Ruling Oneself Out: A Theory of Collective Abdications

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What induces groups to commit political suicide? This book explores the decisions to surrender power and to legitimate this surrender: collective abdications. Commonsensical explanations impute such actions to coercive pressures, actors’ miscalculations, or their contamination by ideologies at odds with group interests. Ivan Ermakoff argues that these explanations are either incomplete or misleading. Focusing on two paradigmatic cases of voluntary and unconditional surrender of power—the passing of an enabling bill granting Hitler the right to amend the Weimar constitution without parliamentary supervision (March 1933), and the transfer of full executive, legislative, and constitutional powers to Marshal Pétain (Vichy, France, July 1940)—Ruling Oneself Out recasts abdication as the outcome of a process of collective alignment.

Ermakoff distinguishes several mechanisms of alignment in troubled and uncertain times and assesses their significance through a fine-grained examination of actors’ beliefs, shifts in perceptions, and subjective states. To this end, he draws on the analytical and methodological resources of perspectives that usually stand apart: primary historical research, formal decision theory, the phenomenology of group processes, quantitative analyses, and the hermeneutics of testimonies. In elaborating this dialogue across disciplinary boundaries, Ruling Oneself Out restores the complexity and indeterminate character of pivotal collective decisions and demonstrates that an in-depth historical exploration can lay bare processes of crucial importance for understanding the formation of political preferences, the paradox of self-deception, and the makeup of historical events as highly consequential.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Ruling Oneself Out presents a compelling theory of why solitary legislative dissent. . . is rare, particularly in highly charged political contexts. . . . [S]cholars. . . should be reading and referring to this book for a long time to come. It should also find its way onto the shelves of social scientists interested in formal modeling, democratic breakdown, and/or exemplary methodology in historical research.” - Malcolm Fairbrother, Contemporary Sociology

Ruling Oneself Out is an extremely impressive scholarly achievement at multiple levels. It offers a model of how to identify and pose an important research question; that is, a question worth asking and answering not only because it is intrinsically interesting but also because it is theoretically puzzling and at the same time of great practice significance. Ruling Oneself Out is all this and more.” - Howard Kimeldorf, Social Science History

Ruling Oneself Out is a tour de force, a compelling contribution to our understanding of two of the most troubling moments of the past century and the more general phenomenon of democratic representation and its retention.”—David D. Laitin, Stanford University

Ruling Oneself Out reads like a novel: we hear the voices of the protagonists, enter their minds, and emerge with an understanding of a fascinating theoretical puzzle. Drawing on richly documented primary sources, employing state-of-the-art analytical tools, and carefully staking theoretical claims, Ivan Ermakoff makes intelligible events that shook world history. A remarkable achievement.”—Adam Przeworski, New York University

“In this innovative book, Ivan Ermakoff combines game theory with detailed archival research to provide a brilliant and surprising interpretation of a long-standing historical puzzle. Ruling Oneself Out opens new vistas for the sociological study of historical events.”—William H. Sewell Jr., University of Chicago

Howard Kimeldorf

Ruling Oneself Out is an extremely impressive scholarly achievement at multiple levels. It offers a model of how to identify and pose an important research question; that is, a question worth asking and answering not only because it is intrinsically interesting but also because it is theoretically puzzling and at the same time of great practice significance. Ruling Oneself Out is all this and more.”
Malcolm Fairbrother

Ruling Oneself Out presents a compelling theory of why solitary legislative dissent. . . is rare, particularly in highly charged political contexts. . . . [S]cholars. . . should be reading and referring to this book for a long time to come. It should also find its way onto the shelves of social scientists interested in formal modeling, democratic breakdown, and/or exemplary methodology in historical research.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822341642
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 4/28/2008
  • Series: Politics, History, and Culture Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 440
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Ivan Ermakoff is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

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Read an Excerpt

Ruling Oneself Out

A Theory of Collective Abdications
By Ivan Ermakoff

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4164-2

Chapter One

Actors and Events

When shall we start? Events are nominal constructs. Their referents are bundles of actions and decisions that analysts and commentators abstract from the flow of historical time. This abstraction is based on a variety of criteria-temporal contiguity, causal density, and significance for subsequent happenings-routinely mobilized by synthetic judgments about the past. Because events are temporal constructs, their temporal boundaries can never be taken for granted. They take on different values depending on whether we derive these boundaries from the subjective statements left by contemporary actors (Bearman et al. 1999) or construct them in light of an analytical relevance criterion derived from the problem at hand (Sewell 1996, 877).

This last point-causal time has different temporalities depending on our analytical agenda-comes out with particular force in the present case. If we approach March 1933 and July 1940 as instances of regime breakdown, a plausible option is to take the chronology of the political regimes as temporal referents. If we construct them as parliamentary events, the temporal setting of legislatures provides a lead. If we define them primarily as collective decisions, causal time is likely to be harnessed to the interactive processes underlying the decision. Different conceptual definitions induce different empirical foci and different temporalities. The narrower the focus, the narrower the scope that we might impute to the temporal frame.

This correlation is only indicative. Depending on which aspect of collective interactions we conceptualize as causally relevant, this temporal scope can substantially shrink or expand. Consider the appraisal by Maier (1972, 193) of the vote by the Center parliamentary delegation on 23 March 1933 as a "belated post-scriptum" (ein spätes Postskriptum) to the cultural conflict between German Catholics and the central state inaugurated by Bismarck's antichurch policies in 1871 (Kulturkampf). If we endorse this appraisal, the adequate historical chronology, which allows us to comprehend March 1933, overflows the political context of the 1930s and more broadly the temporal setting of Weimar. Historical analyses that place primary emphasis on actors' belief systems in the reconstruction of political developments often adopt such a grand scale as they unfold their explanatory narrative (Sontheimer 1962; Mosse 1964; Sternhell 1996).

In the following chronological exposition I leave open the choice of a temporal frame. My points of departure are arbitrary: the presidential election of 1932 and the outbreak of war in September 1939. These starting points do not prejudge the definition of an adequate temporality; I will discuss this issue subsequently, in chapter 11, after having explored the collective and structural facets of the events under consideration. In this chapter these chronological points of entry serve expositional purposes. I introduce the actors and the stage. Some of those introduced are collective actors (parties, unions, social groups). Others hold key state positions (presidents, chancellors, premiers, ministers).

This chapter also tackles the significance of these events. In the present case, significance can be assessed from different, and not necessarily complementary, standpoints. One is heuristic. The event lays bare processes and causal mechanisms that we usually do not observe with such distinctive clarity. It has a revealing or magnifying quality. The other standpoint is historical. Here "significant" equates to "having consequences." This definition builds on an insight by Sewell (1996, 262): events transform structures. Herein lies their specificity as temporal happenings and their sub specie quality as historical events. From this perspective, the significance of an event is commensurate with its impact on structures and subsequent historical developments.


I consider groups involved in processes of political contention as well as actors who because of their position in the state apparatus have substantial decisional power and influence. Some groups-political parties, unions, and duly organized interest groups-can be formally constituted. The organizational emergence of these groups can be traced to a founding act. Others do not have this organizational visibility. They are not regulated by explicit charters and formal rules of membership. Yet actors constantly use them as referential categories to make sense of their political interactions and social relations. These groups define principles of collective and motivational identities. Actors identify themselves and others in light of this classification scheme. The imputation of group identities onto others goes along with assumptions of shared interests, common understandings, and group solidarity.

The landed aristocracy in Germany in the 1930s is a case in point. Since the last third of the nineteenth century, this social group had been breeding a class of high-ranked civil servants (Carsten 1990, 120). Although their worldview was closer to bourgeois and modern values than their social background would suggest (Steinmetz 1993, 104-7), these actors often defined themselves by reference to the landowning aristocracy, and members of other classes defined them in these terms. Marshall Hindenburg, the president of the Republic since 1925, was the Junker par excellence. He was Prussian, a landowner, full of the social prejudices of his class, and a great soldier, the hero of the battle of Tannenberg. In 1932 Hindenburg stood for a second presidential mandate. The election was scheduled for March (first round) and April (second round).

In the constitutional framework of the Weimar Republic, the president has considerable power. He is elected for a seven-year term through a popular vote (Articles 41 and 43). He "appoints and dismisses the chancellor of the Reich and, on the latter's recommendation, the Ministers of the Reich" (Article 53). By virtue of Article 25, he alone has the right to dissolve parliament (the Reichstag). No provision prevents him from dismissing the chancellor, even if the chancellor has the confidence of the parliament (Finn 1991, 145). Consequently he can circumvent legislative control through the expedient of dissolution. Article 48 authorizes him to "take the required measures to reestablish public safety and order when in the Reich public safety and order are greatly disturbed or endangered" and to resort to armed force if necessary. When this happens the parliament's room to maneuver is limited to demanding a revocation of emergency action. Given these decisional and political prerogatives, the election of the president was a major political event.

An Embattled Stage

The first ballot of the presidential election took place on 13 March. It pitted Hindenburg against Thälmann, the chairman of the Communist party; Duesterberg, nominated by the nationalist Right; and Hitler. When Hindenburg bade for a presidential mandate seven years earlier, in 1925, the leadership of the Social Democratic Party vigorously opposed him, depicting him as the instrument of social reaction. In March 1932 Social Democrats endorsed him with the slogan "smash Hitler, vote Hindenburg" (Harsch 1993, 179). This shift in position was a direct consequence of the threat that Hitler had posed to the Republic since September 1930. Two years earlier the Nazis were a "negligible quantity" (Heiber 1993, 158). Between 1924 and 1928 they won less than 3 percent of the popular vote at the national level. The parliamentary elections of 14 September 1930 were a political cataclysm. Getting 18 percent of the popular vote, the Nazi party swept "into the mainstream of German politics" (Childers 1983, 140) and became the second-largest party in parliament (107 seats) after the Social Democratic party (143 seats).

Although preceding elections at the regional level in 1930 had signaled that the Nazis would make significant electoral gains, the electoral takeoff of September 1930 dumbfounded contemporary observers. The Nazis had been political outcasts for years. They were now major political players. This outcome could never have been achieved without the political alliance forged in 1929 with the mainstream nationalist Right against the Young plan-a redrafting of Germany's reparation payment. At the initiative of the press magnate Alfred Hugenberg, who had been elected a few months earlier (October 1928) at the head of the German National People's Party (Deutschnationale Volkspartei, or DNVP), several right-wing organizations (the Stahlhelm, the Landvolk party, the German League, and the Nazi party) formed a Reich Committee for the German Referendum against the Young Plan in July 1929. Through their association with this committee Hitler and his party gained not only considerable visibility but also credentials of political respectability on which they capitalized first in regional elections and then, in a spectacular fashion, at the parliamentary elections in September 1930.

When Hindenburg was making a bid for a second presidential mandate in March 1932, the threat posed by the radical Right to the Republic had become so formidable that Hindenburg was now the Republic's bulwark. The Right-Left cleavage does not fully capture the political significance of the presidential contest of March 1932. The political landscape was fragmented into three antagonistic blocs and a host of less easily identified splinter and regional parties. On the far right stood the national opposition, ideologically and dogmatically opposed to the Republic and parliamentary democracy in the name of radical nationalism. Two main parties carried the flag: the German National People's Party and the Nazi party.

The German Nationalists were the heirs of the conservative parties from the imperial era pre-1914 (Wilhelmine Germany). One wing of the party opposed any compromise with the Republic; the other was ready to adopt a constructive opposition stance and to participate in forming republican governments (Neumann 1965 [1932], 61). German Nationalists identified with the counter-revolution in the 1920s. Between 1924 and 1928, as the regime stabilized, they played the game of parliamentary politics, taking part in two coalition cabinets (in 1925 and 1928) and voting a watered-down version of the law for protecting the republic (1927). Hugenberg's election at the head of the party (in October 1928) marked the political revival of dogmatic opposition to the Republic.

Hugenberg's political efforts to rally the radical Right under the banner of the national opposition culminated in the organization of a mass meeting in Bad Harzburg on 11 October 1931. The list of those who participated in this demonstration offers a useful indication of the spectrum of forces that at the end of 1931 united in an uncompromising offensive against the republican regime. In addition to the German Nationalists, those attending included the Stahlhelm (an association of ex-servicemen), the Nazis, representatives of the pan-German movement, agrarian members of the Reichslandbund, and a handful of industrialists, as well as two former members of the high administration: von Seeckt, former minister of war and now deputy of the German People's Party (Deutsche Volkspartei), and Schacht, former president of the Reichsbank (Feuchtwanger 1993, 257). The meeting did not have the impact that Hugenberg reckoned it to have, but Hitler did make a strong showing, getting most of the public attention. Furthermore, the two parties failed to agree on a common candidacy for the presidential election to take place a few months later.

The Constitutionalist Camp

Opposed to the radical and antidemocratic Right formed by the Nazis and the German Nationals were three main constitutionalist parties. They rallied behind Hindenburg in the presidential election of March 1932 and remained strongly committed to the Republic: the Social Democrats, the German State party (Deutsche Staatspartei, or DStP), and the Center party (Zentrum). The Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or SPD) had made the defense of the republican regime and parliamentary democracy one of its political priorities since September 1930. A few days after the results of the elections that month, the Social Democratic deputation announced that "the threat posed to democracy directly by the fascists and indirectly by the Communists required that the SPD's first concern be to secure democracy, constitutional government, and parliament" (Harsch 1993, 86). Their endorsement of Hindenburg's candidacy to a second mandate was explicitly motivated by the goal to avoid splitting the republican vote and, in doing so, to bar Hitler from the road to the presidency (Harsch 1993, 179).

At the center-left stood the German State party. The state party played a role in the foundation of Weimar. Its members and leading representatives were bourgeois democrats and liberals (Jones 1988, 377). They reached their greatest electoral gains in January 1919 with a little less than 19 percent of the popular vote. From then on, their political significance constantly declined, reaching 3.8 percent of the popular vote in September 1930. State party representatives clearly identified with the Republic and consistently denounced Nazism.

The third pillar of the Weimar Republic in the 1930s was the Center party. The party was born in the context of rising anticlericalism soon before the Kulturkampf-the struggle over cultural policy that pitted the political and religious representatives of German Catholics against Chancellor Bismarck in the 1870s (Kalyvas 1996, 210-13). As a consequence of the conditions that prevailed during its creation, the Center historically viewed the defense of German Catholics' interests as its primary political mission. However, it did not define itself as a confessional party and one could not correctly define it as such (Neumann 1965 [1932], 43). Significantly, after the war, the Center leadership contemplated acquiring the new name of Christian People's party (Christliche Volkspartei) to assert its identity as an all-encompassing party (Bracher 1970, 72). The Center was a conglomerate of social groups and political factions, some leaning to the conservative Right, others to the democratic Left (Neumann 1965 [1932], 42, 44).

In the 1920s the defense of the Weimar constitution was a staple of political Catholicism. The national Center party manifest of 1927 explicitly endorsed the principle of republican institutions (Neumann 1965 [1932], 48). Several of its prominent members were "republicans from reason" (Vernunftrepublikaner) who through the course of the Republic's troubled history became strongly committed to parliamentary democracy (Cary 1996, 131). When in the 1930s the threat posed to republican institutions by the radical Right became ominous, this commitment took a more dramatic turn. Center members opposed Nazism not only because it was anti-Christian and inhumane, but also because the Nazi movement threatened the Republic (Dirks 1969, 9).

Three Blocs

The political stance taken by the Communist leadership in the 1930s adds an additional line of cleavage to the conflict between the national opposition and the constitutionalist camp. The party system was primarily divided between three blocs: the authoritarian, the democratic, and the communist (Lepsius 1978, 36). The Communist party (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, or KPD) was engaged in "no less implacable a struggle against the Republic than were antidemocratic forces on the far-right" (Peukert 1992, 268). The sixth congress of the Comintern held in Moscow in July-September 1928 prohibited any form of collaboration with Social Democrats, under the pretense that reformist socialist parties were truly fascist. Accordingly, the leadership of the KPD dropped the policy of a "proletarian common front" and launched an all-out offensive against the "social fascists."


Excerpted from Ruling Oneself Out by Ivan Ermakoff Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Tables vii

List of Figures ix

Preface xi

Acknowledgments xxxi

A Note on Citations xxxv

Part I: The Stage and the Problem 1

1. Actors and Events 3

2. Constitutional Abdication 37

Part II: Subservience, Common Sense 59

3. Coercion 61

4. Miscalculation 92

5. Ideological Collusion 131

Part III: The Terms of the Challenge 179

6. Collective Alignment: Three Processes 181

7. Diffusion 211

Part IV: Collective Stances 243

8. The Production of Consent 245

9. Vacillations, Convergence 277

Part V: Coda: Judgments of Significance 305

10. The Consistency of Inconsistency 307

11. The Event as Statement 323

Appendix A: Counts and Accounts 333

Appendix B: A Two-Pronged Model of Alignment 346

Bibliography 369

Index 393

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