Press release

Hitler’s campaign appearances had little effect on election results

Political scientists in Berlin and Konstanz qualify the perception of Hitler as the greatest speaker of all time through their extensive analysis of Adolf Hitler’s election campaign appearances and election results between 1927 and 1933.

Berlin/Konstanz – Five German parliamentary elections (Reichstag) and one German presidential (Reichspräsident) election were carried out in Germany between 1927 and 1933. During this time period, the NSDAP increased its vote share from a marginal three to an extraordinary 44 percent. New research results from Simon Munzert (Hertie School) and Peter Selb (University of Konstanz) show, however, that Adolf Hitler's 455 public appearances during this period had a surprisingly small effect on the electoral outcomes. Their findings are to be published in the American Political Science Review.

Hitler's public appearance locations between March 1927 and March 1933 according to five election periods. Copyright: Simon Munzert and Peter Selb

Peter Selb and Simon Munzert base their findings on election statistics from 1,000 counties and districts as well as from 3,864 municipalities. Their analysis includes information on Hitler's campaign locations, attendance figures at individual events, and NSDAP party membership numbers. They also take campaign event appearances of Joseph Goebbels – the second most important speaker for the Nazi movement – into account. By using the statistical method, of "difference of differences" (DID), the researchers compare election trends in areas where Hitler gave public speeches with the electoral developments from similar areas where he did not appear.

"We are surprised about how marginal the effect of Hitler's election appearances was, especially when one considers contemporary witnesses and historians who have confirmed his exceptional rhetorical abilities,” explain Selb and Munzert. Overall, their data assessment demonstrates only minor electoral effects, which were very limited in terms of geography and time. According to the researchers, Hitler's personal involvement only had a positive effect in the run-off election for the office of German president (Reichspräsident) in 1932. This election took place after an unusually short, intensive and one-sided election campaign - competitor Hindenburg did not make any public appearances – leading Hitler to garner an estimated additional one to two percentage points in terms of vote share in counties and districts in the immediate vicinity of locations where he made a public appearance before the election.

Hitler's public appearance locations between March 1927 and March 1933 according to five election periods. Copyright: Simon Munzert and Peter Selb

The fact that Hitler’s campaign is considered a most likely case for campaign effects makes these results all the more extraordinary. In contrast to his political rivals, Hitler utilised new and sophisticated techniques, including modern technology such as loudspeakers and airplanes, with which he traveled throughout Germany. These provided Hitler an unparalleled geographic penetration and an unprecedented level of public attention. “It is remarkable that Hitler’s public appearances and speeches as an early populist and party leader were not very influential, especially when one considers the growing body of empirical evidence confirming his propaganda successes as dictator”, explain Selb and Munzert. Research on Germany after 1933 – when the Nazis had begun to gain totalitarian control over the state apparatus, societal organizations, and the emerging mass media – has demonstrated that Nazi propaganda had strong and long-lasting effects on the collective perceptions, attitudes and behaviour of people.

According to Selb and Munzert, “other studies stress the crucial role that economic and political circumstances played during this time – which includes mass unemployment and economic hardship, the lack of support for democracy, the alienation between established parties and the electorate, as well as weak state institutions – for the rise of the NSDAP. When compared to these conditions, we can confirm that Hitler's importance as a charismatic speaker is less significant." Based on this historical evidence, the researchers recommend that one should view the accepted opinion that charismatic leaders play a key role in the rise of right-wing populist movements, for example, with skepticism.

Changes in the proportion of NSDAP voters in counties and county boroughs from the German parliamentary (Reichstag) elections in September 1930 to July 1932. Red dots mark Hitler's appearances between the two election dates. Copyright: Simon Munzert and Peter Selb

The scientific article Examining a Most Likely Case for Strong Campaign Effects: Hitler’s Speeches and the Rise of the Nazi Party, 1927–1933 by Peter Selb and Simon Munzert, which has been published in the American Political Science Review, can be viewed here.

About the authors

  • Simon Munzert is Lecturer of Political Data Science at the Hertie School in Berlin. His research interests include the dynamics of public opinion and the role of new media in political processes. He is a fellow of the Daimler and Benz Foundation and head of the international collaboration project "Media Exposure and Opinion Formation in an Age of Information Overload", which is funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. He completed his PhD at the University of Konstanz. 

  • Peter Selb is Professor of Survey Research at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Konstanz with expertise in survey methodology, public opinion and political behaviour. He is a former principal investigator for Swiss National Election Studies and a current contributor to the research area and proposed Cluster of Excellence “The Politics of Inequality” at the University of Konstanz, which is currently participating in the German Excellence Strategy competition.

The Hertie School is a private university based in Berlin, Germany, accredited by the state and the German Science Council. It prepares exceptional students for leadership positions in government, business, and civil society. Interdisciplinary and practice-oriented teaching, first-class research and an extensive international network set the Hertie School apart and position it as an ambassador of good governance, characterised by public debate and engagement. The school was founded at the end of 2003 as a project of the Hertie Foundation, which remains its major partner.

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