Godwin, PR and the Nazis (12 Jan 2006)
Godwin’s Law states that:
As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.
A usual corollary of the Law is that said online discussion comes to an end and the side making the comparison is deemed to have lost. I would like to extend the Law to discussions on proportional representation, because sooner or later someone starts talking about how PR brought Hitler to power, and I am heartily sick of this sordid little political libel. Let me explain.
For a start, many – most – countries have used PR systems, and only one, at one specific juncture, has produced Hitler. Like analogies drawn from biology, a single case can be used to show more or less anything. Compare the devoted and selfless parenthood of penguins to the student-like lifestyle of the spadefoot toad, that sleeps most of the time, only getting up to eat and have lots of sex when the rains come to its desert homeland. Rather than making the glib comparison outlawed by Godwin, people making this case need a more elaborated account of why they link PR with the rise of Hitler.
There is a tiny foothold of fact on which this edifice of supposition rests. The Nazis received a foothold in parliament in the 1920s under the Weimar PR system, as extreme parties with small levels of support sometimes do. Sometimes extreme parties remain a festering presence, as currently in Belgium under PR and France with its majoritarian system, and sometimes they fade away as in the Netherlands or Australia. The difference is less in the system than in the broad social and economic conditions of the society in which they operate, and the behaviour of the other parties.
In the German case, Weimar was born under a bad sun, in the trauma of defeat and revolution in 1918-19, with at best half-hearted support outside the ranks of the social democrats. There were attempted coups in 1920 and 1923, hyperinflation and the occupation of part of the country in 1923-24 and of course the great slump after 1929. Political violence in Weimar Germany was not just a few fights at public meetings, but a simmering state of civil war, in which even the constitutional parties had private armies and the Nazis in particular used murder and terrorism to control the streets in the early 1930s. Weird and unsavoury ideas about how to restore German power were common currency in the country’s universities in the 1920s. What was remarkable about Weimar was how much relative stability and progress there was in the brief good years of 1924-29 against this background.
Under FPTP, the Nazis may not have been in parliament in the 1920s but the prior existence of a small parliamentary group was not the most important factor in their breakthrough election of 1930. Support for the traditional right wing parties collapsed in the elections of 1930 and July 1932, and so did the vote of a range of special interest parties such as the Farmers’ Party and the Middle Class Party that had polled relatively well in 1928 and 1930. This support switched in massive numbers to the Nazis. Support for the Catholic Centre Party, and for the parties of the left, was relatively unaffected by the rise of the Nazis, although within the left the Communists gained at the expense of the Social Democrats. By 1930, any system would have made the Nazis the biggest right wing party – and under FPTP the July 1932 results would have produced a large Nazi majority.
In no Weimar election, including the ugly and coerced election of March 1933, did the Nazis obtain a majority of votes cast, and therefore they never obtained a majority of seats in the Reichstag on their own. The Nazis were put into power not so much by PR as by the contemptible behaviour of what passed for the respectable right wing of German politics. They had never really been reconciled to the Weimar system and after 1930 became progressively more anti-democratic in a lame attempt to stop their vote bleeding over to the Nazis. They were willing to overlook the Nazis’ brutal disregard not just for constitutional law, but things that are normally considered less contentious, such as not approving of murder. By the time the worst of the slump in 1931-32 was upon Germany, the extremes – Nazis and Communists – were effectively colluding to build a revolutionary climate. They would periodically agree to pass parliamentary resolutions giving amnesties for political violence.
The reason Hitler became Chancellor in January 1933 was essentially the stupidity and malice of the conservatives. One faction feared that another faction, under General von Schleicher, was actually going to make a success of government. The Nazi vote had fallen in the November 1932 election and von Schleicher was planning to split the party and install an authoritarian military regime (which was more or less the best that could have been hoped for from the situation). His aristocratic predecessor, von Papen – one of history’s prize idiots – instead did a deal with Hitler under the impression that he could control the ugly little Austrian corporal (an illusion shared by some in Britain, with less excuse, a few years later). So weak were civil institutions and democratic norms that within a few months the Nazis had banned all the other parties and started to ‘co-ordinate’ the rest of civil society.
The real faults of the Weimar constitution were not so much in the electoral system (although it was undoubtedly flawed) but in other clauses. The dismantling of democracy started in 1930, when the government started ruling by presidential decree, and proceeded apace in 1932 when another government suspended devolved rule in Prussia. The ability of the Reichstag to pass an Enabling Act giving all power to the government in March 1933 killed off the system. A more entrenched constitution, with fewer get-outs and trap doors, could not have been dismantled like this. However, faulty constitutional engineering does not guarantee a slide towards dictatorship: other countries, including our own, have dangerous constitutional trap doors without falling so disastrously down a hole.
To expose the fallacy of the ‘PR gave us Hitler’ argument beyond doubt, just do a thought experiment. Imagine a German constitution which imposed FPTP in 1919. The result would have been, at that stage, a majority government for the Social Democrats on a minority vote. The forces of reaction and nationalism would not have wished the SPD the best of luck, formed a loyal opposition and waited patiently for the next election to see if they could do better next time. PR in 1919 offered the best chance of integrating the middle classes and the right into a constitutional system; the fact that it proved impossible and that a uniquely poisonous strain of extreme nationalism emerged is a complicated question. Historians distrust monocausal explanations, particularly ones as indirect and feeble as blaming PR, for complex phenomena like the rise of Hitler.
Godwin’s Law is about the tendency to introduce irrelevant emotionally charged material into what should be a rational debate. It’s important to discuss Nazi history (though perhaps not quite as important as commissioning editors for TV documentaries seem to think), and there are sometimes valid reasons to suspend Godwin’s Law. For instance, the dark political talents of Slobodan Milosevic, and his policies of blood and soil nationalism plus mass murder pursued while bamboozling the western democracies, do have some uncanny echoes. But it’s sheer ignorance, or wilful manipulation, to reach for that convenient swastika to plug a hole in a faulty argument.