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Was Hitler democratically elected?

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


    Baffled no more


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    1. Brant

      I have two concerns to raise with our host’s post:
      1/ Citing the Ermächtigungsgesetz (Enabling Act) as a “a law that had been passed by the absolute majority of the parliament” and is therefore evidence that Hitler “was indeed democratically elected” is only possible if one ignores the context of extreme violence, terror, and oppression in which it was passed.
      Leftist opposition had been criminalized by the Reichstag Fire Decree; thousands of Communists were jailed, hundreds murdered. Social Democrats were tarred with the same brush, threatened and intimidated. (When the leader of the SPD spoke against the Act at the Reichstag, he so feared torturous reprisal he had a cyanide capsule in his pocket.) The Centre was also subject to escalating terror to bring them to heel. Democracy was already dead; the Enabling Act just gave it a thin appearance of legal and political legitimacy.

      2/ I find it hard to square this with the facts… “after all [Hitler] 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.”
      Hitler’s program was to create a dictatorship and end the republic. That is objectively very radical.
      Hitler’s program was explicitly racial and specifically anti-semitic. The Nazi platform[1] was clear and consistent about this, first stripping Jews of citizenship:-
      4. Only a member of the race can be a citizen. A member of the race can only be one who is of German blood, without consideration of creed. Consequently no Jew can be a member of the race.

      And calling for those non-citizens (Jews being the only explicitly identified group thereof) to be deported:
      7. We demand that the state be charged first with providing the opportunity for a livelihood and way of life for the citizens. If it is impossible to sustain the total population of the State, then the members of foreign nations (non-citizens) are to be expelled from the Reich.

      8. Any further immigration of non-citizens is to be prevented. We demand that all non-Germans, who have immigrated to Germany since the 2 August 1914, be forced immediately to leave the Reich.

      And have their land taken from them:
      17. We demand a land reform suitable to our needs, provision of a law for the free expropriation of land for the purposes of public utility, abolition of taxes on land and prevention of all speculation in land.
      [which was later clarified by Hitler to be “directed primarily against the Jewish land-speculation”]

      [1] http://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/1708-ps.asp

    2. Brant

      I suggest that there’s so much debate over the answer because the question itself is ambiguous (quite understandably so,) and should be clarified before attempting to answer. Absent such clarification, the answer must begin, “It’s a bit complicated, because…” Anyone suggesting the answer is a pat “Yes,” or “No,” is eliding much crucial nuance and detail.

      Getting a good history book is always a fine idea, and for @DeAnne and other English speakers interested, I highly recommend Richard Evans’ “The Coming of the Third Reich”. This is the first volume in his trilogy history of the Third Reich, covering mainly 1910-1933:

    3. Scott

      So you write this, “@All, the Americans amongst you, could you stop claiming that Hitler was not elected because he did not win the popular vote ? At the moment this makes you sound a bit stupid.”

      after writing this, “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.”

      The FACTS are he lost the election in ’32 and was APPOINTED CHANCELLOR in ’33. The details are unimportant other than the fact he was NOT democratically elected. He was appointed and then legislation was passed removing basic civil rights so he and the Nazi Party could go unchallenged.

    4. Dave

      Not sure how Hitler being appointed Chancellor by the presidential election winner (Hindenberg) makes him democratically elected. He was appointed. He e never got more votes than Hindenberg. He did not run in the election in 1933 when the Nazis won a plurality and formed a coalition with another party for an absolute majority. A few days later they suspended civil liberties and democracy was effectively over in Germany. You can argue the Nazis as a political party were elected; you cannot make the same argument about Hitler. Elections after 1933 were not democratic elections. And maybe stop calling those who disagrees with you a stupid Americans and other insults. It adds nothing to your argument and reflects poorly on you.

    5. Gina


      In the presidential election held on March 13, 1932, Hitler got over eleven million votes (11,339,446) or 30% of the total. Hindenburg got 18,651,497 votes or 49%.

      Hindenburg failed to get the absolute majority he needed, making a run-off election necessary. Goebbels and many of the Nazi leaders were quite disappointed.

      On a dark, rainy Sunday, April 10, 1932, the people voted. They gave Hitler 13,418,547 or 36%, an increase of two million, and Hindenburg 19,359,983 or 53%, an increase of under a million.

      The 85-year-old gentleman was elected by an absolute majority to another seven year term.

    6. Jan de Bruin

      In what I would call a real democracy there will be more than two viewpoints and more than two political parties and most of the time no single person or party will get more than 50% of the votes. After the election is over and each party knows how many votes/seats in parliament they have they try to work out a combination of parties that will then govern together, having a majority of votes together, each sacrificing some of the things they would like in order to find common ground. This is what in the US is called ‘weak government’ because it is based on consensus and consensus takes time. The US and the UK where there are effectively only two parties and people often feel obliged to vote for a person with whom they only 50% or less agree in order not to waste their vote, and for this reason many people don’t even vote at all, is less democratic if it can be called democratic, and worse: is highly polarising, as we have seen in both countries in recent years where it is now ‘either you are with me or you are against me’. So you can say that Hitler was not personally democratically elected in a 2-person race but that is true for many presidents and prime ministers who came to power in a completely and unquestionably democratic process.

    7. @DeAnne, since this post still receives a ridiculous amount of attention I promise I’ll soon write an update. @All, the Americans amongst you, could you stop claiming that Hitler was not elected because he did not win the popular vote ? At the moment this makes you sound a bit stupid.

    8. DeAnne


      I am trying to learn about Hitler’s rise and from what I have read, he lost the Presidential election but was appointed Chancellor by President Hindenburg. Since I am seeking to learn the truth, please explain to me how he was democratically elected if he lost the election and was appointed chancellor?



    9. Sean Curry

      Good article but I feel you do yourself a disservice at the outset in dismissing the claim as “germanophiles” somehow attempting to revise history. While clarification and context is valuable, to borrow some legalese one might argue that the “average person” means “elected by a majority of the popular vote” when they say “democratically”. If we really want to split hairs, we could just as easily say no recent US President was democratically elected since it’s technically the Electoral College that elects them and the representatives of the EC are not legally required to follow their collective citizens’ wishes.

      Hitler did not receive the majority of the popular vote, nor did Von Hindenburg. That being said, neither did Hitler receive the plurality of the vote so either way he was not “elected”. He was placed in power by Von Hindenburg and then proceeded to manipulate the system and so on while the people stood by.

    10. Michael

      Hitler was elected? He wasn’t even on the ballot. Not that you ever mention that fact.

    11. Tim

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

    12. Joan Winslow

      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.

    13. David Miller

      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

    14. Michael

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

    15. Brian S.

      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.

    16. missileman341

      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.

    17. Clint

      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.

    18. tom bruce

      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.”

    19. Ncrdbl1

      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

    20. TJF

      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.

    21. redteddy

      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.

    22. 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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