A History of the Social Democratic Party - SPD

Pre-Republic (1863-1918)

The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) considers itself to have been founded on May 23, 1863, by Ferdinand Lassalle under the name Allgemeiner Deutscher Arbeiterverein (ADAV, General German Workers' Association). In 1869, August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht founded the Sozialdemokratische Arbeiterpartei (SDAP, Social Democratic Workers' Party of Germany), which merged with the ADAV at a conference held in Gotha in 1875, taking the name Socialist Workers' Party of Germany (SAPD). At this conference, the party developed the Gotha Program which Karl Marx would come to criticize in his Critique of the Gotha Program. Through the Anti-Socialist Laws, Otto von Bismarck had the party outlawed for its pro-revolution, anti-monarchy sentiments in 1878; but in 1890 it was legalized again. That same year it changed its name to Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD), as it is known to this day. As social democrats could be elected as list-free candidates while the party was outlawed, it had continued to be a growing force in the parliament, becoming the strongest party in 1912 (in imperial Germany, the parliamentary balance of forces had no influence on the formation of the cabinet). As a reaction to the prosecution, the Erfurt Program of 1891 was more radical than the Gotha Program of 1875, demanding socialisation of Germany's major industries; still, the revisionism of Bernstein and the increasing loyalty of the party establishment towards Emperor and Reich, coupled with its antipathy toward Tsarist Russia, made it possible that the party under Bebel's successor Friedrich Ebert supported the war credits.

Interestingly, also Bernstein left the party during the first world war, as well as Karl Kautsky who had played an important role as the leading Marxist theoretician and editor of the theoretical journal of SPD, "Die Neue Zeit". Both did not join the Communist party after the war, but came back to the SPD in the early Twenties. From 1915 on the theoretical discussions within the SPD were instead dominated by a group of former anti-revisionist Marxists, who tried to legitimize the support of the First World War by the German SPD group in the Reichstag with Marxist argumentation. Instead of the class struggle they proclaimed the struggle of peoples and developed much of the rhetoric later used by Nazi propaganda ("Volksgemeinschaft" etc.). The group was lead by Heinrich Cunow, Paul Lensch and Konrad Haenisch ("Lensch-Cunow-Haenisch-Gruppe") and was close to the Russian-German revolutionary and social scientist Parvus, who gave a public forum to the group with his journal "Die Glocke". Via the academic teacher of Kurt Schumacher, Professor Johann Plenge, and Schumacher himself there is a group to the current right-wing "Seeheimer Kreis" within the SPD, which was founded by Annemarie Renger, Schumachers former secretary.

Those who were against the war were expelled from the SPD in January 1917 (including Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Hugo Haase…), and founded the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, in which the Spartacist League was a current.

In the 1918 revolution, Ebert sided with the Imperial Army command against communists, while the Reichstag elected him as head of the new government.

Weimar Republic (1918-1933)

Subsequently the Social Democratic Party and the newly founded Communist Party of Germany (KPD, which consisted mostly of former members of the SPD) became bitter rivals, not least because of the legacy of the German Revolution. While the KPD remained in staunch opposition to the newly established parliamentary system, the SPD became a part of the so-called Weimar Coalition, one of the pillars of the struggling republic, leading several of the shortlived interwar cabinets. The threat of the Communists put the SPD in a difficult position. The party had the choice between becoming more radical (which could weaken the Communists but lose its base among the middle class) or stay moderate, which would damage its base among the working class. On July 20, 1932, the SPD-led Prussian government in Berlin, headed by Otto Braun, was ousted by Franz von Papen, the new Chancellor, by means of a Presidential decree. This development proved to be a significant factor contributing to the ultimate downfall of the Weimar Republic. Following the appointment of Adolf Hitler as chancellor on January 30, 1933 by president Hindenburg, the SPD received 18.25% of the votes during the last (at least partial) free elections on March 5, gaining 120 seats. These were not enough seats to prevent the ratification of the Enabling Act, which granted extra constitutional powers to the government, by two-thirds majority, as the SPD was the only party to vote against the act (the KPD being already outlawed and its parliamentary representatives under arrest, dead, or in exile). It still holds to this day a certain pride in being the only party that voted against it. After the passing of the Enabling Act, the party was finally banned by the Nazis on July 14, 1933.

Nazi Period / SoPaDe (1933-1945)

Being the only party in the Reichstag to have voted against the Enabling Act (with the Communist Party prevented from voting), the SPD was banned in the Summer of 1933 by the new Nazi government. Many of its members were jailed or sent to Nazi concentration camps. An exile organization was established first in Prague. Others left the areas where they had been politically active and moved to other towns where they were not known. Friedrich Kellner, an organizer for the SPD in Mainz from 1920 to 1932, moved to Laubach, Oberhessen, where he then spent the war years risking his life to write his diary, "My Opposition". This diary was exhibited in the George Bush Presidential Library in 2005 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of VE Day.

Between 1936 and 1939 some SPD members fought in Spain for the Republic against Franco and the German Condor Legion.

After the annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 the exile party resettled in Paris and after the defeat of France in 1940 in London. Only a few days after the outbreak of the World War II in September of 1939 the exiled SPD in Paris declared its support for the Allies and for the military removal from power of the Nazi government.

Post-War Period (1946-Present)

The SPD was recreated after World War II in 1946 and admitted in all 4 occupation zones. In West Germany, it was initially in the opposition from the first election of the newly founded Federal Republic in 1949 until 1966. In 1966 the coalition of the civic CDU and the liberal FDP broke and a Grand Coalition between CDU/CSU and SPD was formed under the leadership of CDU Chancellor Kiesinger. In 1969 the SPD won a majority for the first time since 1928 by forming a coalition with the FDP and led the federal government under Chancellors Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt from 1969 until 1982. In its 1959 Godesberg Program, the SPD officially abandoned the concept of a workers' party and Marxist principles while continuing to stress social welfare programs. Although the SPD originally opposed West Germany's 1955 rearmament and entry into NATO while it favoured neutrality and reunification with East Germany, it now strongly supports German ties with the alliance.

In the Soviet occupation sector, which later became East Germany, the Social Democratic Party and the Communist Party of Germany were forced to merge to form the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) in 1946. During the fall of Communist rule in 1989, the SPD was re-established as a separate party in East Germany (Social Democratic Party in the GDR), independent of the rump SED, and then merged with its West German counterpart upon reunification.

In 1982 the SPD lost power to the new CDU/CSU-FDP coalition under CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl who subsequently won 4 terms as chancellor. He lost his 4th re-election bid in 1998 to his SPD challenger Gerhard Schröder, as the SPD formed a coalition with The Greens to take control for the first time in 16 years.

The Schröder Government

Led by Gerhard Schröder on a moderate platform emphasizing the need to reduce unemployment, the SPD emerged as the strongest party in the September 1998 elections with 40.9% of the votes cast. Crucial for this success was the SPD's strong base in big cities and Bundesländer with traditional industries. Forming a coalition government with the Green Party, the SPD thus returned to power for the first time since 1982.

Oskar Lafontaine, elected SPD chairman in November 1996 had in the run-up to the election forgone a bid for the SPD nomination for the chancellor candidacy, after Gerhard Schröder won a sweeping re-election victory as prime minister of his state of Lower Saxony and was widely believed to be the best chance for Social Democrats to regain the Chancellorship after 16 years in opposition. From the beginning of this teaming up between Party chair Lafontaine and chancellor candidate Schröder during the election campaign 1998, rumors in the media about their internal rivalry persisted, albeit always being disputed by the two. After the election victory Lafontaine joined the government as finance minister. The rivalry between the two party leaders escalated in March 1999 leading to the overnight resignation of Lafontaine from all his party and government positions. After staying initially mum about the reasons for his resignation, Lafontaine later cited strong disagreement with the alleged neoliberal and anti-social course Schröder had taken the government on. Schröder himself has never commented on the row with Lafontaine. It is known however, that they haven't spoken to each other ever since. Schröder succeeded Lafontaine as party chairman.

In the September 2002 elections, the SPD reached 38.5% of the national vote, barely ahead of the CDU/CSU, and was again able to form a government with the help of the Green Party. The European elections of 2004 were a disaster for the SPD, marking its worst result in a nationwide election after World War II with only 21.5% of the vote. Earlier the same year, leadership of the SPD had changed from chancellor Gerhard Schröder to Franz Müntefering in what was widely regarded as an attempt to deal with internal party opposition to the economic reform programs set in motion by the federal government.

While the SPD was founded in the 19th century to defend the interests of the working class, its commitment to these goals has been disputed by some since 1918, when its leaders supported the suppression of the more radical socialist and communist factions. But never before has the party moved so far away from its traditional socialist stance as it did under the Schröder government. Its ever increasing tendency towards liberal politics and cutbacks in government spending on social welfare programs led to a dramatic decline in voter support, and to Gerhard Schröder being pejoratively called "der Genosse der Bosse", meaning the (socialist) comrade (who is a friend) of the (big) bosses".

For many years, membership in the SPD has been declining. Down from a high of over 1 million in 1976, there were about 775,000 members at the time of the 1998 election victory, by February 2008 the figure had dropped to 537,995.

"For nuclear phase-out, against new nuclear plants." Election placard of the Social Democratic Party of Germany for the German federal election, 2005.In January 2005, some SPD members left the party to found the Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice (WASG) in opposition to what they consider to be neoliberal leanings displayed by the SPD. Former SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine also joined this new party. (Later, to contest the early federal election called by Schröder after the SPD lost heavily in a state election in their traditional stronghold of North Rhine-Westphalia, the western-based WASG and the eastern-based post-communist Party of Democratic Socialism would merge to form the Left Party.) These developments put pressure on the SPD to do something about its social image.

In April 2005, party chairman Franz Müntefering publicly criticized excessive profiteering in Germany's free market economy and proposed stronger involvement of the federal state in order to promote economic justice. This triggered a debate that dominated the national news for several weeks. Müntefering's suggestions have been met with popular support, but there has also been harsh criticism not only by the industrial lobby. Political opponents claimed that Müntefering's choice of words, especially his reference to foreign private equity funds as "locusts", were bordering on Nazi language.

In the German federal election, 2005, the SPD ended up trailing its conservative rivals by less than 1%, a much closer margin than had been expected. Although the party had presented a program that included some more traditional left themes, such as an additional 3% tax on the highest tax bracket, this did not prevent the Left Party from making a strong showing, largely at the SPD's expense. Nevertheless, the overall result was sufficient to deny the opposition camp a majority.

The Merkel-Led Grand Coalition

In the current German government, the SPD is now the junior partner in a grand coalition with the CDU/CSU under the leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel, with Frank-Walter Steinmeier as Vice-Chancellor.

However, Müntefering resigned as party chairman and was succeeded as chairman by Matthias Platzeck, minister-president of Brandenburg. Müntefering's decision came after the party's steering committee chose a woman from the left wing of the party, Andrea Nahles, as secretary general over Müntefering's choice, his long-time aide Kajo Wasserhövel. However, after Müntefering said her election indicated that he had lost the confidence of the party and he would therefore resign, Nahles turned down the post of secretary general to prevent the party splitting. Hubertus Heil was elected in her place.

On April 10, 2006 Matthias Platzeck announced his resignation of the Chair because he suffered a major hearing loss in March 2006. The interim Chairman from April 10 to May 14 was Kurt Beck. He won the full leadership on a small party convention on May 14, 2006.

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