World history is at least as old as Herodotus and Thucydides, but self-conscious “global history” is a recent development in the academy. More than a hundred books with those words in the title have been published this century, up from a handful in the prior two decades and zero before that. At their best, such studies are able to see past the limits of national histories, exploring the interconnections and flows of people, goods, ideas, and events across time and space. As the German historian Jürgen Osterhammel has put it, they can illuminate “the relationship between general developments and regional variants,” putting familiar stories in a new perspective.
Kiran Klaus Patel’s impressive new book is a good example of this trend: it considers the social welfare policies adopted in the United States during Franklin Roosevelt’s administration not as sui generis but as one expression of a broader global pattern.
How, Patel asks, did global ideas and networks affect American decisions regarding the reconstruction of democracy and capitalism? And how did these American choices then feed back into developments elsewhere? Looking at things this way reveals a great deal about a well-studied period in the past—and might help illuminate the nature of globalization not just then but now.
IT’S A SMALL WORLD AFTER ALL
Patel traces with unprecedented detail the intense international exchange and “transnational learning and linking” that shaped the Roosevelt administration’s responses to the global crisis of capitalism and democracy in the 1930s. He explored similar themes in his earlier book Soldiers of Labor, revealing startling similarities between the Reich Labor Service in Nazi Germany and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the United States. (The Nazi version was mandatory, harsher, and actively ethnonationalist, yet both emphasized discipline and symbolism, and neither did much to end mass unemployment.) His new book also focuses on policy initiatives the New Deal shared with other governments’ programs, while widening the scope of inquiry, tackling everything from how
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