Polling after Fascism: Opinion Research, Mass Society, and Democratic Fragility in the Federal Republic of Germany, 1945-1960
Ostrow, Sonja Gammeltoft
This dissertation examines how the Allies introduced public opinion polling to Germany after World War II and investigates how polling eventually became integrated into West German internal governance, political culture, and foreign relations. It analyzes the goals and methods of opinion researchers including Paul Lazarsfeld, the survey units of the American occupation forces, Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann of the Allensbach Institute, the Emnid Institute, and Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School. Although these actors had divergent political stances, they were motivated to apply empirical research methods to the West German population after World War II by shared concerns about the fragility of democracy and the destructive power of the masses, combined with faith in the empirical sciences as an antidote to fascistic thought patterns. “Polling after Fascism” shows that public opinion researchers did not provide seamless surveillance of political and cultural life, as contemporary critics had feared. The professionalization of polling and the increasing media attention paid to opinion research over the course of the 1950s did, however, influence West German political culture by stimulating academic and popular discussions about the meaning and significance of public opinion within a democracy. “Polling after Fascism” makes three major contributions to our understanding of the histories of Germany and public opinion research. First, it stresses the unifying effects of fears of the masses, which formed the basis for consensus among disparate actors. It shows that in the early 1950s, a surprising mix of researchers, intellectuals, and officials on opposing ends of the political spectrum worked together to advocate empirical social research as a way to assess risks posed by the West German masses. Second, the dissertation argues that national opinion research studies were not only conducted for internal clients (in this case, for the West German people and politicians), but were frequently designed to address the concerns of foreign observers. Third, “Polling after Fascism” offers a new account of the development of a public sphere of discussion and debate in West Germany during the 1950s, challenging the common argument that the elements of a democratic political culture only emerged in later decades.