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Logic of Evil: The Social Origins of the Nazi Party, 1925-1933

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The Logic of Evil: The Social Origins of the Nazi Party, 1925-1933, by William Brustein

The Logic of Evil: The Social Origins of the Nazi Party, 1925-1933, by William Brustein

One of the most important questions for historians and sociologists has long been the reasons why so many people willingly, even eagerly, joined or just voted for the Nazi Party in Germany. Many different explanations have been offered, for example German inclinations towards authoritarianism and virulent anti-Semitism. What if the reasons were far more ordinary, however? What if the German motivations for voting for the Nazis were much like most people’s reasons for voting for any other party?


Title: The Logic of Evil: The Social Origins of the Nazi Party, 1925-1933
Author: William Brustein
Publisher: Yale University Press
ISBN: 0300065337

• Original, unprecedented analysis of 42,000 Nazi party members’ records
• Amazing data on the demographics, professions, and backgrounds of Nazi Party supporters

• Doesn’t address likely objections and critiques
• Doesn’t explain why only economic interests are rational interests

• Analysis of why it might have been rational to vote for or join the Nazi party
• Argues that anti-Semitism and xenophobia aren’t the only or best explanations for Nazi success
• Explains how Nazi proposals might reasonably have appealed to certain groups

Book Review

Most studies of Nazi Party affiliation tend to focus on issues like anti-Semitism and few have taken a step back from its extraordinary history to treat it like any other political party. Such an approach makes sense because the fate of National Socialism was unknown to those voting for it at the time — certainly the party wasn't unique when it came to issues like hatred for Jews.

Thus William Brustein’s book The Logic of Evil: The Social Origins of the Nazi Party, 1925-1933 is an important contribution to studies of Nazism. Brustein’s thesis is that most people were motivated to vote for and even join the Nazis because they perceived the Nazis as offering the best economic recovery plans. In other words, economic self-interest on the part of millions of ordinary Germans helped propel the Nazi Party to absolute power.

There are a lot of interesting ideas and data in Brustein’s book, but there are also some significant flaws which I should cover first. To begin with, Brustein like so many others writes as though “rational self-interest” were the same as “economic self-interest.” Anti-Semitism, xenophobia, hypernationalism, and other aspects of the Nazi program are dismissed as irrational.

This is a strongly materialistic vision of history which doesn’t try to get inside the perspective of people being analyzed. For us such ideas may appear irrational, but it wasn’t for them — in their minds, it may have been entirely rational.

Focusing on economics to the exclusion of all else makes for a very thin, superficial analysis of self-interest. People are not only capable of voting against their economic interests in favor of other interests, but sometimes that’s actually the best choice one can make.

Second, there are flaws in model of rational self-interest which economists and political historians use, none of which are addressed by Brustein. For example, studies have repeatedly shown that most people don’t actually seek to maximize the results of their choices — the time and effort that is required for such maximization simply doesn’t pay off in the end. Ultimately, it is more rational to simply seek to be satisfied with one’s choice, even if it isn’t the best available.

For example, people will pick a trusted brand of butter or pasta rather than try cheaper alternatives, even though the latter tactic may result in maximum quality for their money. Why? People aren’t perfectly rational and don’t make perfectly rational decisions. If people are satisfied with the brand they use and which their parents used, they’ll stick with it until very strong reasons come along for a change.

The Logic of Evil: The Social Origins of the Nazi Party, 1925-1933, by William Brustein

The Logic of Evil: The Social Origins of the Nazi Party, 1925-1933, by William Brustein

The same is probably true in politics as well. If a person is satisfied with a particular party or candidate, they may be likely to stick with them despite the reasons why it is against their self-interest to do so. Once a certain amount of trust is invested in the relationship, strong reasons are needed to break it off. Brining this into his analysis might have made Brustein’s book better.

As significant as these flaws are, they don’t completely undermine Brustein’s case or detract from his contribution. There may be more to self-interest than economics, but the importance of economics remains — and Brustein demonstrates that there were good reasons for Germans of the time to think that the Nazis would do a better job at handling the economy than the alternatives. This must have played a role in the thinking and voting of quite a few Germans and thus Brustein’s analysis does provide us with important information. On the other hand, that voting for the Nazis plausibly coincided with one’s economic self-interest does not mean that this was the reason why they voted Nazi.

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