We hear much about the wonders of social capital – the dense network of associations facilitating cooperation within a community – of which there are many. It typically leads to positive political and economic outcomes, but is there a “dark side” to social capital? A new NBER working paper suggests there can be.
Bowling for Fascism: Social Capital and the Rise of the Nazi Party in Weimar Germany, 1919-33 by Shanker Satyanath, Nico Voigtlaender and Hans-Joachim Voth
A growing literature emphasizes the potentially “dark side” of social capital. This paper examines the role of social capital in the downfall of democracy in interwar Germany by analyzing Nazi party entry rates in a cross-section of towns and cities. Before the Nazi Party’s triumphs at the ballot box, it built an extensive organizational structure, becoming a mass movement with nearly a million members by early 1933. We show that dense networks of civic associations such as bowling clubs, animal breeder associations, or choirs facilitated the rise of the Nazi Party. The effects are large: Towns with one standard deviation higher association density saw at least one-third faster growth in the strength of the Nazi Party. IV results based on 19th century measures of social capital reinforce our conclusions. In addition, all types of associations – veteran associations and non-military clubs, “bridging” and “bonding” associations – positively predict NS party entry. These results suggest that social capital in Weimar Germany aided the rise of the Nazi movement that ultimately destroyed Germany’s first democracy.