In a previous post on this topic, I listed several factors that Miller identified in a separate article for the SPD's prowar course. From "Die Sozialdemokratie in der Spannung zwischen Oppoisitionstradition und Regierungsverantwortung in den Anfängen der Weimarer Republik" in Hans Mommsen, Hrsg., Sozialdemokratie zwischen Klassenbewegung und Volkspartei (1974):
- Responding to the general opinion among their voting base
- The SPD's view of Russia, expertly exploited by Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg
- Their (internationalist?) hostility to British and French imperialism
- The claims of France on Alsace-Lorraine
- "The hope of improving their own status through inner political reforms," i.e., their desire to be accepted as a legitimate political party which they hoped supporting the war would achieve (my translation)
- Fear of repression which would roll back their political achievements and subject their Party resources and property to confiscation, censorship or banning
In the book, she elaborates those themes in much more detail.
One of the factors that emerges strongly in Miller's narrative is the level of political trust the SPD leaders placed in the Kaiser and his governments. Through some combination of complacency, patriotism, national shortsightedness and careless judgment, the SPD leaders generally thought even in the immediate weeks after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand that the German government was genuinely seeking to preserve the peace.
Miller notes that during the July Crisis, hardline antiwar Social Democrats like Rosa Luxemburg and Heinrich Ströbel were still convinced even at the end of that eventful month of the Kaiser's genuine desire to avoid war. Ströbel writes of the general Social Democratic attitude in Germany toward foreign policy in the prewar years (Schuld und Sühne, 1919):
... aber man traute in gutgläubiger Verblendung unsren Machthabern doch nicht die tollhäuslerische Absicht zu, die Fünkchen eines unbeträchtlichen Konflikts mit vollem Bedacht zum ungeheuerlichen Weltenbrand anblasen zu wollen.Ströbel notes that Kurt Eisner, one of the most important antiwar leaders and an adherent of the USPD when it broke off, initially believed at the start of the war that Russia had forced the German Kaiser into a war he didn't want, the propaganda line that Bethmann Hollweg successfully pushed onto the SPD Reichstag faction to convince them to vote for war credit on the fateful August 4. (Eisner for a couple of months in 1918-19 became the head of the revolutionary workers council, aka "soviet", in Bavaria; he was assassinated by Count Anton von Arco-Valley on February 21, 1919.)
[... but one trusted with a good-willed blindness that our rulers were certainly would not want to have the insane intention to completely deliberately blow the spark of an insignificant conflict into a monstrous world blaze.]
Rallying around the national war cause, however painfully dubious it may appear, is something with which Americans have become very familiar over the last 13 years or so. I don't want to read more recent experience back into 1914-18. But anyone familiar with the rhetoric of jingoism, which we still hear constantly from FOX News and like-minded radio ranters, will understand the phenomenon Ströbel describes:
Die Bekehrung der roten Internationalisten zur Kriegspolitik Falkenhayns und Hindenburgs, Bethmanns und Hertlings, brachte das Lob der ganzen deutschen Presse1 freundschaftliche Handedrücke im Parlament und in der Öffentlichkeit, brachte die dankbare Anerkennung von Zivil- und Militarbehörden, brachte Ehrungen, Reklamationen und gesicherte Einkünfte.
The conversion of the red [social-democratic] internationalists to the war policy of [Erich von] Falkenhayn and [Paul von] Hindenburg, Bethmann [Hollweg] and [Georg Freiherr von] Hertling brought the praise of the entire German press, friendly handshakes in Parliament and in public, brought the thankful recognition of civil and military officials, brought honors, satisfactions and secure incomes.
This relates to several of the bullet-points above. As Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. has written, all wars are popular in the first 30 days. A politician who defied the national patriotic surge would be taking a calculated risk.
Still, the SPD had been nominally committed to an anti-imperialist program that required them, along with their sister parties in the Socialist International (aka, Second International), to oppose any "imperialist" war. As Miller explains, though, neither the SPD nor other major European socialist parties had made practical and concrete plans on how to go about it when and if that moment came. The SPD conducted antiwar demonstrations almost up until the day they switched The social-democratic parties of Britain and France also went along with their country’s war policies.
Another important background factor was that the general expectation on both sides of the initial conflict was that war would be relatively short. The American Civil War could have served as at least a possible precedent in their thinking as a cautionary example of how a present-day war could become an extended conflict with massive casualties. But Germany, Austria-Hungary, France, Britain, Russia and the Ottoman Empire were looking to more recent European conflicts such as the German wars of unification against Denmark, Austria-Hungary and France. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 had displayed exceptional cruelty and bloodlust. But they were ended in a relatively short time.
As horrible as the Great War turned out to be, there was a general expectation on all sides that the war would be a short conflict. That it would become such an extended horror ending with the end of the dynastic empires of Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russian and Ottoman Empire was not part of the calculations of any major political grouping, including the Social Democrats.
Miller devotes a large portion of her book to examining the pragmatic-sounding claims of the SPD that they achieved respectability and were able to mitigate the worst effects of the war on the homefront and pave the way toward the postwar assumption of power. With minor exceptions, Miller finds these claims wanting in substance. From influencing the war aims to exclude annexationist goals to relief for hungry civilians suffering from serious food shortages to extracting political concessions and protecting workers’ rights to opposing punitive demands against Russia in the Brest-Litovsk peace negotiations, the SPD/MSPD didn’t wind up with much to show for its efforts.
Miller describes well how the SPD was set up to take the blame for Germany’s defeat and the bandits' peace which followed at Versailles. The SPD ended the war at the head of the government and can rightly claim to have established parliamentary democracy in Germany. That is a big thing. And during the war, the SPD (MSPD) built a political alliance with the "bourgeois" Center and the left-liberal Progress Party, which was the first appearance of what became the core Weimar coalition. Also a big deal.
Miller writes of the wartime alliance with the Center and the Progress Party that it was:
... den entscheidenden Schritt sowohl für ihren Eintritt in das Kabinett des Prinzen Max von Baden als auch für das spätere Zustandekommen der „Weimarer Koalition“ ... Soviel auch für dieses Argument und die damit verbundene positive Bewertung des Ausbrucks der Sozialdemokraten aus ihrer Oppositionsrolle spricht, halt solch eine Sicht einer genaueren Prüfung doch nicht stand. Denn die Bereitschaft der bürgerlichen Parteien, Sozialdemokraten als gleichberechtigte Partner anzuerkennen, und der Wunsch der Reichsleitung, sie an der Regierung zu beteiligen, waren in erster Linie durch die Kriegslage bedingt. Erst mit dem Schwinden der Siegesaussichten wurden die Sozialdemokraten zu verantwortlicher Mitarbeit herangezogen. Als dann die Niederlage zum Faktum geworden und das Land in revolutionäre Gärung geraten war, übergab der letzte kaiserliche Reichskanzler sein Amt dem Sozialdemokraten Friedrich Ebert. Zu einem ähnlichen Verlauf wäre es aber wahrscheinlich gekommen, wenn die Sozialdemokratie weiterhin verschiedene Richtungen in ihren Reihen geduldet und ihnen die Freiheit gewährt hätte, sich öffentlich zu äußern - wenn also die Spaltung vermieden worden wäre. Und auch der Umkehrschluß liegt nahe: hätte das Deutschte Reich den Krieg nicht verloren, wären die alten Mächte am Ruder geblieben. Ihre Haltung den Sozialdemokraten gegenüber hätte sich nicht grundlegend geändert, mochte sich diese in der Kriegszeit vom nationalen Standpunkt aus auch noch so bewährt haben.
[... the decisive step as much for their entrance into the [late wartime Imperial] Cabinet of Prince Max von Baden as also for the later achievement of the “Weimar coalition” … Despite so much that speaks for this argument and the positive evaluation connected with it of the breaking out of the Social Democrats from their opposition role, such a view nevertheless does not hold up to a closer examination. Because the willingness of the bourgeois [non-socialist] parties to recognize the Social Democrats as an equal partner, and the desire of the Imperial leadership to have them participated in government, were in the first line determined by the war situation. Only with the fading of the prospect of victory were the Social Democrats brought into responsible collaboration. [Here, “responsible” should probably be in quotation marks.]
Then when defeat had become a fact and the country was moving into revolutionary ferment, the last Imperial Chancellor gave his office to the Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert.
And as Miller says of counterfactual scenarios on this matter, "Freilich gehören solche Überelegungen in die Kategorie unbeweisbarer Spekulation" ("Clearly such reflections belong in the category of unprovable speculation").
But by falling into Ludendorff's trap and willingly putting themselves in the position of presiding over the final defeat and the signing of the ruinous Versailles peace treaty, the SPD got only limited benefit for showing themselves to be good patriotic Germans. The rightwing nationalists and the Nazis kept right on portraying them as enemies of the state and the nation anyway. Konrad Adenauer and his Christian Democratic Union even kept it up after the Second World War.
Miller's book provides an impressive mixture of descriptions of very specific characters with their ambitions and limitations, the various specific incidents and parliamentary maneuvers that make up the story of the SPD during the war, and careful descriptions of the policy perspectives of various factions.
She doesn't lose sight of the tragic aspects of the story. But she also doesn’t make the SPD the villain of the piece, for all the problems she points out with their actions. And while the USPD emerges from her account as being more far-sighted and responsible than their MSPD rivals and associates, she is also careful to point out that the wartime elections that took place in which the USPD and the MSPD stood up competing candidates, the MSPD came out the clear winner. She attributes the USPD's failure to itself achieve more tangible results after the party split in 1917 especially to weaknesses in their general leadership.
The story leaves little doubt that the split over war policy left the SPD that existed in 1914 in far more difficult position in 1918-19 than they would have faced without the split occasioned by the MSPD's far-reaching support of the Kaiser. And not only in supporting the war policies but in accepting the regime itself in a way that left them without adequate strategies to deal with the political situation that arose at the conclusion of the war.
Tags: erster weltkrieg, first world war, heinrich ströbel, kurt eisner, european union, spd