Research Brief

Bowling for Fascism: Exploring the Dark Side of Social Capital

In pre-World War II Germany, sports clubs became a vehicle to spread Nazism

History books are filled with theories about why Germans were so receptive to Adolf Hitler’s mantra of racial purity and hatred. Some argue the lack of a vibrant civic life created a vacuum that the Nazi Party exploited, filling the moral and spiritual void with a powerful appeal to restore the country’s greatness.

But new research published in the Journal of Political Economy suggests the opposite: that Germany’s dense network of clubs and social organizations — everything from bowling clubs to animal breeders — provided the social milieu that the Nazis used to spread their ideas and build membership, particularly in the early days of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP).

These findings by New York University’s Shanker Satyanath, UCLA Anderson’s Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth of the University of Zurich offer an important lesson for civic leaders seeking ways to get out their message in an increasingly polarized climate. While building social capital is generally perceived as a positive way of ensuring a community’s health, this work highlights a moment in history when the opposite occurred.

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In the mid-19th century, Germany’s leaders quashed a series of populist uprisings and discouraged political organizing. In the aftermath, thousands fled the country and those who remained sought refuge in a broad array of civic groups. Between World War I and World War II, the membership of the country’s leading singers’ association tripled to 1.2 million while German gymnasts’ groups saw a 50 percent increase in membership.

Although these groups often had a strong patriotic appeal, their “liberal, folk-based nationalism” lacked the aggressive, xenophobic sentiments that emerged later, the researchers note. But the areas with the heaviest concentration of these grassroots social and civil groups became fertile recruiting grounds for the newly formed Nazi Party.

To document this, Satyanath, Voigtländer and Voth collected information from 1920s directories for 299 cities and towns scattered across Germany. Of the 22,127 associations they identified, more than 45 percent were sports clubs, choirs, animal breeding associations or gymnastic clubs. Military associations constituted another 13.5 percent. Political or religious groups were not included.

A comparison of this data to Nazi Party membership rates showed a correlation between higher “association density” and Nazi Party involvement. The NSDAP also won more votes in the 1928, 1930 and 1933 parliamentary elections in places where association density was higher.

But this didn’t explain why social capital proved to be a “double-edged sword” for Germany when it contributed to positive outcomes elsewhere. For that, their research suggests that external factors — mainly the relative strength of governing institutions — were critical.

Germany’s Weimar Republic was a weak and fractured democracy, but there were some governments, such as Prussia, that exerted strong leadership at the regional level. To determine how political volatility affected the relationship between association density and Nazi Party entry, the researchers created a government stability measure that considered such factors as the length of time the longest-serving state government or party held office.

Then they examined how that correlated with the growth of Nazi Party membership. Within Prussia, which scored high on the stability measure, there was a “small and insignificant link” between association density and Nazi Party entry. But in unstable states outside Prussia the link was “highly significant.”

This research suggests the transformation of seemingly benign civic groups into agents of fascism was most effective when regional governments were fragile. “In the presence of a functional, strong and stable” democracy, social capital’s “dark side” was much weaker, they point out, reinforcing the important role that civic leadership plays in keeping the “potentially malign” effects of social networks in check.

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About the Research

Satyanath, S., Voigtländer, N., & Voth, H-J. (2017). Bowling for fascism: Social capital and the rise of the Nazi Party. Journal of Political Economy, 125(2), 478–526. doi: 10.1086/690949

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