Science on Religion

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Bowling for Nazism

NazismMore than 80 years on, the question of how the Nazis came into power continues to be an intriguing one. After all, in order to prevent something like that from happening in the future, one must learn from history. Unfortunately, it turns out that many qualities that would otherwise contribute positively to society can also work against it! More specifically, as researchers Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtlaender, and Hans-Joachim Voth argue, social capital – that is, participation in things like civic and church groups – greatly facilitated the rise of Nazism and the fall of democratic Germany.

“Social capital” refers to the network of connections and associations within a given community that help to foster cooperation. Social capital includes everything from clubs to sports teams to military associations, and even animal breeder associations and church choirs. Anything in a society that connects people in a community counts as social capital. Naturally, high levels of social capital tend overall towards positive results, such as a higher GDP per capita.

However, at times, social capital can also have a darker side. Strictly speaking, social capital simply gives a community greater unity and thus greater power, but how a community chooses to use that power makes all of the difference in the world. So much so, in fact, that social capital can be the vehicle which topples governments.

Satyanath, Voigtlaender, and Voth argue that the dense social network formed via social capital played a key role in helping the Nazis spread their message and ultimately come into power. Areas of Germany where citizens spent a significant amount of time in clubs (especially bowling, shooting, hiking, singing, animal breeding, and military associations) became early and consistent pillars of Nazi votes. And the denser the social network in a town or city, the more people joined the Nazi party as a percentage of the population. That is, more people as simply as a raw number didn’t join the Nazis (that would be trivial in a more densely populated area) but more people relative to the overall population did. More social networking, more social capital, means increased membership in the Nazi party in proportion to the population.

The Nazi party experienced two periods of growth: an early period from 1924-1928 that peaked in 1925 and then dropped sharply, and a later period from 1929-1933 that culminated in a national Nazi victory and the rise of the Third Reich. In both cases, the greatest areas of growth occurred in towns and cities with the high social capital.

The researchers take these findings to the next level in suggesting that the link between Nazism and social capital is causal: social capital actually caused the Nazi party to succeed. Social capital, in the form of historically rooted associations, predicted membership rates into the Nazi party. To be clear, the researchers do not adamantly argue for this causal connection, but they do say they have “good reason” to believe the link is there.

Regardless of whether there’s a causal link, social capital clearly has a “dark side.” It can be leveraged for causes as dark as, well, Nazism. Obviously something like a bowling club doesn't have inherent Nazi sympathies, yet the Nazis managed to exploit the social connections within bowling clubs for their political advantage. Perhaps the moral of the story is that people should be aware of the ties that bind.

For more, see “Bowling for Fascism: Social Capital and the Rise of the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany, 1919-33” in the National Bureau of Economic Research.


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