American Journal of Political Science

Who voted (and didn’t) for Hitler, and why?

AJPS Author Summary By Jörg L. Spenkuch and Philipp Tillmann

Few historical events have been more consequential and, therefore, more scrutinized than the failure of Germany’s first democracy and Adolf Hitler’s ensuing rise to power. Even contemporaries had known that support for the Nazis was by no means uniform. At the height of the World Economic Crisis, majority Catholic regions remained strongholds of democratic parties, while voters in predominantly Protestant areas abandoned their traditional allegiances and flocked toward the NSDAP.

Our analysis confirms that religion is the single most important empirical predictor of NSDAP vote shares. In fact, constituencies’ religious composition explains a greater share of the geographic variation in Nazi vote shares than all other available variables, either individually or combined.

Why did the NSDAP perform poorly in Catholic regions? Did the party’s agricultural policies hold little appeal to farmers? Were majority Protestant constituencies more likely to back the Nazis because they were hit harder by the economic depression? Or, did, as Hitler himself believed, ordinary Catholics refrain from supporting the Nazis because they were instructed to do so by the clergy?

In the last phase of the Weimar Republic, nobody of public standing opposed the Nazis more vehemently than the Catholic Church and its dignitaries. We provide direct evidence in support of the idea that the Church’s influence contributed to the resistance of ordinary Catholics. To do so, we draw on a novel data set that allows us to geographically locate members of the clergy who ignored the directives of their bishops and instead openly sympathized with the Nazis. We show that Catholics and Protestants voted much more alike in settings where such a “brown priest” directly contradicted the Church’s official warnings about the dangers of National Socialism. We further find that after the Catholic bishops gave up their opposition and took a position that was favorable to Hitler, parishioners’ relative resistance crumbled as well.

At the same time, we show that attempts by the clergy to immunize Catholics against the radical left failed to achieve the desired result. To explain the puzzling asymmetry in the Church’s influence at the ballot box, we develop a simple theoretical framework of elite influence in electoral politics, which also offers some lessons for dealing with radicalized electorates today.

About the Authors: Jörg L. Spenkuch is an Assistant Professor of Managerial Economics & Decision Sciences at Northwestern University, and Philipp Tillmann is an Associate at Analysis Group. Their article “Elite Influence? Religion and the Electoral Success of the Nazis” is now available for Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.