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Image: a poster from the 1932 elections, which reads “Workers of the mind and hand! Vote for the front soldier Adolf Hitler!” Source: German Propaganda Archive at Calvin College,

Who Became a National Socialist? Who Voted for Hitler?

To find out what sort of person voted for the NSDAP or who joined the party is not as easy a task as it might seem. Problems begin with the distinction between voter and party member: the two groups overlapped, of course, but they were not identical. The two groups present very different methodological problems as well. The social characteristics of party members, for example, can be established with far greater specificity than is possible with voting constituencies. For information about party members, one can use the NSDAP's own membership, which are housed in the Berlin Document Center. Balloting in pre-1933 Germany was secret, however, so for information on Nazi party voters one must deduce their social and cultural characteristics from comparisons between election results and the make-up of localities that produced them. First let's take a look at the general election returns:

Election Returns, 1919-1933

The following chart shows the results of national parliamentary elections in Germany, beginning with the constituent assembly, elected in 1919, and ending with the last free election in December, 1932, just a few weeks before Hitler was appointed Chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg. Each political party is identified by a distinct color. The total number of seats varied according to voter turnout, so the population grew and pariticpation increased, the sheer size of the Reichstag grew nearly by half. Parties on the political left are shown in red shades; parties on the anti-democratic right are shown in shades of brown. In-between are the so-called "bourgeois" parties of the middle, which together with the Social Democratic Party (SPD) constituted the founding coalition of the Weimar Republic.

These returns show a clear pattern: throughout the 1920s, and especially after the Great Depression hit Germany in 1929, the moderate parties of the "bourgeois middle" steadily lost support, while parties on the extreme right and left -- the Nazis and the Communists -- gained strength. Two mainstay parties of the Weimar Republic, the Catholic Center Party, or Zentrum, and the SPD, held steady after 1924, more or less. Particularly dramatic was transformation of the NSDAP from a radical right-wing fringe organization in the 1924 election into the largest single party in the German parliament. In July 1932, the NSDAP reached its electoral apex, winning over 37% in a free election [contrary to popular belief in the United States, the NSDAP never won an absolute majority of votes in a free election, and Hitler was never "elected" to lead the country].


NSDAP = National Socialist German Workers' Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei); the Nazis
DNVP = German National People's Party (Deutschnationale Volkspartei); the nationalists
DVP = German People's Party (Deutsche Volkspartei); an increasingly right-wing bourgeois party
BVP = Bavarian People's Party (Bayerische Volkspartei); a center-right party of Bavarian regional interests
Z = Center Party (Zentrumspartei); the party of Roman Catholics
DDP = German Democratic Party (Deutsche Demokratische Partei); a center-left liberal party
SPD = Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands); the majority socialist party
USPD = Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (Unabhängoge Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands); the independent socialists
KPD = Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands)

If one breaks down voting by district, several obvious patterns emerge. One is a relationship between region, religion, and National Socialism. The map at the right compares Reichstag election returns from 20 May 1928 and 6 November 1932, broken down by electoral district. A comparison between the results of these two elections reveals that certain regions in the west and south were highly resistant to Nazi inroads; these regions were predominantly Roman Catholic by religion, strongholds of the Center Party (or Zentrum). In the Reichstag elections of July 1932, 42% of German Catholics voted Zentrum or the Bavarian People's Party (its sister-party in Bavaria). This points at one of the strongest correlations in Nazi voting behavior: the NSDAP typically fared best in Protestant regions of Germany, poorest in the Catholic parts. 
     Many historians argue that a similar correlation existed between class and voting: the NSDAP performed less well in heavily industrialized districts with large working-class populations, and this seems to be born out by the resilience of the Social Democratic and Communist constituencies during the period between 1928 and 1933, when the NSDAP became the largest single party in Germany. Thus 40-45% of blue collar workers voted for the SPD or the KPD in 1932, while only 10% of workers voted for one of the Catholic parties. The remainder were divided among the various bourgeois parties of the middle and right; by 1930 most of these were voting for the NSDAP. But overall, Nazis remained a minority among blue-collar voters. (Map source: Richard Overy, The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich (1996), 21). 

All this suggests that the biggest shifts in voter behavior took place within the middle classes—as the collapse of the bourgeois parties suggests. The idea in a nutshell, is that the Nazi party owed its success to a middle-class defection from the Republic, its values and institutions. By why? Historians have devised several theories to explain this shift.

This Nazi campaign flyer, from 1932, is directed at Communists and offers them mutual aid and support if they abandon their party and vote National Socialist.  Source: German Propaganda Archive,
1) Mass Psychology:
This is the idea that Nazism's appeal was deeply psychological, rooted in irrational fears of isolation in an atomized, industrial society. Nazism seemed to offer a sense of purpose and community to people who lacked both. For them, Nazism offered the promise of integration in a purposeful community, a way out of the rootlessness of modern life. According to this explanation, one would expect Nazism to resonate most strongly among the least integrated social groups, such as war veterans, unmarried youth, and victims of the Great Depression—among whom feelings of isolation and powerlessness were most pronounced; one would also expect to find that Nazism appealed least in highly integrated communities. 
2) Middle-Class Panic:
In his classic study, The Nazi Seizure of Power, William Sheridan Allen argued that after the Great Depression struck, middle class Germans turned to Nazism not because they had suffered greatly but because they feared that they might. Such concerns were especially pronounced among the lower middle class, especially members of the “old” middle class occupations—independent artisans and retailers, middling farmers, employees. These were the people who were most vulnerable to the effects of an industrialized, consumer-oriented economy, who were the most exposed to the threat of a decline in social status, who were in the greatest danger of falling into the “proletariate.” In contrast to the established middle class parties, the NSDAP exhibited vitality and dynamism; to members of the “old” middle class, Nazism promised a restoration of their social, economic, and political importance. 

This poster from the November 1932 elections declares Hitler to be “our last hope”.  Source: German Propaganda Archive,

This Reichstag campaign poster from 1932 promises to deliver a “final blow” to the Center Party—symbolized by a Catholic priest—and the Marxist parties of the left. Source: German Propaganda Archive,
3) Political 'Confessionalism':
Why did some social groups prove so vulnerable to Nazism, while others did not? The theory of political confessionalism draws on the 'mass psychology' thesis to explain why certain middle-class groups were resistant to Nazism, while others became easily frustrated with the political parties that represented them. From the 'mass psychology' theory it borrows the idea that poorly integrated people were especially susceptible to the NSDAP's appeals; it adds the notion that political parties that offered strong identities and dense social networks 'immunized' their members against Hitler. These effects were most pronounced among German Catholics—hence the Zentrum's resilience—and among members of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Communist Party (KPD). These parties provided their members far more than ideology; they offered a rich associational life, a sense of common purpose and distinction.

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