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Causes of the 1930s Global Depression

Page history last edited by Robert W. Maloy 1 year, 11 months ago


Unemployed workers, Scotland, 1930

Unemployed workers, Scotland, 1930


World History Topics 


Overview of the Great Depression

Restrictive Monetary Policies

Unemployment and Inflation

Political Instability

The influence of the ideas of John Maynard Keynes, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, and Milton Friedman



 United States History topics


The Great Depression in the United States


  • Shantytowns and Hoovervilles

Race and Gender During the Great Depression


  • How the New Deal Left Out African Americans


Women and the Great Depression



  • Lorena Alice Hickok


Cross-Link: Impacts of the Great Depression and the New Deal



The Great Depression, starting in 1929, was a global economic depression that harmed millions of people. Within the United States, around 25% of citizens, and around 50% of African Americans lost their jobs. The interwar period between World War I and World War II created many issues for the working class.


In the United States, President Hoover refused to help those losing their jobs and homes. He believed the federal government should not give handouts to citizens, believing they would become dependent on the government. As a result, thousands of unemployed citizens within cities would move to unsanitary areas and create shantytowns. Jokingly referred to as “Hoovervilles,” these towns were made primarily of cardboard and paper. Newspapers became the “Hoover blanket” for those sleeping outside.


FDR’s election in 1932 brought hope to Americans, as he proposed establishing the New Deal. The Great Depression would end in 1939, just as the European side of World War II was beginning to erupt between Germany and Britain (Claire Gagnon, May 2022).



Focus Question: What were the various causes and consequences of the global depression of the 1930's and how did governments and economists respond?


Overview of the Great Depression

The Great Depression in Global Perspective from Digital History

For an excellent overview of the economics of the time, see the book Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed (Penguin Books, 2009).


Stories for the Great Depression with pictures in a video format from the National Archives


  • Link here for another timeline made with TimeToast


To view photographs of what life was like during The Great Depression, click here


This is a government database filled with photos and other documents about the Great Depression.



 Multimedia Resources



Firemen work on the burning Reichstag Building, February, 1933

Firemen work on the burning Reichstag Building, February, 1933



  • The Great Depression Rap: This video is a fun song students can listen to and learn about the Great Depression. It describes the lead up to to the Depression (the Roaring 20s) and events within the 1930s.    





Restrictive Monetary Policies


The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1920) by John Maynard Keynes where the economist argued that heavy reparations against Germany would cripple not only the German, but all European economies.

Modern central banking dates back to the aftermath of great depression of the 1930s.


  • Governments, led by the economic thinking of John Maynard Keynes, realized that collapsing money supply and credit availability greatly contributed to the savagery of this depression.


  • This realization that money supply affected economic activity led to active government attempts to influence money supply through "monetary policy." 


  • Nations created central banks to establish "monetary authority." This meant that rather than accepting whatever happened to the money supply, they would actively try to influence the amount of money available. This would influence credit creation and the overall level of economic activity.


  • Modern monetary policy does not involve gold to a great extent. In 1968, the United States rescinded its promise to pay in gold and effectively removed itself from the "gold standard."


  • Since then, it has been the job of the Federal Reserve to control the amount of money and credit in the U.S. economy. 


  • In doing this, it wants to maintain the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar and its comparative worth to other currencies. This might sound easy, but it is a complex task in an information age where huge amounts of money travels in electronic signals in microseconds around the world.


Men in the UK walking around the city with aprons asking for work, 1930s.

Japanese Expansionism

Restrictive monetary policies that resulted from the global economic depression during the interwar years of 1919-1939 led countries to use military force to capture resources that would aid in economic growth in a time of hardship.


  • In Japan during the pre-1850's they had been largely isolated from the rest of the World. Commodore Matthew Perry led a voyage of the "Black Ships" in 1854 to induce the Opening of Japan to trade with the United States. 


  • The Japanese thus was transformed from an isolationist economy to an economy more reliant on the world market. The Japanese economy industrialized and with this they needed access to raw materials like coal, iron ore, tin, copper, rubber and petroleum. They acquired a large portion of these materials from the United States and Europe. 


  • The problem that emerged was once the United States and Europe became more isolationist to try and fix their economic problems Japan lacked access to much needed resources. 


  • Their response was the invasion of many territories that possessed these resources. So the rise of a militarized and expansionist Japan was out of the need to acquire resources for an economic system that the United States forced on them in 1854.


Unemployment and Inflation

The stock market crash was just the first dramatic phase of a prolonged economic collapse.


  • Conditions continued to worsen for the next three years, as the confident, optimistic attitudes of the 1920s gave way to a sense of defeat and despair.


  • Stock prices continued to decline, and by late 1932 they were only about 20 percent of what they had been before the crash. With little consumer demand for products, hundreds of factories and mills closed and the output of American manufacturing plants was cut almost in half from 1929 to 1932.


  • Unemployment in those three years soared from 3.2 percent to 24.9 percent, leaving more than 15 million Americans out of work. Some remained unemployed for years; those who had jobs faced major wage cuts, and many people could find only part-time work. Jobless men sold apples and shined shoes to earn a little money.


  • A simple commonly used definition of the word inflation is simply "an increase in the price you pay or a decline in the purchasing power of money." In other words, price inflation is when prices get higher or it takes more money to buy the same items as before. Inflation is measured by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the United States using the Consumer Price Index.


  • Falls in prices--deflation--during the Depression set in motion contractions in production which triggered additional falls in prices. With prices falling at ten percent per year, investors could calculate that they would earn less profit investing at the time than delaying investment until the next year when their dollars would stretch ten percent further. Banking panics and the collapse of the world monetary system cast doubt on everyone's credit and reinforced the belief that now was a time to watch and wait. The slide into the Depression, with increasing unemployment, falling production, and falling prices, continued throughout Herbert Hoover's Presidential term.


  • There is no fully satisfactory explanation of why the Depression happened when it did. If such depressions were always a possibility in an unregulated capitalist economy, why weren't there two, three, many Great Depressions in the years before World War II.


  • Economists Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz argued that the Depression was the consequence of an incredible sequence of blunders in monetary policy. But those controlling policy during the early 1930s thought they were following the same gold-standard rules of conduct as their predecessors.


For more see The Return of Depression Economics and the Crisis of 2008 by Paul Krugman (W. W. Norton, 2009). 

Click here to view both global maps and maps of the United States; portraying the changes in government spending,changes in unemployment, the effect of the depression on Europe, the effect on exports, and more during the 1920's and '30's.

Political Instability


The economic troubles of the 1930s were worldwide in scope and effect. Economic instability led to political instability in many parts of the world. Political chaos, in turn, gave rise to dictatorial regimes such as Adolf Hitler's in Germany and Emperor Hirohito's military in Japan. (Totalitarian regimes in the Soviet Union and Italy predated the depression.) These regimes pushed the world ever-closer to war in the 1930s.

When WWII finally broke out in both Europe and Asia, the U.S. tried to avoid being drawn into the conflict. When Japan attacked the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941, the U.S. found itself in the war it had sought to avoid for more than two years. Mobilizing the economy for world war finally cured the depression. Millions of men and women joined the armed forces, and even larger numbers went to work in well-paying defense jobs. World War II affected the world and the United States profoundly; it continues to influence us even today.

Germany during the Great Depression.

War Guilt Clause included in the Treaty of Versailles put the entirety of the blame of World War I upon Germany and its allies. 

  • Thus Germany was forced to pay tremendously high reparations for damages inflicted upon their enemies. Germany could not afford to pay these extraordinarily high reparations and began to print more money in order to finance the debts they were forced to pay after World War I.
    • Economists like John Maynard Keyes recognized the detrimental effects this would have on the global economy. 


  • With the global economy struggling because the currency of Germany was depreciating so rapidly the Dawes Plan sought to reform the reparations on Germany. This likely helped aid in the fixing of German hyperinflation but ripples would be felt throughout the world do to the reparations already enforced. 
    • This created a context where totalitarian leader Adolf Hitler to gain control of Germany and keep control dispute his extreme policies. With most Germans opposed to the Weimar Republic allowing this injustice being forced onto the people of Germany by agreeing to the Treaty of Versailles a new leader who opposed the Weimar leadership gained vast support.

For an overview of the Rise of Fascism and how economic and political instability explains why citizens followed them.

FDR "Declares War on the Great Depression"

  • Interact with FDR's actual Inaugural Address from 1933.
  • Discusses the "psychology of the Great Depression"
  • Explains his plan to expand the Federal Government to end the Great Depression


For a Learning Plan for Worldwide Depression and the Rise of Totalitarian Governments

Lesson Plan for student game: Stimulating the Economy


Great Depression in other countries



Life of the farmers on farms during the Great Depression, 1935 

The Great Depression in the United States


A Depression-Era Anthem For Our Times

The new consumer-oriented lifestyle of the 1920s led Americans of all income brackets to spend heavily. Consequently, this increased consumption spurred business growth, resulting in great profits for corporations and corporate leaders. The growth in company profits did not greatly effect workers' wages, however.

A great disparity grew between upper and lower classes of society. The top .1% of the U.S. population represented the total income equivalent to the bottom 42%. Nevertheless, people continued to spend money. A new age had arrived, and people wanted to keep up with the new styles of the time. This led people to take out huge sums of credit from banks, a new phenomenon.

Ultimately, massive debts incurred which contributed to a collapse of the Stock Market.

To look at the social consequences of the Great Depression in the United States, check out Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, by Studs Terkel. As indicated by the title, this is an oral history that focuses on the perceptions of individuals who lived through the events, from all different backgrounds.


Man serving soup to a line of men at a Volunteers of America soup kitchen, 1936


Agricultural debt following WWI

Read the coverage from The New York Times at Looking Back at the Crash of '29.

Not only were Americans falling in debt, but other nations owed the U.S. money as well. WWI left European countries ravaged and burdened by poor economies. They began getting huge loans from the U.S. that many nations were unable to pay back completely. Similar to domestic consumer debt, this also helped precipitate the economic crash. In sum, the U.S. was loaning out a vast amount of money that people and countries were unable to pay back. U.S citizens had false hope in the flourishing times of the "roaring 1920s." The stock market had been climbing rapidly, so people continued to invest in it. Even people of modest to low incomes put a good percentage of their wealth into the market. This greatly contributed to the downturn of the economy when the market crashed in 19291).

Click here to read a lecture outlining the economic environment of the 1920s in the U.S. from Professor DeLong at University of California Berkeley


Hoovervilles and Shantytowns


 Images of "Hoovervilles" from across the nation.




Many families were evicted from their houses between 1929 and 1939. With this, families resorted to building their own houses from scrap metal, cardboard, stone, and thin wooden boards. In extreme cases, people would dig holes in the ground and cover them with cardboard. These homes were crowded together in areas of cities across the nation. Shantytowns, or more jokingly called "Hoovervilles" after President Hoover, had high populations of unemployed, impoverished, and malnourished families. 


Because of the poor conditions, illnesses spread quickly amongst these towns. There were no bathrooms or clean drinking water. With cramped, unclean homes, disease spread quickly. 


Sources for more information on Hoovervilles:

Great Depression: Hoovervilles


 Ducksters: The Great Depression: Hoovervilles


YouTube: Hoovervilles


Interactive websites for Hoovervilles:

Google Maps: The Great Depression: Seattle

Google Maps created an interactive map of Seattle, Washington from the Great Depression. This interactive map allows students to click on parts of the city and view images of shantytowns/Hoovervilles from the 1930s. 

Quiz: Hoovervilles 

This is a fun quiz for students to take regarding Hoovervilles. 


 Discussion Questions for Hoovervilles:


1. Why were people living in houses constructed of used lumber, scrap metal, and even cardboard? What basic comforts did they lack?


2. Why were these communities referred to as Hoovervilles?


FDR and the New Deal


Franklin D. Roosevelt's Inaugural Address, 1933: "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." 

FDR's Presidential Address, 1933

This inaugural address directed Americans concerns about the Great Depression. FDR hoped to inspire Americans through this speech. 


Franklin D. Roosevelt's First Fireside Chat


Here is a link to audio from the first Fireside Chat.

Here is a website called the New Deal Network containing various different aspects as a result of FDR's New Deal. For example there are links for "The Great Depression and the Arts" or a "New Deal Document Library"

New Deal Crash Course.

This link from the Federal Registry for Educational Excellence provides different teaching lessons on the Great Depression. You can also type in other history topics too.

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis offers excellent lesson plans for teaching the causes and effects of the Great Depression in the United States.

Race and the Great Depression


Race and Gender during the Great Depression


  Women during the Great Depression



Mexican-American Women in California, 1933

Mexican women in California, 1933.


Women and the Depression                                                                                                                                                                                             


How the Great Depression Affected Working Women from History Channel. 



NPR podcast that describes the adversity women faced with during the Depression   



Women's Place in the Workforce During the Great Depression



An African American Family during the Great Depression

Black Americans, crucial workers in crises, emerge worse off – not better


Learn about race relations during the Great Depression here.








                                                                                                                                                                                                       Mary McLeod Bethune

Mary McLeod BethuneQuestions to Consider:


  • How did consumer culture influence the need for more than one income for families?
  • Can you spot similarities and differences between men's and women's experiences during the Great Depression?
  • What about similarities and differences between women of different racial/cultural backgrounds?

Social and Cultural Effects of the Great Depression

  • Mass migration--fleeing the Midwest because of the Dust Bowl
  • Increasing crime rate
  • Demographic changes: "poor man's divorce" (abandonment)
  • Trends in Pop Culture: Frankenstein, Gone With the Wind

Mary McLeod Bethune

  • Head of negro affairs in the National Youth Administration under FDR
  • named one of the 50 most influential women in America
  • created unofficial black cabinet
  • her work as an educator lead her to become an influential political activist

Lorena Alice Hickok

  • influential journalist during the Great Depression and New Deal
  • close friend to Eleanor Roosevelt
  • gained unprecedented power as a woman in the field of journalism
  • became executive secretary of the Women's Division of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 1940


Quiz Question  


Which of the following is considered to be a major underlying cause for the Great Depression? 


A) Not enough people were buying items in the 1920s

B) Massive consumerism in the 1920s

C) WWI left the US economy devastated

D) The US was forced to pay reparations after WWI


Answer B

The massive consumerism movement in the US during the 1920s led to people relying on bank credit and loans rather than a stable savings. This caused the banks to collapse, thus making the stock market crash and the massive loss of jobs nationwide.



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