by Matthias Blum and Alan de Bromhead (Queen’s Management School at Queen’s University Belfast)
This paper was presented at the EHS Annual Conference 2019 in Belfast.
Members of Nazi organisations climbed higher up the social ladder than non-members in the 1930s and 1940s. This was not due to Nazis being awarded higher-status jobs, but instead to already upwardly mobile individuals being attracted to the movement.
We examined a unique dataset of approximately 10,000 World War II German soldiers that contains detailed information on social background, such as occupation and education, as well as other characteristics like religion, criminal record and military service. The dataset also identifie membership of different Nazi organisations, such as the NSDAP, the SA, the SS and the Hitler Youth.
Comparing the social backgrounds of Nazi members and non-members reveal that Nazis were more likely to come from high-status backgrounds and had higher levels of education. Indeed, the odds of being a member of the Nazi party were almost twice as high for someone from a higher-status background than a low-status one. We also confirm a common finding that Catholics were less like to be Nazi members.
When looking at social mobility between generations, Nazi members advance further than non-members. But this appears to be driven by ‘upwardly mobile’ people – those that showed social mobility early on in their lives – subsequently joining the Nazis. This suggests that ‘ambitious’ or ‘driven’ individuals may have been attracted to the Nazi movement.
Although it is impossible to uncover exactly what motivated people to join the Nazis, our findings suggest that many educated and ambitious individuals from the higher end of the social scale were attracted to the movement. Interestingly, this seems to be the case not just for those who joined after the Nazi party came to power in 1933, but also to members who joined when the party was on the fringes of the Weimar political system in the 1920s.
Our study not only helps us to understand how the Nazi party emerged and came to power in the years before World War II, but also gives us an insight into how extremist organisations form and attract members more generally. It reminds us that we need to think beyond pure ideology when it comes to motivations for joining extremist groups and look at economic and social factors too.
For more information on the preliminary findings of the study, please visit: http://www.quceh.org.uk/uploads/1/0/5/5/10558478/wp17-04.pdf