New research by Christian Gläßel highlights the lasting political impact of Nazi death marches on bystanders

In an article in Comparative Political Studies, Gläßel and co-authors show the influence of witnessing Nazi regime atrocities on post-war political attitudes in Bavaria.

In the recently-published article The Political Effects of Witnessing State Atrocities: Evidence from the Nazi Death Marches, Hertie School postdoctoral researcher Christian Gläßel joins co-authors Alexander De Juan, Felix Haas, and Adam Scharpf in investigating the effects of witnessing mass violence in the final stretch of a dictatorship. Drawing on original archival research bringing together disaggregated data on victims by location, post-war voting records, and survey data, this study demonstrates a clear link between the sites of extreme violence against innocent civilians in the final months of World War II and lower support for right-wing nationalist parties and Hitler’s legacy in the decades that followed.

As the co-authors explain, many autocratic regimes break down in an irregular and chaotic way, triggering a rise in hasty, last-ditch violence as the regime struggles to hold onto power. The Nazi regime is no exception, having dissolved its concentration camps as the front line advanced and brutally relocated the prisoners deeper into its territory through what became known as the death marches, which claimed more than 200,000 lives. Many of these marches brought the victims and accompanying violence to much of rural Bavaria, “[confronting] ordinary German citizens with the regime’s crimes”.

By mapping the municipalities in which the largest number of deaths took place along these routes, and comparing that to disaggregated voting data in the early years after World War II, Gläßel and his co-authors show that the bystanders to these atrocities were significantly less likely to vote for right-wing nationalist parties afterwards, especially when the regime’s crimes were at the center of public discourse. This effect happens because, as the authors argue, “observing regime violence against innocent civilians triggers psychological dissonance between beliefs about the regime and the witnessed moral transgression”. The results are further strengthened by the inclusion of survey data which shows a similar pattern in the extent to which residents of each municipality rejected Hitler 20 years later.

This study is likely the “first systematic study of the political consequences of the Nazi death marches” and has a number of important implications. Firstly, the study shows that extreme violence during the decline of a dictatorship can reduce the risk of a political comeback for regime supporters later on, especially if the regime’s crimes are brought to the center of the public discussion. Secondly, this research is a warning that retreating parties in a conflict stand to lose the support of the civilian population if they resort to mass violence. Finally, the paper highlights the critical role of bystanders in preventing future violence, underscoring the need to include the broader community in truth and reconciliation efforts.

Read the full article here.

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Teaser image: Clandestine photograph of prisoners marching to Dachau. Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Copyright: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Provenance: Maria Seidenberger. Source Record ID: Collections: 2010.511.1

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