When looking back on the lead-up to the Nazi party’s takeover of the German government in 1933, most people – historians included – cite the inflammatory rhetoric of Adolf Hitler’s campaign speeches as the critical catalyst that transformed what began as a small group of political outsiders into a destructive force with majority rule in parliament in just 12 years.
But new research by political scientists at the University of Konstanz and the Hertie School of Governance calls this narrative into question after comparisons of election statistics in regions where Hitler made appearances and those where he did not showed similar support for the party – known in German as the National Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP).
"We are surprised about how marginal the effect of Hitler's election appearances was, especially when one considers contemporary witnesses and historians who have confirmed his exceptional rhetorical abilities," authors Peter Selb and Simon Munzert said in a statement.
As they explain in their paper, set to be published in American Political Science Review, only a handful of studies have thus far attempted to assess the effectiveness of early Nazi propaganda on voting behavior. These investigations have confirmed what NSDAP officials claimed in the 1930s: the government officials in power prior to Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in January 1933 did not allow his campaigns to use the radio, and their printed materials were often confiscated. As a consequence, Hitler’s unfiltered communication with the public was mostly limited to rallies, so he became masterful at drawing attention at these events using the dazzling new technology of loudspeakers and showily ferrying himself from location to location in a plane.
The problem with these past studies, according to Selb and Munzert, is that they did not account for confounding factors, such as election staff deliberately choosing areas with easy-to-mobilize support, when looking at links between his campaign itineraries and local election results. To remedy this, the duo applied a statistical technique called difference in differences (DID) to these records and also reviewed rally attendance figures and estimates of each location’s NSDAP member base for 1,000 counties and 3,684 municipalities. Appearances by Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s second-hand man and later his minister of propaganda, were factored in too.