Thursday, March 5, 2009

Who Voted For Hitler

Richard F. Hamilton’s Who Voted for Hitler is a great example of how historical sociology should be done—open mindedly, based on careful examination of the evidence.

By carefully going through the evidence, Hamilton builds up a nuanced picture of voting support for the NSDAP. He makes it quite clear that the Nazis were building strength and support prior to the economic collapse of 1929 and were doing so due to a much more effective and energised organisational structure than rival political parties.

He includes a nice discussion of the distinction between Parties of notables, whereby socially prominent people band together, and Parties of integration, based on membership structures. He also understands how political movements are a way of acceptably expressing hostility (Pp 471-2).

Hamilton has a good sense of daily life. Thus, he traces life-cycle shifts in the history of activists and is well aware of business’s removed and utilitarian attitude to politics. (A nice change from the normal academic incomprehension of commercial life and pressures.)
He includes an excellent discussion of paramilitaries as the normal response to traumatic demobilisation combined with defeat or military frustration, citing the cases of the Confederacy, Post WWI Italy & Germany and post-Algeria France (Pp 445ff). We can now add another case to his list, as an article on Iraq by Kanan Makiya shows:
Nor did I ever imagine that the conversion of the Iraqi army into a civil reconstruction force—which is what I and others called for in the run-up to 2003—would be translated into Paul Bremer’s order for the overnight firing, without pension, of half a million or so men. Certainly, I never imagined the breathtaking incompetence of the American occupation.
Michael Moore famously compared the insurgents of Iraq to minutemen: a better analogy would be the first Ku Klux Klan, but fighting for the retention of Sunni, rather than white, dominance and from a much more unfavourable demographic base.

Hamilton's analysis is enlivened by his nice turn of phrase, such as The left were sheep in wolves’ clothing (p.457).

Hamilton takes quiet delight in demolishing simple theories sadly incompatible with the evidence from the Marxist ("fascists as tool of big business") or simple class analysis ("working class did not vote fascist", "fascist support was lower middle class"). As he points out, the “lower middle class” hypothesis lacks actual evidence. The Nazis gained votes from all classes, including significant working class votes. Protestant rural areas were particularly fertile ground because the “politics of notables” could not compete in providing activists and the rival “parties of integration” scorned rural voters. This was not the case in Catholic areas, where the Zentrum remained an effective competitor. The SPD was blinkered by its ideology (unlike, for example, the Norwegian Labour Party) while the KPD had nothing to offer most rural voters.

It is one of the strengths of the book that Hamilton examines carefully the NSDAP’s competition as well as the NSDAP, thus building up a much more complete picture.

Hamilton seems to have a sense for how people can like their theory because it is their theory and marks them as a good person even in the face of contrary evidence. He also seems to have a sense of the analytically harmful separatedness of rather too many academics from ordinary life.

But the real strength of the book is the careful attention to the evidence. Who Voted for Hitler is an excellent study of electoral politics, an extremely useful text in understanding the appeal and success of Nazism.

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