Today the SPD advocates the modernization of the economy to meet the demands of globalization, but it also stresses the need to address the social needs of workers and society's disadvantaged.
Interestingly, Bernstein left the party during the first world war, as did Karl Kautsky, who had played an important role as the leading Marxist theoretician and editor of the theoretical journal of SPD, “Die Neue Zeit”. Neither joined the Communist party after the war, but came back to the SPD in the early Twenties. From 1915 onwards the theoretical discussions within the SPD were instead dominated by a group of former anti-revisionist Marxists, who tried to legitimize the support of the First World War by the German SPD group in the Reichstag with Marxist arguments. Instead of the class struggle they proclaimed the struggle of peoples and developed much of the rhetoric later used by Nazi propaganda (“Volksgemeinschaft” etc.). The group was lead by Heinrich Cunow, Paul Lensch and Konrad Haenisch (“Lensch-Cunow-Haenisch-Gruppe”) and was close to the Russian-German revolutionary and social scientist Parvus, who gave a public forum to the group with his journal “Die Glocke”. Via the academic teacher of Kurt Schumacher, Professor Johann Plenge, and Schumacher himself there is a group to the current right-wing “Seeheimer Kreis” within the SPD, which was founded by Annemarie Renger, Schumacher's former secretary.
Those who were against the war were expelled from the SPD in January 1917 (including Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and Hugo Haase) - the expelees went on to found the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany, in which the Spartacist League was a current.
After the annexation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 the exile party resettled in Paris and after the defeat of France in 1940 in London. Only a few days after the outbreak of the World War II in September 1939 the exiled SPD in Paris declared its support for the Allies and for the military removal from power of the Nazi government.
In the Soviet occupation sector, which later became East Germany, the Social Democratic Party was forced to merge with the Communist Party of Germany to form the Socialist Unity Party of Germany (SED) in 1946. During the fall of Communist rule in 1989, the SPD (first called SDP) was re-established as a separate party in East Germany (Social Democratic Party in the GDR), independent of the rump SED, and then merged with its West German counterpart upon reunification.
In 1982 the SPD lost power to the new CDU/CSU-FDP coalition under CDU Chancellor Helmut Kohl who subsequently won 4 terms as chancellor. He lost his 4th re-election bid in 1998 to his SPD challenger Gerhard Schröder, as the SPD formed a coalition with The Greens to take control for the first time in 16 years.
Led by Gerhard Schröder on a moderate platform emphasizing the need to reduce unemployment, the SPD emerged as the strongest party in the September 1998 elections with 40.9% of the votes cast. Crucial for this success was the SPD's strong base in big cities and Bundesländer with traditional industries. Forming a coalition government with the Green Party, the SPD thus returned to power for the first time since 1982.
Oskar Lafontaine, elected SPD chairman in November 1996 had in the run-up to the election forgone a bid for the SPD nomination for the chancellor candidacy, after Gerhard Schröder won a sweeping re-election victory as prime minister of his state of Lower Saxony and was widely believed to be the best chance for Social Democrats to regain the Chancellorship after 16 years in opposition. From the beginning of this teaming up between Party chair Lafontaine and chancellor candidate Schröder during the election campaign 1998, rumors in the media about their internal rivalry persisted, albeit always being disputed by the two. After the election victory Lafontaine joined the government as finance minister. The rivalry between the two party leaders escalated in March 1999 leading to the overnight resignation of Lafontaine from all his party and government positions. After staying initially mum about the reasons for his resignation, Lafontaine later cited strong disagreement with the alleged neoliberal and anti-social course Schröder had taken the government on. Schröder himself has never commented on the row with Lafontaine. It is known however, that they haven't spoken to each other ever since. Schröder succeeded Lafontaine as party chairman.
In the September 2002 elections, the SPD reached 38.5% of the national vote, barely ahead of the CDU/CSU, and was again able to form a government with the help of the Green Party. The European elections of 2004 were a disaster for the SPD, marking its worst result in a nationwide election after World War II with only 21.5% of the vote. Earlier the same year, leadership of the SPD had changed from chancellor Gerhard Schröder to Franz Müntefering in what was widely regarded as an attempt to deal with internal party opposition to the economic reform programs set in motion by the federal government.
While the SPD was founded in the 19th century to defend the interests of the working class, its commitment to these goals has been disputed by some since 1918, when its leaders supported the suppression of the more radical socialist and communist factions. But never before has the party moved so far away from its traditional socialist stance as it did under the Schröder government. Its ever increasing tendency towards liberal politics and cutbacks in government spending on social welfare programs led to a dramatic decline in voter support, and to Gerhard Schröder being pejoratively called “der Genosse der Bosse”, meaning the (socialist) comrade (who is a friend) of the (big) bosses.
For many years, membership in the SPD has been declining. Down from a high of over 1 million in 1976, there were about 775,000 members at the time of the 1998 election victory, by February 2008 the figure had dropped to 537,995.
In January 2005, some SPD members left the party to found the Electoral Alternative for Labor and Social Justice (WASG) in opposition to what they consider to be neoliberal leanings displayed by the SPD. Former SPD chairman Oskar Lafontaine also joined this new party. (Later, to contest the early federal election called by Schröder after the SPD lost heavily in a state election in their traditional stronghold of North Rhine-Westphalia, the western-based WASG and the eastern-based post-communist Party of Democratic Socialism would merge to form the Left Party.) These developments put pressure on the SPD to do something about its social image.
In April 2005, party chairman Franz Müntefering publicly criticized excessive profiteering in Germany's free market economy and proposed stronger involvement of the federal state in order to promote economic justice. This triggered a debate that dominated the national news for several weeks. Müntefering's suggestions have been met with popular support, but there has also been harsh criticism not only by the industrial lobby. Political opponents claimed that Müntefering's choice of words, especially his reference to private equity funds as “locusts”, were bordering on Nazi language.
In the German federal election, 2005, the SPD ended up trailing its rivals by less than 1%, a much closer margin than had been expected. Although the party had presented a program that included some more traditional left themes, such as an additional 3% tax on the highest tax bracket, this did not prevent the Left Party from making a strong showing, largely at the SPD's expense. Nevertheless, the overall result was sufficient to deny the opposition camp a majority.
However, Müntefering resigned as party chairman and was succeeded as chairman by Matthias Platzeck, minister-president of Brandenburg. Müntefering's decision came after the party's steering committee chose a woman from the left wing of the party, Andrea Nahles, as secretary general over Müntefering's choice, his long-time aide Kajo Wasserhövel. However, after Müntefering said her election indicated that he had lost the confidence of the party and he would therefore resign, Nahles turned down the post of secretary general to prevent the party splitting. Hubertus Heil was elected in her place.
On April 10, 2006 Matthias Platzeck announced his resignation of the Chair because he suffered a major hearing loss in March 2006. The interim Chairman from April 10 to May 14 was Kurt Beck. He won the full leadership on a small party convention on May 14. He resigned on September 7 2008; on September 8, 2008 the party's executive committee nominated Franz Müntefering to be elected as chairman at an extraordinary party conference on October 18, 2008. In the meantime Frank-Walter Steinmeier serves as provisional chairman.
|Socialist Workers' Party of Germany (SAP)|
| Wilhelm Hasenclever|
Georg Wilhelm Hartmann
|1875 - 1876|
| Wilhelm Liebknecht|
Georg Wilhelm Hartmann
|1876 - 1878||Central Comitee|
|banned by the Anti-Socialist Laws 1878-1890|
|Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD)|
| Paul Singer|
|1890 - 1892|
| August Bebel|
|1892 - 1911|
| August Bebel|
|1911 - 1913|
| Friedrich Ebert|
|1913 - 1917||Haase broke away in 1916 to form the USPD|
| Friedrich Ebert|
|1917 - 1919|
| Hermann Müller|
|1919 - 1922|
| Hermann Müller|
|1922 - 1928||Crispien co-opted in September as a representative of the returning USPD|
| Otto Wels|
|1928 - 1931|
| Otto Wels|
|1931 - 1933|
|Chairmen of the party in exile 1933-1945|
| Otto Wels|
|1933 - 1939|
|Hans Vogel||1939 - 1945|
|After World War II|
|Otto Grotewohl||1945 - 1946||Chairman of a Central Committee claiming national authority, chairman of the SPD in the Soviet zone, merged with the Eastern KPD to form the SED in 1946.|
|Kurt Schumacher||1945 - 1946||chairman of the SPD in the British zone, resisting Grotewohl's claims and implementing the formation of the SPD in West Germany.|
|Chairmen in West Germany 1946-1990|
|Kurt Schumacher|| 11 May 1946 -|
20 August 1952
|Erich Ollenhauer|| 27 September 1952 -|
14 Dezember 1963
|Willy Brandt|| 16 February 1964 -|
14 June 1987
|Hans-Jochen Vogel|| 14 June 1987 -|
29 May 1991
|Chairmen of the refounded Social Democratic Party in East Germany 1989-1990|
|Ibrahim Böhme|| 7 October 1989 -|
1 April 1990
|Markus Meckel|| 8 April -|
9 June 1990
|Wolfgang Thierse|| 9 June -|
26 September 1990
|merged with the Western SPD on 26 September 1990|
|Chairmen after reunification|
|Hans-Jochen Vogel|| 26 September 1990 -|
29 May 1991
|Björn Engholm|| 29 May 1991 -|
3 May 1993
|Johannes Rau|| 3 May -|
25 June 1993
|Rudolf Scharping|| 25 June 1993 -|
16 November 1995
|Oskar Lafontaine|| 16 November 1995 -|
12 March 1999
|Gerhard Schröder|| 12 March 1999 -|
21 March 2004
|Franz Müntefering|| 21 March 2004 -|
15 November 2005
|Matthias Platzeck|| 15 November 2005 -|
10 April 2006
|Kurt Beck|| 10 April 2006 -|
7 September 2008
|Frank-Walter Steinmeier||since 7 September 2008||acting Chairman|