Article Note: Jörg L. Spenkuch and Philipp Tillmann, “Elite Influence? Religion and the Electoral Success of the Nazis”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 26, Number 3 (September 2020)

Article Note: Jörg L. Spenkuch and Philipp Tillmann, “Elite Influence? Religion and the Electoral Success of the Nazis,” American Journal of Political Science 62:1 (January 2018): 19-36.

By Heath A. Spencer, Seattle University

Amid the current emphasis on Catholic complicity with Nazism, Jörg Spenkuch and Philipp Tillmann assess the Church’s ability to immunize its members against Nazism at the end of the Weimar era. Whereas researchers like Thomas Childers, Richard Hamilton, Jürgen Falter, and John O’Loughlin have already determined who voted for Hitler, Spenkuch and Tillmann address “the deeper question of why some groups radicalized while others did not” (20). They maintain that Catholic underrepresentation among Nazi voters was due primarily to the influence of the “Catholic Church and its dignitaries” rather than Catholic subculture or economic conditions in regions with a Catholic majority (22).

To make their case, they use a combination of county-level and municipal-level election results along with census data from 1925-1933. Controlling for other variables like demographic characteristics, unemployment rates according to occupation, workforce composition, and geographic differences, they find that “by itself, counties’ religious composition accounts for about 58% of the variation in the share of Nazi votes” (22). Using an Instrumental variables approach and ecological regression, they determine that “the ratio of Protestants to Catholics among NSDAP voters is about 8 to 1, relative to a population ratio of only 2 to 1” (27) and that “this difference cannot be attributed to systematic socioeconomic differences between both groups, as assumed in much of the prior literature” (28).

Having demonstrated the primacy of Catholic religious identity as an independent variable, the authors test their theory that elite influence shaped political choices by comparing the voting behavior of Catholics subject to the influence of pro-Nazi clerics with that of other Catholics.[1] They find that in such cases, the gap between Protestant and Catholic support for the NSDAP narrowed by 32-41%. In other words, “Catholics and Protestants voted considerably more alike in areas where the Catholic Church’s official warnings about the dangers of National Socialism were directly contradicted by the local clergy” (27).

The authors also address an anomaly that appears to undermine their claim of elite influence—the fact that Catholics were just as likely as Protestants to vote for the communist party despite the Church’s opposition. They attribute this asymmetry to the Catholic Center Party’s “ideological position” on the center-right of the political spectrum (31). While Protestant voters were free to choose the political party closest to their “ideal point,” Catholics faced sanctions if they supported the Nazis or the communists. However, Catholic voters who preferred the NSDAP found it easier than communist supporters to settle for the Center Party because it was closer to their “ideal point.”

Though Spenkuch and Tillmann are not the first to recognize the influence of the Catholic Church and its clergy on the political behavior of lay Catholics, their method quantifies and clarifies the nature of that influence in a discrete historical context. Applying their framework to “radicalized electorates” in the present, they posit that elite influence is most effective when warnings or penalties are accompanied by viable alternatives to extreme political movements: “Depending on the circumstances, a populist but influential elite may ultimately be preferable to a weak, principled one. Paradoxically, our work suggests that it may take a populist to save democracy from the fanatics” (35). They do not explain why populism is the only viable alternative, nor do they clarify the difference between populists and fanatics, but given the timing of their research and its publication, it is clear they have the United States and its religious and political landscapes in mind.


[1] For their data set, they took the 138 priests identified by Kevin Spicer in Hitler’s Priests: Catholic Clergy and National Socialism (DeKalb, IL: University of Northern Illinois Press, 2008), geocoded their locations at the end of the Weimar Republic, and included all communities within a ten-mile radius.