From singing to swastikas: The dark side of voluntary organizations

The study is important in part because Dr. Putnam’s book, “Bowling Alone” (2000), reported that American social capital had become depleted, triggering a debate over how to bolster it. Like such thinkers as Thoreau before him, Dr. Putnam acknowledged the dark side of social capital, citing urban gangs. And in turbulent parts of the world today, some well-organized social and religious groups have proved to be violent and anti-democratic.

In the new study, which used data for 103 widely dispersed interwar German communities, the researchers found a “vigorous civil society”—with groups ranging from veterans to parakeet fanciers. This civil society had roots in the singing and gymnastics clubs of the 19th century, which helped knit together the modern German state.

But the authors write that even when they excluded openly nationalistic and anti-Semitic groups to focus on clubs for singing, hiking and, yes, bowling, the results were the same. Overall, from 1925 to 1933, Germans were about 80% more likely to join the Nazis in the top third of cities ranked by density of associations compared with residents of the bottom third.