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.
Of the five parliamentary and one presidential election that occurred between 1927 and 1933, Selb and Munzert’s analysis suggests that only the 1932 presidential run-off election was notably impacted by Hitler’s public engagements. They note that this vote took place after an unusually short, one-month campaign period, during which Hitler had a great advantage—his then 84-year-old competitor Paul von Hindenburg did not make any public appearances. The authors calculated that Hitler’s speeches during this timeframe earned him an additional one to two percentage points of the vote share in areas where he held rallies.
Naturally, although this study accounts for some of the limitations of its predecessors, several issues remain. Most importantly, the authors concede that DID estimation depends on the assumption that the voting patterns in an area are only affected by visits during that campaign season, not those that may have occurred previously. Secondly, no modern-day analysis can adjust for all the mediums by which political rhetoric was spread in the past, be it independent newspapers or word-of-mouth.
“To be sure, campaign effects on voting behavior and election results are notoriously difficult to detect in a campaign realm that is characterized by the selective exposure of voters to a diffuse stream of conflicting messages,” Selb and Munzert wrote.
Nonetheless, they believe their results have crucial implications for today’s political climate, stating in their conclusion:
“The notion that charismatic leaders are of particular importance for the electoral success of right-wing populist parties has recently regained attention. Our empirical findings support a skeptical view. The mystification of the powers of demagogues seems just as inappropriate now as it was then. To do so overlooks the economic and political circumstances under which they succeed electorally: mass unemployment and economic despair, lack of support for democracy among elites and the public, popular detachment from established parties and their representatives, and weak institutions.”