Did Hitler Bring Home the Bacon?

Why even the Fuhrer was a proponent of pork barrel spending.

Photo by Wikimedia
Photo by Wikimedia
Photo by Wikimedia

In U.S. politics, "pork" is a well-known and oft-maligned concept: Alaska built its bridge to nowhere, and North Carolina had its teapot museum. It's a tried-and-true electoral strategy for politicians to invest in local projects, no matter how bizarre, to gain constituents' favor.

But did pork help even Adolf Hitler win German loyalty?

Academics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Zurich recently examined how infrastructure spending -- specifically, the construction of the Autobahn, the legendary German highway system -- affected citizens' support of the Third Reich in its early years. The Autobahn was a priority of Hitler's administration. The Führer himself even broke ground on a section of the road, after which he turned to the audience members in attendance and told them to "get to work."

In U.S. politics, "pork" is a well-known and oft-maligned concept: Alaska built its bridge to nowhere, and North Carolina had its teapot museum. It’s a tried-and-true electoral strategy for politicians to invest in local projects, no matter how bizarre, to gain constituents’ favor.

But did pork help even Adolf Hitler win German loyalty?

Academics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Zurich recently examined how infrastructure spending — specifically, the construction of the Autobahn, the legendary German highway system — affected citizens’ support of the Third Reich in its early years. The Autobahn was a priority of Hitler’s administration. The Führer himself even broke ground on a section of the road, after which he turned to the audience members in attendance and told them to "get to work."

Researchers Nico Voigtländer and Hans-Joachim Voth compared local election results for votes held in November 1933 and August 1934. Specifically, they were interested in comparing the number of votes against the Nazis in regions that had benefited from the Autobahn, whose construction had gone into full swing between the two polls, with those that hadn’t benefited.

They found that opposition fell everywhere, and they noted that the 1934 vote was not held under entirely free and fair circumstances. But opposition declined 60 percent faster in regions where the highway was being built. Voigtländer and Voth estimate that in those areas, one in 10 people who had previously opposed the Nazi regime voted for it in 1934.

Were these one-time holdouts just voting for the party bringing home the bacon? Perhaps. Workers building the Autobahn stayed at local inns and spent money in local shops, and some construction sites even became minor tourist attractions. But the two researchers argue that voters were more likely swayed by the highway’s demonstration of governmental competence and effectiveness. In the wake of Weimar gridlock, the Nazis’ ability to get things done was appealing.

Of course, this same ability would later be used to perpetrate one of the worst tragedies in history. Yet as Voigtländer and Voth write, it’s not so rare today to hear an elderly German, explaining to a grandchild why Hitler was so popular, utter the phrase, "At least he built the Autobahn."

Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is the Europe editor at Foreign Policy. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, and Forbes, among other places. She holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and master’s degrees from Peking University and the London School of Economics. The P.Q. stands for Ping-Quon.

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