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Social Democratic Party and the Great War

The Social Democrats, almost exactly one year before the outbreak of the World War, lost on 13 August 1913 by the death of August Bebel their veteran leader in the struggle for the democratization of Germany. His successor in the presidency of the party organization was the man who was destined subsequently to be the first president of the Republican Reich, Friedrich Ebert.

The prosperous development which Germany had experienced for more than 40 years of peace had been both politically and economically a mighty one; and there had arisen in the German people a profound sense of their strength, based in great part upon the absolute confidence which they felt in their military power. This confidence continued to influence popular feeling during the first years of the war. The necessity of setting aside all party strife was felt from the extreme Right far into those working-class circles which, as belonging to the Social Democratic party, had hitherto been opposed on principle to war. On 01 August 1914 the Socialist leaders issued a manifesto exhorting their followers to persist in their confidence that the future, in spite of everything, belonged to Socialism as the great bond between the nations. Indeed, if the Social Democrats had frankly taken up an attitude of opposition to the war, the masses, even those who belonged to the party, would in their patriotic enthusiasm have declined to follow their lead. On Aug. 4 the Social Democrats joined with the rest of the parties in the Reichstag in voting the first war credit. A united front of all parties was established. Then the events of the war followed each other in rapid succession.

On 09 September 1914 the Socialist leaders published a protest against the anti-German altitude of the International Socialist Bureau, and thus drew a clear line of cleavage between the German Social Democracy and that of enemy countries. On Dec. 2 a second war credit was voted by the Reichstag. In this instance the express assent of the Social Democrats was given, and their then leader, Haase, explained in a long speech the reasons for their attitude. The feeling in Germany was everywhere the same; victory was believed to be certain. The beginning of 1915 brought no alteration in this respect. In March the Social Democrats, by the mouth of their leader, Haase, expressed in the Reichstag the gratitude of the country to the German troops for their valour. At the same time the Government did its best to meet the Social Democrats halfway by fulfilling demands which that party had hitherto preferred in vain. In August 1915 the president of the Reichstag, Dr. Kampf, intimated that the Government had abandoned its opposition to the proposal to place the inscription "To the German People" on the place long reserved for it on the Reichstag building [The building was constructed between 1884 and 1894, mainly funded with wartime reparation money from France. The famous inscription 'Dem Deutschen Volke' (To the German People) was only added in 1916].

Gradually, however, the Social Democrats began to give expression to aspirations for peace. As early as November 1915 the Social Democratic leader, Scheidemann, addressed a question to the Government regarding the possibility of concluding peace. A division in the ranks of Social Democracy began. This change of feeling was above all due to the increasing difficulties in providing the masses with food. The lack of petroleum made itself felt, especially in the rural districts which had no other means of lighting.

A conflict arose between the Navy administration and the Government of the Empire regarding the adoption of an intensified form of the U-boat warfare. In early 1916 the Reichstag passed a resolution, which declared: " Seeing that the U-boat has proved an effective weapon against the British method of waging war with the object of reducing Germany to starvation, the Reichstag expresses its conviction that it is imperative to make such use of the U-boats as will assure the achievement of a peace giving security for the future of Germany." The Social Democrats voted in favour of this resolution with the exception of the Minority group of 18 deputies, to whom it gave the signal for separating themselves from the Social Democratic party in Parliament and forming a separate party. It was out of this group that at a later date the party of the Independent Socialists sprang.

The Social Democratic party as constituted on the eve of the Great War contained as many as four or five distinct elements, ranging from the imperialist socialists who differed but little from the bourgeois imperialists to the revolutionary wing which was bent solely upon immediate and thoroughgoing class war. The unanimity with which the party fell into line in support of the government upon the outbreak of the war did not last long, and, at that, was more apparent than real. Before the close of 1914 Liebknecht, Kautsky, Haase, Bernstein, Mehring, and other influential members put themselves on record as opposing the party's support of the war, and early in 1915 the opposition gained the upper hand in the socialist group in the Prussian lower chamber.

Thenceforth the division steadily grew. One small element, headed by Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, consistently and sturdily denounced the government's measures until it was practically silenced by imprisonment. A larger element, including Kautsky, Bernstein, and Haase, criticized the party delegation in the Reichstag for continuing to vote war credits, yet did not deny that the war was a proper one for Germany to wage, until it gradually became convinced that the government's main object was conquest. That conclusion was reached in the spring of 1916, and thereupon the dissentient minority - including about one fifth of the socialist members of the Reichstag - broke with the Social Democratic party and formed a rival organization, known henceforth as the Independent Socialist party.

The German Socialists were not united. The majority stood with the Government. The minority did not. The best-known minority leader was Herr Liebknecht. The majority Council had "read him out of the party." This Council also dropped the famous "Vorwarts" as an official party organ. But "Vorwarts" was apparently being read more than ever ; certainly it was being quoted more than ever. As showing the steady growth of the anti-Government sentiment among the members of the Socialist division of the Reichstag. "Vorwarts" noted that in the meeting of the section in August, 1914. at which the attitude to be taken by the division toward the war credits was defined, only 14 votes were cast against giving the Kaiser what he asked, while in the meetings held regarding the second, third, fourth, and fifth credits the Opposition numbered 17, 23, 36, and 43, respectively. Not all the members of the division were present at the last meeting, but "Vorwarts" based its figures on statements made to the chairman of the section by those who were absent because of sickness or other good reasons as to how they would have voted in case they had attended.

  • The Majority Socialists, led by Ebert and Scheidemann, continued to support the war (save during a brief period in the Michaelis regime) until the reverses on the western front in the summer and autumn of 1918 dashed the last hope of a military victory; then they became the legatee of the collapsing Imperial regime. They were socialists, but of a moderate, practical stripe. They favored gradual socialization, a rapidly rising income tax, separation of church and state, popular election of judges and other officials, and the entrance of Germany into a league of nations. It was easy for the Democrats to work with them, for the only important difference between the two parties was that one was bourgeois and the other chiefly proletarian.

  • The Independent Socialists, on the other hand, considered themselves the true custodians of Marxist doctrine and stood firmly for the Erfurt Program, with emphasis upon immediate and thoroughgoing nationalization. For two years they openly opposed the war; and although when the end came they were admitted to a share in the provisional government, they again went into opposition as the dominant Majority element swung more and more toward the Right in quest of dependable support.

  • The the Spartacists or Communists were the most radical of the groups of the Left in 1918. Under the leadership of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, this party drew off the extremest elements of both socialist organizations, and its formation and growth were powerfully stimulated by the propaganda of the Russian Bolsheviki. The principles and purposes of the Spartacists were indeed practically identical with those of the bolshevists: ultra-internationalism; abolition of taxes and national debts; substitution of a workmen's militia for the standing army; suppression of capitalism in every form; denial to the capitalist and bourgeois classes of any share whatsoever in the management of public affairs; reorganization of the state on the model of the Russian soviet system. Direct action - not the slow and deliberate method of elections and legislation - was to be the means of bringing about the new order, and the general strike was regarded as the most effective weapon.

By 1916 the Social Democrats, and gradually also the bourgeois Democrats and the Catholic Center, demanded from the Chancellor unequivocal assurances that the Imperial Government was prepared to conclude peace on an acceptable basis, and in particular to renounce all annexations and war indemnities. The Chancellor himself was inclined to yield to this pressure, but he encountered vigorous opposition from the Chief Command of the army, where General Ludendorff in particular advocated the principle that Germany could not conclude a peace which did not compensate her in the fullest degree by annexations and indemnities for the sacrifices she had made in the war.

The opposition, which had gradually been gathering strength during 1916, was intensified early in 1917. On 01 February 1917, Bethmann Hollweg announced to the Central Committee of the Reichstag the intention to prosecute the unrestricted submarine offensive. Among the Social Democrats, the Democrats and the Catholic Center party, however, a feeling was gradually gaining ground that tended more and more to emphasize the necessity for peace. On 15 May 1917 this feeling culminated in an important debate in the Reichstag on the subject of Germany's war aims. Scheidemann, the leader of the Social Democrats, vigorously attacked the war aims of the Pan-Germans, and said that if the Government continued to pursue such aims Germany itself would soon be faced by revolution. The Catholic Center party, the People's Party and the Social Democratic Party agreed among themselves on a resolution in favor of peace, which they brought before the Reichstag on 19 July 1917.

During 1917 food difficulties increased to an almost incalculable extent. At the very beginning of 1918, the fight for peace began with fresh violence. The nation began gradually to split into two parties, of which one rejected any disadvantageous peace, while the other conducted vigorous propaganda for peace even with concessions on the part of Germany. The Reichstag chose as Chancellor Prince Max of Baden, heir-apparent to the grand ducal throne of that state, who was considered to be a man of thoroughly democratic principle. By the beginning of October 1918 General Headquarters had already demanded that an immediate application should be made for an armistice. Meanwhile naval mutinies began in Kiel and Wilhelmshaven. In Munich the Republic was proclaimed, and the Social Democrats threatened the Imperial Government with action of a very thoroughgoing character. Accordingly Prince Max retired on Nov. 9 1918, having first appointed the Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert to be his successor, and now the period of revolution began for Germany.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:55:20 ZULU