German Social Democratic Party

The German Social Democratic Party (SDP) was established in 1875 with the publication of its Gotha programme. The programme was a mixture of the ideas of Karl Marx and Ferdinand Lasselle. Its originally leaders included Ferdinand Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht.

In the 1877 General Election in Germany the SDP won 12 seats. This worried Otto von Bismarck, and in 1878 he introduced an anti-socialist law which banned Social Democratic Party meetings and publications.

After the anti-socialist law ceased to operate in 1890, the SDP grew rapidly and in 1912 the party won 110 seats in the Reichstag. Led by Ferdinand Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Friedrich Ebert, and Eduard Bernstein, the SDP was now the largest political party in Germany. During the First World War a group of members led by Kurt Eisner left to form the Independent Socialist Party (USPD).

In October, 1918, Max von Baden invited right-wing members of the SDP to join his coalition government. On 9th November Friedrich Ebert took power and during the German Revolution he called in the German Army and the Freikorps to deal with the extreme left. Ebert was now condemned as a traitor by the Independent Socialist Party and the German Communist Party.

On 11th February, 1919, Friedrich Ebert was elected as the first chancellor of the Weimar Republic. Ebert, preoccupied with economic problems and a fear of further revolution, remained in office until his death in Berlin on 28th February, 1925.

Political Parties in the Reichstag

















Communist Party (KPD)









Social Democratic Party (SDP)









Catholic Centre Party (BVP)









Nationalist Party (DNVP)









Nazi Party (NSDAP)









Other Parties









The Social Democratic Party continued to be the largest party in the Weimar Republic until July 1932 when the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP) won 230 seats to the SDP's 133.

The SDP voted against the Enabling Act in March, 1933, which gave Adolf Hitler dictatorial powers. The Nazi Party banned the SDP in June 1933 and most of its leaders were arrested and sent to concentration camps.

The SDP was re-formed in 1959 and has taken part in several coalition governments in Germany in recent years.

Primary Sources

(1) Eric Hobsbawm, The German Revolution (1973)

The Social Democratic Party, the child of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels themselves, had long ceased to be the dangerous revolutionary movement that its supporters and opponents thought it to be before 1914. The war revealed it to be a moderate, respectable patriotic organisation which loyally supported the imperial war and its aims - so loyally that its more radical elements had seceded from it. Numerically the most important of these was the Independent Social Democratic Party, which had for some time supported a "peace without annexations and indemnities." The main body of working class activists in and out of uniform, from the shop-stewards of the Berlin engineering works to the revolutionary sailors, supported it.

(2) Josephine Herbst, The Nation (8th January, 1936)

How long will the psychological reasons for submission to Hitler hold in the face of continuing economic instability for the great mass of people? Hitler has been successful in selling to the Germans the idea that he saved the country and all Europe from bolshevism, and that bolshevism is a destructive force, a strictly Jewish movement. Lately the term bolshevism with too much use has begun to lose its sharp edge. The Catholics also have been accused of bolshevism. The result has been to throw them into the opposition movement. In the Saar one of the illegal papers of the underground movement appears with the hammer and sickle combined with the Catholic cross. A priest about to be arrested was warned by the underground route; his house was surrounded by workers and peasants from the neighborhood, few of whom were Catholic, and the troopers coming to arrest him turned back at the sight of the dense crowd.

The existence of the underground movement is denied in the legal press, but twenty illegal papers come out regularly in Berlin alone. Hundreds of others appear irregularly. The papers are distributed by children and by workers during their working hours. The penalty for distributing such contraband may be the concentration camp; it may be death. Strikes are treason, and leaders are punished by death at the hands of a firing squad or by sentences to concentration camps. Yet strikes go on. Dozens occurred last summer, especially in the metal trades. Sometimes the strike consisted in a passive laying down of tools for an hour. Sometimes work was merely slowed up, "sticking," as they term it, "to the hands." Demonstrations used to be made for the release of Thälmann, the Communist leader, but lately there have been none, and it is not known for certain whether he is alive or dead. Only Germans who get their information from the legal press have any illusions about the so-called "bloodless revolution" of the Nazis; blood has flowed and is flowing. But if this last year was marked by the further concentration of wealth in the hands of the big industrialists, it is also notable that in the same period the underground movement made its greatest progress.

The outside world is always impatient of the predicament of a particular nation. Other people are always stupid and gulled by their leaders. Even within Germany itself some underground workers still puzzle at the suddenness of Hitler's blow. How could the powerful trade-union movement have been so easily crushed? The German worker, they say, was ideologically the best-informed worker in the world; he read economics, was versed in Marxist theory. The German worker was also patient and endowed with power to wait and endure. His very virtues became a trap for him. His long training under an earlier militaristic Germany in which order was a god made him an easier dupe.

It has taken time to recover from the blow of Hitler's seizure of power. At first Socialists and Communists did not work together and had no association with outside groups. But conversion is not the aim of the underground. Communists are willing to work with Catholics for religious liberty, and if, as an underground worker told me, half of a group of Socialists working with Communists in getting out a paper turn Communist, such an event is the outcome of an experience and not the focus of the movement. That neutrals have become weary of the parades, the constant orders to beflag houses, to appear on streets for "spontaneous" demonstrations has made it a little easier for the underground to work. The spying eye may not be so willing to see all that goes on around it. Moreover, the circle of Hitler's enemies widens every month. New recruits for the underground are made by Hitler himself. When he dissolves the Stahlhelm he suddenly touches many a family not formerly antagonistic. As yet they may merely not be so ready to hang out flags; they may smother their resentment and grow only a trifle more angry at the rise of prices; but by these tokens they serve the opposition whether they know it or not.

(3) John Gates, The Story of an American Communist (1959)

Between them, the Communists and Socialists had more votes than Hitler who was financed by the steel magnates. But because they could not unite, Hitler won and proceeded to wipe out both working class organizations. The Socialists had been opposed to unity with the Communists on principle and this had led to their undoing. The Communists appealed to the Socialists for unity but insisted it be on Communist terms. They opposed unity to defend German bourgeois-democracy against Hitler and argued that Socialist-Communist unity must be conditioned on acceptance of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Communists operated under the theory that the Social-Democrats were "social-fascists," a harmful concept and an insurmountable barrier to unity. This theory held that the Socialists were paving the way for fascism and consequently could be considered its allies. Serious errors of both movements contributed to Hitler's victory, but neither could be called his allies. They were his enemies and the members and leaders of both groups ended up in Nazi concentration camps, in Nazi torture and execution chambers.

This terrible object lesson was not lost on the world, and certainly not on Communists, Socialists and trade unionists. Hitler's regime of murder and of war preparations now confronted mankind with the greatest danger in all history. In the wake of Hitlerism and the almost world-wide depression, fascist movements arose in many countries. Here at home, fascist demagogues like Father Coughlin, Gerald L. K. Smith and Huey Long flourished. Something else began to flourish here and abroad: popular anti-fascist movements, determined to combat fascism everywhere.