Historical Social Research

Interview with Jürgen W. Falter (March 2013)


Dear Prof. Falter, 

What was your intention of cooperating with HSR for the Supplement?

The journal’s editor, Wilhelm Schröder, suggested a special HSR Issue focusing on my articles on voter and election history –a little flattered, I agreed happily and with great enthusiasm.

What is the concept behind this Supplement?

Matching HSR’s guidelines, the Supplement deals with publications written by me (and in part in cooperation with former colleagues) on electoral history and political membership connected to the rise of National Socialism; two contributions deal with the first post-war elections in both parts of Germany. This research query however covers only around a quarter of my research activities and related publications; my present-based analyses on voter behavior, on methods in the Social Sciences and on extremist attitudes and patterns of behavior would have gone beyond the scope of this HSR Supplement.

But your relation to GESIS already has a long tradition?

Since decades I feel closely connected to the ZA (Central Archive for Empirical Social Research) and the Center for Historical Social Research, first as a data-consumer and soon as data-producer. Already during the Seventies I attended the ZA’s Methods Seminar. In the Eighties I was advisory board member for the Center for Historical Social Research, then later for the ZA; finally in the Nineties I became member of the GESIS Board of Trustees for a longer period.

Besides your further research themes – how did it come to your great interest in the area of ‚sociography of National Socialism‘?

The downfall of Germany’s first democracy and the rise of Nazism already fascinated me, negatively, to an early point. As a teenager but even more as a student and young scholar I kept on asking myself how it had been possible that in 1932/33 more than half of the Germans voted for obvious extremist, anti-democratic parties as the NSDAP or KPD were.

Once I realized during the preparations for a workshop contribution by the end of the Seventies, that the state of research on the NSDAP voters was not at all as empirically grounded as had been silently asserted by many historians and social scientists, I applied for two related research projects with the DFG and the Volkswagen-Foundation concerning Weimar elections and the rise of the NSDAP. To my surprise, both of them were granted at once so that I was able, together with a great number of highly talented and enthusiastic colleagues, to dedicate my research towards the question which social classes and demographic groups had voted for the NSDAP, what parties had lost voters to the Hitler movement and what had been the leading motivation behind it.

Looking back: What was the innovative moment concerning methods in the historical election studies that you have practiced?

Methodological innovative was the handling of complex relations with appropriate statistical procedures, especially the ecological regressions analysis. This method enables under certain conditions the statistical inference from the aggregate- to the individual level. During the course of the project, my colleague Jan-Bernd Lohmöller and I managed to refine this method by including so-called moderator-variables. An innovation in the presentation of complex variable-relations  are further the so-called ‘Falter-Trees’, a procedure of contrast group comparison that makes a demonstration, even for people with only minor statistical experience possible, of  the ramification and overlapping of those influences favoring NSDAP voting behavior or making it rather unlikely.

Could you briefly sketch out how the question „Who voted for Hitler“ could be answered according to the present state of research?  

NSDAP voters cam from all social classes, demographic categories and regions, even though the Protestant former middle class of self-employed workers and farmers were significantly underrepresented among the NSDAP voters. Workers were much stronger voting for NSDAP as has been generally stated in historical  literature (up to 40% of the NSDAP voters came from the category ‘worker’, pursuant to insurance law). All parties lost voters after 1928 to the NSDAP, but in a highly asymmetric manner:  Only members of the KPD and the catholic parties Zentrum and BVP remained more or less immune. Unemployed workers voted below average for NSDAP  - in contrast to unemployed white collar employers. Women also gave their vote to the Hitler movement first strongly below average and later little below average.

Nevertheless, the fact that the mass unemployment was responsible for the rise of the NSDAP after 1928 remains undisputable. Finally, the rising indebtedness in the agrarian and commercial sector as well as the transition of most press organs towards National Socialism contributed to the NSDAP’s electoral success. In terms of keywords, the NSDAP can be characterized as a protest folk party, slightly ironically, as a folk party with middle class belly.

Your current studies concentrate even stronger in the direction of the NSDAP’s membership structure – what can you tell us about it already?

The American sociologist William Brustein and I have conducted (or better: have let conducted) in the late 1980s the biggest so far existing control sample of the remaining NSDAP member card files with over 42.000 cases for the years between 1925-1933. My colleagues and I have added to this control sample 9000 additional cases for the years 1934-45. Recorded for the first time were nationwide all information noted on the member cards, place of birth, date of birth, place of residence, local group, Gau, date of entry, profession, eventual exit date, reentry- or exit date as well as in case of moving the new place of residence and Gau. Further, we connected in a very time consuming process all location statements of the member data, demonstrating individual characteristics, with information from my Weimar voter data set, so that we now have information about the confessional, economic-structural  and social contexts  of the NSDAP voters. The first results show that among the new joining NSDAP members the percentage of workers was much higher than expected (fluctuating in years before 1933 more than 40% of the new entries were workers, whereby the expected atypical worker professions did not predominate). Only in 1933 the party experienced a slight middle class push through the great number of March converts.

You are Senior-Research Professor at the University of Mains – what topics will you work on in the upcoming years?

Reaching at the end of my activity as a teaching professor a position I dreamed of all my academic life for sure is a lucky fate. In Rheinland-Pfalz only five of the Senior-Research Professorships, including my own, do exist. In the remaining two years of my Senior-Research Professorships, attributed with a little research budget and research staff, I will work on the new control sample (for the years 1934 to 1945), conduct analyses based on this sample as well as on the old NS-membership data and I will try to write as a parallel volume to “Hitlers Wähler” a book on the NSDAP members. Its completion will take a couple of years however.

Thank you very much!