objective tests about government structure, leaders, and current events…it is more likely that educated people think more clearly and know more” (Caplan 7).
With political education, it can be ensured that informed voters remain in society. Similar to Putnam’s case study of Italy, political scientist Sheri Berman analyzes a German town that fell under the influence of the NSDAP party. Berman’s purpose is to illustrate how Hitler utilized democratic tactics just as much as he utilized violence to rise to power.
According to Berman, the German town of Weimar Republic was predictably susceptible to the influence of the NSDAP party for numerous reasons. Specifically, Berman cites poor political institutions as the primary reason for the fall of Weimar. Weimar had extremely high levels of civic engagement that were left unsatiated due to the weak government infrastructure. As a result, citizens were forced to construct and join their own social groups to satisfy their deep-seeded desires to belong to a group. Berman noted, “During the interwar period in particular, Germans threw themselves into their clubs, voluntary associations, and professional organizations out of frustration with the failures of the national government and political parties…” (Berman 1). This highlights the onset of destabilization in German society that occurred prior to the NSDAP party.
Over time, the population’s value of their existing government deteriorated. Subsequently, German political life splintered and fragmented even further, dividing the society. Following the onset of the Great Depression, German citizens began to demand political and economic reform from their government. However, after the national government failed to react swiftly and effectively, “…a political vacuum opened up in German politics, a vacuum that offered the NSDAP party a golden opportunity to assemble an unprecedented coalition” (Berman 10). Similar Berman, historian William S.
Allen analyzed one particular German city. The town of Northeim fell to the influence of the NSDAP party. Like Weimar, Northeim was ruled by a government that was unable to respond to an increasingly agitated population. This led to the citizens of Northeim longing to be a part of something, “Perhaps the behavior of the good burghers of Northeim becomes more understandable when one realizes the extent to which they were committed to nationalism. The excess of patriotic feeling in the town during the pre-Hitler period was the great moral wedge for Nazis” (Allen 297).
Allen argues that deep-rooted patriotism, a weak economy, and a struggling political infrastructure served as the foundation upon which the NSDAP party could build their empire. Once the NSDAP party rose to power in Northeim, “The extent of the violence in Northeim was an expression of the radical situation, but it also added to it by making violence normal and acceptable” (Allen 298). Allen continues further, detailing how desensitizing German citizens to violence and exploiting the existing political tensions was crucial in allowing the NSDAP to take over. The Nazi party ensured that high levels of civic engagement were maintained so that their population was kept well controlled and obedient, “To assure mass backing there had to be active participation, even more so after the Nazis had seized power and could require participation” (Allen 206). It is important to note that many German citizens believed they were contributing to the greater good of their country, rather than being forced into complying. In addition, the NSDAP appealed to many because of the Nazi’s flexible use of propaganda to pander to each citizen, “Their propaganda played upon all the needs and fears of the town and directed itself to almost every potential group of adherents” (Allen 298). By maintaining the idea of every participant being patriotic, the NSDAP part was able to effectively brainwash much of the German population in order to gain a political foothold.
There are notable similarities in both of the German cities that were discussed. In both instances, the population was cohesive yet lacked a general sense of purpose. Although social clubs and networks were beneficial to much of the population, the extreme levels of civic engagement instilled an inherent desire to rally behind a government that was well-liked and appeared trustworthy. Hitler targeted citizens who felt alienated and wanted to be integrated into a larger community. Robert Putnam reasons that, “..
.voluntary collaboration can create value that no individual, no matter how wealthy, no matter how wily, could produce alone” (Putnam 183). Although Putnam argues in favor of establishing social capital first, the two German cities that were discussed portray the effects of a population that was so obsessed with their political culture that they were easily manipulated and exploited. Berman argues against Putnam, stating, “Civil society activity alone, in short, could not overcome the country’s social divisions or provide the political cohesion that would have been necessary…
For this, strong and flexible political institutions, particularly political parties, would have been necessary.” (Berman 13). If the pre-Hitler central German governments had succeeded in re-establishing political order, then the Nazi party might never have been able to rise to power.Although there have been cases that link a solid social capital and a stabilized democracy, the examples I have provided show that the success of a democracy cannot be based primarily on its level of civic engagement. Although a strong political culture is an important aspect of a democratic government, emphasizing political culture before anything else is not enough to ensure a sustainable, prosperous government.