Who Voted for Hitler?

Who Voted for Hitler?

by Richard F. Hamilton

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Challenging the traditional belief that Hitler's supporters were largely from the lower middle class, Richard F. Hamilton analyzes Nazi electoral successes by turning to previously untapped sources—urban voting records. This examination of data from a series of elections in fourteen of the largest German cities shows that in most of them the vote for the Nazis


Challenging the traditional belief that Hitler's supporters were largely from the lower middle class, Richard F. Hamilton analyzes Nazi electoral successes by turning to previously untapped sources—urban voting records. This examination of data from a series of elections in fourteen of the largest German cities shows that in most of them the vote for the Nazis varied directly with the class level of the district, with the wealthiest districts giving it the strongest support.

Originally published in 1982.

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Who Voted for Hitler?

By Richard F. Hamilton


Copyright © 1982 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-10132-3


The Problem: Who Voted for Hitler?

How could it have happened? — that is the ever-recurring question about Germany of the 1930s and 1940s. Although the question is a simple one, the problems involved in finding a satisfactory answer seem to defy human capacities.

To deal with that question it helps to divide the history into its various episodes. There was, first of all, a series of elections in which the National Socialists made enormous gains. A briefer episode of negotiations followed, ending with Hitler being named to head the government. Then came the consolidation of power and the building of a war machine. And last, there was the war itself and the extraordinary succession of crimes accompanying that crime.

This work is concerned with the first of these episodes, with the electoral development that made the subsequent steps possible. Without that first achievement Hitler would never have come into question as a contender for the chancellorship, and, presumably, the later developments could not have happened.

As of 1928, the appeal of the National Socialists was so small that some commentators, those who recognized them at all, saw them as a minor, and declining, splinter party. But then, in state and local elections, and in the Reichstag election of 1930, they suddenly emerged as a considerable, and growing, force on the political scene. In only a little more than two years their share of the total vote increased from 2.6 to 18.3 percent (see Appendix A). The gains continued in subsequent state and local elections and also in the presidential elections in the spring of 1932. The most important election — for the National Socialists, for Germany, and for the entire world — took place on July 31, 1932. At that point Hitler's party took 37.3 percent of the vote, the highest level it achieved in a national election prior to coming to power.

That result put Hitler in a commanding position. He could, with considerable legitimacy, insist on being named to head the government. Even if not named to that position (since the constitution did not require it), he would still be a key figure, in one way or another, in almost all of the possibilities for coalition. President Hindenburg, the man with the power to name the chancellor, refused the option and continued for a while with Franz von Papen, who ruled without a parliamentary majority through the use of presidential decrees. A second Reichstag election was called for November of that year.

The National Socialists suffered a considerable reversal in this election, losing approximately two million votes. This development thoroughly alarmed Hitler and the other party leaders. The heads of the moderate parties of Germany took it as a sign that the threat was passing. But then, the brief episode of negotiations — actually an intrigue and a subsequent counterintrigue — occurred. The end result was Hitler's appointment as chancellor; the Conservative majority in the cabinet, so it was thought, would be able to prevent any excesses.

There was one subsequent election, on March 5, 1933, at which point the National Socialists received the highest support they ever obtained in contested elections, 43.9 percent, a level still short of the majority for which they had hoped. One may question both the validity and the significance of this result. The Reichstag building had been set afire shortly before the elections, and the National Socialists stimulated and made use of the subsequent hysteria. They also had control of the police and of the radio for the first time and used both to further their own ends. For those reasons, little attention will be paid this last election. It came after the taking of power; the key second step in the history had already been taken.

As indicated, the basic concern of this work is with the National Socialists' acquisition of the support of 37.3 percent of the nation's voters. Many discussions of the period have focused on the Germans, as if they were all moved by the party's appeals. But with respect to these elections, in particular to that of July 1932, the question must be more specific. Since only three out of eight voters supported Hitler at that point, one must ask: which Germans voted for Hitler?

Even at this late date, it is possible to provide a reasonably satisfactory answer to this question. But that is only part of the problem and in many respects the less interesting part. It is much more difficult to provide an answer to the why question — why did they support Hitler? The question of motivation was difficult then and is even more difficult to assess now, some fifty years after the events. Most of the empirical analysis in this work is concerned with the former question. Only in Chapter 13 is the motivational question considered, and even then, clearly, the discussion must be highly speculative.

One might think, remembering what one has read or heard on the subject, that nothing more need be said with respect to the "who supported Hitler" question. The basic answer — it was the lower middle class — has long since been accepted as an indisputable fact. One of the earliest analyses declared that the National Socialist vote resulted from a "panic in the middle class" — Panik im Mittelstand — this in turn stemming from economic marginality and the imminent threat of "proletarianization." But sometimes the facts that everyone knows prove to be the least known since the complete and utter certainty about them discourages inquiry. The status of this "fact," as will be seen, leaves much to be desired.

This explanation of National Socialism, or of fascism generally, has sometimes been referred to as the centrist position or, more simply, as centrism. The reason for this term, briefly, is that the middle classes are "at the center of" the society, that is, located between the upper-class or bourgeoisie and the working-class extremes of the class hierarchy. In some accounts they are portrayed as in the middle but vacillating, joining first the side of revolution, then later that of counterrevolution. But in another line of argument, it is claimed that the members of the lower middle class, with only few exceptions, are fundamentally reactionary. Given their "structural position," caught between big business and an increasingly powerful working class, they are predisposed to support restorationist parties or movements, such as the National Socialists, those promising to restore their previous economic well-being, social status, and political eminence.

The centrist position, it will be noted, has two components, one involving structural change, the other involving social psychological reactions. Persons located in the lower middle class within the framework of advanced capitalist societies, so it is said, will lose position, either being "pushed down" to the level of the workers, or, an even worse fate, losing their middle-class positions entirely and "falling into" the proletariat. Being very much attached to their middle-class status, this being the social psychological component of the argument, a threatened loss of position is a source of considerable anxiety. In a period of economic crisis, they would, supposedly, be in a state of panic. In that condition they are easily moved by the appeals addressed to them; they are, so it is said, highly susceptible to the easy solutions put forth by clever demagogues.

This book assesses this claim using election data from several large German cities. These data, remarkably enough, have been largely unexamined even though a test of the claim would seem easy enough. All that is necessary is to locate the lower-middle-class districts and show that they gave strong support to Hitler's party. But that easy task has not been done. This means, in short, that the hypothesis has never been established in the urban context.

We will see, too, that the claim is seriously misleading when applied in the rural context, that is, when used to describe the lower-middleclass proprietors of small farms. For one important part of the farm population, for the Protestant farmers, the argument does have some initial plausibility although even there, as will be seen, it proves to be less than fully adequate. For the Catholic farmers, the explanation is hopelessly inadequate. In short, the basic answer, the conclusion that everyone knows, the explanation that the lower middle class or petty bourgeoisie provided exceptional support for Hitler's party appears to be without substantial foundation and, in some key respects, is fundamentally mistaken.

A discounting or rejection of the centrist argument requires the consideration of an alternative explanation. The alternative to be argued here, in Chapters 10 through 14, contains two major components; one is political, the other social organizational. The structural argument typically blocks off consideration of specific political contributions. Because of the presumed power or weight of the structural facts, one has little incentive to consider the responses of parties to specific political issues. Such issues and such responses would, at best, be mere epiphenomena as compared to the impact of the more "basic" social and economic structures.

But, as we shall see, the six major parties, including both the bourgeois or middle-class parties and those of the left, either had taken, or in the midst of economic crisis undertook, directions that made them unattractive to important segments of the electorate. Most important, the so-called middle-class parties all moved to the right, refusing to undertake the major governmental initiatives needed to alleviate the crisis. Under the circumstances, it is not too surprising that many voters were disposed to move away from them. And the parties of the left, for various reasons, also presented no attractive alternative to these disaffected voters. In the Scandinavian countries, voters, many of them lower middle class, turned to Social Democracy in the midst of the crisis, but in Germany the heritage of both the Social Democrats and the Communists was such as to make the left an unlikely choice for the disaffected voter. This is the negative side of the argument: the previously established parties made political choices that led to a serious disaffection of their traditional voters; those voters did not see the parties of the left as acceptable alternatives.

The positive side of the argument focuses on the actions of the National Socialists. Chosen by three out of eight voters in the key election, it is clear that they were seen by many as providing a positive option or, at minimum, as presenting the most favorable of the available options. One must raise questions about both the mechanisms leading them to make such a choice and the reasons or motives for the choice.

Many analyses of the National Socialist electoral victories have focused on the efforts of the party's top leaders, particularly on those of Hitler and Goebbels, indicating their ability to sway the tens of thousands who attended their mass meetings. But those analyses omit a key step in the argument: what led these people to go there in the first place? Their presence at these meetings, it is argued, was the result of efforts undertaken by the party's local or grass-roots activists. Hitler's party appears to have had the largest army of militants of any of the parties in Germany at that time. One should not measure that effort solely in quantitative terms, however, since the National Socialist cadres also appear to have possessed exceptional organizational and tactical abilities. One should not discount the role of their top leaders; it is necessary, however, to recognize that the efforts of the party's elite constitute only one component of the explanation for its success. A necessary precondition for those electoral victories was the sustained effort put forth by that army of political activists. It was those militants who carried the party appeals out to the general populace, who disseminated the "lessons" at the grass roots. One must, therefore, consider some social-organizational questions: why were the National Socialists able to put together this army of militants? What were the factors that made it possible? Those organizational dynamics and the substance of the party's appeals are considered in Chapters 12 and 13.

The parties provided a set of offerings (or attractions or appeals), but one must also consider the responses to those appeals. Here one enters the area of motives, and they, to be sure, are obscure, hidden, or in many cases, understandably, rather distorted. This problem is especially serious given the absence of any systematic research from the period, research designed to ascertain people's motivations. The consideration of those responses, therefore, must necessarily be the most speculative of all the topics considered in this work. In Chapter 13, for what it is worth, the reactions of the major segments of the population are discussed, indicating the considerations that led some of them to turn to Hitler's party. It cannot be stressed too much that this chapter offers only plausible guesses. In at least partial justification, however, it may be noted that the discussion there proceeds on exactly the same plane as the discussions of the centrist tradition. Lacking systematic investigations, those unequivocal claims about lower-middle-class motives also provide no more than guesses about what moved people. By way of further justification, it may be noted that the present discussion is somewhat more wide ranging, considering the outlooks of all key segments of the population. It provides, as will be seen, a more accurate focus than the nearly exclusive, and largely mistaken, emphasis on the lower middle class.

The "Weimar experience" is frequently cited for hortatory purposes, this in the form of warning references to the "lessons" of Weimar. But if based on faulty analysis, on an erroneous diagnosis of the illness, those lessons will not be very helpful in other times and places. They might, conceivably, even have deleterious effects. A final concern, therefore, is to make some assessment of the more general theoretical implications conventionally derived from the experience of Weimar Germany and to reassess those implications in the light of the present findings. This discussion, in Chapter 14, argues once again the need for an alternative theoretical orientation and also for some changes in research priorities. As may be gathered from the foregoing discussion, the emphasis there is on historical and political determinants and on organizational instrumentalities — or the lack thereof.

A second concern of that final chapter is to provide some explanation for this persistent focus on the lower middle class as the villain of the piece. This amounts to an inquiry into the sociology of knowledge, the question being to explain or account for this unusual and persistent preference for a given line of explanation even though the support for that position is absent or at best very weak. The basic questions to be considered are: how did this distinctive reading of the evidence come to be developed in the first place? And, once developed, why was it so stubbornly maintained over so many decades? Although rather firm conclusions may be drawn as to the research methods used by those analysts, little may be established with regard to the motives or to the psychological bases of their outlooks. In its speculative character, therefore, this discussion must closely parallel the consideration of the motivations of the general population.

The method used in this work is synthetic in character. The argument is built up step by step rather than by generating conclusions as logical products (or derivations) from some higher principles. This means that we will be examining the various "parts" of the larger picture and gradually assembling them. Only toward the end will these parts be combined to offer a sense of the totality. Among other things, it means that at times we will be dealing with very "small" concerns. The appearance of a split in the ranks of the Conservatives may affect only a small percentage of votes in the upper-class district of a given city, clearly a minor fact in the larger scheme of things. But that fact does have a place in that larger picture, and the lesson it provides is of no small importance. It is hoped that the reader will be patient with such details.

A final prefatory note: the presentation of this synthesis is not chronological; this is not a work of narrative history. The development follows instead the requirements of the synthetic argument. For those who are not familiar with the history of the Weimar Republic, it might be helpful to read Appendix A before proceeding to Chapter 2. It provides a summary of the electoral history of the period and gives a brief review of the principal events intervening between those elections.


Excerpted from Who Voted for Hitler? by Richard F. Hamilton. Copyright © 1982 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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