The SPD at the Turn of the Century Edit

At the turn of the century, the Social Democratic Party of Germany were in a strange position. Their party had been persecuted by the government until less than a decade ago, and yet they had grown in power immensely. They were the third largest party in the most democratic parliament in Europe, and yet that same parliament had little power over those that elected it. Power was still largely in the hands of the Kaiser. It was he who appointed the cabinets, he who appointed the Chancellor and he who initiated legislation. Nevertheless, as we will see, the Reichstag was to play an important part in the history of Germany.

Conflict in the Americas, Conflict in Germany Edit

The outbreak of the of the Venezuela War[1] in November 1902 was met with cries of “Shame!” in the Reichstag and SPD meetings across the country. The first major conflict the German Empire had been involved in since its formation in 1871 was opposed by many Germans across the political spectrum, but the majority of the anti-war movement were socialist or pacifists. The anti-war movement within the SPD was headed by its Pragmatist[2] chairman, Hugo Haase[3]. His attempts to negotiate within the Reichstag for unity against the war initially met with little success. The largest party in the Reichstag, the Catholic Zentrum party, was uninterested in a deal with the socialists, and the Junker DKP was more likely to ally with Satan himself. Haase's overtures to the Liberal parties met with mixed results, but none would agree to any concrete agreement. The war was expected to end in a matter of weeks, and politicians assumed they would be able to exploit the wave of patriotism produced by the war for support.

However, as the war dragged on, more and more on the left of the Liberal parties made bolder speeches, skirting the party line by criticising the conduct of the war. Once Germany was fighting alone, the other parties became much more friendly. Within a week of the collapse of the Tory government in Britain, the German Anti-War Coalition was formed[4]. Its official members were the Social-Democrats, National Liberals, Freeminded People's Party, Freeminded Union and German People's Party. This gave the faction 38% of the seats in the Reichstag, with the explicitly pro-war parties holding 45% of the seats. However there were many dissenters from both sides, and a few votes from the single-issue regional party members could easily tip the balance in favour of the anti-war parties. It was not all in the SPD's favour, however, as several on the far left wing of the party cancelled their membership in disgust at their perceived “betrayal”, though none of the SDP MPs left the party.

Eventually, after two months of skilful negotiation and speech making (Haase was a trained lawyer), the Statement In Favour of Peace and Prosperity was proposed in the Reichstag by a low-ranking member of the Freeminded Union (so as to make the obvious dominance of the SPD less so). It was not a binding piece of legislation, it merely expressed it the “advice” of the Reichstag that the Kaiser should conclude immediate peace with America and call fresh elections to the Reichstag. Any more radical demands were expunged in the interests of holding the fragile coalition together. The vote was a tense one, and betrayals and last-minute deals were struck. In the end, the motion passed by one vote.

The Kaiser's reaction was one that can be politely termed “annoyed”. There are (probably apocryphal) tales of him tearing the telegram informing him of the vote into pieces in a fit of rage. Outraged at the very idea that the Reichstag would make such bold statements, he even considered ruling without it for the duration of the war. He was thankfully advised that this would be a terrible idea and only increase the tension on the streets of the nation. By the end of July, it had become clear that the military situation in the Caribbean was hopeless. Wilhelm's generals urged him to make peace now, while it might still be favourable to Germany, but the stubborn Kaiser refused to even consider it. It would be surrendering to the impertinent Socialist Reichstag, and that simply could not be allowed. It would be late October when a bitter and depressed Kaiser acknowledged the political and military situation as it really stood. Germany withdrew all forces from the Caribbean, its finances in ruins (even in this era two years without Wall Street was a long time) and with little to show for it, concluded peace with the USA and dissolved the Reichstag.

Ideological Implications of the Venezuela War Edit

The experience during the war changed the political landscape of Germany a vast amount. After the 1903 election, the SPD became the second largest party in the Reichstag, winning 92 seats (compared to Zentrum's 100). The liberals also saw their fortunes increase. What the war did for the SPD's ideology was to cement its place as a party of the Reichstag, and demonstrate the advantages of collaboration with the liberal parties. Social Pragmatism, it has been said, was born in 1903, even if it would not grow up until an even more devastating war shook Europe to its core a decade later. The Kaiser became even more disillusioned with the Reichstag, and sought to impose further limits on its already scant powers. The war had begun the Social Democratic Party's long road to domination of German politics.

Footnotes Edit

  1. Also called the “First Atlantic War”
  2. Social Pragmatism or Pragmatic Socialism is an ideology based on the idea that a Socialist movement must collaborate with a bourgeois democracy whenever it is in the interests of the workers to do so, and that through such means gradual reform of the capitalist system will be achieved. It is here applied to Haase retroactively.
  3. The other chairman of the SPD, August Bebel, opposed cooperation with the other Reichstag parties on principle, but became more favourable to the idea after being persuaded that it would not be a long-term partnership, but rather a “pragmatic deal with the devil”.
  4. Recent evidence suggests that it was perhaps not as friendly a cooperation as past historians had assumed. In fact, it has been suggested that the main reason for the collaboration of some Liberal parties was the explicit threat from Bebel that the SPD would call a General Strike should the parliamentary movement not be a success.

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