The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). Germany’s second volkspartei is also its oldest party. The SPD, founded in 1875 from a merging of two earlier socialist parties, is also the oldest social democratic party in the world, and has been at the forefront of socialist thought for more than a century.
The party suffered throughout its early history from tensions between revolutionary and reformist strains of socialist thinking. The party’s early leaders included close associates of Karl Marx, but in Eduard Bernstein the party also included the founder of social democracy as we understand it today.
The party split during WWI with the creation of the pacifist USPD, taking most of the SPD’s more radical members, portions of the USPD would later form the Communist Party of Germany.
During the Weimar years the SPD was the dominant party, and the most left-wing member of the broad group of democratic parties which governed Germany in the inter-war period. The party was eventually surpassed by the Nazi Party in 1932. The party is proud to have been the only party to have voted against Hitler’s Enabling Act (the Communists having been already banned). It was subsequently banned itself and many of its members ended up in exile (from where it supported the allies) or in the concentration camps.
After the war, the Eastern section of the party was forcibly merged with the Communists to form the Socialist Unity Party (SED), East Germany’s ruling communist party. The West German party was left weakened by the war, by its loss of its East German industrial heartlands and by seeming too eager to reunify with the East, too anti-American and too Marxist in an atmosphere marked by increasingly virulent anti-communism. While it was the largest party in the first post-war election it lacked in potential coalition partners and as the CDU grew in strength, the SPD was surpassed and left largely in the wilderness. The SPD officially repudiated Marxism in the late 1950s, and attempted to moderate in order to seek government. The party became the junior partner in a grand coalition with the CDU in 1966, which demonstrated it could govern sensibly. The party’s leader, Willy Brandt also began to carry a strong appeal for the 1960s New Left student activists. Brandt became Chancellor in 1969. He is principally remembered for Ostpolitik, an attempt to reach out to East Germany and normalise relations, but he also pursued massive domestic reforms, telling the Bundestag that “we want to take a chance on more democracy”.
The SPD lost power again in 1982, when the Free Democrats controversially switched support from the SPD to the CDU mid-parliament without an election.
The CDU then dominated until 1998 when the SPD won election on a platform targeting the ‘radical centre’. The party’s Chancellor-candidate, Gerhard Schroeder, was, like Tony Blair in the UK and Bill Clinton in the US, solidly in the centre, charismatic and forward-looking. His Agenda 2010 reforms to the German welfare state are praised by supporters as laying the foundations for German economic strength but are viewed as a grand betrayal by many on the left of his party, some of whom left and helped to start Die Linke.
Schroeder, facing a series of poor election results, initiated Germany’s first post-war early election in 2005 in a hope of tripping up his opposition and gained substantial momentum during the campaign from early negative poll results, eventually only losing the election by a hair’s breadth, only four seats. While the left and centre-left had a majority, Die Linke refused to enter government and the SPD formed a grand coalition with the CDU. Schroeder retired from frontline politics.
The party suffered throughout the grand coalition from a public view that it was doing Merkel’s bidding, and the SPD had its worst election result since the dark days of 1933, winning just 23.0% of the vote.
Since then the Social Democrats has been largely searching for ideological direction. Some of the party would like to go left, consider governing with Die Linke, or at least attempt to grab its support, whereas others prefer a more moderate path targeted at facing off the CDU in the centre. The party lacks fresh ideas distinctive from the CDU, yet suffers on its left from competition with Die Linke.
The party barely increased its support to 25.7% in 2013, and after drawn out coalition negotiations is now once again in grand coalition.
The party is very pro-European, possibly one of the most pro-European Social Democratic parties.
As with the CDU, the SPD has tended to dominate the centre-left in the European Parliament. Indeed, historically it has dominated the centre-left in Europe, helping to spread social democracy beyond Germany’s borders by providing support to nascent social democratic parties. With Italy’s Democratic Party it is joint largest party in the Socialists and Democrats. The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, is a member of the party. Schulz is also the S&D’s candidate for the President of the European Commission this year.
The SPD is 96.6% loyal to its group, which actually makes it slightly below average on loyalty.