The Social Democrats were the most important political party in the Weimar Republic.

Friedrich Ebert
German president Friedrich Ebert in 1925 (Bundesarchiv)

The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschland (Social Democratic Party of Germany) was founded in 1875 by August Bebel on largely Marxist ideals and for most of the Weimar Republic time was the largest political party in the nation.

Although it was born as a workers’ party, the SPD often embraced a number of causes beyond the conditions of workers, calling for equal rights for women (finally realized by the republic) and a stop to the killing of natives in German colonies in the nineteenth century.

By 1912, the party had more than a million members and had achieved improvements in education and health care as well as in the condition of industrial workers. Around that time, the party started working together with Kaiser Wilhelm II rather than against him to achieve further liberal laws for the nation.

Besides, this policy of agreement was going to be the main direction of the party. Bebel, just like his successor Friederich Ebert, believed that socialist improvement could be achieved by parliamentary discussion rather than by violence and revolution.

August Bebel
August Bebel

In 1914, the SPD voted against the resolution of war against France, which they considered an unnecessary, aggressive and imperialistic action. This caused the first fraction inside the party that, with over one million members, presented as it might be expected a vast range of opinions and positions. Many SPD members were imprisoned for their antiwar ideas. By 1917, many had also be expelled from the party for their radical position. A number of these — including Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht — would then found the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).

The SPD were the natural candidate to lead the republic, and they did so for most of its history, though never from a majority position.

Berlin Germany electioneering
Electioneering in Berlin, Germany in December 1924 (Bundesarchiv)

Over the decades, the SPD had been criticized for having agreed too often on compromises even with forces (like the reactionary Reichswehr and even more so the nationalistic Nazi Party) that were clearly in opposition with their ideals and goals. This had long been seen as a weakness, possibly a capital sin that would eventually bring down the republic. Germans saw the willingness to compromise and the practice of parliamentary discussion as the incapability of the party to find solutions for the many problems of the nation.

Unaccustomed to democracy, Germans failed to see that the SPD was treading a completely new path, one of inclusion and cooperation, based on discussion rather than imposition. In fact, historians have lately started to argue that if the republic hadn’t looked for agreement and hadn’t accepted the compromises it did, its life would have been even shorter.

Despite the perceived failure (because, after all, the republic ended with the rise of the Nazis), the SPD achieved many liberal laws and provisions that meant inclusion for a lot of society sections previously cut off from the nation’s political life. The preeminence of the Jewish component among SPD members would be hard to oversee. Women also entered the political arena, not just as voters but as parliamentary representatives as well.

The republic gave freedom of speech to everyone — including its enemies — and allowed avant-garde and alternative ways of life and thinking not just to exist, but to thrive.

In the good and the bad, the Weimar Republic is identified with the SPD government. After all, for very good reasons.

The Old Shelter Weimar Germany SPD

This story was originally published at The Old Shelter as part of an A-to-Z challenge about the history of Weimar Germany, April 21, 2018.

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