The Nazi rise to power in Germany was largely due to voters opting for what they perceived as their economic self-interest.
No question of voting behavior has been studied more extensively than how the Germans managed to elect a party that destroyed democracy in their country and left Europe ravaged. The conclusion has generally been that the Nazi victory was a “unique historical case.” Now an international team of interdisciplinary researchers has compared voting results in six German elections between 1924 and 1933 with what is known about economic voting behavior in other countries. They find nothing unique about the Nazis’ rise to power. Germans, like many other nationalities at many other times, voted according to what they perceived as their economic self-interest.
Harvard political scientist Gary King, University of Texas, El Paso mathematician Ori Rosen, Northwestern University statistician Martin Tanner, and University of Zurich finance professor Alexander F. Wagner say that most previous analyses of German electoral results of the early 1930s were flawed. The “catch-all” theory—which describes the National Socialist Party as a protest organization that attracted people dissatisfied with other non-mainstream alternatives—doesn’t say anything useful about the Nazi election since it “applies to most groups and almost all big or growing parties in almost all countries.”
“Mass society” theory, which holds that citizens—primarily nonvoters—on the “social periphery” feel the strongest response to extremist parties, has rarely been tested against hard voting data, the authors say. “Class theory,” which suggests that various social groups were radicalized in different ways, has foundered because researchers disagreed on who precisely was radicalized to vote for the Nazis. Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote that the typical Nazi voter was a middle-class self-employed Protestant who lived on a farm or in a small community. By contrast, sociologist Richard F. Hamilton concluded that the upper classes (white-collar and self-employed Germans) were the bedrock of Nazi electoral support.
Germany suffered from hyperinflation in the 1920s and began sliding into economic depression in 1927. The gross national product of the Weimar Republic contracted by a quarter; unemployment soared and incomes fell dramatically. Support for the Nazi Party, less than three percent of eligible voters in 1924, rose to 31 percent in July 1932, 27 percent in November 1932, and 39 percent in March 1933.
The new statistical analyses by King and his coauthors show that the two groups most affected by the Depression followed separate political paths. The unemployed turned primarily to the Communist party, which catered to them with a program calling for community property. The working poor, including independent artisans, shopkeepers, small farmers, lawyers, domestic workers, and family members of the working poor, disproportionately supported the Nazis. These groups responded positively to Hitler’s denunciations of big business and government, promises of intensive development of Germany’s own economic resources, support of private property, and plans for expropriation of land from Jewish real estate owners and resettlement of the landless in eastern Germany. Hitler’s support was higher in Protestant areas than in Catholic regions, in part because the Catholic church strongly encouraged the faithful not to vote for the Nazis, and in part because the church ran relatively well-financed social welfare programs.
In the years after World War II, some leading Westerners argued for limiting democracy to stop the masses from electing demagogues like Hitler. King and his fellow researchers say the best way to stop such unhappy repetitions of history is to implement successful economic policies.
THE SOURCE: “Ordinary Economic Voting Behavior in the Extraordinary Election of Adolf Hitler” by Gary King, Ori Rosen, Martin Tanner, and Alexander F. Wagner, in The Journal of Economic History, Dec. 2008.
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