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Bernard Owen: How proportional representation brought Adolf Hitler to power

Link to original publication: http://www.skubi.net/owen_en.html
Bernard Owen, an internationally renowned expert in electoral systems, explains how proportional representation helped Adolf Hitler gain power in Germany in 1933.
Views: 2.069 Created 12/07/2008

Bernard Owen is the head of the Centre for the Comparative Studies of Elections (CERSA) in Paris, and program director at IPAG-Paris II, a leading French institute specialized in administrative law.

Professor Owen participated in more than fourty international electoral assistance and observation missions, reviewed or helped draft electoral laws of several nations, and participated in over fourty international meetings and research conferences concerning elections. Every year, he organizes a conference on electoral matters in the French Senate.

Research by Professor Owen explains the role played by proportional representation in political disasters that hit various European nations.

This is the first in a series of short talks by Bernard Owen about effects of proportional representation.


Listen to the talk:

The Weimar Republic (Germany, 1919-1933) had a very interesting proportional representation system. They had regional votes, but the transfer from votes into seats was at the national level. So it was quite proportional, when you look at the results, you compare them, you have practically identical results in votes and in seats.

Now, there were great problems in Germany. The Nazi party really appeared in the election in 1923, but they only got 6% of the votes. The German mark almost disappeared, 10 000 marks were worth 1 dollar, and the population did not like inflation, it was a very bad sign for a country. So they voted against, they voted for this new Nazi party, which was not alone actually, there were two other right wing parties working with it on a proportional list.

So the Germans got rid of the inflation, things got better organized, and at the end of 1923 a second election was held, and the Nazi party felt down to 3% of the votes. They lost half of their votes. Then Germans got organized, and for the 1928 elections the Nazi party only reached 2.6% of the votes, which is a very low percentage of votes for an extreme party when you have a very proportional system. So it was quite a success, Germany was on the way to recovery.

Then in 1929 unfortunately the Wall Street crash happened. We can talk about it now, because it was a similar situation, but then it was even worse, especially in Germany, because Germany was very technically organized. The only really organized countries, from a mechanical point of view, were Germany, Belgium, Great Britain, and the United States.

The United States had invested a lot in Germany, the country that was coming out of the war, and had the ways of dealing with mechanical things. So Americans invested huge sums of money. Siemens, for example, was bought by America. And when the crash came, Germany was hit just as hard as America. In France, with strong agriculture (about 60% of the population was in agriculture), the question was not a priority.

Within Germany at the time, in 1929, with proportional representation, you had five political parties in government, plus one independent minister. Now, with five political parties, when such an event occured, that is, unemployment suddenly came up to a level of millions of people, the government collapsed. So Germany, when it really needed a strong government, had no government, and there was no alternative.

What were the alternatives? There was this very small Nazi party, which only got 2.6% of the votes. There was the Communist party, that got a little more votes, but Germans were a little afraid of communism, the Bolsheviks. So, to everyone's surprise, in the 1930 elections, which were held to find some kind of government, you saw the Nazi party sudenly reach 18% of the votes.

Nobody accepted it. Nobody thought it could be such a level. And remember, in 1928, 2.6% of the votes had been what they obtained. So we can say that in Germany there were 2.6% of the population which was extreme right. The 18% which came up suddenly in 1930, to everyone's surprise, was not ideological, but the Nazis were saying "we are in a mess, we will get rid of the problems, and Germany will be strong again".

And then, from 1930 to 1932, the five ideologically moderate parties could not agree on what they should do. So there was no real government. There was a government made up of the 10% of votes obtained by the Catholic Party (Germany is not all Catholics, so it only reached 10%). There was a good prime minister.

The president of the republic (Paul von Hindenburg), who had been previously for the Emperor, really played the game of the democracy, the Weimar democracy. He was able to govern for two years with what they call presidential decrees: the prime minister proposed measures, and the president made them into decrees.

So during two years the Nazis, who now had 18% of the members of the Reichstag, could say: "you say that we are not democrats, but neither is the government, there is no democracy here; we will not be different from them, but we will know what to do, and we will make Germany into a large state, as it should be".

Then of course in 1932 there were presidential elections, Hitler was one of the candidates, but was beaten by the incumbent Hindenburg. But in the following election, the Nazi party obtained over 30% of the votes. People say that proportional representation has nothing to do with it, that Germans, and especially Prussians, are warmongers. But people forget that Prussia was socialist, and the head of the Prussian region was called the "red tsar"; even once the Nazis took power in 1932, Prussia stayed socialist, and the Prussian police was actually going against the Nazi brown shirts.

Other people will say that the army was Nazi. But von Seeckt, the head of the German army, who had won one of the last battles won by Germans in 1918, would not have any politics in the army. Von Seeckt was then replaced by Hindenburg, who had the same position. And any officers who were thought of being Nazi were thrown out, which happened twice as late as 1932.

So ideology played a very small role in the political situation. Something very interesting happened in 1932. There were two elections: people were afraid of all these Nazis coming into the Reichstag, so a second election was held. Now the German people thought that Nazis were getting out of hand. They were getting scared of them. So now the Nazi vote dropped by about 3%, but, interestingly, the communist vote rose by the same level. That is, people wanted to vote against the republic, that was not functioning normally.

The wesite of Bernard Owen's research institution: http://www.cec-elections.org/

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