What is the oldest confirmed historical date

Parties in Germany

Frank Decker

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Prof. Dr. Frank Decker teaches and researches at the Institute for Political Science and Sociology at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn. His research interests include political parties, western systems of government and right-wing populism in an international comparison.

The SPD was founded in the second half of the 19th century as a milieu or class party of the working class. Ideological contradictions within and around the party repeatedly led to the split-off of new parties. In the Federal Republic of Germany she was already represented in various government coalitions and provided the Federal Chancellor for a total of 20 years.

SPD party conference in Munich 1902: Berlin delegates taking a group photo with August Bebel. (& copy picture-alliance / akg)

As the oldest and most traditional party in Germany, the SPD has outlasted four political systems. In the German Empire it came into being in 1875 as a merger of the General German Workers 'Association (ADAV), founded by Ferdinand Lassalle in 1863, with the Social Democratic Workers' Party (SDAP), which was formed six years later and led by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht. It has had its current name "Social Democratic Party of Germany" (SPD) since 1890.

In terms of its social base, the SPD was a milieu or class party until the 1950s; at the same time it represented the prototype of a mass party built according to democratic principles. The two were closely related. In order to compensate for their lack of power in the state, the social democrats first had to become a social power that comprehensively integrated their supporters from the working class and thus developed a clearly distinguishable identity. The Marxist ideology reinforced their belief that the law was on their side and that history would naturally develop in the direction of socialism. The resulting moral strength encouraged the rapid development of a powerful organization; At the same time, she helped the SPD over the discrimination it experienced through the Socialist Law and the highly discriminatory electoral regulations in the German Empire.

Nevertheless, there were ideological differences and disputes about the right course in the party (Walter 2018: 31 ff.). While the revolutionary wing around Karl Kautsky focused on class struggle and, in harmony with Marx and Engels, invoked the overcoming of the capitalist order and the establishment of a socialist society, the "revisionists" led by Eduard Bernstein wanted to gradually improve the situation of the workers through social reforms required effective work in parliaments. Beginning with the Erfurt Program of 1891, the SPD managed to combine these opposing ideas so successfully that it rose to become the strongest political force by 1912 and its membership exceeded the million mark for the first time in 1914.

In 1917 the party split over the war loans. While the radical forces gathered in the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), from which the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) later emerged, the majority Social Democrats became the main party of the Weimar Republic, whose first Reich President, Friedrich Ebert, they appointed. In contrast to Prussia, which it ruled uninterrupted from 1919 to 1932, the SPD was only able to defend its supremacy at the Reich level for a short time. After the "Weimar Coalition" with the Center and the German Democratic Party (DDP), which she led, had lost the majority in 1920, she went back to the opposition in 1922. The "Grand Coalition" formed by the last Chancellor Hermann Müller with the conservative German People's Party (DVP) collapsed in 1930 after two years. The subsequent presidential cabinet under the center politician Heinrich Brüning tolerated the Social Democrats against fierce resistance from their own ranks in order to prevent the greater evil of National Socialism (Walter 2018: 99 ff.).

In contrast to the bourgeois MPs, the SPD voted unanimously against the Enabling Act on March 23, 1933; it was banned three months later. The party executive went into exile in early 1934. Activists and functionaries were persecuted by the Nazis, many died in concentration camps and prisons. A minority from the underground took part in the active resistance against the Hitler regime. Most of the other members also remained resistant to the Nazi ideology.

The split in the labor movement that had played into Hitler's hands was overcome in divided Germany after 1945. While the KPD and SPD were forced to unite under Communist leadership in the Soviet occupation zone, the KPD was marginalized in the West until the Federal Constitutional Court banned it entirely in 1956. The German Communist Party (DKP), which followed it in 1968, and other left-wing extremist groups in the Federal Republic never got beyond the status of insignificant small parties. The SPD therefore remained the only relevant representative of the left-wing camp until the emergence of the Greens.

After it was re-established in the western zones, the SPD continued the traditions of the class party. However, the conditions for this were difficult. On the one hand, the National Socialists had partly destroyed the milieu structures of the labor movement; on the other hand, the economic miracle meant that the welfare state could be expanded rapidly since the 1950s and growing sections of the population participated in the prosperity. The party, sworn by Kurt Schumacher on a tough opposition course, persistently refused to acknowledge the success of the social market economy, despite its electoral defeats. It was only when they renounced their Marxist ideas in the Godesberg Program (1959) and accepted the Westward link of the Federal Republic enforced by Adenauer that the Social Democrats were able to catch up with the bourgeois camp (Jun 2018: 469 f.). Her change to the People's Party was significantly driven by the later parliamentary group chairman Herbert Wehner. In 1966, as the ruling party, the SPD had to be content with the role of junior partner in a grand coalition; in 1969 it formed a small coalition with the FDP under Chancellor Willy Brandt.

Herbert Wehner, Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt at the party conference in 1970. The Troika was a stroke of luck for the party in the 1960s and 1970s. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

In the first years of the social-liberal government, the internal structure of the party changed significantly. The spirit of optimism that emanated from the new Ostpolitik and the coalition's domestic reform plans led many new, mostly academically educated members to join the SPD, which thereby rejuvenated, but also radicalized. The overwhelming victory in the 1972 federal election, when the SPD became the strongest party before the Union for the first time, masked the fact that the "new center" that Brandt had successfully courted has since crumbled again (Walter 2018: 213 ff.). Under Helmut Schmidt's chancellorship (1974 to 1982), the integration of the party base and the reunification of the electorate required an increasingly broad balancing act: on the right, social democracy came under pressure from the worsening economic situation; on the left, social protests against the Nuclear energy and security policy (NATO double decision), which led to the emergence of a new party - the Greens. The loss of government was inevitable.

In the 1980s, the SPD initially oriented itself more towards the post-materialist electorate. The Berlin program, decided in 1989, distanced itself from the old growth thinking. By forming coalitions with the Greens in the federal states, the possibility of regaining the majority at the federal level became apparent at that time. The fact that this did not happen until 1998 was not only due to the German unification, which sidelined the SPD in relation to the Union and its "Chancellor of Unity" Helmut Kohl. The party also suffered from personnel problems. The Troika Wehner - Brandt - Schmidt was a godsend in the 1960s and 1970s. The generation that seized power in the 1980s, on the other hand, openly rivaled for leadership. In the 16-year Kohl era, the SPD wore out a total of five party leaders and as many candidates for chancellor. A clarification came only after the change of government in 1998, when the new Chancellor Gerhard Schröder prevailed in the internal party power struggle against the party chairman Oskar Lafontaine.

German unity also left the SPD behind in structural terms. The expectation of the party, which was resurrected in the East as the Social Democratic Party in the GDR (SDP) in October 1989, that it would be able to recapture the former home of social democracy in Central Germany on its own, turned out to be a fallacy. The traditions she was referring to turned against the SPD, in that it was made complicit in the failed socialism of the GDR. The Social Democrats were also at an organizational disadvantage compared to the competition. While the CDU and FDP were able to fall back on the resources of the bloc parties, cooperation with the SED successors was out of the question for historical reasons. At the latest since the post-communists regained their strength, the new federal states developed into real problem areas for the SPD. Only in one general election (2002) was it able to achieve a better result here than in the West.

As useful as the division of labor between the "modernizer" Schröder and the "traditionalist" Lafontaine was in winning the 1998 election, it proved to be of little help in the subsequent work of the government. The change in strategy to a stability-oriented consolidation policy initiated after Lafontaine's resignation as finance minister and party chairman (March 1999) was thwarted by high unemployment, which led to increasing costs for public budgets and social security. On the positive side of the coalition were its socio-political reforms (immigration and civil partnership law) and the nuclear phase-out, which could not offset the weak economic balance (Wolfrum 2013). The fact that the SPD and the Greens narrowly won the federal elections in 2002 were due to two lucky coincidences - the flood of the Oder in East Germany, which enabled the Chancellor to present himself as an energetic crisis manager, and the discussion about the Iraq war planned by the USA. The fact that Schröder made its rejection a central part of his campaign was remarkable, as Red-Green had previously itself brought about a turning point in German foreign policy by agreeing to the military operations in Kosovo (1999) and Afghanistan (2001) (Fischer 2005: 110 ff.).

Gerhard Schroeder at his last party congress as Federal Chancellor in November 2005. In 2004 he handed over the chairmanship to Franz Müntefering. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

In Schröder's second term in office, the helm in social and labor market policy was turned around 180 degrees. The "Agenda 2010" announced in March 2003, which the Chancellery had developed without involving the party, met with considerable reservations in the SPD (Spier / Alemann 2013: 445). Its most controversial elements were the amalgamation of unemployment and social assistance at the lower level of social assistance and the creation of a low-wage sector to reduce long-term unemployment. Similarly unpopular was the increase in the retirement age to 67 years under the leadership of the Social Democrats during the reign of the grand coalition, about which the SPD had left its voters in the dark as well as about the VAT increase, which it had originally categorically rejected. The reform measures resulted in a series of state election defeats and - more importantly in the long term - the separation of a trade union-related rival party (Labor & Social Justice - Die Wahlalternative, WASG), whose later merger with the East German PDS was carried out by the former SPD chairman Lafontaine. In order to take the lead from internal party resistance, Schröder handed over the chairmanship to Franz Müntefering in 2004. After the last remaining red-green state government in North Rhine-Westphalia was voted out (May 2005), the Chancellor fled to the front by clearing the way for early elections (Sturm 2009: 207 ff.).

With the federal election in 2005, Schröder's chancellorship and the red-green government ended, but not the social democratic participation in government. The fact that the SPD had fared much better than expected put them in euphoria on election evening, although the reasons for this lay primarily in the Union's unsuccessful campaign. In fact, with the establishment of the all-German Left Party, the election marked a deep turning point, the consequences of which the SPD would only really feel at a later date. The SPD worked professionally in the government, but was otherwise divided. Not only did the party leaders change in even shorter succession until 2009. There was also a lack of a clear programmatic alternative to the Union and a realistic perspective of power. The debacle in the 2009 Bundestag elections, in which a significant number of the former regular voters turned their backs on the SPD and achieved their worst post-war result with their candidate for Chancellor Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was mapped out under these conditions.

The return of the SPD to the opposition after eleven years of government resulted in another change at the top of the party. Sigmar Gabriel replaced Müntefering. Under his leadership, the party conveyed a more attractive image to the outside world, which was reflected in the state election results. In North Rhine-Westphalia (2010), Hamburg, Baden-Württemberg (2011), Schleswig-Holstein (2012) and Lower Saxony (2013), the SPD managed to replace CDU-led governments alone or together with the Greens. At the federal level, however, their starting position in 2013 remained just as unfavorable as in 2009 and was not exactly improved by Peer Steinbrück's unprepared candidacy for chancellor, whose emphatically business-friendly positions only partially coincided with the majority opinion of the party. The disappointing election result (25.7 percent) put the SPD before the difficult question of whether to rejoin a grand coalition as a junior partner. Gabriel countered the concerns by making approval of the coalition agreement dependent on a member's decision. Its clear result - with a surprisingly high turnout of 78 percent, 76 percent voted yes - strengthened the chairman's power base, who now rose to become the undisputed leader of the SPD with the simultaneous assumption of the offices of Vice Chancellor and Economics Minister (Spier / Alemann 2015: 64 ff .).

Although the SPD was able to push through central projects in the coalition, such as the pension after 45 years of contributions and the statutory minimum wage, it was not able to use these successes in the public eye. In terms of euro and refugee policy, it acted more closed on the outside than the Union, but on the inside it was just as torn. Gabriel's tendency to change positions at short notice, which the party base overlooked on sensitive issues such as free trade policy or data retention, disappointed the chairman's hopes for a more integrative leadership style.

At the beginning of the 2017 election year, Gabriel surprised the public and his own party when he not only handed over a possible candidacy for chancellor, but also the party chairmanship to Martin Schulz, who until shortly before had been President of the European Parliament. Under Schulz, there were numerous new entries and an abrupt upturn in the polls, which quickly flattened out again in the course of the state elections in Saarland (March 2017), Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia (both May 2017), which were disappointing for the SPD the starting position for the federal election in mid-2017 was just as unfavorable as it was four years earlier. The defeat in the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, which had been assigned a signaling function for the federal election, was particularly painful.

SPD special party conference in March 2017: The upswing in the polls after the election of Martin Schulz (left) as chancellor candidate and party chairman did not continue until the election in September. After rejoining the grand coalition, neither Schulz nor his predecessor Sigmar Gabriel (right) held a leading party or government office. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

The renewed lack of power perspective, the additional competition from the AfD and the unfavorable election campaign meant that the SPD undercut its previous bad result of 2009 in the 2017 federal election and only got 20.5 percent of the votes. Against this background, the move into the opposition, announced by the party leadership on the evening of the election, seemed logical and met with unanimous approval from the functionaries and at the grassroots level.The resistance was correspondingly high when the party was urged to continue the coalition with the Union parties after the failure of the talks on a Jamaica alliance by Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (which it had pushed through as its candidate for this office the year before). Although the SPD was able to enforce many of its demands in the following negotiations, as in 2013, and was given three key departments with the finance, labor and foreign ministries, approval of the coalition agreement with 66 percent yes votes was lower than in 2013. In order not to endanger it, Martin Schulz had to withdraw his public announcement that he would be entering the government as foreign minister instead of Sigmar Gabriel. Schulz had previously announced the waiver of the party chairmanship, which the new parliamentary group leader Andrea Nahles (co) took over from April 2018. Olaf Scholz became finance minister and vice chancellor. Schulz ‘predecessor Sigmar Gabriel was left empty-handed when it came to the distribution of offices; Heiko Maas, Minister of Justice, succeeded him in the Foreign Office.

The new edition of the grand coalition was under a bad star from the start. The internal union rift over refugee policy brought the government to the brink of failure just three months after taking office. This also dragged the SPD further into the basement, which the critics of the renewed entry into government took as confirmation. The inconsistent action of chairwoman Nahles, who came under pressure due to a series of botched public appearances, when dismissing the President of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Hans-Georg Maassen, was acknowledged by voters with a loss of votes in the state elections in Bavaria and Hesse as well as historically poor poll results. After the SPD fell by 4.7 percentage points in the European elections in May 2019 compared to the Bundestag election, Andreas Nahles, exasperated, announced her resignation from all offices and withdrew completely from politics.

Rolf Mützenich followed her in the parliamentary group chairmanship. The party broke new ground when it came to filling the chairmanship by making it possible for the first time to elect a dual leadership with gender parity. The formal vote at the party congress in December 2019 was preceded - for the second time since 1993 - by a member survey that lasted several months. In the runoff election, the duo of Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and the Brandenburg State Parliament MP Klara Geywitz, favored by the party leadership, surprisingly lost to the former North Rhine-Westphalian Finance Minister Norbert Walter-Borjans and the Bundestag MP Saskia Esken. In their campaign, the latter had expressed skepticism about remaining in the government and were supported primarily by the young socialists.

Olaf Scholz (center) is to become the SPD's candidate for chancellor for the 2021 federal election. He is accompanied to the press conference by the federal chairmen Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans. (& copy picture-alliance / dpa)

Hopes of leaving the government soon were quickly dampened by the new chairmen because of the expected resistance from the parliamentary group and SPD ministers. They were no longer up for debate at the latest after the outbreak of the corona pandemic. Instead, Walter-Borjans and Esken now endeavored to have the top management appear as amicable as possible. Although this worked well in the government's joint crisis management, the SPD, in contrast to the Union, hardly achieved any better poll numbers. Symptomatic of the persistent leadership vacuum was that Olaf Scholz, of all people, whose replacement as finance minister seemed almost sealed after the lost chairman election, was now able to figure out his chances of running for chancellor again. His unanimous nomination by the Presidium and Board of Directors took place in August 2020, more than a year before the federal election.


Literature on the SPD

Bukow, Sebastian (2014), The SPD Party Organizational Reform 2009-2011. With primaries and increased grassroots participation on the way to the "most modern party in Europe" ?, in: Ursula Münch / Uwe Kranenpohl / Henrik Gast (eds.), Parties and Democracy, Baden-Baden, pp. 133-150.

Fischer, Sebastian (2005), Gerhard Schröder and the SPD. The management of programmatic change as a power factor, Munich.

Grunden, Timo (2012), The SPD. Cycles of organizational history and structural features of intra-party decision-making processes, in: Karl-Rudolf Korte / Jan Treibel (ed.), How do parties decide? (ZPol special volume), Baden-Baden, pp. 93-119.

Grunden, Timo / Maximilian Janetzki / Julian Salandi (2017), Die SPD. Anamnesis of a party, Baden-Baden.

Jun, Uwe (2018), Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), in: Frank Decker / Viola Neu (ed.), Handbook of German Parties, 3rd edition, Wiesbaden, pp. 468-486.

Klein, Markus et al. (2018), The Social Structure of German Party Memberships. Empirical findings from the German party membership studies 1998, 2009 and 2017, in: Journal for Parliamentary Questions 50 (1), pp. 81-98.

Krell, Christian / Meik Woyke (2015), The Basic Values ​​of Social Democracy. Historical origins and political significance, in: Christian Krell / Tobias Mörschel (eds.), Values ​​and politics, Wiesbaden, pp. 93-137.

Lösche, Peter / Franz Walter (1992), The SPD. Class party - people's party - quota party. On the development of social democracy from Weimar to German unification, Darmstadt.

Lynen von Berg, Heinz (2019), The decline of the SPD as a people's party and its helpless anti-populism, in: Leviathan 47 (1), pp. 7-27.

Machnig, Matthias / Hans-Peter Bartels, eds. (2001), Der rasende Tanker. Analyzes and concepts for the modernization of the social democratic organization, Göttingen.

Meyer, Thomas (2005), Theory of Social Democracy, Wiesbaden.

Spier, Tim / Ulrich von Alemann (2013), The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), in: Oskar Niedermayer (ed.), Handbook of political party research, Wiesbaden, pp. 439-467.

Spier, Tim / Ulrich von Alemann (2015), In calmer waters, but with no land in sight? The SPD after the 2013 federal election, in: Oskar Niedermayer (ed.), The parties after the 2013 federal election, Wiesbaden, pp. 49-69.

Sturm, Daniel Friedrich (2009), Where is the SPD going ?, Munich.

Walter, Franz (2018), The SPD. Biography of a party from Ferdinand Lassalle to Andrea Nahles, Reinbek near Hamburg.

Wolfrum, Edgar (2013), Red-Green in Power. Germany 1998-2005, Munich.