Hitler Did Not Come to Power Democratically

by Daniel Luban

In a recent interview, the conservative Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis argues that the Arab world is not ready for free and fair elections. This may be surprising coming from the man whose theories about“the roots of Muslim rage” were a major inspiration for the Bush administration’s democracy promotion agenda. Nevertheless, in making his argument Lewis repeats what is supposed to be the argument-clincher against elections — the fact that “Hitler came to power in a free and fair election.”

The only problem is that this frequently-repeated “fact” is simply not true. In the final two free elections before Hitler’s rise to power, in July and November 1932, the Nazis received 38% and 33% of the vote, respectively — a plurality but not enough to bring them into government. In the 1932 presidential election, Hitler lost to Hindenburg by a wide margin.

Hitler came to power not through elections, but because Hindenburg and the circle around Hindenburg ultimately decided to appoint him chancellor in January 1933. This was the result of backroom dealing and power politics, not any kind of popular vote. It is true that after Hitler was already ensconced as chancellor, the Nazis subsequently won the March 1933 elections. But this was in the wake of the Reichstag fire, when the government had passed an emergency law that sharply restricted the activities of left-of-center parties (including the arrest of many Communist leaders). Thus it is difficult to claim that these were “free and fair” elections.

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Look, I understand the basic point that Lewis and the rest are trying to make with the Hitler example: elections can sometimes bring nasty people to power. And frankly, I agree with this obvious point. But it would be nice if seemingly well-informed people would stop repeating this bogus “fact” about Hitler, so that we can lay it to rest once and for all.

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