Sunday, 24 February 2013
Who voted for Hitler, 1930-33?
In the Reichstag election of May 1928, the Nazi Party received less than 3% of the German national vote, and only the complex system of proportional representation allowed the party its 12 seats in the Reichstag. Yet in September 1930 the Nazis scored their first real electoral breakthrough, winning 107 seats, and in July 1932 they became the largest party in the Reichstag, with 230 deputies elected. In January 1933 Hitler was appointed Chancellor, and he cemented his power with almost 44% of the vote in March of that year, and the subsequent Enabling Law which gave him dictatorial powers. How and why had this astonishing rise in Nazi support happened?
It is necessary first of all to have a quick summary of events. Pre-war Imperial Germany had a democratically elected Parliament, the Reichstag, but it was in reality little more than a talking-shop, without any real control of the Kaiser’s government. Then following defeat in the First World War, a new constitution was established, known as the “Weimar Republic”. There was an elected President, with widespread emergency powers, should he choose to use them, and a Reichstag elected by proportional representation. This had the twin disadvantages that even very small parties were represented (such as the Nazis in their early days), and that no one party ever commanded a majority of the seats. Consequently all governments had to be coalitions of several parties, and were often weak, unstable and short-lived.
The history of Weimar was a story of catastrophic failures. Many Germans blamed the democratic politicians for the surrender in autumn 1918 (the “November criminals“); maintaining, quite untruthfully, that Germany would have won the war if only the leaders had kept their nerve. Then there was the Treaty of Versailles, which almost all Germans saw as unjustly punitive. There followed the hyperinflation of 1922-23, and from 1929 the Wall Street Crash and the great depression. Germany had no tradition of democratically-elected politics, and now it seemed clear that democracy had failed. Votes for the extremist parties, the Communists and Nazis rose dramatically from 1930.
Following the Nazi electoral breakthrough in 1930, there was never any concerted attempt to stop Hitler: indeed, most politicians on the Right were trying to bring him into government, and the only surprise in retrospect is that it took so long. The Chancellor from 1930 to 1932, Bruning, had no majority in the Reichstag, nor did his successors, and had to try to run the country by emergency Presidential decree, while the economic situation continued to deteriorate. The Nazis could supply the numbers. Hitler could have entered the government at any time, as a member of a coalition, but for almost three years he refused all offers.
The President was the old Field-Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, who despite his great age was persuaded to stand again for election in March 1932, backed by all the main constitutional parties, but opposed by the Nazis and Communists. In these elections Hitler came a strong second. Soon afterwards Bruning was sacked and replaced by an extremely weak aristocratic cabinet under Franz von Papen, an obscure Catholic politician. Papen’s only hope of gaining a Reichstag majority was to persuade Hitler to join him, so conciliatory gestures were made: the Nazi paramilitaries (the SA and the SS), which had been banned, were now legalised, and the government of Prussia (which included Berlin), that had been under Socialist control, was dissolved and brought under direct central control.
The Reichstag elections of June 1932 were a triumph for the Nazis, who became the biggest party in the Reichstag, with 230 seats. Hitler was now offered the post of Vice-Chancellor. He turned it down, instead demanding to be made Chancellor, with dictatorial powers. His arrogance and rudeness seriously angered the old President. Instead, the Nazis in the Reichstag voted in support of a Communist motion of censure on the government, and von Papen was overwhelmingly defeated.
New elections were held in November, and the Nazi vote fell sharply, whereas the Communists increased their Reichstag representation to 100 seats. It looked as though the Nazis had shot their bolt, but at this point political intrigue took over. An army friend of Hindenburg, General Schleicher, persuaded the President that he could manage to bring in Hitler where others had failed; so Papen was dismissed and Schleicher appointed Chancellor in his place. But Hitler still turned down an offer of a subordinate post. Goebbels was in despair: the Nazi party was bankrupt, its vote collapsing, and Hitler’s obstinacy seemed incomprehensible. But von Papen was now eager for revenge on Schleicher, and in negotiations over Christmas and New Year he agreed to serve as Vice-Chancellor in a government to be headed by Hitler. It appeared that he had won a good deal, giving Hitler no more than an empty semblance of power: there were to be only three Nazis in the new cabinet (Hitler, Goering and Frick), and all the key ministries of defence, foreign policy and finance were to be held by conservative friends of von Papen.
“We’ve hired him!” Papen triumphantly announced to Hindenburg. And yet within a few months Hitler had established a dictatorship. . At the end of February the Reichstag building mysteriously burnt down, which was promptly labelled a Communist outrage, fresh elections were held in a feverish atmosphere (in which the Nazis still did not manage to reach 50% of the vote), and then Hitler demanded an Enabling Law giving him emergency powers. To their eternal shame, the Catholic Centre party voted for the measure, and democracy in Germany was dead. All political parties other than the Nazis were banned, the trades unions outlawed and the structures of local government abolished. There was remarkably little resistance to all this.
It is, of course, not possible to find out which individuals voted for Hitler, but it is known in what districts of Germany the Nazi vote was high, and in what districts it was lower. There are also lists for Nazi Party membership, which can be broken down by age and class, and from these it is possible to construct a profile of a typical Nazi supporter.
It is hardly surprising that between the elections in 1930 and the seizure of power in 1933 the party increased its membership six fold, to almost 720,000, but what is most noticeable is that it was overwhelmingly a young people’s party, with 43% of the members being under thirty years old. (Hitler became Chancellor at the age of just 43; the youngest government leader in Europe; and all his principal lieutenants, such as Goering, Goebbels, Hiimmler and Hess, were even younger)
In terms of social class, a third of Nazi Party members were described as “working class”; but since the working class made up 46% of the population of Germany, this class was somewhat under-represented in the Nazi Party. Small farmers, who made up no less than 20% of the population, were also under-represented, whereas the classes known to British sociologists as C1s and C2s; the clerical workers, teachers, self-employed artisans and shopkeepers, were over- represented. Nazism has been described as “the panic of the lower middle class”: people whose living standards were under threat from the great depression, who felt the existing political system was doing nothing to help them, but who were afraid of the threat of Communist revolution. The typical Nazi enthusiast would therefore be in his twenties, from a lower middle class background, and worried about the future, both for himself and for his country.
Where did the Nazi voters live? Germany at the time was a federal country, divided into 35 districts (Lander). It was also divided in religious terms. It was possible to draw a diagonal line across the country, from the frontier of Holland to the western corner of Czechoslovakia, and say that, in general terms, south and west of this line was Catholic, and north and east of it was Protestant. Once that is done, it becomes immediately evident that the highest Nazi vote was Protestant northeast; running in 1933 at well over 50% in East Prussia, Leignitz, Frankfurt-on-Oder and Pomerania. By contrast, although the Nazi movement began in Catholic Bavaria, by 1933 the Nazi share of the vote was below average there. The other noticeable feature is that the Nazis polled strongly in the rural areas and the small towns, but much less impressively in the urban industrial centres. In Berlin the Nazi share of the vote never rose above 31%, and in the Rhineland, which was both Catholic and industrial, in Westphalia, Cologne and Dusseldorf, it remained no higher than 35% even in 1933. The typical Nazi voter, therefore, lived in a small town or village in the Protestant rural areas of the north and east.
Why should this be? And what attracted such a voter? It was partly due to the structure of the German political parties. One of the largest parties was the Catholic Centre, which always took much of the vote from all classes in the Catholic areas. The Socialists and Communists, although well organised, never sought to extend their appeal beyond the urban working classes, where they remained strong throughout the period. On the other hand, there was no single large conservative party in Weimar Germany; just a mass of small factions, none of whom ever mounted much of a popular campaign to win mass votes. Consequently, when the Nazis took the trouble to campaign in the countryside they were, literally, the only game in town. In 1930-33 the votes of the smaller parties collapsed as the Nazi vote rose, though the Socialists, Communists and Catholic Centre remained strong to the very end, when all rival parties were prohibited.
What ideas attracted these voters to Nazism? It is unlikely to have been anti-Semitism. It is noticeable that in the great election campaigns after 1930 the Nazis suddenly acquired spokesmen on agricultural issues, and policies calculated to appeal to the farmers, whereas anti-Semitism, which had little relevance to the rural areas, scarcely featured in their propaganda.
Hitler made very few specific policy promises in these elections. Instead he spoke much about the “November criminals” of 1918, the oppression of Germany ever since, and the danger of Communist revolution. There is no doubt that he possessed a powerful charismatic appeal, promising some kind of hope to the young, the unemployed, and to those fearful of the future. Above all his success was a product of the alarming times of the early 1930s, and the fact that none of his rivals took the Nazi threat seriously until it was far too late. Coupled with this, there was manifestly a loss of faith in the democratic system itself. Although the Nazis never won more than 43% of the vote, a majority of Germans by the end of 1932 were casting their ballots either for the Nazis or the Communists. Hitler always told the Germans that they were faced with a straight choice: him or the Communists. He may even have been right.
(The figures are taken from: Noakes & Pridham; "Nazism 1919-1945: A Documentary Reader; vol. 1")