Was Hitler democratically elected?

Written by Eike Pierstorff

In the comment section of a post in the Pharyngula science blog[1] I found an entry where a man rather emphatically stated “If you think that Hitler was democratically elected you should buy a good history book“. I do have a good history book (in fact, I have a lot of good history books), so I feel rather comfortable when I say that, yes, Hitler had been elected democratically.

People who say that Hitler wasn’t really elected are usually germanophiles who search for excuses for crimes of the german people in the “Third Reich” (the argument is that a small undemocratic minority oppressed the good people of germany). But since Pharyngula is an american blog the case here might be a lot less sinister. The idea that Hitler wasn’t elected democratically is probably an allusion to the fact that he[2] never got more than 50% of the votes (th e best result was some 44%). Americans, with their “the winner takes it all”-system tend to forget that you can win a german election without winning a majority.

The problem with this is that, without a majority, you have to form either a coalition with other parties, or  form a minority goverment, or both, and in fact that was the problem that had plagued the Republic from the beginning. To put the results into perspective, the 43,9% for the NSDAP in the 1933 election was the best result any party had ever had in the Republic of Weimar from 1919 to 1933[3] (second best was 37,8% for the Social Democrats immediately after WWI)[4]. Governments were habitually formed without any democratic basis at all, so the result of the 1933 election might have looked like a step forward.

It turned out that there is yet another way to govern without a majority – in March 1933 the german parliament passed what is known as „Ermächtigungsgesetz“ (Gesetz zur Behebung der Not von Volk und Reich), a law that allowed the Nazi/Deutschnationale Coalition to govern without the consent of the parliament. That this was in fact an unconstitutional law is a mere technicality – it was passed with a vast majority that would have allowed to change the constitution in any case, so the parliament skipped a step[5].

So,since Hitler and the NSDAP had more votes than any other party during the Republic of Weimar and governed on the basis of a law that had been passed by the absolute majority of the parliament is seems reasonable to conclude that he was indeed democratically elected.

The more important point is that this question is not as such relevant. I’m not sure you can blame the german people for electing or not electing Hitler [6] – after all he didn’t went into the election with the promise of perpetrating a holocaust, and his programme was not much more radical or antisemitic than that of some other parties. The pretty much collective crime of the german people[7] was that they supported Hitler and his party even after they had started comitting unspeakable crimes and that a sizable fraction of the population supported him in comitting those crimes.The difficult thing about democracy is that majorities (pluralities)[8] are sometimes wrong and that you have to decide if and when it is your moral duty to follow the wrong decisions many, or when to fight them.

[1] Dang, I can’t seem to find the post I’m refering to – no wonder, Prof. Myers writes more blog posts per month than I do in a year. In the post he was (again) adressing the silly contention that Darwinism inevitably results in genocide (actually it doesn’t).

[2] As a technicality “Hitler” wasn’t elected at all – the Republic of Weimar had a system of proportional representation where citizens elected parties, not persons. In practial terms the NSDAP was in some conservative parts of the electorate probably more a liabilty than an asset to Hitler. The german head of state Hindenburg appointed Hitler Chancellor only after he was reassured that the actual affairs of government would be run by the conservative Deutschnationale (German National) Party.

[3] Sautter, Udo „Deutsche Geschichte seit 1815: Daten, Fakten, Dokumente“ Tübingen 2004, p.166f

[4] Incidentally, counted in percentages the NSDAP had a better democratic legitimation than any party in the Federal Republic of Germany for at last 20 years – the best result in this time was 44,3% for the conservative „Union“ in the 1987 election and as the name suggests even this is a (permanent) coalition of two parties (CDU/CSU). For comparison, the elecorate in the Republic of Weimar was about 45 million voters, in the FRG it’s about 60 million.

[5] To the members of the Weimar parliament such a law looked propably less portentous than to a modern-day democrat; after all there had been already two previous „Ermächtigungsgesetze“ during the term of Friedrich Ebert .

[6] If anything it is strange that people elected a person who had already served a term for high treason.

[7] Yes, I know that phrase won’t make me any friends.

[8] The distinction between a majority and a plurality is much harder to make in german

    13 comments on “Was Hitler democratically elected?

    1. Interesting read, thanks for writing it. I hope you realize how relevant this is in the US right now..

    2. Your phrase “he didn’t went into the election” could use some clarification. Please feel free to delete this comment.

      I came searching for a better explanation, and you have given it. Thank you.

    3. Hitler was appointed! Hitler was never elected! He wasn’t on the ballot at all. The Nazi part was on the ballot. and even though they technically won many elections Hitler was passed over for the Chancellorship of German a few times. Hindenburg appointed Hitler via the recommendation of the ReichStag where the Nazi’s had a small majority at the time. The system in Germany at the time is much like the pass the post system of voting in Canada

    4. Was Hitler the last dictator to get rid of democracy and impose a one-party German state having been democratically elected himself ?

    5. I agree with TJF. The fundamental disagreement in the comments and above article seems to hinge on the definition of “elected.” In the British Parliamentary System, the leader of the party with the most votes is automatically the Prime Minister, and must himself win a seat in parliament, so he is elected even if his party does not win a majority of seats.

      The Nazis likewise won more seats than any other party in some largely democratic elections, but Hitler never ran for election in the Bundestag. To say that his party’s success in the Bundestag is the equivalent of Hitler’s personal election to power is no more accurate than to claim that American supreme court justices are “elected”. The German system, from what I can tell, seems more akin to the American one than the British. The American President can be elected from one party even though the majority in the House or Senate could be from the other party. Hitler was appointed as Chancellor by von Hindenburg and then had his powers extended through various parliamentary choices, but never did Hitler personally win a democratic election.

      More accurately, he initially came to power via the legal mechanisms of the German system at the time, but by appointment, not election.

    6. Hitler was not elected by the people, he was appointed to Chancellor by Hindenburg to whom Hitler lost the election to in 1932. Matter of fact he lost two elections because Hindenburg did not secure 50% of the vote the first time so there was a run off election where Hindenburg did win and became President of Germany. So you don’t need better books, but a better interpretation.

    7. Hitler was not fairly democratically elected in the way people in the US think democratic elections work. He was appointed chancellor and thus was already the leader. After the Reichstag fire, there was a sort of election, but he capitalized on fear and anti-communist fervor to send out goons who kept people away from the polls. Later, when Nazis got the law passed that made him dictator, he used a similar tactic to keep politicians who opposed the Nazis away. We have to remember that the Nazis were not simply a political party, but were a kind of paramilitary group that used strong-arm tactics to get their way. The spirit of people saying he was not elected is that he was not voted in overwhelmingly by the German people, thus showing he was representative of what they wanted in a leader. He was appointed, they held a tarnished non-democratic election, and used violence and intimidation to make him dictator–no reflection of the will of the people.

    8. I have to say I agree with this article. . Although some historians argue that his appointment as chancellor was largely the work of a “conspiracy” or “shady backroom deal”, one can challenge this on the grounds that in any democracy, more so when a coalition government needs to be formed, political discussions and backroom deals are commonplace. In Britain no Government EVER recieves a majority of the votes cast, it is virtually unheard off. Brunning, and Papen were all appointed by Hindenburg and had less of a legitimate claim to the Chancellorship than Hitler in view of the election results and the number of seats that their party received in 1928 and 1932. In fact Von Schliecher had no party representation at all when he was appointed at the end of 1932. At the same time some historians, again, challenge his legitimacy to be appointed as chancellor. The election results speak for themselves. He received 13 million votes in the presidential election coming 2nd to Hindenburg and also his party had the largest share of the vote in both elections in 1932 and also in 1934.. The Nazi’s were outright the largest party in the Reichstag even though they never received a majority of the votes cast. As you rightly point out this is a rare occurrence in any democracy. Since 1919 no party in Wiemar’s existence received the support that the Nazi party had. Yet few historians ever challenge the legitimacy of earlier governments. Those people who claim the Nazi Party were not elected legitimately are I’m afraid very wrong indeed. Yes Hitler was appointed as Chancellor, under the constitutional arrangements of the Wiemar system. This was after his leadership secured the Nazi Partty victory in the polls twice in 1932 and again 1933. As AJP Taylor stated “the Germans deserved what they got when they went round crying for a hero.”

    9. How can you be so wrong. You are claiming that Hitler was elected to office because the Nazi party won more seats in the Reichstag than other parties.? The Nazi Party may have been elected but not Hitler. There was no provision in the weimar republic which says that Hitler was elected to anything just because he was the head of the party with the most seats in the Reichstag. Hindenburg was not obligated in anyway to appoint Hitler to any position much less Chancellor. Hindenburg chose to do so on his own and not because any legal requirement. Being appointed to an office is not the same as being democratically elected. The make up of the Reichstag is irrelevant when it comes to who is appointed Chancellor

    10. I think a more accurate statement would be to say that Hitler rose to power legally, and under a democratic system. The Weimar Republic had a constitution riddled with holes and Hitler exploited that while utilizing backdoor tactics, political pressure on Hindenburg, and perhaps a few dirty tricks (the burning of the Reichstag, for instance).

      The lesson to be learned is that yes, terrible leaders can rise to power even under democratic systems, but people just love to use Hitler and the Nazis as argumentative flamethrowers, and often do so without getting the facts straight.

    11. In 1933 the NSP won 288 seats before Hitler was appointed Chancellor. That was more seats than the 3 opposition groups combined. That election which gave them the overwhelming seats in parliament was a democratic election with an enormous electoral turn out. So it is fair to say that Hitler was in fact elected by majority votes.

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    13. Hitler was democratically elected because he was legally appointed Chancellor by von Hindenburg, but he NEVER EVER received a majority of votes. The NSDAP did have more votes in the election for Parliament (not majority though: this was achieved after making a coalition with two other parties, they only got about one third of the vote), but Hitler wasn’t appointed Chancellor because the number of votes, but because backroom deals and pressure to the Hindenburg.

      Majorities may be wrong, there’s no denying in that, but no majority ever elected Hitler.

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