the press. On February 21, Nina Simone is born.
A lot happens in March. On the 2nd, King Kong premieres. On March 3, Mount Rushmore is dedicated. On the 4th, FDR is inaugurated. He declares a “bank holiday” on March 5. On March 7, the board game Monopoly appears. On March 9, Congress begins working with FDR on the legislation of the “first hundred days.” The first fireside chat is delivered on March 12. Two days later, Quincy Jones is born. The next day Ruth Bader Ginsburg is born. On March 20, the first Nazi concentration camp, Dachau, is completed. On March 23, the Reichstag passes the Enabling Act giving Adolf Hitler absolute power. Albert Einstein renounces his German citizenship on March 28. The month ends with the establishment of the Civilian Conservation Corps on March 31.
Hitler outlaws trade unions on May 2. On May 10, book burnings are carried out throughout Germany. In Chicago, the “Century of Progress” World’s Fair opens on May 27. Mussolini’s air marshal, Italo Balbo, arrives at the fair in July with 24 flying boats that land on Lake Michigan. He receives an enthusiastic welcome. In October, the Graf Zeppelin bearing a Nazi swastika on its tail circles over the fair grounds and the city of Chicago.
On June 6 the first drive-in movie theater opens in New Jersey. In October, Germany withdraws from the League of Nations, and the New York Giants defeat the Washington Senators in the World Series. In November, Fiorello La Guardia is elected mayor of New York City. Prohibition is repealed on December 5.
What are people reading? William Butler Yeats, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf, Dashiell Hammett, Dorothy Sayers, Gertrude Stein, Erle Stanley Gardner, and Agatha Christie all publish books in 1933. The 9th and 10th Nancy Drews appear. What are people listening to? Ethel Waters, Duke Ellington, and Bing Crosby have hit songs at the top of the charts.
Jonathan Alter’s book The Defining Moment: FDR’s Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope offers a compelling look at Roosevelt’s first months as president and his role in creating “a new notion of social obligation, especially in a crisis.” You can read more about Jonathan Alter and his other books at https://jonathanalter.com/