Who Became a Nazi, and Why?

1) Mass Psychology:
The political scientist Jürgen Falter examined these theories in light of evidence on the membership of the Nazi party—who joined, what sort of people they were, where they lived, and so on. If the mass psychology theory is correct, for example, one would expect to find an unusually large proportion of unmarried people in its ranks.

At first glance, the data seem to uphold the "mass psychology" theory: over 50% of people who joined the NSDAP before 1933 were younger than 30. New members were heavily overrepresented in the two youngest age groups, heavily underrepresented in the two older groups. But things get more complicated when one examines the proportion of unmarried people among new members of the NSDAP:

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If the "mass psychology" theory is correct, one would expect to find that unmarried people overrepresented among new members of the NSDAP. True, about 52% of new NSDAP members were unmarried, in comparison to 44% of the general population. But if one adds in divorced and widowed members to the mix and distinguishes among age groups, the contrast with the general population is not so sharp, except among those in the middle stage of life, people between the ages of 25 and 60. The overrepresentation of unmarried newcomers is strongest, oddly, among the 40-60 cohort. Among the youngest new members, new members of the NSDAP were actually less likely to be single. Among people aged sixty or older, Nazis were no different from the population at large.
        There is another problem with the "mass psychology" theory. If it is correct, one would expect the largest numbers of new members to come from places where people felt most isolated and atomized—large metropolitan areas, not closely knit small towns or villages:

But in this respect, Nazis were virtually indistinguishable from the population at large. In towns with fewer than 5,000 inhabitants, in fact, new members of the NSDAP were actually overrepresented.
        In one respect, however, the data on voting patterns seem to confirm the "mass psychology" hypothesis. The anxieties it purports to describe were shared, presumably, by people of all social backgrounds, so one would expect to find all social groups represented in the Nazi constituency. A look at the social composition of new NSDAP members from the early days seems to support this interpretation:

This graph, based on data assembled by Michael Kater, reveals a party that shows no particular class or status profile, but draws its members from all walks of life.
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2) Middle-Class Panic
What, then, about the "middle-class panic" thesis? According to this thesis, we should expect to find working-class Germans underrepresented among the party faithful, and lower middle class Germans overrepresented. There is no doubt that middle- and upper-class Germans were consistently overrepresented in the Nazi Party, as Michael Kater's data show:


Note: in this chart, "Lower" class includes: unskilled workers, craft workers, and other skilled workers; "Middle" includes master artisans, nonacademic professionals, lower and mid-level employees, lower and mid-level civil servants, self-employed merchants, retailers, and self-employed farmers; "Upper" includes managers, high-ranking civil servants, academic professionals, students, and entrepreneurs.

The overrepresentation of middle class Germans persisted throughout the party's existence; lower middle class Germans made up 42.65% of the entire population in 1933, according to these calculations, while their portion of new members to the NSDAP in the same year was 57.1%. They are overrepresented in the data from 1923 as well.
        But Jürgen Falter found that 40% of all newcomers to the NSDAP between 1925 and 1933 were wage-laborers—in other words, working-class Germans were overrepresented among newcomers to the party:

This is a discovery that contradicts basic assumptions behind the middle-class panic theory. Curiously, the effect disappears if one distinguishes between the sexes: working-class women were overrepresented among new NSDAP members. By the same token, the proportion of male employees (Angestellte) and self-employed men among party newcomers was significantly greater than their portion of the male population at large:

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Among non-employed womem, most of them housewives, Nazi women were sharply underrepresented. What does it all mean, on balance?

[Kater = Michael Kater, The Nazi Voter (1983); Mühlberger = Detlef Mühlberger, Hitler's Followers (1991)]

As these data show, middle class Germans were indeed heavily overrepresented among new members to the NSDAP prior to 1933, and this seems to confirm the "middle class" panic thesis. But it cannot explain why such a large proportion—even an overrepresentation—of lower class Germans turns up among new members of the NSDAP. For these reasons, it is too simple to characterize the NSDAP as a "middle class" party or even a party driven primarily by middle-class concerns.

3) Political 'Confessionalism'
What about the 'Political Confessionalism' theory? Once again, it is important to recognize the broad pattern: Roman Catholics were far less likely to vote NSDAP or join the party than Protestants were; working class Germans, on balance, were loyal enough to the SPD and KPD to ensure that the Marxist left always held between 160 and 200 seats in the Reichstag. Falter's data on newcomers to the NSDAP appear to confirm the effect of 'political confessionalism'—the resilience to Nazism exhibited by parties that had a strong ideological identity and were distinguished by a dense structure of social networks:

As this chart shows, new members of the Nazi party were overrepresented in localities where Catholics were few (0-24%), heavily underrepresented in localities where Catholics constituted a large majority (75-100%). But the differences are not, perhaps, as great as the theory might lead one to expect.

What emerges from this is a picture of a Nazi constituency that resists any too-easy reduction to class or status. True, "middle-class panic" may account for part of the Nazi appeal; but that doesn't explain why so many newcomers were working-class Germans. In its ability to draw members and voters from all walks of social life, the NSDAP truly was a "people's party".

Source: Kater, Nazi Party, Table 7, p. 253.

4) A Final Note: Women and National Socialism
One of the most durable factoids about the NSDAP's rapid ascent is the suggestion that women were primarily responsible for it. From the beginning and more than most parties, the NSDAP had made specific appeals to women. One interpretation has it that women, being fundamentally apolitical, were attracted by the Nazi's political transcendent claims. A counter argument holds that women were caught between rising expectations and shrinking possibilities: in the Weimar Republic, women earned only two thirds of male wages for the same work; over a third of women worked "at home" (i.e., were housewives or otherwise occupied domestically); only 10-12% university students were women. We should not be surprised, therefore, to learn that participated in elections less frequently than men did; any migration toward National Socialism would best be explained by factors less immediately related to gender roles, such as household income, 'middle class panic,' and the like.

Finding reliable answers to these questions is encumbered by the anonymity of voting: the results themselves say little about the relationship between the sex of voters and their electoral choices. Fortunately, efforts were made in the 1920s and 1930s to establish a relation, and while the resulting data are by no means comprehensive, they nevertheless suggest a more nuanced picture than the old stereotype of apolitical women irresistibly drawn to the charismatic leader. They show, on the one hand, that women were more likely to vote for religious, nationalist, or conservative parties than men were:

Note: The relationship between the sex of voters and choice of party is expressed with a 'Tingsten Index,' which the percentage of women who voted for a particular party divided by the percentage of men who voted for the party, multiplied by 100. If men and women vote in equal portion, the outcome is 100. Figures over 100 indicate an overrepresentation of female voters; figures under 100 represent an underrepresentation of women.

Women were heavily overrepresented among voters for the Catholic Center party as well as the center-right DVP and far right DNVP. On the other hand, women were consistently underrepresented among the Nazi electorate. This finding is confirmed by data (however incomplete) on the sex of people who voted for Hitler and the NSDAP:

This chart describes what proportion of women and men, respectively, who cast a ballot for the NSDAP in the Reichstag elections of 1928 and 1930 or who voted for Hitler in the presidential campaigns of 1932. These data show that women lagged consistently behind men in their electoral enthusiasms for the Nazi Party and its leader. To be sure, the proportion of women voting for the NSDAP increased faster than that of men between 1928 and 1930. But it is unwise to conclude much from this: it only means that the gender imbalance in favor of men lessened only slightly during the NSDAP's transformation from splinter party to mass movement. In any case, the thesis that women were responsible for Hitler's rise to power is simply at variance with the facts we are able to assemble.


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Jürgen Falter, Hitlers Wähler (Munich: C.H. Beck, 1991).
Jürgen Falter, “Wer wurde Nationalsozialist?: Eine Überprüfung von Theorien über die Massenbasis des Nationalsozialismus anhand neuer Datensätze zur NSDAP-Mitgliedschaft 1925-1933,” in Helge Grabitz et al., Die Normalität des Verbrechens: Bilanz und Perspektiven der Forschung zu den nationalsozialistischen Gewaltverbrechen (Berlin: Edition Hentrich, 1994), 20-41.
Michael Kater, The Nazi Party: A Social Profile of Members and Leaders, 1919-1945 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983).