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Social Democratic Party (SPD), Germany

From: Germany: A Reference Guide from the Renaissance to the Present, European Nations.

With the surge of economic activity in the 1850s there was increased organizational activity by workers. Some were cultural associations, and others were workers' cooperatives. At first they were taken under the wings of liberal groups, but political activity by the workers was prohibited. The National Association even refused to accept workers in its membership. It was in Leipzig, however, that the first steps were taken to organize workers into a Workers' Educational Association. After being turned down for membership by the liberal parties in Berlin, leaders from Leipzig turned to Ferdinand Lasalle, who initiated the founding of the Social Democratic Party of Germany. It grew very slowly, and after 1869 its development was further impeded by the opposition of a new Social Democratic Labor party founded by two followers of Karl Marx, August Bebel, and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Not until 1875 at the Gotha congress did these two parties join forces to form the Socialist Workers' Party of Germany (SAPD). Later on, the party called itself the Social Democratic Party (SPD). In its Gotha Program the new party combined the two socialist traditions: It was Marxist in its criticism of capitalist society and its proclamation of the international character of the socialist movement; it was Lasallean, on the other hand, in its emphasis upon political action to secure practical objectives. Those goals included universal male suffrage, the payment of parliamentary representatives, the abolition of inequalities of social class and property, the abolition of the standing army, the separation of church and state, free compulsory education, a progressive income tax, and state credit for producers' cooperatives. The party rejected the principle of revolutionary upheaval favored by Karl Marx and instead emphasized reform through political action.

Between the Reichstag elections of 1871 and 1877 the party grew rapidly and increased its Reichstag vote from 124,000 in 1871 to 452,000 in 1877. The chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, considered the Socialists enemies of the state, was alarmed at their growing strength, and through the antisocialist laws of 1878 suppressed the party. Bismarck's persecution destroyed the party's institutions and gave the government extensive police powers. Suspected Socialists lost the customary protections of the law. Leaders were forced to leave the country, yet those few in the Reichstag did enjoy immunity but could not publicly speak or campaign. The party organization continued in exile and held congresses outside of Germany. In the Reichstag election workers were still able to vote for Socialist Party deputies, and after an initial decline an upward trend in elected deputies again occurred. After the dismissal of Bismarck by the new emperor, Wilhelm II, the Socialists were allowed to reconstitute themselves. In 1891 they held their first party congress in Erfurt and under the inspiration of its new theoretical leader, Karl Kautsky, adopted the Erfurt Program. It was Marxist in its social and political philosophy and was based on the theory of class struggle. An imposing party structure now developed, which made the German party the model Socialist Party of the entire Socialist International. By 1914 the party had more than 1 million members, and by 1912 the socialist vote in those Reichstag elections returned 110 deputies, which made it the largest party in Germany. The strength of the Socialist Party came primarily from the large industrial centers—Berlin, Leipzig, Hamburg, Cologne, and Schleswig-Holstein, Saxony, Silesia, the Rhineland, and northern Bavaria. The bulk of its voting strength came from the industrial workers, with a small sprinkling of freelance intellectuals and professions.

One of the conflicts that arose within the Social Democratic Party was over the application of Marx's theories to the realities of economic and social conditions at the end of the century. Besides the revisionist opposition that emanated from southern Germany associated with Georg von Vollmar, the leader of the Bavarian Social Democrats, it was principally Eduard Bernstein who provided the theories that radically interpreted Marx's ideas on class struggle and dialectical materialism. Bernstein argued that socialism had to develop in an evolutionary instead of a revolutionary manner. Although he still believed that socialism would replace capitalism, he advocated the pursuit of immediate improvements in wages and working conditions, and for greater political democracy. Although these ideas were popular with the reformists and union leaders, they were strongly opposed by such radicals as Rosa Luxemburg, who believed that imperialism signaled the coming of a revolution for which the workers needed to be prepared. Fearing a split in the party, most Social Democrats supported the position of the centrists, led by August Bebel and Karl Kautsky.

In order to understand the response of other Germans to the growth of socialism, some of the following perspectives might provide understanding. Before World War I the Socialists had created a deep gulf between themselves and the rest of German society. They preached a gospel of revolution, which created fear and resentment. They often sneered at intellectuals, especially teachers and professors. They advanced very liberal ideas on marriage, the family, and the position of women in society. It is not surprising that churchmen considered the Socialists evil because of their attack upon religion. Above all, their internationalism and opposition to popular patriotism and chauvinism brought the Socialists into disrepute with the "respectable" elements of German society. The anti-Socialist persecution also left its mark. Socialists continued to be condemned as enemies of society by governmental leaders after the turn of the century as they were by Bismarck in 1878. However, Socialist leaders did not care to bridge this gap, proclaiming their hostility to the structure of capitalist society, the capitalist state, or capitalist culture. Socialist workers bound their sons to their party, and both looked down on all others. Academic people were generally not attracted to the socialist movement. In the Reichstag the Socialists displayed their lack of patriotism by consistently opposing increased armaments, naval appropriations, and colonial expansion, which were popular with other segments of society. This accounted for the anxious speculation as to what action the SPD would take when war broke out in 1914, whether they would oppose the war or join all the others in voting for war credits.

To everyone's surprise the Socialists reversed their opposition to war by voting in favor of financing the war. The party also supported the political truce known as the Burgfrieden. The war forced a split in the party between those who supported it and those who opposed it. In 1917 the antiwar group formed the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) under the leadership of Hugo Haase and Karl Kautsky. The radicals even went further and formed the Spartacus League, which advocated the use of violence. On the other hand, the main SPD supported the Peace Resolution of 1917 in cooperation with the Center Party. In October 1918 as the war was lost, the SPD joined the government. During the Revolution of 1918–1919 the SPD managed to provide moderate leadership and avoided a Russian-style Communist revolution.

During the Weimar Republic the SPD participated in many coalition governments with the Center Party and the Democratic Party. The SPD leader, Friedrich Ebert, remained president until his death in 1924. Ebert like other leaders such as Philipp Scheidemann and Otto Braun were reformist Socialists. Throughout the republic the SPD's share of the electoral vote varied from a high of about 38 percent in 1919 to a low of 20.5 percent in 1924. During the Depression its voting strength further declined, while that of the Nazis and Communists rapidly increased. Membership in the SPD declined between 1919 and 1933, and the party attracted an insufficient number of younger members under 30. After Hitler became chancellor, the SPD was the only party that steadfastly voted against the Enabling Act in 1933, which gave Hitler dictatorial powers. The party was banned by the Nazis, and many of its politicians were imprisoned or went into exile.

During the Allied occupation after the war the SPD revived its organization. Kurt Schumacher emerged as the leader in the Western zones, while Otto Grotewohl was the leader in the Soviet zone. A merger between the SPD and the German Communist Party (KPD) was opposed in the Western zones, while the Soviets acted as patrons of a merger in 1946 between the SPD and Communist Party in the eastern zone, forming the Socialist Unity Party (SED). In the West Schumacher was elected leader at the first party congress, and Erich Ollenhauer was chosen his deputy. The Erfurt Program was reaffirmed, and the SPD strongly supported unification in opposition to the strong pro-Western position of the CDU'S Konrad Adenauer. In some state elections during 1946–47 the SPD was successful and became the largest party in Hesse, Bremen, Hamburg, and Lower Saxony. In federal parliamentary (Bundestag) elections its vote increased steadily from 29 percent of the vote in 1953 to almost 46 percent in 1972, when it became the largest party. The SPD served as an opposition party to the dominant Christian Democrats (CDU), having reservations about European integration and in 1954 opposing rearmament. In order to present a new face to the electorate, the SPD revised its program in the new Godesburg Program of 1959. It eliminated the Marxian principle of the class struggle and the requirement that property had to be socialized in order to accomplish social justice. On the federal level the party participated in the Grand Coalition from 1966 to 1969 and then provided the chancellor from 1969 to 1982, first Willy Brandt and then Helmut Schmidt in coalition with the Free Democratic Party of Germany (FDP). Brandt represented a new type of leadership with a broad popular appeal. However, the first opportunity to participate in the federal government came when the CDU could not manage Germany's first postwar recession.

Ostpolitik was the new foreign policy initiative pursued by Willy Brandt. It meant normalizing relations with East Germany. The SPD also liberalized and modernized society, accepted the idea of a social-market economy, and generally became a people's party instead of a working-class party. After the SPD was forced into opposition in 1982, the popular vote fell to below 40 percent until the elections of 1998, when the SPD again became the largest party in the Bundestag. Since reunification the SPD lost some of its younger and more radical voters to the new Green Party in western Germany and the competition from the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS) in the states of the former East Germany. Its electoral support, however, remained in urban areas, particularly in the industrial areas of the Ruhr, the Saarland, Bremen, Hamburg, and Berlin.


Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):

Biesinger, Joseph A. "Social Democratic Party (SPD), Germany." Germany: A Reference Guide from the Renaissance to the Present, European Nations. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2006. Modern World History Online. Facts On File, Inc.
ItemID=WE53&iPin=GER0607&SingleRecord=True (accessed May 1, 2016).

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