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Authors: Voting for Hitler,Stalin; Elections Under 20th Century Dictatorships (2011)

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political scientists
. Both disciplines use different approaches, methods and sources. Whereas after 1945 historians were able to analyze the surviving

documents from the fascist era, until 1989/91 political scientists and

historians had only a few sources at their disposal relating to elections in

the communist sphere. The situation only began to improve after the col-

lapse of Communism in Europe—however, still today there are significant

differences among the post-communist states.

With regard to the significance of elections for the Nazi dictatorship in

Germany, there are two factors which have been of particular interest for

I N T R O D U C T I O N : N O N - C O M P E T I T I V E E L E C T I O N S 13

historical research, but which are not dealt with in this volume. The first is

the important question of the origins, motivations, and social structure of

Nazi voters
in the
Weimar Republic
—it is to these voters that the NSDAP

owed its spectacular successes at the ballot box during the chaotic years at

the end of the first German Republic (Chrystal 1975; Childers 1983; Falter

1991). The second is the 1935 referendum in which the inhabitants of the

Saar region, which had effectively been under French administration since

1920, voted overwhelmingly in favor of annexation to the
German Reich

(zur Mühlen 1979; Paul 1984). In both cases these were not elections under

a dictatorship, but free elections which heralded the rise of the NS move-

ment and the initial popularity of the regime.

A special role was also played by the elections to the Councils of Trust

which were introduced by the Nazis—in 1934 and 1935 workers were

called on to take part in these elections. They have mainly been regarded as

a test case for loyalty or political resistance among industrial workers

(Zollitsch 1989; Rüther 1991; Frese 1992). By contrast, the referenda of the

1930s, which have been examined in detail by Otmar Jung, were aimed at

the whole German population. There were three referenda in which the

regime sought to link demonstrations of power in foreign policy with do-

mestic plebiscitary approval. In one instance, during the referendum in

1934, Hitler had his usurpation of the office of the state president sanc-

tioned by the people (Jung 1995; 1998). Up until now, the three Reichstag

elections which the NS regime held in November 1933, March 1936, and

April 1938 using one-party lists have attracted less attention than the sen-

sational referenda. As well as Jung’s work, which, however, does not deal

with the elections as a focal point, the regional study conducted by Frank

Omland should be mentioned here—his study is also represented by an

article in this volume (Jung 1995; 52, 87; Omland 2002, 2008). With re-

spect to Italian Fascism, although there have been some studies on the

plebiscites held under Mussolini’s dictatorship, in general these have been

less frequently studied than those in Germany (Fimiani 1997; Dal Lago


However, recently there has been increased interest in investigating the

extent to which the German population supported the NS regime, as well

as how the loyalty of the people can be measured, and which instruments

the dictatorship employed in its attempt to consolidate the apparent con-

sensus between the people and the leadership. Examples include the

controversial thesis of Götz Aly on the direct or indirect participation of



large sections of the German population in the plundering of the occupied

territories during the war, and also the work of Robert Gellately on denun-

ciation. Further studies include David Welch on propaganda, Markus

Urban on the rituals of consensus at the Party congresses, and the latest

work by Paul Corner on Popular Opinion in Totalitarian Regimes (Aly

2005; Gellately 2001; Welch 1993; Urban 2007; Corner 2009). Up until

now, elections have barely been discussed within this context. Therefore, it

seems appropriate to link the staging of elections and plebiscites more

closely to the general question of the nature of the dictatorship than has

previously been the case.

The studies that critically examine the practice and function of elections

in the Soviet Union mainly stem from the period before 1991. They were

mostly conducted by American or Western European political scientists,

and were based on officially available information or on interviews with

immigrants. This limited the validity of these studies, as did the political

framework of the Cold War. As well as describing the history and structure

of the electoral procedures, some of these studies are concerned with as-

certaining the functions of “elections without choice”, and in particular the

contribution these elections made to the legitimization of communist

dictatorships (Pravda 1978; Zaslavsky and Brym 1978; White 1985). Fur-

thermore, the local elections in the Soviet Union have attracted the curios-

ity of western researchers in particular. In contrast to the heavily ritualized

nature of the national elections, the suggestion is that in these elections

there was a certain leeway for political participation, although the various

studies have not reached a definite conclusion on this (Swearer 1961;

Jacobs 1970; Friedgut 1979; Hahn 1988). In the search for indicators of

non-conformist voting, western observers have focused in particular on

non-voters since the end of the 1960s. They started with the plausible

assumption that in the light of great pressure to participate in elections,

electoral avoidance could be a strong indicator of divergent political opin-

ions (Gilison 1968; Karklins 1986; Roeder 1989). But despite the subtle

interpretation of the narrow source base, the insights provided by these

observations were limited.

After 1991, political scientists rapidly lost interest in elections which

had been conducted under the communist dictatorships. Furthermore, also

to historians other topics seemed to be more important than the elections

held under Stalin and his successors. However, some studies have already

shown the potential insights which can be gained from historical research

I N T R O D U C T I O N : N O N - C O M P E T I T I V E E L E C T I O N S 15

which analyzes elections as phenomena of the interaction between the

dictatorial state and society, and not only with regard to their political in-

strumentalization. These studies include J. Arch Getty on the elections of

1937, Wendy Z. Goldman on the parallel
Campaign for Union Democracy

Jan T. Gross on the elections in Soviet-occupied Eastern Poland in 1939

(Getty 1991; Goldman 2007; Gross 1986; Fitzpatrick 1999).

Studies that examine the Soviet-dominated states of Eastern Europe

between 1945 and 1991 highlight three main strands of research: firstly, the

elections in the period between the end of the war and the establishment

of the communist dictatorship. In a still unstable interim situation these

polls at first provided certain opportunities for non-communist votes to

count—for example, at the local elections and the
elections in 1946

in the Soviet Occupation Zone in Germany (Tuller 1997; Creuzberger

1999). However, only a short time later manipulated elections provided the

communist takeover of power with apparent democratic legitimization

(Onisoru and Treptow 1998; Zimmermann 2002).

Studies on national variants of non-choice suffrage since the end of the

1940s form the second strand of research. Although the details differed in

the various Eastern Bloc countries, nowhere was there the possibility that

the Communist Party would be in danger of defeat at the ballot box (Wiatr

1960; Jedruch 1982; Roman 1987, 2007; Löw 1998; Kloth 2000). However,

the tightening of the electoral process in Poland after the crisis of 1956,

and the great significance which the Communist Party in Czechoslovakia

accorded the elections in 1971, which were the first after the suppression

of the Prague Spring, both show that elections were not a routine event

(Drygalski and Kwasniewski 1990; Jędruch 1982; Dinka and Skidmore


The third strand of research centers on the issue that even in the con-

text of a dictatorship, elections could become a factor in system change. In

Poland and Hungary limited changes in the electoral process in the 1980s

promoted the erosion of the Communist Party’s monopoly on power

(Racz 1987; Lewis 1990), while in the German Democratic Republic, the

stubborn adherence of the SED to elections without choice and the blatant

manipulation of the local elections in May 1989 stimulated the protest

against the regime (Broßmann 1999; Kloth 2000; Herz 2004; Bienert 2008).



Research Perspectives

This volume brings together historians and political scientists with their

respective approaches, ideas, and methods. Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany

and the communist regimes in Europe are in the historians’ realm now.

However, it is of great advantage that political scientists are still interested in elections under modern dictatorships, offering a more systematic

perspective, clearly defined categories, and an analytical approach to domi-

nance, collective obedience, political rituals and symbols. On the other

hand, it is necessary to historicize and to contextualize our topic. What

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