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Social Democratic Party of Germany

spd-1Founded in 1875, the Social Democratic Party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands–SPD) is Germany’s oldest political party and its largest in terms of membership. After World War II, under the leadership of Kurt Schumacher, the SPD reestablished itself as an ideological party, representing the interests of the working class and the trade unions. The party’s program, which espoused Marxist principles, called for the nationalization of major industries and state planning.

A strong nationalist, Schumacher rejected Adenauer’s Western-oriented foreign policy and gave priority to unifying Germany, even if that meant accommodating Soviet demands. Despite the SPD’s membership of almost 1 million in 1949, it was unable to dent Adenauer’s popularity. Schumacher’s death in 1952 and a string of electoral defeats led the SPD to rethink its platform in order to attract more votes. The Bad Godesburg Program, a radical change in policy, was announced at the SPD’s 1959 party conference. The new program meant abandoning the party’s socialist economic principles and adopting the principles of the social market economy. The party also dropped its opposition to West German membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Like the CDU, the SPD was becoming a catchall party (Volkspartei )–albeit of the left.

Introduction of the Bad Godesberg Program, together with the emergence of a dynamic leader in the person of Willy Brandt, marked the beginning of improved fortunes for the SPD. Although the party gained support from election to election, suspicion about its ability to govern persisted. Joining the CDU/CSU in the Grand Coalition in November 1966 proved critical in erasing doubts among voters about SPD reliability. After the 1969 election, the FDP decided to form a coalition with the SPD–a governing configuration that held until 1982.

Brandt served as chancellor from 1969 to 1974. His most notable achievements were in foreign policy. Brandt and his key aide, Egon Bahr, put into place an entirely new approach to the East–Ostpolitik–premised upon accepting the reality of postwar geopolitical divisions and giving priority to reconciliation with Eastern Europe. Brandt addressed long-standing disputes with the Soviet Union and Poland, signing landmark treaties with both countries in 1970. His efforts won him the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1971. The Brandt government also negotiated the Basic Treaty with East Germany in 1972, which formally granted recognition to the GDR. On the domestic side, the SPD-FDP coalition succeeded in almost doubling social spending between 1969 and 1975.

Helmut Schmidt succeeded Brandt as chancellor in 1974. Although Schmidt won a reputation as a highly effective leader, the SPD experienced increasingly trying times. The oil crises of the 1970s undermined economic growth globally, and West Germany experienced economic stagnation and inflation. A critical problem for the SPD-FDP coalition government was a difference in opinion over the appropriate response to these problems. Divisions over economic policy were exacerbated by a debate within the party over defense policy and the stationing of United States intermediate nuclear forces in West Germany in the early 1980s. In 1982 the Free Democrats decided to abandon the coalition with the SPD and allied themselves with the CDU/CSU, forcing the SPD out of power. Schmidt, although regarded as a statesman abroad and an effective leader at home, became increasingly isolated within his own party, and he chose not to campaign as the SPD chancellor candidate in the March 1983 elections. Hans-Jochen Vogel was the SPD standard-bearer in that election, and the party suffered a serious loss.

The SPD has been wrought by internal crises since the late 1970s, and these divisions have continued into the 1990s. The party is split into two factions, one giving priority to economic and social justice, egalitarianism, and environmental protection, and the other most concerned with controlling inflation, encouraging fiscal responsibility, and playing a significant part in the European security system. The SPD faces a challenge on the left from the Greens and on the right from the CDU/CSU and the FDP. Rather than move to the left, the SPD chose a centrist strategy in the 1987 national election and earned only a small increase in voter support.

In 1990 the nomination of Oskar Lafontaine as chancellor candidate suggested a tactical shift to the left aimed at attracting liberal, middle-class voters. The national election in December 1990 became, in essence, a referendum on unification, and the CDU’s Kohl, who had endorsed a speedy union, far outstripped the more ambivalent and pessimistic Lafontaine in the polls. The SPD did not receive the support it had expected in the heavily Protestant eastern Laender. Leadership of the SPD passed to Björn Engholm, a moderate, who resigned in May 1993 in the wake of a political scandal.

Rudolf Scharping, the moderate and relatively unknown minister president of Rhineland-Palatinate, was elected by SPD members–the first time in the history of the party that its members directly chose a new leader–to replace Engholm in late June 1993. Scharping opposed Kohl in the 1994 national election. The SPD candidate began 1994 with a strong lead in public opinion polls, but, beginning in late April, the SPD’s support began a sustained decline for several reasons. For one, the increasingly positive economic situation was credited to the governing coalition. For another, Scharping was perceived by many Germans to be a lackluster candidate; further, he was not wholly successful in portraying himself as the conciliator who had brought harmony to a traditionally fractious SPD. Following the election, Scharping became the leader of the SPD’s parliamentary group in the Bundestag.

The organizational structure of the SPD is highly centralized, with decisions made in a top-down, bureaucratic fashion. Technically, the SPD’s highest authority is the party congress, which meets biannually. Arguably, its only significant function is to elect the thirty-six-member Executive Committee, which serves as the SPD’s primary executive body and its policy maker. The members of the Executive Committee typically represent the various political factions within the party. The core of the Executive Committee is the nine-member Presidium, which represents the inner circle of party officials and is generally composed of the party leadership. The Presidium meets weekly to conduct the business of the party, deal with budgetary issues, and handle administrative and campaign matters. The Presidium is also responsible for endorsing policy originating either with an SPD government or with the leadership of the parliamentary Fraktion when the party is in opposition. In almost all cases, decisions made in the Presidium are ratified by the Federal Executive and the party congress. All SPD organizations below the national level elect their own party officials. The district, subdistrict, and local levels are all subordinate to the Land executive committees, which direct party policy below the national level and are relatively independent of the federal party officials. Like the CDU/CSU, the SPD maintains specialized groups representing particular professions, youth, women, trade unions, refugees, and sports interests. In the case of the SPD, these groups are closely tied to the SPD bureaucracy, and only the Young Socialists and the trade union group have policy-making roles.

Related articles:
Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union
Free Democratic Party of Germany
Green Party of Germany
The Republikaner and the German People’s Union
Party of Democratic Socialism

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