The 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
Yale University Press, 1996
235 pp. $27.50
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Brustein, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, examines who became Nazis (that is, party members between 1925 and 1933) and why. His analysis is based "on a unique and exceptionally rich sample of more than 42,000 individuals." The most useful part of this book is the group of chapters in which the author analyzes the material interests of different classes and the responses of the various Weimar parties. Far more debatable is Brustein's use of rational choice theory. He "postulates that the Nazi party's emphases on protectionism, autarkic development, tax relief, resettlement, and mandatory application of impartible inheritance should have positioned the party to recruit successfully among the old middle class of artisans, merchants, and small independent farmers," and found that this was indeed the case. When other postulates are not confirmed by the data, he explains the discrepancy by examining material incentives or disincentives to joining. The presence of 40 percent of working-class Germans among the Nazi joiners is explained, again, by the party's working-class programs.

The problems are, first, that -- strange as it may seem -- rational choice explanations share with psychoanalysis the ability to explain absolutely everything on the basis of fundamental assumptions about human behavior that are anything but scientifically provable, and, second, that they tend to exclude, ipso facto, explanations based on the irrational factors of humanity: passions, hatred, prejudices. Brustein is convinced, by his method, that these factors, and especially antisemitism, played only a minor role in decisions to join the Nazi party. But his method does not allow him to exclude them, and a pure rational choice account tends to leave out such factors as the comparative lack of appeal of parties that had class-oriented programs comparable to the Nazis, the prominence of "irrational" appeals -- to an exacerbated nationalism as well as to antisemitism -- in the Nazis' propaganda, the drama of depression, and the drift at the end of Weimar. Brustein concludes that "evil may have ordinary and rational origins," but he does not tell us how these "ordinary and rational" calculations led to the kind of monstrous evil that was Nazism. For this, one has to read Daniel Goldhagen.