Thousands of historians, economists, sociologists, and other researchers have spent more than 80 years trying to make sense of the Nazi Party’s sudden rise to power.
The standard explanation is that German voters flocked to the party in Germany in 1932 and 1933 in response to the pain of the Great Depression, which conventional parties proved unable to end. But others have sought to explain Hitler’s coup, in whole or in part, by reference to German culture’s obsession with order and authority, to centuries of virulent German anti-Semitism, and to the popularity of local clubs like veteran associations, chess clubs, and choirs that the Nazis used to help recruit.
A new paper by a team of economic historians focuses on another culprit: austerity, and specifically the package of harsh spending cuts and tax hikes that Germany’s conservative Chancellor Heinrich Brüning enacted from 1930 to 1932.
In the paper, released through the National Bureau of Economic Research, Gregori Galofré-Vilà of Bocconi University, Christopher M. Meissner of UC Davis, Martin McKee of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and David Stuckler at Bocconi are clear that they don’t think austerity tells the whole story. It’s one factor among many. But they think austerity helps fill in some gaps in the conventional, Great Depression-focused narrative of the rise of the Nazis.
The authors don’t think the Great Depression alone explains Nazism
There’s a hole in the traditional argument that the Great Depression explains the rise of the Nazis: Lots of other countries suffered during the Depression, too, without collapsing into totalitarian dictatorships.
“During the 1920s, there was no substantial difference in the economic performance of nations that, in the mid-1930s, were democratic regimes or dictatorships,” the authors note. “The depth of the depression was only slightly greater in Germany than in France or the Netherlands, and was even worse in Austria (and other eastern European nations) and the USA.” Of those countries, Austria also saw a radical right-wing dictatorship come to power under Engelbert Dollfuss, in 1932. But France, the Netherlands, and the US did not see radical right-wing parties take office.