No, Hitler Did Not Come to Power Democratically

by Daniel Luban

In a recent interview, the conservative Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis argues that the Arab world is not ready for free and fair elections. This may be surprising coming from the man whose theories about “the roots of Muslim rage” were a major inspiration for the Bush administration’s democracy promotion agenda. Nevertheless, in making his argument Lewis repeats what is supposed to be the argument-clincher against elections — the fact that “Hitler came to power in a free and fair election.”

The only problem is that this frequently-repeated “fact” is simply not true. In the final two free elections before Hitler’s rise to power, in July and November 1932, the Nazis received 38% and 33% of the vote, respectively — a plurality but not enough to bring them into government. In the 1932 presidential election, Hitler lost to Hindenburg by a wide margin.

Hitler came to power not through elections, but because Hindenburg and the circle around Hindenburg ultimately decided to appoint him chancellor in January 1933. This was the result of backroom dealing and power politics, not any kind of popular vote. It is true that after Hitler was already ensconced as chancellor, the Nazis subsequently won the March 1933 elections. But this was in the wake of the Reichstag fire, when the government had passed an emergency law that sharply restricted the activities of left-of-center parties (including the arrest of many Communist leaders). Thus it is difficult to claim that these were “free and fair” elections.

Look, I understand the basic point that Lewis and the rest are trying to make with the Hitler example: elections can sometimes bring nasty people to power. And frankly, I agree with this obvious point. But it would be nice if seemingly well-informed people would stop repeating this bogus “fact” about Hitler, so that we can lay it to rest once and for all.

Daniel Luban

Daniel Luban is a postdoctoral associate at Yale University. He holds a PhD in politics from the University of Chicago and was formerly a correspondent in the Washington bureau of Inter Press Service.



  1. Sorry, you’re wrong on the history, or at best splitting hairs. True, Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933 despite not having a majority, though his party was the largest in the Reichstag. This does happen in parliamentary systems — unfortunately, in this case. But the fact is that legal, constitutional processes were followed in appointing Hitler chancellor.

    The last free election in Germany until after 1945 was held in March 1933. The Nazis received 44% of the vote. They were running in coalition with the Nationalists, who got 8%. So the Hitler forces took 52% of the vote. If you want to say that the election wasn’t quite free and fair because the communists were under some restrictions, fine. But by the same token, no American election between the end of Reconstruction and the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 was free and fair. The democratic process in Germany in March 1933 was flawed, as was America’s democratic process from 1789 (when only white males who owned enough property could vote) until the 1960s. Heck, the United States Senate defeated an anti-lynching bill in 1944. And for a time in the 1940s and 1950s it was against the law to belong to the Communist Party — something that didn’t happen in Germany until after the March 1933 election.

    The fact is that Hitler’s electoral victory in March 1933 was as legitimate as any U.S. presidential election from the time of Washington to that of JFK. Lewis’ “basic point” is indeed correct, and trying to discredit his argument by splitting hairs gets none of us anywhere.

    Of course, Lewis could have made his point without bringing up the spectre of Hitler. Mentioning The Islamist victory in Algeria in free elections held in 1991 would have served his purpose. The Hitler example is obviously used for its dramatic, propagandistic effect. The real question is not so much who will get elected, but rather, have the Arab peoples shown any capacity for democracy as we define it? They have not. Does this mean we should continue to support autocrats? No. But we should be prepared for the failure of democracy in the Arab world, as well as the election of people whose values liberals like Mr. Luban find repulsive. The idea that West European-American attitudes about democracy will triumph in the Arab world is a fantasy best reserved for children of all ages.

  2. Jon,

    Thanks as always for responding. I would make a couple points in response.

    First, it’s important to note that the Weimar Republic had in many ways ceased to be a democracy by the time that Hitler was appointed chancellor. After 1930, Hindenburg began sidelining parliament and largely ruling by emergency decree (under the notorious Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution) through a succession of chancellors (first Bruning, then Papen, then Schleicher, and finally Hitler). So I don’t think it’s quite right to say that Hitler was appointed chancellor as part of parliamentary politics — by the time of his appointment parliamentary politics in Weimar was basically dead already and the government was being run on largely authoritarian lines. (For details on this see Detlev Peukert’s book The Weimar Republic, esp. chapter 14.)

    For that reason, I think it’s more accurate to see Hitler’s appointment as chancellor in Jan 1933, rather than the later elections in which the Nazis consolidated their gains, as the key moment in his rise to power. And for that reason it’s fair to say that he came to power through the authoritarian power politics of the Hindenburg presidency rather than through elections or democratic lines. (Of course, his appointment was constitutional — Article 48 of the constitution gave the president license to do practically anything — but that’s not the same as democratic.)

    The second question is the extent to which the March 1933 elections could be considered “free and fair.” I think you make a valid point that we probably can’t take free and fair to involve full inclusion of all parties. Or at least, that’s not what it’s generally taken to mean. (I personally might question whether America prior to the enfranchisement of women and African-Americans was truly a democracy, but you’re right to say that no one questions whether FDR was democratically elected.)

    However, I do think it’s worth distinguishing the undemocratic features of a political system that arise from the permanent disenfranchisement of some portion of the population, from ad hoc measures that are simply aimed at changing the results of a particular election. So to run with the FDR example, if a few months before the 1936 election FDR had arrested Alf Landon and prevented the Republicans from running a real campaign throughout the country, it would be perfectly fair to claim that he did not win a free and fair election.

    I’d also note that by the time of the March 1933 elections, after the Reichstag fire, everyone could see which way the wind was blowing. I don’t think anyone was deluded about the fact that the elections were intended to legitimize Hitler’s power, and that the left was going to get its head bashed in. Even if the SPD and KPD had managed to win a majority of the vote, it’s likely that this would have just resulted in Hitler dissolving the republic by extra-legal (rather than quasi-legal) means.

    So to sum up I do think it’s a canard to claim that Hitler came to power through free and fair elections, as Lewis claims.

  3. Greetings from Chile.

    I agree with Luban. But, some facts to make a more fundamented thinking:

    1º Concentration Camps were operating since 1933, the arbitrary internment of disident civilians is not a “democratic institution”.

    2º When Hindenburg dies, the August’1934 Referendum was the only “election” which Hitler personally won, but in a context hardly seen as a democracy, in a European or USer way.

    An election doesn’t make a democracy. Is the easiest part of it, to vote is a part, to participate, informate oneself and to organizing makes one. Saddam won elections, and I see no one believing it.

    And a painful fact, for your posture, Luban is that The Patriot Act isn’t compatible with democracy, and, as we saw, it’s a tool of tiranny. Stalin, Hitler, Castro; Pol-Pot, Mao and Pinochet used, in their self-made institutionality used very, very similar tools, and had scape goats too.

    Democracy talking is a nice thing, but, given the facts, the people, around the world it’s not concerned about Aristotles v/s Plato. They’ll kill each other for a trade mark.

    But, besides my moanign, I find very valiant your effort, and I share your vision very much.

    And, well, as you had Bush, we have Piñera… But I doubt if it was democratically, when we see just a PR idiots, calling for other idiots to vote. I say idiots in the classic Greek way…

    Excuse my english, and thank you.

  4. Jon, you can’t point to the Algerian example for your model either, Bernie Lewis often has nothing for all his pomposity, save his Jewish supremacy. His facts are often VERY NASTY. Like, asking why the ME never produced a car; in fact Saddam had a car in production for three years before US bombs destroyed the factory.

    But the “Islamists” in Algeria won the election but never took power, so how does that fit the point? That would be Bernie’s preferred outcome, “stability.” I don’t know that that “Islamist” party was as reported. They were popular, and Algeria is not a super-religious country. 90% of the people live within 30 KM of the coast and those in port cities aren’t as the outliers in the rural South.

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