Divisions in the ranks of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) led to the formation of two more radical left-wing parties: the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (Unabhängige Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland, or USPD) and the Communist Party of Germany (Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands, or KPD). Both of these parties formed in 1917 in protest against the SPD’s continued support for the German war effort. The USPD was comparatively shorted lived, lasting until 1922. The fracture between the SPD and KPD would continue until the final days of the Weimar Republic.
Hugo Haase and the USPD
The USPD’s founder and first leader was Hugo Haase, a Jewish lawyer who had served as chairman of the SPD prior to the war.
In April 1917, Haase and several like-minded colleagues broke away from the SPD to begin their own anti-war campaign. They organised mass strikes, chiefly as a means of protesting against food shortages and the commandeering of civilian necessities by the military.
The USDP’s strong stance against the war, the imperial government and the mainstream SPD won it many supporters. The USPD position was that the leaders of the SPD had ‘sold out’ the party’s socialist values by making concessions to the Kaiser and his government.
The end of World War I brought about a temporary easing of hostilities between the USPD and SPD. The two groups agreed to work together on the preparations for a future national assembly. Their leaders, Haase and Friedrich Ebert, both sat on a ‘council of people’s deputies’.
Six weeks later, the USPD split again from the SPD, this time over the SPD’s inaction over Reichswehr and Freikorps street violence.
The frustrated USPD decided to go it alone as a parliamentary party. It fielded candidates in the first two Weimar federal elections, winning 22 Reichstag seats in January 1919 and 84 seats in June 1920. This latter result made it the second-largest party in the Reichstag after the SPD.
The murder of Haase triggered internal divisions within the USPD, which allowed the KPD to overtake it as Germany’s largest left-wing party. USPD membership dwindled and in 1922, most of the party was absorbed back into the SPD.
From Spartacists to Communists
The KPD was formed by the Spartacist League in late December 1918. The KPD platform initially called for a socialist revolution along Bolshevik lines: class consciousness, the organisation of the working classes, armed revolution and a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’.
The KPD fielded candidates in the 1920 election but won just two per cent of the vote and only four Reichstag seats.
A change of fortunes
The KPD’s fortunes changed in late 1920 for two reasons. Firstly, the party came under the direction of the Communist International (or Comintern) in Moscow, which provided tactical and organisational advice.
Secondly, a split in the ranks of the USPD sent around 300,000 members of its left-wing to join the KPD. This boosted the KPD’s potential share of the vote to as high as 10 per cent.
In December 1924, the KPD won 62 Reichstag seats, mostly at the expense of the SPD. The Great Depression and its impact on Germany saw the KPD’s electoral fortunes improve further, an increase that mirrored the rise of the National Socialists (NSDAP).
In September 1930, the communists returned 77 Reichstag seats. In the two elections held in 1932, this increased to 89 seats (July) and then 100 seats (November).
Like the Nazis, the KPD was an obstructionist party with no commitment to the republic and no willingness to support the government. The party’s rhetoric and propaganda campaign against the Weimar constitution, democracy and capitalism only helped lower public morale and drive voters away from the mainstream parties.
1. In 1917, ideological divisions over support for the war, saw two factional groups break away from the Social Democratic Party (SPD).
2. The USPD was the more moderate of the two. Under leader Hugo Haase, it took a strong anti-war stand but maintained its support of the Weimar Republic.
3. The more radical and revolutionary KPD was formed from the ruins of the Spartacists, in the wake of their failed revolt in January 1919.
4. By 1922, the USPD had split and around 300,000 of its members had defected to the KPD. This boosted its electoral prospects in the Reichstag.
5. The economic impacts of the Great Depression saw voter support for the KPD rise significantly, alongside that of the National Socialists or NSDAP.