Highway to Hitler
Can autocracies win electoral support by showcasing economic competence? We analyze a famous case – the building of the Autobahn network in Nazi Germany. Using newly collected data, we show that highway construction was effective in boosting popular support, helping to entrench the Nazi dictatorship. Direct economic benefits such as declining unemployment near construction sites are unlikely to explain the increase in pro-Nazi votes. In addition, Nazi propaganda used the Autobahn as a powerful symbol of successful economic policy, putting an effective end to austerity – so that many Germans credited the Nazi regime for the economic recovery. In line with this interpretation, we show that support for the Nazis increased even more where highway construction coincided with greater radio availability – a major source of propaganda. The effect of highways was also significantly stronger in politically unstable states of the Weimar Republic. Our results suggest that infrastructure spending can raise support for autocracy when voters are led to associate it with visible economic progress and an end to political instability.