The Communist Party of Germany (KPD - Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands) was a major political party in Germany between 1918 and 1933, and a minor party in West Germany in the postwar period. Founded in the aftermath of the First World War by socialists opposed to the war, led by Rosa Luxemburg, the party was after her death gradually committed to Leninism, and in the 1930s was completely loyal to the Soviet Union and its leader Joseph Stalin.
During the Weimar Republic period, the KPD usually polled between 10 and 15% of the vote and was represented in the Reichstag and in state parliaments. Banned by the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler, the KPD maintained an underground organisation but suffered heavy losses. The party was revived in divided postwar West and East Germany and won seats in the first Bundestag (West German Parliament) elections in 1949, but its support collapsed after the establishment of a Communist state in Soviet occupation zone of Germany.
In East Germany, the party merged with the Social Democratic Party to form the Socialist Unity Party which ruled East Germany until the nation's collapse in 1991. It was banned in West Germany in 1956 by the Constitutional Court and was in effect wound up in 1969, when a new, legal German Communist Party (DKP) was formed.
Before the First World War the Social Democratic Party (SPD) was the largest party in Germany and the most successful socialist party in the world. Although still officially claiming to be a Marxist party, by 1914 it had become in practice a reformist party. In 1914 the SPD members of the Reichstag voted in favour of the war. Left-wing members of the party, led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, strongly opposed the war, and the SPD soon suffered a split, with the leftists forming the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD) and the more radical Spartacist League. In November 1918, revolution broke out across Germany. The leftists, led by Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacist League, formed the KPD in December 1918.
Under the leadership of Liebknecht and Luxemburg, the KPD was committed to an armed revolution in Germany, and during 1919 and 1920 revolutionary disturbances continued. Germany's Social Democratic government, which had come to power after the fall of the Monarchy, were diametrically opposed to revolutionary socialism, and Defense Minister Gustav Noske formed a series of Anti-Communist paramilitary groups, dubbed "The Freikorps", out of demobilized World War I veterans. During the failed Spartacist Uprising in Berlin of January 1919, Liebknecht and Luxemburg were killed. The Party split a few months later into two factions, the KPD and the Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD).
Following the assassination of Leo Jogiches, Paul Levi became the KPD leader. Other prominent members included Clara Zetkin, Paul Frolich, Hugo Eberlein, Franz Mehring, August Thalheimer, and Ernst Meyer. Levi led the party away from the policy of immediate revolution, in an effort to win over SPD and USPD workers. These efforts were rewarded when a substantial section of the USPD joined the KPD, making it a mass party for the first time.
Through the 1920s the KPD was racked by internal conflict between more and less radical factions, partly reflecting the power struggles between Zinoviev and Stalin in Moscow. Germany was seen as being of central importance to the struggle for socialism, and the failure of the German revolution was a major setback. Eventually Levi was expelled in 1921 by the Comintern for "indiscipline." Further leadership changes took place in the early 1920s, and Party members accused of being Trotskyites were expelled; of these, Heinrich Brandler, August Thalheimer and Paul Frolich set up a splinter Communist Party Opposition.
The Weimar Republic years
In 1923 a new KPD leadership loyal to Joseph Stalin, the new Soviet Premier, was installed. This leadership, headed by Ernst Thälmann, abandoned the goal of immediate revolution, and from 1924 onwards contested Reichstag elections, with some success. Although the KPD advocated a "united front" during this period, it remained deeply hostile towards Germany's SPD leadership. In 1928 Stalin launched a new "leftist" policy, which the KPD loyally followed. This so-called Third Period policy held that capitalism was entering a deep crisis and the time for a revolution was approaching fast. The SPD was denounced as "social fascists" and any suggestion of co-operating with them was rejected.
During the years of the Weimar Republic the KPD was the largest Communist party in Europe, and was seen as the "leading party" of the Communist movement outside the Soviet Union. It maintained a solid electoral performance, usually polling more than 10% of the vote, and gaining 100 deputies in the November 1932 elections. In the presidential election of the same year, Thälmann took 13.2% of the vote, compared to Hitler's 30.1%. However the "social fascism" policy scuttled any possibility of a united front with the SPD against the rising power of the Nazis.
The Nazi era
Soon after the appointment of Hitler as Chancellor, the Reichstag was set on fire and Dutch council communist Marinus van der Lubbe was found inside the building. The Nazis publicly blamed the fire on communist agitators in general, although in a German court in 1933, it was decided that he had acted alone. After the fire, habeas corpus was suspended. The Enabling Act, which legally gave Hitler dictatorial control of Germany, was passed by a Reichstag session held after the Communist deputies had been arrested and jailed.
The KPD was efficiently suppressed by the Nazis. Thousands of Communists were imprisoned in concentration camps, including Thälmann. The most senior KPD leader to escape was Walter Ulbricht, who went into exile in the Soviet Union. The KPD maintained an underground organisation in Germany throughout the Nazi period, conducting espionage and terrorism funded by Stalin, but the loss of many core members severely weakened the Party.
A number of senior KPD leaders in exile were caught up in Joseph Stalin's Great Purge of 1937-38 and executed, among them Eberlein, Heinz Neumann, Hermann Remmele, Fritz Schulte and Hermann Schubert, or sent to labour camps, like Margarete Buber-Neumann. Willi Münzenberg, the KPD's propaganda chief, was murdered in mysterious circumstances in France in 1940.
In East Germany, the KPD (led by Walter Ulbricht) absorbed some elements of the eastern SPD and was renamed the Socialist Unity Party (SED), which became the ruling party in East Germany until 1990. After the KPD was banned in West Germany, the SED planted spies such as Günter Guillaume in the west. A small sister party of the SED, the Socialist Unity Party of West Berlin, operated in the west. After German reunification, reformist elements in the SED won control of the party and refounded it as the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS).
The KPD reorganized in the western part of Germany, and received 5.7% of the vote in the first Bundestag election in 1949. But the onset of the Cold War and imposition of a communist state in East Germany soon caused a collapse in the party's support. At the 1953 election the KPD only won 2.2 percent of the total votes and lost all of its seats.
The party was banned on August 17, 1956 by the Federal Constitutional Court of Germany. After the party was declared illegal, many of its members continued to function clandestinely despite increased government surveillance. Part of its membership later refounded the party in 1968 as the German Communist Party (DKP), which still exists. Following German reunification, however, many DKP members joined the new PDS.
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