When people look to the past to try and make sense of the economic and political upheaval of the years since the 2008 financial crisis, they are regularly drawn to the events in the two decades running up to World War II. On the surface, the parallels are striking. The aftermath of a global economic crisis – the Great Depression – witnessed the rise of extreme political groups and a rejection of the previous liberal economic order in favour of nationalist and authoritarian policies.
We know the consequences of the economic and political events of the 1930s. The full consequences of current events are obviously still unknown.
Of course, history is not destiny and we should always be cautious about going too far in drawing comparisons with the past. The past is, as L.P. Hartley put it, a foreign country. But can we learn anything from the extremism of the 1930s? More specifically, can we understand how extremist groups emerged and developed and what kind of people became members?
Understanding what motivated millions of ordinary Germans to support the Nazi party (NSDAP) has been the goal of historians and political scientists for decades. Studies that highlight their popularity among certain social classes are probably the most venerable and persistent. And the sociologist Seymour Lipset was among the first to describe the typical Nazi voter in 1932 as:
A middle-class self-employed Protestant who lived either on a farm or in a small community, and who had previously voted for a centrist or regionalist political party strongly opposed to the power and influence of big business and big labour.
Others, such as American historian William Brustein, have tried to rationalise support for the Nazi party by highlighting economic self-interest. Individuals whose material interests were aligned with the party’s platform would be more likely to become members.
But other studies argue that the Nazis drew support from the marginalised in society or had a mass appeal across the political spectrum. Perhaps the only group for which there is a near consensus regarding support for the Nazis is Catholics: consistently, Catholics appear to have been less likely to vote for the NSDAP or to become members of the party. So, who exactly were the Nazis?
Climbing the ladder
In our research we revisited this old question with new and more detailed data. We examined a unique dataset of about 10,000 World War II German soldiers from the 1930s and 1940s, which contains detailed information on social background such as occupation and education, as well as other characteristics such as religion, criminal record and military service.
We looked at membership of different Nazi organisations among these individuals, not just the political party, the NSDAP, but also the paramilitary SA (Sturmabteilung) and SS (Schutzstaffel) as well as the Hitler Youth.
We found that members of Nazi organisations – whether they were early joiners who signed up in the 1920s or those who joined the party in the 1940s – were more likely to come from high-status backgrounds and had higher levels of education, with people from a higher-status background almost twice as likely to join the Nazi party as someone from a lower-status background. We also confirmed that Catholics were less likely to be members of all Nazi organisations.
Such detailed data allowed us to dig deeper into the backgrounds of Nazi members. As we knew the social background of a person’s father from the records we were able to look at how far up the social ladder Nazi members climbed relative to those that did not join.
As expected, Nazi members appeared to have advanced further than non-members, for example moving up from occupations categorised as “skilled”, such as a tailor to a semi-professional job, such as teacher. What is most surprising, however, is that this advancement does not appear to have been driven by the party rewarding its members with higher-status positions.
By looking at the roles that these individuals were trained for early on in their careers, and not just their stated occupations, we find that social climbing was driven by early movements up the social ladder – Nazi organisations seem to have attracted upwardly mobile individuals.
Indeed this seems to have been the case not just for the Nazi party itself, but also the SS, SA and Hitler Youth. These were people who were already making their way in life. Although we cannot say from the data whether members benefited in other ways, such as through direct financial rewards or non-monetary benefits, the greater social advancement of Nazi members that we do observe does not appear to have been driven directly by membership.
What does this all mean for our understanding of the type of people that joined Nazi organisations? While it is impossible to uncover exactly what motivated people to join the Nazis, our findings suggest that many educated and ambitious people from the higher end of the social scale were attracted to the movement.
The study not only helps us to understand how the Nazi party emerged and came to power in the years before WWII but also gives us an insight into how extremist organisations can form and attract members more generally. It reminds us that we need to think beyond pure ideology when it comes to motivations for joining extremist groups and look at economic and social factors too.