Who were the Members of the Nazi Party?: An Empirical Study

Today’s Read:  Christian Stass, NSDAP: Neun Millionen Deutsche…, Die Zeit, June 24, 2020, https://www.zeit.de/2020/27/juergen-w-falter-nationalsozialismus-nsdap-politologie/komplettansicht.

I have spent a lot of time over the last few months, as have many other thoughtful people I know, wondering about Trump supporters.  Who are these people, and what motivates them to not only have supported Trump in 2016, but also to continue to support him in spite (or maybe because) of his performance over the last few years?

A few archetypal traits keep coming to my mind when I think about who Trump supporters are, shaped by several factors, such as people I know who support him (including many members of my own family) and the media.

For better or worse, here is the list:

  • White
  • Possessor of some kind of “conservative” ideology, whatever that means in our country today
  • Racist
  • Misogynistic
  • Xenophobic
  • Angry
  • “Christian”
  • Gun owner
  • Pro-law enforcement
  • Believe the “mainstream media” lies
  • Hate paying taxes
  • Think the government is too big and ineffective
  • Strongly against “activist judges” (but judicial activism is OK if judges are conservative)
  • COVID- and mask-skeptic
  • Against “socialism”
  • Obsessed with winning
  • Obsessed with superficial appearances
  • Like to wear t-shirts that say things like “f*ck your feelings”

etc.

I freely admit and insist that NOT EVERY TRUMP SUPPORTER HAS ALL OF THE TRAITS LISTED ABOVE. 

Although stereotypes exist for a reason, they can also do a lot of damage to relationship-building if they are held without critical contemplation of the extent of how true they are.  I actually thought carefully about each item on the list above, and present this list partially to show what happens when political party membership is subjected to a relatively unscientific analysis and presentation.

It is clear that, on pretty much every issue, I would not see eye-to-eye with a person who possesses every trait on this list.  But what about someone who just hates paying taxes and thinks the government is too big and ineffective?  We would probably agree more than we would disagree — we would just have to compromise on those two issues.

However, when the list of polar-opposite personal characteristics, each patently offensive to someone in the other camp, grows much larger than 5 or 6 items, it gets harder and harder to want to waste a lot of time trying to figure out what you might have in common, and reach an ideological compromise.  To me, this is the biggest challenge facing our nation today: bigger than the economy, bigger than healthcare, bigger than foreign policy.

Anyway, perhaps in another 80 years someone will be doing the same type of empirical study of Republicans that Jürgen Falter has done of people who joined the Nazi party (NSDAP) in the 1930s and 1940s in Germany.  At this point, I must provide yet another disclaimer: I AM NOT SAYING THAT TRUMP SUPPORTERS ARE NAZIS.  Instead, this article piqued my interest because I wanted to understand more about empirical research of political party demographics.

There were more than nine million members of the NSDAP at its peak.  Who were they?  Professor Falter claims that the typical identity of someone who joined the Nazi party depended, at least partially, on when they joined.  The party was banned in 1923, and then newly formed in 1925.  Directly before the Nazis came into power (“Am Vorabend der ‘Machtergreifung'”) in January 1933, the membership numbered 900,000, but by May 1, 1933, when the party stopped accepting new applications, another 1.6 million had joined.  This number could only be calculated after the fact because it took party officials three years to process all of those new members, a procedure that included examining each applicant’s loyalty to the party.

By 1937, new members were again eligible to apply.  Not only did the party have a goal of increasing its membership to 10% of the population, but the party also needed money.  During the period of 1937-39, only “National-Socialists of conviction” (“überzeugte Nationalsozialisten”) were permitted to apply for membership; by 1940, the party was open to applications from everyone.  The last person to join the party did so, unbelievably, on April 1, 1945.

During the height of the party, members were predominantly male and fairly young (born between 1900 and 1915), which meant they had been children during World War I.  Their takeaway from that war included being “catastrophically disappointed” (“katastrophal enttäuscht”) by German war propaganda, and the inflation that came to follow.  According to Professor Falter, “Diese Generation … war leicht zu radikalisieren.” (“This generation … was easy to radicalize.”)

The party, which billed itself as the “Volkspartei” (“party of the people”), recruited from every societal group.  For example, while about a third of industry laborers stayed loyal to their prior parties, many of the laborers who joined the NSDAP could be classified as “craftsmen” or “technicians” (“Facharbeiter”).   As for civil servants (“Beamte”), approximately 60% of their ranks joined the party.  Early on, they were motivated to join the NSDAP by a sense of community and by anti-semitism.  Many who joined between the years of 1929 and 1933, on the other hand, did so for economic reasons; whereas the years after 1933 saw a greater number of “opportunists” among the party’s new members.

Social and economic pressures definitely contributed to one’s decision to join the party: for example, those who failed to join were often threatened, if it came to that, to be the first one who would get fired.

Not everyone who did join stayed in the NSDAP — about 750,000 left the party altogether, some of whom were early members who became disillusioned over the years, while others quit within months of joining because they quickly grew tired of the compulsory party events and dues.

Despite this final fact, it became clear to Professor Falter during his research that “echte Nazis” (“real Nazis”) were not limited to the membership of the NSDAP.  There were plenty of non-members who supported the regime with their votes and in other ways.  On this point, Professor Falter concluded as follows:

“Der individuelle Handlungsspielraum war im Guten wie im Schlechten größer, als viele im Nachhinein glaubten.”  (“In retrospect, the individual scope of action was greater, both for good and for bad, than many believe.”)

This is the thing that I keep coming back to.  One thing I did not put on my list above, even though I thought about it, is “vocal in their support for the Trump administration.”  Because I really believe the current presidential administration has a lot more support than that from people who would openly wear a Trump hat, put a Trump sticker on their car, put a Trump sign in their yard, or attend a Trump rally.

What traits do the silent supporters have in common with Trump diehards?  Are they all misogynists, racists, and xenophobes?  Do they all really feel that it’s OK to say “f*ck your feelings” to another person?  Can they be brought around?  How long can their tacit approval, which enables administration policies and actions that endanger the physical, emotional, and financial health of a majority of Americans, continue?  What will be the tipping point?  Maybe we have already seen it with the handling of the COVID pandemic.  Maybe it will have to be something much worse.  If that is the case, I am very afraid for our future as a country.

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