Social Democratic Party of Germany

Social Democratic Party of Germany

party_name = Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands
party_wikicolourid = SPD
leader = Frank-Walter Steinmeier (acting)
foundation = May 23 1863 (ADAV)
August 7 1869 (SDAP)
ideology = Social democracy,
Democratic socialism
Third Way
international = Socialist International
european = Party of European Socialists
europarl = PES
colours = Red
headquarters = Willy-Brandt-Haus
D-10911 Berlin
website = []
The Social Democratic Party of Germany ("Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands" — SPD) is Germany's oldest political party. After World War II, under the leadership of Kurt Schumacher, the SPD reestablished itself as an ideological party, representing the interests of the working class and the trade unions. The party's program, which espoused Marxist principles, called for the nationalisation of major industries and state planning.

Today the SPD advocates the modernization of the economy to meet the demands of globalization, but it also stresses the need to address the social needs of workers and society's disadvantaged.

Base of support

Social structure

Before World War II, as the main non-revolutionary left-wing party, the Social Democrats fared best among non-Catholic workers as well as intellectuals favoring socially progressive causes and increased economic equality. Led by Kurt Schumacher after the war, the SPD initially opposed both market economics and Konrad Adenauer's drive towards western integration fiercely, but after Schumacher's death, it became more centrist in an effort to appeal to a broader range of potential voters. It is however still connected with the economic causes of unionized employees and lower middle-class voters.

Geographic distribution

Geographically, much of their support nowadays comes from large cities, especially of northern and western Germany. The city cluster of the Ruhr Area, where coal mining and steel production were once mainstays, have in the past provided a significant base for the SPD, and in the state of Bremen, made up of the cities of Bremen and Bremerhaven, they have governed without interruption or much of a challenge since 1945. In far southern Germany, the SPD typically has a hard time competing in all but the largest cities. One Munich constituency is currently, and only by a narrow edge, the only SPD-held district in the entire state of Bavaria. Small town and rural support comes especially from traditionally Protestant areas of northern Germany (with notable exceptions such as Western Pomerania, from where Angela Merkel was handily re-elected in 2005) and a number of university towns. A striking example of the general pattern is the traditionally Catholic Emsland, where the Social Democrats are generally not competitive, whereas the Protestant region of East Frisia directly to the north is one of their strongest constituencies. Further south, the SPD also enjoys solid support in northern Hesse (Hans Eichel was mayor of Kassel, then Hesse's minister president, then finance minister in the Schröder administration, Brigitte Zypries serves as Justice Minister), parts of Palatinate (Kurt Beck was party leader until September 7, 2008), the Saarland (political home of one-time candidate for federal chancellor Oskar Lafontaine, who later defected), and southwestern Baden (Marion Caspers-Merk, Gernot Erler).


Pre-republic (1863–1918)

The party 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 granting war credits to fund the German effort in World War I.

Interestingly, Bernstein left the party during the first world war, as did Karl Kautsky, who had played an important role as the leading Marxist theoretician and editor of the theoretical journal of SPD, “Die Neue Zeit”. Neither joined the Communist party after the war, but came back to the SPD in the early Twenties. From 1915 onwards 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 arguments. 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, Schumacher's former secretary.

Those who were against the war were expelled from the SPD in January 1917 (including Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Hugo Haase) - the expelees went on to found 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. Under Defense Minister of Germany Gustav Noske the party aided in putting down the Communist and left wing Spartacist uprising throughout Germany in early 1919 with the use of the Freikorps. 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 partially) 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. 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 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 opposition from the first election of the newly founded Federal Republic in 1949 until 1966. In 1966 the coalition of the Christian Democratic Union and the liberal FDP fell 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 was forced to merge with the Communist Party of Germany to form the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) in 1946. During the fall of Communist rule in 1989, the SPD (first called SDP) 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.

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 private equity funds as “locusts”, were bordering on Nazi language.

In the German federal election, 2005, the SPD ended up trailing its 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. He resigned on September 7 2008; on September 8, 2008 the party's executive committee nominated Franz Müntefering to be elected as chairman at an extraordinary party conference on October 18, 2008. In the meantime Frank-Walter Steinmeier serves as provisional chairman.

Leading members


Leading members before World War I

* August Bebel
* Eduard Bernstein
* Karl Kautsky
* Wilhelm Liebknecht
* Rosa Luxemburg
* Friedrich Ebert

German Presidents from the SPD

* Friedrich Ebert 1919–1925
* Gustav Heinemann 1969–1974
* Johannes Rau 1999–2004

German Chancellors from the SPD

* Friedrich Ebert 1918
* Philipp Scheidemann 1919
* Gustav Bauer 1919–1920
* Hermann Müller 1920 and 1928–1930
* Willy Brandt 1969–1974
* Helmut Schmidt 1974–1982
* Gerhard Schröder 1998–2005

See also

* Politics of Germany
* List of political parties in Germany
* "Bundestag" (Federal Assembly of Germany)
* Weimar Republic
* Kurt Nehrling
* Mierscheid Law

Further reading

* Carl E. Schorske, "German Social Democracy, 1905–1917: The Development of the Great Schism" (Harvard University Press, 1955).
* Vernon L. Lidtke, "The Outlawed Party: Social Democracy in Germany, 1878–1890" (Princeton University Press, 1966).
* Abraham J. Berlau "The German Social Democratic Party, 1914–1921" (Columbia University Press, 1949).
* Erich Matthias, "The Downfall of the Old Social Democratic Party in 1933" pages 51–105 from "Republic to Reich The Making of the Nazi Revolution Ten Essays" edited by Hajo Holborn, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1972).

External links

* [ Party official website]
* [ Party official website in English]
* [ Official website of the youth organization, the "Jusos"]
* [ History of the German social-democratic party] from Lassale to Kautsky, by Fractal-Vortex

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