The Wilson Quarterly

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.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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