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

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approval rates of 99 or 100 per cent are not only implausible, but they also

suffer from a kind of performative self-contradiction since they signal

complete consensus even though modern electoral technology is supposed

to guarantee
voting that is detached from collective ties. Indeed, one can regard elections as a symbolic representation of the postulated

unity of Party, state and people, but they tell us little about the degree to

which the population believed in their legitimacy. Rather, they are an

indicator of conformism and the extent to which the population was pre-

pared to take part in a ritual demonstration of loyalty. In this respect, this

would concord with the thesis of Zaslavsky and Brym who argue with

respect to the Soviet Union that: “Elections buttress the regime—not by

legitimizing it, but by prompting the population to show that the
of its ‘democratic’ practice has been accepted and that no action to undermine it will be forthcoming” (Zaslavsky and Brym, 1978, 371).

Consensus und Discipline

Even under democratic, constitutional conditions in which elections are a

credible instrument of political participation, they nevertheless have ele-

ments of discipline. This is true, on the one hand, in the sense that the



establishment of elections means that non-institutionalized forms of pro-

test and representation lose their legitimacy (Bertrand et al., 2007b, 12). On

the other hand, the technology of the modern electoral process promotes

the rationalization of political forms of articulation and demands from the

electorate a controlled, disciplined behavior: they have to accept the elec-

toral procedure and follow the strict time frame of the election process.

The registration of the electorate and the control of their franchise depend

on reliable identification and recording processes. It is no coincidence that

modern suffrage has become more widespread at the same time as “the

standardizing omnipotence of bureaucracy” (Geisthövel 2008, 25). There is

also a close link between literacy and suffrage, and in the past illiterate sec-

tions of the population were often either in effect, or sometimes also le-

gally excluded from elections (Bertrand et al. 2007 b, 11). The extent to

which elections and suffrage were used to exclude whole groups of people

can be seen in the long history of the struggle for universal and equal suf-

frage. In many countries it was not until well into the 20th century that

voting restrictions based on class, wealth, occupation, education, religion,

race, and gender were finally abolished and the political rights of citizens

were extended to all (Marshall 1964). The right to vote created the disci-

plined citizen, who in voting demonstrated his or her belief in legitimacy

and their membership of the political community. Those in the 19th cen-

tury who were of a liberal mindset saw suffrage as having an integrating

and disciplinary effect. The New York politician Henry Ward Beecher

declared, for example, in the 1860s that “to have an ignorant class voting is

dangerous […]; but to have an ignorant class and not have them voting, is

a great deal more dangerous” (quoted in Wilder 2000, 79).

However, even if the technology of elections has always been con-

nected with elements of behavioral discipline, in 20th century dictatorships

this assumed a completely new quality and became one of its main func-

tions. Regimes of both the right and left took advantage of one of the

constitutive characteristics of modern electoral technology, namely the

public organization of the elections while at the same time systematically

annulling the corresponding confidentiality of the individual act of voting.

Thus, since participation in an election without choice was public and

became conventionalized as the duty of a citizen, elections were easily able

to be made into a litmus test of obedience (Zaslavsky and Brym 1978, 368;

Hermet 1978 b, 15). As Paul Corner highlights in his article in this volume,

the disciplinary effect of the election did not depend on the actual opinion

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 25

of the voters, but rather on their public cooperation: “Political conviction

took second place to
behavior. What was important was that the

individual had to
be seen
to be part of the collective effort; inner thoughts were less important.” The Fascists merely expected everyone to behave as

if they believed in Fascism—even if this was not the case. What was

important was “
manifestations of conformity with the common pur-

pose” (Corner). Therefore, the ruling Party and the state authorities put a

huge amount of effort into getting the electorate to the ballot box. In the

GDR, for example, inquiries were carried out before the elections to ascer-

tain who was likely to refuse to vote or would use the voting booth. In

individual and group discussions those citizens who were regarded as sus-

pect, such as the clergy, would be persuaded and pressed into going to

vote—sometimes by exerting pressure, but sometimes by using incentives

(see Richter in this volume). Jan T. Gross has interpreted the forced par-

ticipation in the first Soviet elections in occupied East Poland in October

1939 as a public humiliation ritual that was designed to have a long-term

damaging effect on the self-respect of the people as well as their belief in


“In such a spectacle we are all shown to each other engaged in an act of betrayal of our own beliefs for fear of sanction. What expectations of loyalty can one hold

from such tainted prospective associates? And then, in the end, nobody can be

sure who was in earnest, or to what degree. After the October elections the overwhelming majority of the inhabitants of the Western Ukraine and Western

Belorussia had lost their innocence. They had made a contribution. They were, as of then, implicated. For the only interpretation which makes sense of the otherwise absurd herding of the people into pre-election meetings and then voting booths,

lies in the recognition that Soviet authorities never sought
from the population in their custody or
only complicity.” (Gross 1986, 29).

Despite the moral tone of the language, this is an important observation

that can explain why the grotesque approval rates of 99 per cent despite

their implausibility had the effect of greatly stabilizing the system. In his

study on “Private Truths, Public Lies” Timur Kuran has analyzed this as

“preference falsification”, and David T. Smith has followed this up with

his study on elections in the
Soviet Union (Kuran 1995; Smith 2006). A picture of general approval was nevertheless generated

because citizens whose private opinion did not concur with the politics of

the regime still signalized conformity in the context of the public ritual of

the elections in order not to be conspicuous and thus attract sanctions.



This public impression in turn motivated other people to also behave in a

conformist manner. “Thus the populace itself perpetuated Communism”

(Smith 2006, 19).

Bottom-Up Communication: Loyalty and Dissent

Even if voters had no real opportunity to participate, they usually had

some options to act: they could or could not take part in election meetings,

go to the polls, enter the voting booth, cast their vote. The voters had

more or less three options: active acceptance combined with an inner

identification, passive acceptance or open rejection.

Active acceptance and a huge willingness to identify with the regime

can be seen in the example of National Socialist Germany when the 1933

November elections reflected the euphoria of large sections of the German

population in the wake of the successful seizure of power by the National

Socialist movement. The Soviet elections also show indications of an inner

willingness to comply on behalf of some parts of the electorate—for exam-

ple, when conformist citizens used the ballot papers to write down patri-

otic slogans or hymns to the Soviet Union (Carson 1955, 75; see Merl and

Bohn in this volume). Even if it is very difficult to assess how widespread

and representative such expressions were, it seems as if in this respect

there was a significant difference between
dictatorships of National Socialist Germany and the Soviet Union, and regimes that were

established by means of Soviet external pressure.

As a rule, the majority of voters completed the state ceremony of the

election as designated by the authorities: they voted for the nominated

candidates on the single-list, put the ballot paper into the ballot box with-

out changing it and without using the voting booths, which had been set

up as a matter of pro forma (Dietrich 1966, 816; Bohn, 10 and 17, this

volume; Bienert 2008). It was a similar story with respect to the plebiscites

that were held in Fascist Italy and National Socialist Germany. Indeed, the

voters in this context did formally have the choice of ticking “yes” or “no”,

or in Italy they could either put the “yes” slip in the national colors of Italy or the gray “no” paper into the see-through ballot box in full public view

(see Fimiani in this volume). The barrage of propaganda, scare tactics, and

public pressure that surrounded the whole staging of the elections, as well

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