Back in May of 2017, over drinks, The Nation’s Don Guttenplan recommended to me an out-of-print book from the early 1980s called Who Voted for Hitler? by Richard F. Hamilton, an important and underappreciated historian of the First World War who writes historical studies of political institutions and mass political behavior.
The guts of the book is an analysis of the voting records, district by district, in Germany’s 14 largest cities, particularly in the municipal elections of July 1932, but also those of 1928, 1930, November 1932, and 1933. Hamilton looks closely at the vote tally data, which turn out to be abundant and well-preserved, and at the time of his writing—some 50 years after the events he was poring over—were still largely unexamined.
Three-quarters of a century have passed now since Hitler came to power in Germany, leaving in place two enduring myths about how it happened. One claims that Hitler’s rise was born of the frustrations of the middle class in post-WWI Germany. The other holds that Hitler’s support came from the disenfranchised and uneducated working and out-of-work poor. But neither myth is accurate, and both are based on hearsay—half-truths people are comfortable with, rather than hard truths that emerge from the data.
Under Hamilton’s uninflected analytical gaze the picture comes into sharper focus. He doesn’t lead with his own point of view or ideology. And in many ways, that’s the point (and probably a big part of the reason why he isn’t better known today—no tribe has claimed him). You read him without knowing if he’s a Marxist or a neoliberal, an anarchist or a conservative—you don’t know what he is. Clearly, this is how he wants it. And for good reason: His ideological nonalignment frees him—and us—to listen better to the story that emerges from of the chain of events, letting the chips fall where they may.
I’ve long dismissed the notion of “objective” history or journalism. Howard Zinn taught me better. But even assuming that any historian brings to any analysis their own imagined narrative arc and their own set of assumptions and biases, you come away from reading Hamilton’s tome (all 680 pages of it!) with a visceral sense of the historical events. The data speak to us and shape a narrative that makes our assumptions and biases seem formulaic and predictable by comparison. Not the whole story, necessarily—since in the end you need a strong point of view, a strong underlying political analysis, to see history clearly—but the most clear-eyed and damning part without which the whole story cannot be told.
Not every failed coup leads to a successful one down the road. But what successful revolution or movement hasn’t been built on a cascade of earlier failures? As we absorb the reality of the violent January 6 Capitol insurrection, Hamilton’s method of dispassionate scrutiny cries out to us.
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In 1928, the National Socialists—the Nazis—were a negligible, declining splinter party. Out of his disappointment with his party’s electoral ineffectualness that year, Hitler defied conventional wisdom and changed direction, throwing his organizational muscle to the countryside instead of the cities. Two years later, in the parliamentary elections of 1930, the Nazis suddenly emerged as a force with just over 18 percent of the vote. And in 1932 they reached just over 37 percent of the vote nationally, their high-water mark, prompting Hitler to call on President Hindenburg to name him chancellor.
Hindenberg scheduled another parliamentary election instead, and in November of 1932 Hitler’s Nazi party suffered a major reversal, losing 2 million votes by comparison with its results just four months earlier. Then, in a fateful miscalculation, thinking the Nazis were now in a weakened state and thus controllable, Hindenberg proceeded to name Hitler chancellor after all.
Hitler now held sway over the police and the only electronic media of the age—radio.
On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag, the parliamentary building, was set on fire. And though to this day it is unclear whether the Nazis deliberately arranged the fire or only used it as an opportune pretext, the Reichstag fire became the justification for the arrests en masse of known Communists, including all Communist members of Parliament, clearing away the Nazis’ main adversary.
What followed with almost blinding speed was the consolidation of power by Hitler, the building of a war machine, and then the start of Second World War itself. Within just a few months, the Nazis had asserted complete control over industrial output, finance, labor, the military, and politics in Germany.
But, to be clear, and as Hamilton states emphatically, the key election was the one that took place on July 31, 1932, when Hitler’s Nazi party secured only 37.3 percent of the national vote.
As Hamilton writes, “Since only three out of eight voters supported Hitler at that point, one must ask, which Germans voted for Hitler?”
He doesn’t stop there: “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?”
He goes on: “Sometimes the facts that everyone knows prove to be the least known since the complete and utter certainty about them discourages inquiry.” Sometimes, in other words, people prefer a half-truth or a falsehood to knowing the truth, in the same way that a terminally ill patient might choose not to know the prognosis, since the news isn’t good.
Hamilton writes extensively about the East Prussian town of Thalburg. In April 1930, the Sozialdemokratische Partei (the Social Democratic Party or SPD) announced a major rally there on the subject of “Dictatorship or Democracy.” The Nazis announced a counter-rally on the same day at the same time. The local police then prohibited both meetings. With the goal of preventing the SPD rally achieved, the Nazis now announced that their meeting would proceed, only at a new location in a small village just outside of town.
About 2,000 people came out for it, where they saw among other stirring sights a parade of some 800 Sturmabteilung, or storm troopers (SA). The local press coverage emphasized how impressed Thalburgers were by the “size and determination” the Nazis displayed.
Two years later, in the election year of 1932, by which time the National Socialists had grown to be a major, albeit minority, force in German national politics, the biggest event of the year in the East Prussia region around Thalburg was a speech by Hitler himself. The Nazi Party arranged for trains to bring people in from all over the region. It was going to be an open-air meeting with seating capacity for 100,000 people, scheduled to begin at 8 in the evening. The seats were all filled by early afternoon. When Hitler’s plane flew overhead just before 8, there was a roar of “Heil!” from the swastika flag– and handkerchief-waving crowd.
The impression was of a surging movement. But at the time, dues-paying National Socialists in Thalburg numbered only 40 souls.
The paramilitary SA not only provided protection at events but also, traveling from place to place for planned events, bulked up appearances. And they were formidable fighters, many of them seasoned former Freikorps fighters who felt that Germany’s traditional leaders had betrayed them by signing the Armistice. Their leather shoulder straps with buckles served double duty when wrapped around their fists to add injury to their punches, and they also carried blackjack clubs and brass knuckles. Since many of the SA were unemployed, the Nazis set up soup kitchens and free breakfast programs, and these locations became natural gathering places for the party’s hardcore enforcers.
Meanwhile, Hamilton writes:
Thalburg’s Socialists maintained slogans and methods which had little correspondence with reality. They maintained the façade of a revolutionary party when they were no longer prepared to lead a revolution. They never seriously attempted to mend fences with the middle class and frequently offended bourgeois sensibilities.
So while some one-third of the erosion of support for the SPD went to the Kommunistische Partei (Communist Party or KPD) in the town of Thalburg, most of the other two-thirds went to the Nazis. In fact, Hamilton seems to believe that the Communists and Socialists mainly served as a threat with which the Nazis could whip up anti-Communist fervor, much as the radical right in America today uses socialism as a pejorative term with greater success than the Democratic center is able to harness the real possibilities democratic socialism has to offer middle-class Americans.
In the decisive July 31, 1932, election, Hitler received exactly 37.3 percent of the overall vote across Germany. He fared less well in the cities, averaging 32.3 percent in urban centers with populations over 100,000. However, in towns with fewer than 25,000 inhabitants he scored better, averaging 41.3 percent of the vote. And in some of the smallest rural communities across Germany, he scored 80 percent or more of the votes, and in several the Nazi vote was 100 percent. The rural groundswell for Hitler included people of all classes and income levels. And the more it was a question of Protestant communities, the better Hitler did. It would later become something of a footnote, but throughout most of these years, the conservative lay Catholic Zentrumspartei (Center Party) was a bulwark against Hitler’s Nazis, along with the radical Communists, and the once-dominant SPD socialists. But what is most striking is how none of these three major parties managed to present a clear alternative.
In the rural communities where the allure of Nazism was strongest, the main competition was the two parties of the left, the SPD and the KPD. Up until the First World War, the Social Democrats had commanded 60 percent or more of the vote nationally and had this majority among working-, middle-, and upper-middle-class voters. After the seismic upheavals of the early decades of the 20th century and then the First World War, the major Weimar parties had turned their backs on their citizens’ needs and aspirations. Hamilton finds no evidence to support the truism that a disenfranchised lower-middle class embraced Hitler’s Nazi Party. What he does find is that the Nazis were a party that organized people, especially in rural communities; that it was largely a Protestant phenomenon; and that it coincided with an inability and disinterest on the part of the major parties of the left to organize, even though the SPD had commanded the loyalty of the majority of German voters not so many years before.
Similarly to the unprecedented number of voters here in the 2020 US presidential election, the level of participation in the German vote increased from 1928 to 1930, and again from 1930 to 1932, from 74.6 percent in 1928, to 81.4 percent in 1930, to 83.4 percent in 1932. And everything possible was done during the Weimar years to enfranchise voters in Germany, from having elections on Sundays so as not to compete with work demands, to having ballot drop-offs at convenient locations.
At the same time, there was a shift in these years, generally, away from the traditional liberal and conservative parties, toward the parties of the left on the one hand and the Nazis on the other. The threat of the Communists was perceived to be ever greater, even if in reality their influence was decreasing and the KPD itself was drifting in a more moderate direction by design. But the revolution in Russia was on everyone’s mind. And from Hamilton one gets the general sense that the major liberal and conservative parties increasingly saw Hitler and his party as a hedge against the left. In other words, the enfranchised German voters of the upper classes felt that Hitler could appeal to workers who might otherwise align themselves with the Communists. And, together with this, the establishment parties felt they could control Hitler, make sure he worked for them, and use him as their attack dog who, despite his violent ways (or possibly because of them), was still essentially supportive of the same German Protestant conservative values that they themselves espoused. Whereas they would never imagine they could control the German Communists, who after all were closely aligned with Russian Communists.
Hamilton asks, “Where did the voters of the Weimar period get their information about the National Socialists?” Answer: from newspapers. And he goes on to scrutinize the mainstream liberal, conservative, business, and other special interest press. From the Munich Beer Hall Putsch of 1923—which first introduced Hitler and the Nazis to the German people—onward, the press was surprisingly indulgent of Hitler. Something like: Hitler may not always use methods we would agree with, but he has Germany’s best interests at heart, he is passionate, and he says things we agree with even though we might not come out and say them. Or as one editorial put it on April 3, 1924, following his conviction on charges of treason for his role in the putsch, Hitler sought a Germany “free from the domination of international Jewry and finance capital, free from…Marxism and bolshevism.” From the outset, Hitler was presented positively across the whole spectrum of conservative and liberal newspapers as a man of action who could “effectively counter the Marxist threat.”
Many of the mainstream newspapers of Germany—the Fox News, CNN, NBC, Twitter, and Facebook combined of the day—all came to take what Hamilton terms “an avuncular attitude toward the National Socialists.” They may not have supported them, but they did not condemn them outright either, treating them more as rascals whose heart was in the right place.
“As for the violence,” Hamilton writes, “these newspapers provided an easy excuse: it was a justified response to the provocations or attacks that had come first from the other side.”
At the same time, these same newspapers exaggerated the Communist threat greatly. Although the KPD was in disarray and mostly coming to a more moderate stance overall, the newspapers, both of the center and of the right, still presented a convincing and threatening picture of the Communist danger. So the fight for the hearts and minds of Germany’s voters became an unequal one: The Nazis and their supporters conveyed a sense of extreme urgency, whereas the alternatives to the Nazis, including the Communists, social democrats, and traditional conservatives, were not able to present their own cases in ways that were either urgent or even clear.
In Berlin, “the highest levels of support for the National Socialists came from the upper- and upper-middle-class districts.” Accounting for the Jewish vote and the Catholics who voted for the Center Party, Hitler’s Nazis commanded some 60 percent of the vote in those districts—nearly twice the national average. On the other hand, the lower-middle-class and working-class districts gave Hitler’s party a substantial minority of their votes, somewhere between one-quarter and three-eighths.
The trend in Berlin was repeated in Frankfurt, Cologne, Munich, Hanover, Stuttgart, Nuremberg, and Mannheim, with slight variations. Again and again, Hamilton shows below-average support for Hitler in working-class districts, and higher support in upper-middle-class and wealthy ones. There were pockets of rabid support for the Nazis in rural areas. But what we see repeated in chapter after chapter of Who Voted for Hitler? is the disproportionate support for Hitler from the well-heeled districts, motivated by their sense that Hitler would be their weapon against Communism; and because the Nazis had also successfully nurtured a covert anti-Semitism among the upper classes. Working class-neighborhoods were split more evenly, drawn to the Communists or Social Democrats, not strongly anti-Semitic, though susceptible certainly to the Nazi’s organizing exertions.
Hamilton devotes an entire chapter to what he terms “travelers and vacationers.” In the late 1920s and early ’30s, the Depression raged through war-scarred Germany. The country had seen the establishment of the eight-hour workday, and of unemployment insurance that was intended to cover three-quarters of a million unemployed workers. But the immediate effect of these measures was to make German manufacturing and industry less competitive with their counterparts in other European countries, and these worthy projects proved to be unsustainable in a country with an economy in free fall.
So when Hamilton decides to look closely at the votes of “travelers and vacationers,” what he is really examining is the votes of those who were well-enough off to be more or less completely untouched by the economic ruin all around them, who still took their usual vacations during July (when the first 1932 election occurred). And what he finds was that in the key elections of 1928, 1930, and 1932, these travelers gave two-thirds of their votes to Hitler.
Chillingly, Hamilton writes,
It is a point of some irony that the educated upper- and upper-middle-class populations, who react so enthusiastically to the claims of mass-society theories, should themselves have been the victims of a process that they, with such evident disdain, assume to be moving other people. In this case, it would appear that the demagogues, with some aid from the media, had considerable success in moving the upper- and upper-middle class masses.
Most industrialists and business leaders favored the major traditional parties, but a notable minority supported Hitler. Within the Kaiser’s family, Prince August Wilhelm was an early Nazi Party member, and after the July 1932 election he was joined by Crown Prince Wilhelm. The Nazis spoke of “national renewal,” and Germans would have listened to that rhetoric more closely having been given permission, as it were, by these examples of Nazi support.
And then, one after another, the traditional conservative parties—including the Center Party, which had kept itself aloof from any sign of support for Hitler and his National Socialists for over a decade—began in the late 1920s and early ’30s, as the worldwide economic depression took its toll, to form alliances with the Nazis. These alliances were characterized above all by a wishing away of the undisguised violence, including the murders of political opponents, the destruction of the property of despised groups, and other tactics, despite their being transparently visible.
And so it was that the Center Party finally capitulated to an alliance with the Nazis in March of 1933, an alliance of Catholics with Protestants, giving Hitler his first majority, which in turn allowed him to assume dictatorial powers. In a word, there came to be, if not a consensus, then at least irresistible momentum around the idea that what Germany needed wasn’t a democracy so much as a strong leader, a Führer.
Hitler is named chancellor on January 30, 1933, cements control in the March 5 elections, and secures dictatorial powers under the Enabling Act passed on March 23. Once he has been installed fully in power, among the first things he does is to outlaw the Communists and cripple the Social Democrats. At the same time, the bourgeois parties are dissolved, and the paramilitaries are consolidated under Hitler’s SA. Even the central organization of German business, the Reichsverband der Deutschen Industrie, is dissolved and integrated into a Nazi Party–dominated front.
Military expenditures increase during the 1930s by 2,000 percent. Taxes on business skyrocket, essentially doubling from 20 percent in 1934 to 40 percent in 1939, and caps are placed on profits from stocks and bonds, and interest rates.
In all, state control is total and the country is put completely in a war economy.
It could be—and the more I read Hamilton, the more I believe it—that the greatest danger with a movement like the one embodied by Hitler’s militant National Socialists does not stem from the movement itself, always a minority, but rather within the larger society and its halfhearted disavowal of the Nazis, together with a kind of secret brainwashing of the educated and well-off middle class that is vulnerable precisely because they think they aren’t.
Theory helps. And Hamilton finds solace in an array of theories. The Marxist idea that fascism is the last stage of capitalism largely explains what happened in Germany between the years 1928–32. Hamilton writes, “This view sees fascism…as an agency of the bourgeoisie, as the means used in its last-ditch effort to maintain its position and prerogatives.” But while the Marxist agency theory has legitimacy in terms of how Hitler was brought to power, it fails to apply once he assumes power, by which time business leaders and the wealthy and aristocratic supporters of Hitler have essentially no power at all.
Hamilton also describes what he calls the “mass-society” theory, whereby alienated groups and individuals find themselves more susceptible to demagogues the more isolated and powerless they feel.
And there is the centrist theory, whereby advanced capitalist societies essentially steal from the poor and middle classes to give to the wealthy classes, and the population of poor and middle class then “desperately seek to restore their lost social position.”
Yet these theories are all undermined by the fact of Nazi support from within all sectors of German society. Yes, the party largely dominated the Protestant countryside. But it prevailed not because of upper-middle-class voters there, or because of lower-middle-class voters anywhere, but rather because of support from all types of voters (other than Catholics and Jews).
That is, the Nazis came to power because they had enough support from almost every demographic group, and not strenuous enough opposition from any demographic or gatekeeping group. And if your heart is sinking because of how familiar that sounds, I feel the same way.
In place of Marxist agency theory, Hamilton proposes something he calls Caesarism, whereby “an armed force can take power and…it can do so independently of the will of an established ruling class.”
And then he describes something he calls his theory of “historical possibilities,” as distinct from “historical necessity.”
Remember that during the same period when Germany, Italy, and Spain turned to fascism, Scandinavia went socialist. England saw a dramatic shift to a conservative government in 1931. Canada also went conservative. But the following year, the United States turned to laissez-faire Democrats without it being clear what they were going to do.
He searches for the unique situations in which Germany might have found its cadres—and finds it in the tens of thousands of German soldiers who were decommissioned at the end of World War I. Military careers in the Freikorps gave them training, military experience, and mutual trust. Tens of thousands of them ultimately found their way into the SA.
A most impactful provision of the Versailles treaty, it turns out, was to drastically reduce the size of the German military, pushing out hundreds of thousands of young men, “providing these men with one very substantial additional grievance and then injecting them directly into civilian life,” as Hamilton writes.
A pithy and breathtaking comparison might be drawn here with the decommissioning of the rebel army at the end of the only other protracted war of the prior century, which was America’s Civil War, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante groups that followed it.
As I read Hamilton, I found myself wondering how committed Americans really are to our democratic institutions and traditions.
Clearly, half the country is not very committed to them since, despite Trump’s claims, his attacks on those very institutions have been transparent and constant. And yet they voted for him rather than the alternative. And, ironically, because Trump’s supporters love to shower hate on China, we have China as a vivid living example of the benefits that can accrue when you are willing to give up to the state your freedoms of speech, your vote, the rights of minorities, and other fundamental rights and principles.
Although China’s Covid cases are on the rise again, its containment was far more successful than that of comparably sized countries. It achieved this by imposing absolute control over people’s behavior, probably saving hundreds of thousands of lives in the process.
The standard of living has improved steadily and dramatically over the last half-century in China. GDP growth dwarfs that of the United States and other highly developed countries.
Americans are not blind to these things. Is the unspoken message that chaos is the price we must pay for our democracy?
It shouldn’t have to be. Hitler was not able to deliver on any of his promises. Nor was Trump. But another authoritarian leader might. In a sense, China has.
How many of us are willing to make sacrifices for the freedoms we cherish?
We need to remind ourselves that in fighting for democracy what we are fighting for isn’t chaos, or to have an administration that is better than Trump’s.
It’s only worth it if the fight is for a future in which all people really are treated equitably, and with natural respect; where all people are entitled to a basic standard of living that includes universal health care; where we make peace also with the natural world around us and stabilize or reverse global warming and ecological despoliation; and where no one is homeless or hungry.
Unless these are the things we’re fighting for, it’s a losing battle.
These are the lessons of Hitler, and also the lessons of Trump.
And what of the myth of the “Good German”—those citizens who denied actively supporting the Nazis, yet did not meaningfully resist? Here is Hannah Arendt, in a long piece of reportage from post-war Germany published in Commentary in 1950:
All those who became Nazis after 1933 yielded to some kind of pressure, which ranged from the crude threat to life and livelihood, to various considerations of career, to reflections about the ‘irresistible stream of history.’ In the cases of physical or economic pressure, there should have been the possibility of mental reservation, of acquiring with cynicism that absolutely necessary membership card. But, curiously, it seems that very few Germans were capable of such healthy cynicism; what bothered them was not the membership card but the mental reservation, so that they often ended by adding to their enforced enrollment the necessary convictions, in order to shed the burden of duplicity.
While Arendt is writing in 1950 about what happened after the 1933 accession to absolute power, Hamilton has chosen for himself a very different subject: the years 1928–33, when most Germans—five of every eight—were still refusing the blandishments and appeals of the Nazis or, as he puts it, when “some segments of the German population proved susceptible while others were unmoved.”
Hamilton makes his case here elegantly. It is the case against oversimplification. The idea of the Good German is dangerous to us because it suggests that the national character flaw by which Germans fell into the hell of Hitlerism could never happen here. The percentage of American voters who still support Trump is already vastly greater than the percentage of Germans that supported Hitler during his rise to power.
Hitler took control of Germany because he was able to garner enough support from within all levels of German society. And because the resistance to him was not forceful or indignant enough, because it was no longer grounded in a value system that stood for something completely different from what Hitler stood for. The nature of Hamilton’s peculiar genius is that, researching and writing his book at the beginning of the Reagan era four decades ago, he saw Trump coming.
We remember that the German period directly preceding Hitler’s rise was dotted with revolutions large and small. None had ultimately succeeded, but all had some impact on the national discourse: Violent seizure of power had become institutionalized and engrained—although no coup had yet succeeded.
The Communists had attempted the largest number of these failed revolutions, and suffered the most from the fallout. Communist leaders, including Rosa Luxemburg, had been summarily assassinated after the failed Communist Revolution of 1919 in Germany.
Newspapers and the government and the judiciary condemned the participants of the revolutions from the left, even as they were indulgent of the participants of the revolutions from the right.
You could say that although Hitler came to power by means of an election and then a negotiation, his success in voters’ and politicians’ minds resulted directly from his willingness to engage in undemocratic, often violent, actions.
Hitler served eight months of a five-year sentence for the attempted putsch in 1923. And rather than denigrate him in people’s minds, it elevated him. He was seen for the next two decades not so much as a dangerous criminal, but rather as a man of action. It was as if the people of Germany weren’t looking for a democratic leader after all, but for one who might present them with an alternative to democracy. A Führer, it turns out, could offer the people something they craved very deeply, a sense of totality that embodies democracy by denying it.
Since the history of the 20th century is one of escalating violence, it can be difficult to see the last years of Weimar Germany as anything other than the beginning of something much larger than itself. But one of Hamilton’s feats is that his reliance on the data means that he stays in the moment.
Eric Hobsbawm takes almost the exact opposite approach to the writing of history, making every part relational to every other part, foreseeing tectonic shifts. But Hobsbawm is the kind of historian, as most are, who impose their point of view and use it to see into events, whereas Hamilton is letting the data tell its own story.
Here is Hobsbawm listing the values of 19th century liberal civilization before going on to recount their complete collapse during and immediately after the end of the First World War (in The Age of Extremes, his history of “the short century” from 1914–91): “These values were a distrust of dictatorship and absolute rule; a commitment to constitutional government with or under freely elected governments and representative assemblies, which guaranteed the rule of law; and an accepted set of citizens’ rights and liberties, including freedom of speech, publication and assembly.” These had been the guarantors, he emphasizes, that had produced a century without a world war.
Hamilton uses voter records to pry open that same story in a new and different way. The shock expressed by Hobsbawm is contextual, informed by the horrors of the 20th century to come. Hamilton is more of a leapfrogger, and in his jump from 1933 to 1982 he sees the horror in new ways.
We are respiring again across America after winning this presidential election and limiting Trump’s administration to one term. At the same time, nothing could be clearer than that we are not out of the woods yet.
In the years 2016–20, we submitted to, and became accustomed to, authoritarianism. We stood passively by and watched brave individuals be punished, in the State Department and elsewhere, for simply telling what they knew under oath, as they were obligated to, and whose careers and lives were then ruined. We did nothing to stop it. This has long been the case for whistleblowers, from Daniel Ellsberg to Thomas Drake. But under Trump we saw it happen to hundreds of individuals simply doing their jobs. Even after Biden’s electoral victory, Trump continued his outrages, and we submitted to them.
All year long in 2020, we saw people of color murdered by state security forces, without redress. We protested, but the powers that be have waited out those protests. Little has changed. As Americans, our protests were muted and gentle by comparison with the wrongs we were protesting against.
We learned fear at a whole new level; we learned inequality at a whole new level. How is it that we tolerate a population of the homeless and the hungry in this, the richest nation in the world?
We withstood these daily assaults and defeats and then dealt authoritarianism a blow at the ballot box.
But there were 70,000,000 Americans who found they preferred being citizens subject to authoritarianism to being citizens in a democracy. Our job now is to make the fruits, the honor, the protections of living as citizens in a democracy so consistent and true that the arc continues to bend in the direction of justice. There’s no middle ground.
Speaking of Weimar Germany, Hamilton writes that, “Despite its threatening appearance, the left actually was a sheep in wolf’s clothing.”
At one point, he likens a historian to a mapmaker, and refers to the kind of mapmaker who actually journeys through the land he is mapping, and calls that kind of mapmaker an explorer. I think that’s what Hamilton is too, the kind of explorer who makes maps based on what his own eyes see.
He credits Marx and Engels for creating an awareness of class that permeated discussion during the Weimar period, and then lent itself to the false narrative that Hitler was supported largely by the lower middle classes. And Hamilton has some things to say about the United States, worth quoting at length, with the reminder again that he is writing at the beginning of the Reagan years:
The lower middle classes [in the United States], allowing for some differences by ethnicity and religion, proved to be generally liberal, that is, favorable to the welfare state, approving aid to the poor and needy. They did not appear to be desperate or anxious. Nor did they appear to be hostile either to business or labor or to racial or ethnic minorities. They did not show any unique propensities to vote for rightist candidates, either for Barry Goldwater or for George Wallace. A very large portion identified themselves as working class. This means that in the United States, too, the centrist claims have been sustained through processes of group dynamics rather than through the presentation of appropriate evidence. As in the case of the German original, here, too, one finds a consensus on the part of the mapmakers who had failed to undertake the obvious prior task, exploration.
In the late 1940s, many of the same leaders that Hitler had beaten down in the early 1930s returned to lead Germany, but now instead of arrogance and intransigence, these leaders of the left, right, and center, chastened by defeat and unprecedented destruction, showed a bit more humility and a willingness to compromise when discussing questions of constitutionality and policy.
Hamilton quotes the German intellectual and refugee from Hitler’s Germany, Henry Pachter: “The great discovery was that the dividing line is not between Left and Right but between decent people and political gangsters, between tolerant people and totalitarians.”
Hannah Arendt is less sanguine: “The factory owners as a class had been good Nazis, or at least strong supporters of a regime that had offered, in exchange for some relinquishment of private control, to bring the whole European trade and industrial system into German hands.” And she notes that after World War II ended, “they have regained their old power over the working class,” and adds, “that is, the only class in Germany which…had never been wholeheartedly Nazi.” And because it is so important, she immediately continues hammering in this point: “In other words, at the time when denazification was the official watchword of Allied policy in Germany, power was returned to people whose Nazi sympathies were a matter of record, and power was taken away from those whose untrustworthiness with regard to the Nazis had been the only somewhat established fact in an otherwise fluctuating situation.”
Hamilton’s last words in Who Voted for Hitler? are these:
Regrettably, one again sees the emergence of political gangsterism and the surfacing of totalitarian aspirations in many places throughout the world, this time, to be sure, with changed symbols, with different words and slogans, with a new face. It is as if human beings were condemned to experience such things as a phase in an ever-recurring cycle. There is a task for the genuinely critical intellectual—to break that cycle, to assure a more human course for human affairs.
Our task at hand has never been more onerous.