Literature of the Holocaust
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Rational Fascists?
Sociologist probes people's motives for supporting the Nazi party

By Ellen K. Coughlin
from The Chronicle of Higher Education
June 23, 1995
Volume 41, No. 41, pp. A10, A13

MINNEAPOLIS WILLIAM BRUSTEIN thinks the rise of the Nazis was all very logical. A lot of people find that idea hard to swallow.

Mr. Brustein, a professor at the University of Minnesota, is a rational-choice sociologist: He applies to social events and movements the theory that people tend to act out of economic self-interest. This theory, he believes, helps to explain the popularity of the Nazis in Weimar Germany. The essence of his argument is that people joined the Nazi Party in its early years--when they still had a choice--because they calculated that it was in their material interest to do so.

"Evil," he says, "can have very ordinary or logical roots."

The study of Nazi history is a contentious field, and rational-choice theory is unpopular among most social scientists. Mr. Brustein has completed a book based on his research, but, despite interest from major scholarly presses, the manuscript had trouble finding a home. Yale University Press had it under consideration for a year and a half before accepting it last month. The book will be published some time next year.

''It's going to be a very challenging book for a lot of people," says Michael Hechter, a rational-choice sociologist at the University of Arizona and Mr. Brustein's former teacher.


Mr. Brustein is braced for controversy; he even seems to be looking forward to it. For him, this project is personal. Describing his work in an interview at his university office here, he pauses to recall some of the family stories he heard as a child.

"When I was growing up after the war, in Fairfield, Conn., I used to sit around and listen to my relatives talk about what had gone on over in Europe--about the craziness and about the Germans and about the evil."

The son of American Jews, he had an aunt from Germany who was the only one of nine in her family to survive the concentration camps. Her stories of Nazi atrocities stayed with him. But he was also perplexed, as he learned more about that era, at how this malicious movement could have amassed such a following. "I always knew I wanted to get back to that."

Mr. Brustein's specialty is European history. He directs Minnesota's Center for European Studies, although he will step down in July to take over as chairman of the sociology department. He has published a book, The Social Origins of Political Regionalism: France, 1849 to 1981 (University of California Press, 1988), and is the author or co-author of two dozen scholarly articles, including studies of the rise of fascism in Belgium and Italy--all of them based on the rational-choice model.

In 1988, he finally got back to the Nazis.

The question of how Nazism gained a foothold in Germany is well-trodden scholarly ground. As early as the 1920s, researchers were trying to pinpoint the source of the Nazis' support. The traditional theory maintains that Nazism was a lower-middle-class phenomenon: The typical Nazi was, in the words of one later historian, "an Archie Bunker type." In the early 1980s, however, a cluster of studies came along to challenge that notion--notably Richard F. Hamilton's Who Voted for Hitler? (Princeton University Press), Thomas Childers's The Nazi Voter (University of North Carolina Press), and Michael H. Kaler's The Nazi Party (Harvard University Press). Based on electoral returns and Nazi Party rolls, those studies showed that support for the Nazis went well beyond Germany's Archie Bunkers.

Why people were drawn to the party is less well understood. A traditional explanation holds that the "special path" of German history--Germany's belated evolution into a nation-state, for example--left the country peculiarly vulnerable to fascism.

Some scholars in Germany still hew to that line, but historians elsewhere now argue that contemporary conditions had as much or more to do with the Nazis' success. Scholars assume that many Germans supported the Nazis out of disenchantment with the Weimar government's handling of the severe economic crisis. The Nazis, in a phrase from Mr. Childers's book, were "a catchall party of protest."


Mr. Brustein's conclusions about who joined the Nazi Party, and why, do not so much overthrow those theories as challenge certain things they emphasize. To his mind, economic considerations played a more central role in Germans' support for the Nazis than other scholars might grant. He also maintains that, for many people, the decision to join the Nazi Party was less a reaction to Weimar policies than it was a "pro-active" calculation of the benefits they would derive from the Nazi program.

"They didn't support it by default," he says.

To reach those conclusions, Mr. Brustein assembled what is probably the largest statistical sample of Nazi Party members, extracted from the mother lode of Nazi records, the Berlin Document Center.

Housed in a former Gestapo command post, the center holds millions of Nazi documents captured by U.S. forces at the end of the war. At the heart of its holdings is a collection of about 11 million membership cards, containing basic information about the party's rank and file. Representing some eight million members (new cards were issued to people who left and rejoined), they list each person's name, date and place of birth, date and place of joining the party, marital status, and occupation.

The files have been a gold mine for Nazi hunters and scholars alike, but no one has mounted a research effort as large as Mr. Brustein's.

In 1989, he joined forces with Jurgen W. Falter, a German political scientist now at the University of Mainz, who is known for having amassed his own enormous database concerning electoral returns in Weimar Germany. A dozen of their students spent that spring and summer combing the Berlin center's files, under Mr. Brustein's supervision. They assembled data on 42,000 people who had joined the Nazis from 1925, when Hitler took over the party, to 1933, when he became Chancellor of Germany.

Back at Minnesota, Mr. Brustein spent three years analyzing the information. Data on party members' occupations were crucial to his rational-choice hypothesis, since a person's job--especially combined with age and marital status--implies certain things about his or her economic interests. The sample yielded 1,500 occupations, which, for the purpose of statistical analysis, had to be combined into a more manageable number of categories.

"There was so much effort that went into it," he says, in a tone of wonder.

The effort paid off in what he believes is a more precise picture of who supported the Nazis than is found in the "standard class analysis."

"What I hypothesized," he says, "is that you should find certain groups within, say, the lower middle class more likely to become Nazis than others." And to a large extent, he believes, that's what the data show.


In the years before 1933, for example, the Nazi program emphasized the protection of German industry and agriculture through tariffs and import quotas. Consistent with the rational-choice notion that people try to "maximize" their economic well-being, Mr. Brustein's data indicate that a disproportionate number of people who joined the party did, in fact, work in industries, such as construction or food production, that benefited from policies intended to protect the domestic market. Workers in export-oriented industries, such as chemicals and textiles, were underrepresented in the rank and file.

Mr. Brustein has published two articles on his work with Mr. Falter, but his book is a solo effort. He also speaks frequently about the research, both to scholarly groups and to general audiences. He nearly always meets some resistance.

His theory implies, for one thing, that anti-Semitism did not play a major role in the Nazis' rise to power. "They went with what they thought could sell," he says, "and what was selling was the economic program."

Lay audiences, especially Jews, have a hard time with that, he says.

Scholars, on the other hand, would agree with him. They have different problems with his work.

Some of them fault specific findings, such as his breakdown of the party membership into social classes (Mr. Brustein and Mr. Falter find a much higher participation of blue-collar workers than other scholars do), and his classification of certain industnes in Weimar German as import- or export-oriented (a key determining where workers' economic interests lie).

More fundamentally, a lot of scholars, especially historians, object to Mr. Brustein's overall approach. Historians tend to resist the theory in general; they dislike the imposition of a single explanation on the tangle of human actions that drive any historical era. A lot of scholars of all stripes reject rational-choice theory specifically, arguing that its focus on economic motives is too narrow.


Richard Hamilton, the author of Who Voted for Hitler? and a sociologist at Ohio State University, notes, for example, that his study of electoral support for the Nazis showed that Protestants voted for Hitler in far greater numbers than Catholics did. Yet Mr. Brustein's ralional-choice model, he says, leaves religion, along with a lot of other possible motivating factors, out of the picture.

"The difflculty I have with Brustein's work is his invocation of a single and exclusive logic," Mr. Hamilton says. "In a word, I find the enterprise implausible."

Michael Kater, a historian at York University in Canada, concurs. Since he published his study of the Nazi Party in 1983, he has gone on to examine the involvement of specific occupational groups, especially physicians and musicians, in the Nazi regime. He has uncovered, he says, a convoluted web of reasons why various groups allied themselves with Hitler. Private music teachers, for example, were heavily pro-Nazi--in protest, Mr. Kater believes, against the anti-Romantic sentiments of the Weimar period. "Motives are multiple," he says.

Researchers more sympathetic to the rational-choice approach, and thus more sympathetic to Mr. Brustein's ideas about the Nazis, have heard such arguments before and say they represent a caricature of the model.

"I don't think any rational choice person would argue that that's the way the world really is," says Edgar Kiser, a sociologist at the University of Washington. "But in order to answer certain questions, it's a useful simplification."


Mr. Kiser is a rational-choice sociologist who has collaborated with Mr. Brustein on a study of war and revolt in early modern Europe. He has not read the manuscapt of Mr. Brustein's forthcoming book on the Nazi Party, but he has heard a presentation that Mr. Brustein gave on the research and has spoken with him about the project. "It combines really sophisticated theory with fine-grained data," Mr. Kiser says. "That's something rare in comparative historical sociology."

In conversation, Mr. Brustein seems philosophical about the criticism his work is getting, long before his book has even seen the light of day. He says he's never argued thal economic calculations were the only thing driving support for the Nazis--simply that material interests were a more powerful motive than other scholars might allow. He expected a rocky reception for his rational-choice approach, and he hasn't been disappointed.

What does bother him is the reaction from people, including family members and Jewish friends, who think that he is trying to exonerate Hitler's supporters. "That hurt me," he says. "That's not what I want to do at all."

Such reactions haven't deterred him, however. Now that his current project is nearly behind him, he is turning his attention to research on xenophobia in Europe. He has not left the Nazis behind.
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