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Bowling for Adolf: How social capital helped to destroy Germany’s first democracy

The collapse of the Weimar Republic was a turning point in world history, bringing the murderous Nazi regime to power. This column argues that contrary to most conceptions of social capital, there can be negative outcomes to well-connected societies. Independent of ideology, dense social networks in interwar Germany greatly helped the Nazi party to rapidly and widely disseminate its messages. Putnam’s claims about the benefits of social capital for democracy need to be reassessed.

As recent events in Egypt and Tunisia demonstrate, establishing viable democracies can be a daunting task. Why do some democracies not just survive, but thrive – often in the face of adversity – while others buckle under strain and collapse? One influential, recent answer has emphasised the importance of ‘social capital’, dense networks of associations in which citizens can interact as equals (Putnam 1995). This idea has a long lineage: When Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s, he was impressed by the vigour with which citizens co-operated in clubs and associations. He argued that “there is scarcely an undertaking so small that Americans do not unite for it … the most democratic country on earth… [has] perfected the art of pursuing the object of their common desires in common”.

Social capital is associated with a host of desirable outcomes:

  • There is more trust and there are more blood donations in towns with lots of civic associations.
  • Voter turnout is higher, and financial markets work better (Guiso, Sapienza, and Zingales 2008).

A growing literature has pointed out that social capital can also have a ‘dark side’ (Field 2003):

  • The Ku Klux Klan, drug-dealers and the mafia rely on social cohesion to ensure co-operation.
  • Also, important recent work shows that civic associations can lead to the entrenchment of existing leaders, undermining the quality of governance (Acemoglu, Reed, and Robinson 2013).

We turn to the experience of interwar Europe for some lessons. Just as during the Arab Spring today, new democracies took the place of authoritarian regimes in many countries after 1918 – but a significant share did not survive. We focus on the canonical case of a democracy falling apart – Weimar Germany. In particular, we examine the extent to which social capital contributed to the rise of an extremist, anti-democratic movement – the Nazi party. Scholars have long pointed out that Weimar Germany had an unusually vigorous civic society (Berman 1997). Nonetheless, the country’s first democracy fell. This does not necessarily prove that social capital undermined the political system – it could well be that the Weimar Republic would have fallen apart faster without a dense network of clubs and societies.

Where the Nazi party grew the most

The rise of the Nazi party took place not just at the polls, it relied crucially on a tightly-controlled organisation composed of thousands of local ‘cells’. In the majority of German cities, these underpinned the party’s success in national elections (Brustein 1998). The party grew at the grass roots first, the votes followed. In 1928, for example, the Nazis – the National Socialist German Workers’ Party – already had 100,000 party members in some 1,400 local chapters (Anheier 2003), making it one of the largest parties in the country. At the same time, it only received 2.6% of the national vote.

To examine the link between social capital and the fall of the Weimar Republic, we collect new data on associational life in over 100 towns in interwar Germany, and marry it with existing information on entry into the Nazi party. We also use information on 19th Century associations to clarify the nature of the link between party entry and association density in Germany in the 1920s. Throughout the period, towns and cities with more social capital showed markedly higher rates of entry into the Nazi Party (Figure 1). If we look at towns and cities in the highest tercile of association density, we see rates of entry that are almost twice as high as in the bottom tercile. This means that the ‘virus’ of Nazi ideology spread much faster in the population where people interacted intensively and repeatedly as equals.

Figure 1. Nazi party entry and association density

Associations could have helped the Nazi party for two reasons.

  • First, they could have contained a large reservoir of militaristic individuals thirsting for revenge against France, who were favourably pre-disposed to the Nazi message.

Then, the effect of social capital on party entry would simply show that places with a pro-Nazi political culture and outlook signed on to the brownshirt programme at a higher clip.

  • Second, it could well be that even if ideological preferences are identical in two locations, the town or city with more civic capital saw more party entry because fellow club members lent credibility to the Führer’s message and convinced Germans that the party was going to improve their lot.

The anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that the second channel was important. From autobiographical surveys, we know that interacting with party members convinced many to join the movement.

One member reminisced that he “ … became acquainted with a colleague of my own age with whom I had frequent conversations. He was a calm, quiet person whom I esteemed very highly. When I found that he was one of the local leaders of the National Socialist party, my opinion of it as a group of criminals changed completely”(Abel 1938).

In the university town of Marburg, analysed in detail by Rudy Koshar (1987), party entrants showed a wide range of memberships, from chess clubs to hiking associations – far transcending the militaristic realm of veteran associations. Also, individuals with association membership were overrepresented in the group of Nazi entrants. This demonstrates the power of the link we hypothesise, with association members themselves joining in higher numbers.

In our statistical analysis, we can control for other factors that are known to have influenced the appeal of National Socialist ideology, such as the strength of the Catholic party, and the relative importance of blue-collar employment. Once we take out these factors, we still find a strong and highly significant positive relationship between social capital and Nazi entry rates (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Cross-sectional relationship between association density and Nazi party entry

War veterans and pigeon breeders

To deal with the issue of interpretation more systematically, we divide association membership into two types – military associations (mainly veterans’ clubs), and other associations (rabbit breeders, singers, gymnasts, stamp collectors, etc.). When we analyse the link between association density and party entry, we find almost identical results for both types of social capital – pigeon breeders and hiking clubs were just as potent a force for the rise of the Nazi party as the veterans’ of the Franco-Prussian War of 1871.

Of course, it could well be that a third factor simultaneously drove up association membership and Nazi party entry. For example, unemployment fanned the flames of discontent with the Weimar Republic; it also gave people plenty of time to pursue other activities. In our regressions, we control for peak unemployment during the Depression, and do not find a change in results. We also use 19th-century association membership –capturing city-specific preferences for joining a club – and show that results are largely unchanged. This suggests that causation ran from associations to Nazi-party entry, instead of some omitted variable simultaneously increasing both.

Social capital and the survival of democracy

The collapse of the Weimar Republic was a turning point in world history. It brought a singularly murderous regime to power. Without the Nazi party’s massive success at the polls, its entry into government would have been inconceivable. What paved the way to electoral success was a powerful party organisation that penetrated into every corner of Germany. In this paper, we examine what allowed the party’s membership to rise to the point where it became a successful mass movement that could successfully challenge the established democratic order.

We find that dense social networks in interwar Germany ultimately contributed to the rise of the Nazi party. Independent of the associations’ ideological focus, membership grew more rapidly where there was social capital in abundance. Interacting as equals while singing or discussing rabbit breeding did not fortify Germans against the lure of an extremist party – it made it possible for its message to spread more rapidly, with many more citizens joining the cause where association density was high. These findings suggest that Putnam’s (and Tocqueville’s) claims about the benefits of social capital for democracy need to be questioned – in one historically important case at least, vibrant civic associations helped to dig the grave of an open society.


Abel, T F (1938), "Why Hitler Came into Power: An Answer Based on the Original Life Stories of Six Hundred of His Followers", Prentice-Hall.

Acemoglu D, T Reed, and J A Robinson (2013), “Chiefs: Elite Control of Civil Society and Economic Development in Sierra Leone", Working Paper 18691, National Bureau of Economic Research.

Anheier, H K (2003), “Movement Development and Organizational Networks: The Role of ‘Single Members’ in the German Nazi Party, 1925-1930”, in Mario Diani and Doug McAdam (eds.) Social Movements and Networks: Relational Approaches to Collective Action, 49–78, Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press.

Berman, S (1997), “Civil Society and the Collapse of the Weimar Republic”, World Politics 49(3), 401–429.

Brustein, W (1998), "The Logic of Evil: The Social Origins of the Nazi Party, 1925-1933", Yale University Press.

Field, J (2003), Social Capital, Routledge.

Guiso L, P Sapienza, and L Zingales (2008), “Long Term Persistence”, NBER Working Paper 14278, National Bureau of Economic Research.

Koshar, R (1987), “From Stammtisch to Party: Nazi Joiners and the Contradictions of Grass Roots Fascism in Weimar Germany”, The Journal of Modern History 59(1), March, 2–24.

Putnam, Robert D (1995), “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”, Journal of Democracy 6(1), 65–78.

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