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

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the participants played the roles to which they had been allocated.

20

R A L P H J E S S E N A N D H E D W I G R I C H T E R

Fields of Study

From these initial considerations, three different research areas can be

identified which thematize the two-way interaction between the ruling

powers and the population, albeit in different ways. In the following, these

three areas will be linked to empirical observations and theoretical delib-

erations. The first relates to the legitimizing effect of the elections, the

second to their disciplinary function, and the third to how the electorate

reacted to the imposition of elections without choice.

Legitimization and Ambivalent Modernity

Elections should also serve to legitimize authority in dictatorships. They

are suitable for this task because first of all, unlike almost any other
political
technology
they symbolize modernity. Since the “first wave” of democratization (Huntington), they have become an indispensable prerequisite if a

state wishes to present itself as
modern
. Already in the 19th century, and then after the First World War, in the perception of most of the political public,

elections and democracy became linked to
modernity
, the
cultural state
, and
civility
(Bryce 1921, 3–14; Kaisenberg 1930, 161 f.; see also Brandt 1998, 68; Lipset and Lakin 2004). Even the anti-liberal, totalitarian systems could not

avoid this logic and connected their official master narrative of unity be-

tween people, state, and ruling Party to the claim that this unity was mani-

fested in elections and plebiscites.

The orientation towards western symbols of modernity went so far that

dictatorships as a rule maintained the complex system of the
Australian

Ballo
t or even, as was the case with Stalin, introduced it for the first time.

When Stalin established the new Soviet constitution with its general, equal,

direct and secret voting system, the effect this step had overseas played an

important role in his calculations (Getty 1991, 19; see also the article by

Merl). In fact Stalin’s constitution and its apparently
modern
electoral system was met with euphoria among some western intellectuals (see Smith;

Bayerlein 2009). Theoretically the constitution meant universal suffrage—

for each worker, peasant and Muslim woman in the huge domain of the

Soviet Union, and even for the clergy who had been disenfranchised after

the revolution. Andrei Vyshinskii (1883–1954), the infamous chief pro-

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 21

secutor in the Moscow show trials of 1936–1938, pointedly described this

claim to modernity as follows:

“Never in a single country did the people manifest such activity in elections as did the Soviet people. Never has any capitalist country known, nor can it know, such a high percentage of those participating in voting as did the USSR. The Soviet election system under the Stalin Constitution and the elections of Supreme Soviets

have shown the entire world once again that Soviet democracy is the authentic

sovereignty of the people of which the best minds of mankind have dreamed”

(quoted from Smith in this volume).

Even the Italian Fascists also celebrated themselves as having the most

modern form of popular government: the fascist minister and follower of

Mussolini, Giuseppe Bottai (1895–1959), asserted that Fascism would be

more democratic than all the traditional democracies because it had elimi-

nated the distinction between the elite and the masses. The influential

newspaper
Corriere della Sera
declared in 1939 that: “the fascist regime is the most democratic regime that exists because it has
total
consensus” (quoted from Corner in this volume).

Secondly, in addition to their meaning as a
symbol
of modernity, the po-

litical
technology
of general and equal elections was able to contribute towards the loosening of traditional connections and individual loyalties,

despite all the dictatorial limitations. It was also able to establish the con-

cept of individual citizenship and legitimize central state power. This factor

is mainly seen in countries that had no electoral tradition that predated

dictatorship, such as the Soviet Union. As we can see in 19th century West-

ern countries and in the case of contemporary China, un-free elections

could also have modernizing effects (Lu and Shi 2009; Anderson 2000;

Arsenschek 2003; Bensel 2004). Like elections that take place under de-

mocratic conditions, non-choice elections are based on the model of an

individual, equal citizen, who takes part in public affairs by using his or her

right to vote. In societies without a tradition of universal and free suffrage

this modern political technology—even in its non-democratic version—

could marginalize and de-legitimize traditional patterns of inequality, local

mutualism, tribal loyalty and collectivism (Goldman 2007; Gross 1986).

The introduction of female suffrage in the Muslim territories of the USSR

probably had a modernizing effect, irrespective of its non-democratic char-

acter.

The third aspect is that dictatorial regimes were able to confer increased

legitimacy upon themselves by maintaining that they were upholding exist-

22

R A L P H J E S S E N A N D H E D W I G R I C H T E R

ing electoral rules and procedures. In Italy and Germany before the Fas-

cists and National Socialists established their regimes there had been a long

tradition of elections and suffrage stretching back to the 19th century. Over

several decades the population had been able to gain experience of this

political technology with the result that elections belonged to the
normal

and
necessary
elements of politics which could only be changed with great difficulty (Bryce 1921, 46; Kühne 1998, 59). Under these circumstances,

the abolition of suffrage, or even a fundamental modification of it, would

have endangered the claims to legitimacy of the regime. The German Na-

tional Socialists, who were at great pains to achieve the appearance of legal-

ity in the establishment of their dictatorship, may well have destroyed the

democratic content and the fundamental rights contained within the

Weimar
constitution, but they retained the
Reichstag
elections and turned them into an instrument for the staging of
Führer
plebiscites (Omland and Urban, this volume). Even in the Soviet Occupation Zone the
Sowjetische

Militäradministration
and German Communists at first allowed competitive regional elections in a concerted effort to legitimize the conversion of the

political system. Shortly afterwards, however, these elections were transfor-

med into a single-list system with some pseudo-pluralist elements (Bienert

2008; Kloth 2000, 75–95; see Richter in this volume).

A fourth aspect is that the potential legitimizing power of dictatorial

elections depended not only on the historical context but also on their

tactical deployment by governments. Hitler, for example, staged plebiscites

during the 1930s in close connection to successful political coups, and

thereby strengthened the general sense of euphoria. Stalin launched the

new constitution of 1936 and the new universal suffrage in 1937 during the

darkest years of mass terror, and thus focussed attention on the apparent

modernization potential of Communism. In post-Yalta Europe after 1945

free elections became a test case for self-determination and immediately a

crucial Cold War issue (Wright 1961).

The fifth aspect is the question of whether elections in dictatorships

contributed to the legitimization of power, taking the context of the

election campaigns into consideration—campaigns that the communist

regimes in particular put much effort into staging, and which almost

became more important than the act of voting itself (Ó Beacháin, and

Bohn in this volume; Dietrich 1966, 816). In countless election meetings a

majority of the electorate was addressed. This was, without doubt, a rather

asymmetric form of communication in which the ruling Party put much

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 23

effort into preaching its ideology. Indeed these meetings sometimes

provided the opportunity to express dissatisfaction and put forward

complaints, even to the point of becoming informal negotiation processes

(see the article by Richter; Nohlen 2009, 36). However, they were primarily

part of a huge mobilization process in which many thousands of Party

members and functionaries were able to demonstrate their enthusiasm and

loyalty, and thus became active participants in the political performance.

As is the case with other forms of mass mobilization such as political

celebrations, Party conventions, and demonstrations, election campaigns

activated the rank and file of the ruling Party and gave them a feeling of

importance as well as a sense of being closely connected to the regime.

The sixth question is to what extent the notorious approval rates of al-

most 100 per cent of the votes were really able to contribute to the legiti-

mization of power. Of course, official propaganda always celebrated such

results as the overwhelming affirmation of the regime. However, in the end

the results of a non-competitive election say little about whether the citi-

zens actually regard their government as legitimate. Election results with

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