Lessons from the Past: Postwar German and European Reconstruction and the Rebuilding of Post-Katrina New Orleans and the Gulf Coast

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Mr. Bischof has published on the Marshall Plan in Austria and Germany. He is the chair of the History Department and director of CenterAustria at the University of New Orleans and was the principal consultant to the National D-Day Museum in the conception of this symposium, which was organized in conjunction with Allan Millett and the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at UNO.

The National D-Day Museum -- on the occasion of the festive opening of its new learning center, the E.J. Ourso Discovery Hall – organized a one-day symposium on the topic of “Lessons from the Past for the Rebuilding of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast: The Marshall Plan and the Reconstruction of Postwar Europe.” Nationally and internationally renowned scholars of the Marshall Plan debated with a member of the Governor Kathleen Blanco’s “Louisiana Recovery Authority.” What can we learn from the reconstruction of Germany and Western Europe after a man made major disaster for the recovery of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after the biggest natural disaster in American history? While a lively audience of New Orleansians asked many pointed questions, none of the 22 mayoral candidates was spotted in the audience on the day before the election of April 22 even though they could have learned a thing or two.

National D-Day Museum director and CEO Gordon “Nick” Mueller, a retired University of New Orleans historian himself, in his opening remarks called for inspired national leadership in the Gulf Coast recovery effort by noting pointedly: “We’re still waiting for our George Marshall. Where’s our champion?” Mueller insisted that next to its creative financing via counterpart funds, the entire Gulf Coast area suffering major destruction from three major storms in the fall of 2005, can learn above all from the European Recovery Program (ERP) spawning postwar European integration that nothing short of a regional approach to recovery is called for. New Orleans cannot do it alone. The Marshall Plan created stronger ties among Western European nations; so Gulf Coast recovery should strengthen ties among the various hurricane-prone communities.

Vanderbilt University’s Thomas Schwartz, currently a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., set out to debunk some dearly held myths about the Marshall Plan. First, the Marshall Plan was actually a response to the U.S.’s failures in postwar planning, not “a logical outgrowth of World War II,” as myth has it. By June 1947 the situation in Europe was still desperate after little progress in recovery two years after the war. Secondly, the Marshall Plan was not “a self-evident necessity” in 1947. In the spring of 1948, when Congress passed the funding for the four-year ERP program, only 49 percent of Americans supported the plan and President Harry S. Truman was struggling to get it through Congress. Thirdly, the Marshall Plan never operated smoothly once it was implemented; it was hobbled by attacks from the political Right (too much socialism) and Left (dividing Europe) throughout its operation and mired in many bureaucratic conflicts. Fourthly, the Marshall Plan was not an “American-directed handout to European supplicants,” as is often believed, but was driven by the energy of the European recipient nations, just like Marshall envisioned it. Finally, the Marshall Plan may have played a role in saving Western Europe from communism. But more importantly it spared the Europeans from the grievances and disunity that had characterized their polities in the 1930s that had spawned fascism. It helped Western European economies recover more quickly but also deepened the division of the continent.

Schwartz suggested some specific “lessons” from the Marshall Plan for New Orleans. First, the Marshall Plan’s frequently touted altruism is romanticized. It was not the “product of saints” but rather the result of idealism and self-interest – an appeal that should be made today on the Gulf Coast. Secondly, the ERP had a profoundly psychological effect on the Europeans by restoring their confidence in the future, making European leaders willing to take risks. Thirdly, the Marshall Plan provided Europe with a long-term vision of the future and thinking in 10 to 20 year time lines. This should be particularly significant to a region that will experience future hurricanes. Fourthly, the Marshall Plan made West Berlin the symbol of Western European recovery by investing a disproportionate amount of ERP-funds into the troubled city to save it and make it “a shining symbol of Western freedom and prosperity.” The rebirth of New Orleans might “provide similar hope for the region and a model for what America at its best can accomplish.”

Jeffrey Diefendorf, a historian at the University of New Hampshire, then talked about the utter destruction of German and European cities after World War II and how it took more than ten years to rebuild them. He started out by pointing out some obvious differences and similarities. New Orleans was destroyed by floods, not bombs; moreover, while the hurricanes’ destruction hit New Orleans and some smaller coastal communities, every German city and many European ones were in ruins. Today’s resource base is incomparably greater to rebuild a region rather than an entire continent. Even though there was massive racial cleansing in Europe during and after the war, the racial divide makes New Orleans a different story. Diefendorf notes similar emotional and rhetorical responses to “armageddon” as well as post-traumatic stress reactions by the dazed survivors and displaced persons. He also sees a similar rhetoric that the destruction presents a golden opportunity for rebuilding. Even though a few cities such as Hamburg and Dresden suffered huge losses of life, many German cities minimized their losses by civil defense and large-scale evacuations of their civilian populations. After the war people tended to return to their ruined home towns, even though authorities tried to restrict their return as a serious lack of housing hobbled reconstruction.

As in the case of below-sea-level New Orleans, people suggested not rebuilding Nuremberg and Berlin due to the amount of rubble, but rather relocating these cities. But not a single relocation of an entire city happened after the war. Why? People are stubborn and “cling to the known”; moreover, people had a strong sense of property rights and did not want to abandon their investments and begin rebuilding from the suburban undamaged areas; people also clung to their local identities as residents of cities that they wanted to rebuild. The question then became how to rebuild the ruined cities and how to pay for it. There was a constant struggle between city planners who wanted to take their time and individual property owners who “wanted to get at it right away.” The homeless started “wild rebuilding” and the authorities tried to stop them. Is this situation echoed in New Orleans neighborhoods such as the Ninth Ward? Many autonomous churches and universities with historic building and ancient rights went their own way. Professional city planners had looked for opportunities to rebuild cities before and during the war and wanted to get a part of the vast resources that began flowing after the war. More shades of today’s New Orleans -- often there were clashing visions of rebuilding between residents and outsiders. Different devices were used to implement plans to build modern cities. Bricks were salvaged and rubble was used to transform landscapes; city planners had to accommodate owners down to individual streets and lots; building codes and inspection processes were updated; property lines had to be redrawn and rights of imminent domain had to be readjusted; in Hannover, planners worked to develop consensus among property owners block by block; even renters were engaged and helped finance rebuilding for long-term housing leases; property owners had to rebuild within certain time lines or municipalities would demolish their houses, an approach New Orleans may have to face soon.

Diefendorf’s conclusions addressed the financing aspects of rebuilding cities. Most rebuilding was either self-financed by families, or local financial institutions handing out long-term loans, or paternalistic government and private industry programs for its workers. External moneys were slow in coming, or never materialized at all. Marshall Plan funds helped rebuild infrastructure such as electric grids, rail systems and coal production but not urban housing. He concluded: “ Marshall aid acted like lubricant to help economic recovery.” Maybe the most fascinating model of German urban reconstruction was the “equalization of burdens” law (Lastenaugleich). In a unique and vast scheme of national solidarity, owners of undamaged property paid a one-time tax to help finance rebuilding of damaged properties. Would such an act of national solidarity be feasible in New Orleans among undamaged Uptown and French Quarter residents to help rebuild Gentilly, Lakeview and the Ninth Ward? Diefendorf’s most memorable insight was that the German housing crisis was not resolved by 1955. Only in 1960 did German planners begin talking about “development” rather than “reconstruction.” His most pertinent lesson may be that reconstruction of a major city takes 10 to 15 years – his most encouraging one: “The cities of WW II did prove remarkably resilient. All were rebuilt in one form or another, and all flourish.”

Hans-Jürgen Schröder, professor emeritus of the University of Giessen, summarized the successful propaganda efforts “to sell” the benefits of the Marshall Plan to the Europeans and Americans at home as a major American effort to forge economic recovery and political stability in Western Europe. ERP PR was also directed to counter communist propaganda against the Marshall Plan and neutralize the ambitions of the non-communist European Left to build a “Third Force” in Europe between the superpowers. Marshall Plan propaganda was highly up to date with its multimedia approach from film to radio, traveling exhibits and posters and even postage stamps. The omnipresent ERP logo affixed to every product shipped to Europe was a constant reminder that help came for the U.S. The main message of the Marshall Plan was local initiative (the U.S. helped those that help themselves), productivity as the key to plenty, and the goal of building a peaceful new Europe after two devastating wars. “Whatever the weather we only teach welfare together,” noted one poster and sent the typical ERP message of hope to the Europeans.

Baton Rouge business leader Sean Reilly from the Louisiana Recovery Authority (LARA) concluded the panel by summarizing the work of the principal state agency established to facilitate and coordinate the recovery effort beyond “FEMA’s perfunctory planning effort.” LARA consists of a group of non-elected business and community leaders appointed by Governor Kathleen Blanco and reflecting the diversity of Louisiana demographics It is designed to represent the state of Louisiana with one voice in Washington. It has been financed through private funding (they just received a 3 million dollar grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to facilitate New Orleans neighborhood planning). It has consulted with the top planners around the world on recovery models and master plans for the 26 Louisiana parishes impacted by the 2005 hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Their time line is indeed long-term – what do we want these areas affected by the storm to look like in 10 to 25 years? After the failure of the Baker Bill in Congress, LARA has developed a plan to buy out homeowners in New Orleans up to $150,000 to individual homeowners with 6.2 billion dollars already approved by Congress, and another 4.2 billion dollars waiting for final approval. Reilly noted that “burden sharing” among Americans in Gulf Coast disaster recovery is strong, as every American taxpayer has already made a 320 dollar aid contribution. But, one might object, not with an extra national solidarity tax as in the case of Germany. (By comparison, American taxpayers invested 80 dollars each in the Marshall Plan). Given that Katrina was “an equal opportunity disaster,” notes Reilly, LARA intends to give voice to all people of affected by the storm and hopes to finance local aspirations and dreams. The process is a series of local community “charettes” to hear the voices of neighorhoods. Such charettes have been successfully conducted in Lake Charles (close to the Texas border) and St. Bernard (a southeastern suburb of New Orleans), where the rebuilding process is going forward and investors begin to engage. The process has been arrested in New Orleans due to the ongoing mayoral election. The New Orleans “black hole” cries for being filled, remarked one observer in the audience, as the lagging behind of New Orleans is slowing down the entire region in rebuilding.

Reilly insisted that he has internalized important “lessons” from the Marshall Plan as discussed by the historians. LARA is committed to a regional approach, expecting the pre-Katrina metro area of New Orleans of 1.3 million people to be back soon at 1.25 million, even though New Orleans is not expected to surpass 250,000 residents (of formerly 450,000). He did, however, not mention any efforts made to cooperate with the other Gulf Coast states in a bipartisan coalition to effect more “pull” in Washington, as Mueller called for in his opening remarks. Reilly also observed that LARA is aware of the communications problems Louisiana has to voice its needs to the rest of the country. In fact, a local PR firm has been hired to do the job and “rebrand Louisiana in the eyes of the federal appropriators and taxpayers.” Marshall Plan experts might observe that this hardly resembles the vast and sophisticated campaign launched to “sell” the ERP. Reilly’s statement that LARA modeled itself after the post-9/11 “Lower Manhattan Redevelopment Corporation” from the very beginning, was questioned by Diefendorf as New Yorkers have not agreed so far on a single plan to rebuild the World Trade Center area. What if no single plan emerges in Louisiana and New Orleans, especially after the dissolution of Mayor Ray Nagin’s “Bring Back New Orleans Commission”?

Clearly, the struggle for plans for New Orleans and Gulf coast recovery continues and the Marshall Plan and rebuilding of German and European cities, as well as the rebuilding of Kobe (Japan) the Dutch Coast, San Francisco and Charleston after major natural disasters, may well be pertinent laboratories and offer some valuable “lessons of the past” for the reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast communities. With the injection of one pertinent example from recent history to the local discourse of major disaster recovery, the National D-Day Museum has made an important contribution in helping to set the parameters of the debate.

Related Links:

  • HNN Coverage of Katrina

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