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Bernie Sanders was called a liar for saying Hitler won an election. But he was right.

Mr. Kessler, I checked your facts on my iPhone. They are wrong.
Mr. Kessler, I checked your facts on my iPhone. They are wrong.
Win McNamee/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Recently, a meme featuring a quote by Bernie Sanders about the Nazi Party's rise to power has gone viral:

The Washington Post's fact checker columnist, Glenn Kessler, has awarded this statement his dreaded "four Pinocchios." I like Kessler a lot and enjoyed working with him when I was at the Post. But he could not be more wrong here.

Kessler's argument basically boils down to the fact that when Adolf Hitler personally ran for Reichspresident in 1932, he lost to the incumbent Paul von Hindenburg. But this is obviously not what Sanders was referring to. He was referencing the fact that the Nazi Party, with Hitler as its leader, became the plurality party in the Reichstag, Germany's lower house of parliament, in July 1932. And though the party lost seats that November, it retained its status as the largest party.

This is commonly referred to as "winning an election." For example:

  • In 2008, Stephen Harper won the Canadian election, not because he personally won Calgary Southwest's seat in the Canadian Parliament but because the Conservative Party won a plurality of seats and formed a minority government, with Harper as prime minister.
  • In 2015, David Cameron won the British election, not because he won the Witney constituency in the House of Commons but because the Conservative Party won a majority of seats and he retained control of the government.
  • In 2013, Angela Merkel won the German elections, not because she won the constituency of Vorpommern-Rügen – Vorpommern-Greifswald I but because her Christian Democratic Party won a plurality of seats and led the coalition that followed.

It is true that winning a plurality of seats does not guarantee that your party will lead the government. But, generally speaking, the party that wins more seats than any other party is the party that won that election, and its leader is the leader who won.

How parliamentary government works

joachim gauck angela merkel

At left, the leader of Germany (Angela Merkel). At right, not the leader of Germany (Joachim Gauck). (Adam Berry/Getty Images).

This matters because Weimar-era Germany was not a pure presidential system like the United States. It was intended to be a mostly parliamentary system, with the leader of the Reichstag — the chancellor — serving as head of government. The president oversaw the government formation process in the Reichstag, and served as head of state, but power was supposed to ultimately rest with the chancellor. In practice, the chaos of the Weimar period led the president to take on considerable powers. From 1930 to 1932, Germany was governed through what came to be known as "presidential government," in which the chancellor, Heinrich Brüning, mostly implemented his policies not by passing them in parliament but by having Hindenburg issue them as emergency decrees.

But the chancellor was nonetheless the one making policies meant to rescue Germany from the recession. It was his government representing Germany in World War I reparations negotiations. Brüning was the leader of Germany, the same way that Angela Merkel, not German President Joachim Gauck, is the leader of Germany now. The Weimar president had considerably more power than the current president but was nowhere near as powerful as, say, the American president.

The historical record

hitler hindenburg

Hitler (left) and Hindenburg two months after Hitler's ascendance to the chancellorship. (Bundesarchiv, Bild)

So how did Hitler become chancellor and thus leader of Germany? Well, he won elections. It is absolutely true that the Nazi Party used violence and intimidation to secure votes in both 1932 elections. That's what they had the SA's brownshirts around for. And they weren't the only party using violence, either; the Communist Party of Germany was engaged in street-level battles as a form of electioneering as well. But the question here isn't, "Were the Nazis anti-democratic?" Hopefully we're all agreed on that one already. Bernie Sanders did not say, "Hitler came to power in a free and fair election characterized by no violence on any side, and really he deserved to become chancellor tbh." He said that Hitler was elected. And he was.

Moreover, Hitler wouldn't have come to power absent the Nazis winning a plurality of seats in 1932. Hindenburg was loath to hand over the chancellorship to Hitler; it was his refusal to accept a Nazi-led government that forced a snap election in November right after one in July. And even then, Hindenburg held out for months. Only when it became clear that a right-wing government led by someone other than Hitler was completely untenable, given the makeup of parliament, did Hindenburg let Hitler accede to the chancellorship in January 1933.

Moreover, this bizarre historical nitpicking totally loses sight of Sanders's ultimate, utterly banal point: that who wins elections matters, and that this is evidenced by the fact that the Nazis rose to power in no small part by winning seats in the Reichstag. We can argue all day about the relative power of the Reichspresident versus the Reichskanzler, but no one in their right mind would argue that Hitler could've risen to power if the Nazis hadn't won the 1932 parliamentary elections.

Correction: This post originally said that Stephen Harper won a minority government in 2011; he won a majority government that year after minority wins in 2006 and 2008.