Saturday, March 15, 2014

SPD during the First World War (1 of 2)

The significance of the German Social Democratic Party's (SPD) decision in the historic Reichstag vote of August 4, 1914 to approve credits for Kaiser Wilhelm II's war was not only of significance for the SPD's political fortunes of the moment. It was a major decision that influenced the course of democratic politics in Germany far into the future.

Heinrich Ströbel (1869-1944) was an active participant in the debates within the SPD over war policy. He begins his 1922 book Die deutsche Revolution. Ihr Unglück un ihre Rettung (The German Revolution: It Misfortune and Its Salvation; published in English as The German Revolution and After) on the 1918 democratic revolution in Germany with a reference to the effect of the SPD's wartime debates on supporting the Kaiser's war:

If one wants to understand correctly the essence, the origin and the process of the German revolution, then one must recall two things again and again: first, that the revolution was not the conscious uprising of popular majority against the old political and social system; and second, that this military collapse that spawned the revolution, did not find in Germany a united socialist proletariat [working class] determined to fight, but rather a Social Democracy divided by the argument over war policy.
The Social Democrats became head of the government late in 1918 as the final military collapse was underway. This was part of a conscious political strategy by the military dictator Erich Ludendorff to let the SPD take the blame for Germany's military defeat that Ludendorff himself had delivered to his country. And the SPD walked right into it.

Heinrich Ströbel in 1924 in his official photo as a Reichstag delegate for the SPD
When Ströbel, who had sided with the antiwar faction of the SPD during the war, writes that there was no "united socialist" German working class at the end of the war, he is referring to the splits that occurred during the SPD during the war, which left it in late 1918/early 1919 divided into the prowar Majority SPD (MSPD), the more-or-less antiwar Independent SPD (USPD), and the antiwar Spartacus and International Socialist movements, the later two coming together at the end of 1918 into the German Communist Party (KPD).

There was a workers uprising at the end of 1918 and the beginning of 1919, one of the most discussed incidents in German political history. Not least because it became a sore point in decades of polemics between Social Democrats and Communists. However one judges the details, the facts include the fact that the SPD government used far-right volunteer militias called the Freikorps to suppress the workers demonstrations and strikes during that period. Gustav Noske, a prowar and pro-colonialism SPD Reichstag member since 1906, was put in charge of military affairs by Friedrich Ebert's SPD-led regime and was responsible for bringing in the Freikorps and pursuing a straightforward policy of repression.

Counterfactual history is always tricky, of course. Germany had just been defeated in the war and the victors were bent on implementing a vulture's peace, which is what the Treaty of Versailles embodied. Any government's options would have been highly limited in that situation. But it's also the case the the SPD walked into Lundendorff's political trap. And bringing in the Freikorps, led by hardline nationalists and enemies of democracy, was a step any SPD government serious about democracy should have avoided. And by forging such an alliance with the far-right Freikorps, which kicked off the (failed) Kapp Putsch of 1920 against the Weimar democracy, the SPD frittered away the opportunity it had to drastically reduce the power of aristocratic and antidemocratic members of the German civilian bureaucracy and military command.

Susanne Miller's Burgfrieden und Klassenkampf. Die deutsche Sozialdemokratie im Ersten Weltkrieg (1974) provides substantial evidence that the prowar course of the SPD/MSPD committed the SPD not only to support of the defense of Germany, as they claimed, but more generally to preserving the basic existing social order. One might think that a party formally and explicitly committed to revolutionary and radical-democratic goals would have at least kept their sights fixed on a Constitutional monarchy. But as Miller shows, the SPD - the most important advocate for parliamentary democracy in Germany - seemed to accept a constitutional monarchy along British lines for the postwar period.

The nickname that sometimes attached to them had some real substance to it: the Kaiser's Social Democrats.

Ströbel wrote in 1919 booklet called Schuld und Sühne published under the auspices of the pacifist group Neues Vaterland that Ebert "bis zum letzten Augenblick nichts als eine solide Stütze des wider seinen Willen gestürzten Regimes von gestern gewesen war." ("Until the last moment {of the Imperial government} was nothing other than a solid supporter of the regime of yesterday that was overthrown against his will.")

Even allowing for the intensity of the polemics of the moment, that evaluation by Ströbel of Ebert's conduct during those days is both sober and accurate.

(cont. in Part 2)

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