German Socialism and Weimar Democracy
The German Social Democratic Party (SPD) has attracted more scrutiny than any other German political party except perhaps Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist Party. Taking into consideration only major books by American historians, one can follow the history of the SPD in Vernon Litdke’s The Outlawed Party: Social Democracy in Germany, 1873-1890 (1966), Peter Gay’s The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism: Eduard Bernstein’s Challenge to Marx (1952), Carl Schorske’s German Social Democracy, 1905-1917: The Development of the Great Schism (1970), and Richard Hunt’s German Social Democracy, 1918-1933 (1964). As Richard Breitman’s thirty-five-page bibliography attests, these books are only four grains in a vast mountain of research on the SPD.
The reason for this intense interest is not hard to understand. An uneasy mixture of Ferdinand Lassalle’s democratic socialism and Karl Marx’s revolutionary socialism, leavened by the strong influence of the German trade union movement, the Social Democratic Party presented a fascinating kaleidoscope of socialist theory and practice in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Charismatic revolutionaries, scholarly theoreticians, and stolid trade union bureaucrats all vied for influence and power within the SPD. Moreover, as the party with the largest vote in Germany after 1890, the Social Democratic Party appeared as the most potent opponent, first of Wilhelminian autocracy, and then of Nazism. The failure of democracy in Germany went hand in hand with the failure of the SPD, and this specter of failure haunts all of the scholarship on the party.
Breitman’s purpose is to assess the options available to the SPD during the revolution of 1918-1919 and the Weimar Republic and to reinterpret the decisions and motives of the SPD leadership in light of this assessment. In setting forth this task, Breitman hints that the conventional view of the SPD leaders as lackluster and excessively cautious is unjust, given the problems which confronted them and the circumstances which restricted their freedom. A reference to Richard Hunt’s work in this context seems to promise a revision of the standard interpretation represented by Hunt.
There is much to be said for such a revision. The mantle of leadership fell on the SPD in Germany’s darkest hour. Defeat and revolution threatened Germany with anarchy and disintegration. Social Democratic leaders such as Friedrich Ebert and Philip Scheidemann, with a deep sense of duty and integrity, led Germany through these troubled waters to a democratic parliamentary republic whose fall was by no means as inevitable as the wisdom of hindsight would have it. This was no little accomplishment and has been insufficiently appreciated by historians of the Weimar Republic.
A reader hoping for a rehabilitation of the Social Democratic leaders will be disappointed by Breitman’s book, however. He offers no bold new interpretation. Although his criticisms are reserved, the pages of his book recount the same dreary tale of misplaced caution and missed opportunity well known to those familiar with the history of the Weimar Republic.
This does not mean, however, that Breitman need not have written his book. If he does not offer a striking new interpretation, he does provide a closer look at the inner counsels of the SPD during these critical years than has hitherto been available. Although the book is brief, it is not superficial. The reader who perseveres through the 194 densely packed pages is rewarded with a much clearer understanding of the thinking and motives of the SPD leadership. Originating as a Harvard University doctoral dissertation, the book has the virtues one would expect—good judgment backed up by thorough research based on an impressive variety of sources. The book also possesses some of the faults which bedevil doctoral dissertations—mechanical organization and pedestrian writing. There is virtue in brevity, but a longer, more leisurely paced book would have been easier to read.
Breitman convincingly demonstrates that the highest priority of the Social Democratic leaders was to establish and then preserve parliamentary democracy in Germany. Indeed, he uses the word “pluralist” to describe the spirit of the SPD and compares the Social Democrat and famous revisionist, Eduard Bernstein, to John Stuart Mill in this regard. How to reconcile this priority, which necessarily involved cooperation with liberal middle-class parties, with the need to maintain the popular support of a working class courted by parties to the left of the SPD, was the great dilemma of SPD leaders.
Breitman sees World War I as the experience which convinced moderate Social Democrats to abandon the parliamentary strategy of pure opposition which the party had followed before the war. At the beginning of the war, the German Social Democrats, like most European socialists, put aside the rhetoric of the solidarity of the international proletariat and supported their country in the war. The price for this policy was paid in 1917 when those Social Democrats who could no longer tolerate the majority’s support of the war broke away to found a second socialist party in Germany, the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD). This party spawned the German Communist Party (KPD) and the unity of the German socialist movement was never restored. Thus, in the Weimar Republic the SPD was forced to wage a two-front battle against both right and left....
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