The Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland, or SPD) was Germany’s oldest formal political party. Until the rise of the National Socialists (NSDAP), the SDP was also the most significant party of the Weimar era.
The SPD began in 1875, primarily as a Marxist movement formed from the union of two workers’ parties. The newly formed SPD was able to tap into a large supporter base of industrial workers and unionists.
In the 1877 Reichstag elections, SPD candidates received more than 500,000 votes and won 13 seats. While these figures made the SPD a minor party unable to influence policy, its rapid growth and increasing popularity alarmed the imperial government.
In 1878, the German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, promulgated the first of several Anti-Socialist Laws. The pretext for this was two failed attempts to assassinate Kaiser Wilhelm I in 1878. Bismarck blamed the SPD and its Marxist ideology for fuelling revolution and terrorism.
For much of the 1880s, the SPD was targeted by numerous police raids, individual arrests, surveillance and hostile government propaganda. Several militant unions were also targeted or broken up. While the SPD continued to operate during this period, the party found it difficult to attract members or potential candidates.
The SPD moderates
The SPD survived Bismarck’s suppression and by the late 1880s was again on the rise, fuelled by a revived union movement. By the 1890s, the SPD had adopted a more moderate political position.
In the post-Bismarck era, SPD leaders and candidates urged social democratic reforms rather than a socialist revolution. They embraced causes beyond the conditions of workers, calling for improved rights for women and condemning the killing of natives by German colonials in Africa.
The numbers of SPD candidates grew steadily during the 1890s and 1900s. By 1912, the SPD had more than a million members and was the largest party in the Reichstag. It began to assert influence on public policy, achieving improvements in education and healthcare, as well as better rights and conditions for industrial workers.
The SPD also began to work with, rather than against Kaiser Wilhelm II‘s government. In 1913, the SPD supported increased taxes that were necessary to fund the kaiser’s program of military expansion.
Factionalism and splits
As is common in large political parties, the SPD’s main weakness was its ideological diversity and factionalism across its membership. With more than a million members, the SPD housed a range of views from across the political spectrum.
The party’s leadership were moderate socialists, committed to progressive reforms through democratic processes. August Bebel (the SPD’s founder and first leader) and Friedrich Ebert (Bebel’s successor) believed socialist advances could be won through parliamentary means rather than violence or revolution.
The SPD also had a right-wing, comprised of liberals and centrists, and a radical left-wing, containing hardline socialists and Marxists. The latter group embraced more radical policies such as the abolition of the monarchy and the dissolution of aristocratic titles and landed estates.
War divides the party
The divisions within the party were generally manageable. At times of controversy or crisis, however, the SPD’s factions tended to turn on each other. No issue tested the cohesion of the SPD more than the outbreak of World War I in 1914.
The SPD’s radical left-wing took a strong stance against the war, arguing that it was an unnecessary, aggressive and imperialistic adventure. They condemned the war and the moderates in their own party for endorsing it. Some of these anti-war figures, such as Karl Liebknecht, were arrested and imprisoned by the government while others were expelled from the SPD.
A radical faction of the SPD, led by Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, broke away from the party and formed the Spartakusbund. This group led an unsuccessful revolution in January 1919 and reformed as the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).
The Communists despited moderate SPD leaders for their alliance with the right-wing Freikorps and their alleged involvement in the murders of Luxemburg and Liebknecht. As a consequence, the SPD and KPD never reconciled. The two parties remained bitter rivals during the 1920s and early 1930s.
A major player
Until the rise of the NSDAP in the early 1930s, the SPD was the largest political party of the Weimar era. It was the only party to win more than 100 seats at every Reichstag election, beginning with 165 seats in January 1919.
Despite its internal divisions and Germany’s political and economic woes, the SPD remained a strong and consistent supporter of the Weimar Republic and its constitution.
The SPD was a major partner in all but one of the Weimar coalitions. SPD deputies sat in all Weimar era cabinets, three of them as chancellor (Philipp Scheidemann, Gustav Bauer and Hermann Muller.
The party’s approach during the 1920s was moderate and conciliatory: it tried to walk a fine line between steady, conservative policies and progressive reforms, without really succeeding at either. By the early 1930s, the SPD had lost almost half of its voter base. Most were frustrated at the party’s inability to secure stable and lasting progress in Germany.
A historian’s view:
“During the period of the Weimar Republic, the SPD remained essentially a party of the working class and made very little inroad into the middle classes. Part of the problem for the SPD at this stage was that it was limited by attachments to its trade union movement and was concerned that any attempt at a more concerted appeal to the middle classes would lose it votes to the communists.”
1. The Social Democratic Party or SPD was originally a Marxist-socialist party. It was formed in Germany in 1875 from two workers’ groups.
2. In the 1880s the rapidly growing SPD was subjected to suppression and persecution after the passing of Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws.
3. By the early 1900s, the party leadership adopted moderate social-democratic policies and became more willing to work with the Kaiser’s government.
4. The SPD was split by the party leadership’s support for World War I, with the radical left-wing breaking away to form the Spartacist League and KPD.
5. The SPD supported the Weimar Republic and for much of the Republic’s lifespan was its largest single party. The SPD was well represented in the Reichstag and participated in all coalitions and cabinets until the rise of the NSDAP.