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. Islamist Party of Aljeria won the elections.Then the western power engaged in most undemocratic behaviors . These powers promoted the takeover by the army .the resulting violence killed about 300,000 people. It is less dramatic in scope and breadth compared to the shelling of the Presidential Palace and massacre of Allende cabinet in another 911 in 1973 but no less destructive and anti democratic .
    I am not surprised to see B Lewis so called intellectual spin the words and twist the history . He has been lately saying that he did not advocate Iraq war and people are supposed to believe this fellow !

  2. We do share some parallel to Weimer Republic. Economy is bad.uneloyment is high. Hope is vanishing. There are tensions across various divides in the country. We have not lost any wars in physical sense of loss of lands or sovereignty but the war practically have wiped off the financial and moral power
    base of the country. In addition, we see gradual distancing between theiblic and the rulers who now engage in lies illegalities,coercion,and pseudo nationalism ,strident criticism of any foes or enemies unless they can be dismissed off ” as F**** off ” . The selection process both the primary and the final elections are gamed,and twisted .
    It is like Henderson( special interests of one kind ) is choosing chancellors again at very level.

  3. Yes, indeed; I agree with Daniel Luban. I remember having read about Hitler’s rise to power sometime around 2006, and being kinda miffed when I found out that the NSDAP didn’t really get elected into power. It was only thanks to a mix of the Reichstag Fire, the manipulated 1933 election happening 5 days later, the banning of the KPD and the NSDAP basically convincing (DNVP, ZP) or coercing (other parties except the SPD) into voting for the Enabling Act. That was what cemented Hitler’s power. And of course, the Enabling Act itself and the Article 48 “emergency powers” also played a huge part in allowing the NSDAP to seize power. Basically, the Weimar constitution, written and enforced by people who longed for the monarchy, had a couple of rules that allowed the Nazis to “hack” themselves into power.

Comments are closed.