Handelsblatt explains Why the Social Democrats have a proud past and uncertain future

One of the world’s oldest democratic parties, and once Germany’s only political force to resist Hitler, the SPD is nonetheless struggling to stay relevant.
So you tell me which direction we should go.

This article was originally published on September 14, 2017, and republished without changes in February 2018.

For 154 years, Germany’s Social Democrats have been standing up for “the little man,” as Germans say – the blue-collar workers, metal bashers, part-time contract laborers and others at or near the bottom of the economic hierarchy. That is one reason why Martin Schulz, the party’s candidate for chancellor in the election on September 24, briefly soared in the polls earlier this year, when he was first nominated. His biography reminded many Social Democrats of their own lives.

Mr. Schulz grew up as the son of a police officer in a crowded apartment above the police station in his village, next door to a coal mine. He dropped out of high school, dreaming of playing professional soccer. When a knee injury shattered that dream, he became depressed, started drinking and nearly committed suicide. But eventually he turned his life around. He became a teetotaler, bookseller, small-town mayor and later the president of the European Parliament. To many Social Democrats, this journey suggests that he knows what “real” people go through, and what it means to yearn for “social justice.”

Fired by just such instincts and growing out of the budding Marxist movement, the party was born in Leipzig in 1863 as the General German Workers’ Association, or ADAV. It aimed to give workers an education at a time when more than half of Germans were illiterate. But after German unification in 1871, Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor, banned the workers’ party for its pro-revolution, anti-monarchy sentiments. By the time it was legalized and had adopted its present name – Social Democratic Party, or SPD – in 1890, the party had already established a set of enduring propositions: that workers should share in the fruits of their labor and be guaranteed the freedom to organize. For them, the “democratic” part of their name was as fundamental as the “social” part.

Willy Brandt, then mayor of Berlin, couldn't have been happier when President John F. Kennedy said "Ich bin ein Berliner," against the background of the divided city.

In 1918, moderate Social Democrats founded and supported the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first attempt at democracy. That republic, however, was short-lived, undermined by hyperinflation and mass unemployment and finally extinguished by the Nazis. In 1933, all SPD parliamentarians in the Reichstag voted against Hitler’s “Enabling Act,” the law paving the way to his dictatorship. All other parties voted for the Act.

In the Second World War, many thousands of Social Democrats ended up in concentration camps. Among them was Kurt Schumacher. He had already lost his right arm in the Great War; his time in the camps so damaged his health that in 1948, his left leg had to be amputated as well. A physical wreck, Mr. Schumacher nonetheless became leader of the SPD and, though always in opposition, one of the founding fathers of postwar West Germany.

Because of their unambiguous opposition to totalitarianism in all its forms, the Social Democrats were the only German party that never had to change its name and start from scratch after the Second World War. (Mr. Schumacher referred to communists, including those in East Germany, as “red-painted Nazis”.) But the SPD also evolved. Under the governing conservative parties, West Germany introduced a “social market economy” that was capitalist but had a social safety net. As the country boomed in the 1950s, the Social Democrats came under pressure to shed their revolutionary Marxism. In 1959, at a historic party gathering in Bad Godesberg, they formally embraced the market economy.

West Germany’s first Social Democratic chancellor was Willy Brandt, starting in 1969. He promoted peace and reconciliation with the socialist states of Eastern Europe. His decision to kneel at the Warsaw ghetto memorial was a symbolic apology to Poland for Nazi crimes; it earned him the Nobel Prize in 1971. Though charismatic, Brandt was forced to resign after an aide was unmasked as an East German spy. Under his successor Helmut Schmidt, also a Social Democrat, Germany then made it relatively unscathed through the oil shocks and stagflation in the 1970s. But Schmidt became controversial, especially after he decided to let the Americans station medium-range ballistic missiles in West Germany. A no-confidence vote in 1982 removed him from office.

It took another 16 years for the third Social Democratic chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, to take office. His signature reform, known as “Agenda 2010,” liberalized Germany’s rigid labor market and benefits system. These reforms are credited with Germany’s economic success today, but they split the Social Democrats and are a bone of contention to this day. Some of the left-wingers, led by Oskar Lafontaine, even defected from the party to the hard-left rival The Left.

The SPD’s larger problems are akin to those of other Social Democratic parties in Europe. Its traditional base, blue-collar workers and unionists, is shrinking, as the economy shifts to service sectors and new, often digital, modes of working. During the 12 years under Chancellor Angela Merkel, the SPD has struggled to find a rallying cry. It hasn’t helped that it was Ms. Merkel’s junior partner in government twice, in her first and her current term. It’s hard to play government and opposition at the same time.

That is Mr. Schulz’s bane now. He says he wants to “correct” certain parts of Agenda 2010, allowing unemployment benefits, for instance, to be paid out longer, temp jobs to be permitted only under limited circumstances and pensioners to be guaranteed a monthly stipend well above the poverty line. But his theme of “social justice” has largely fallen flat in a country that is, on balance, prosperous and successful.

According to all polls, the Social Democrats have no chance of winning on September 24, trailing far behind Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats. Starting on September 25, they will face the dilemma of whether to enter a third “grand coalition” with Ms. Merkel, or to go into opposition. Either way, the party’s bigger challenge will be to define a new purpose in a modern world, as it once found its raison d'être in the 19th century.

John Blau is a senior editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: [email protected]