The SPD Legacy

Rick Hertzberg was also in Germany for an election-season junket — a different one from mine — and his item on the German election opens with this nice appreciation of the SPD’s legacy:

Few political institutions anywhere have a nobler history than the Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands, a.k.a. the German Social Democratic Party, a.k.a. the SPD. Founded in 1863, it adopted its present name in 1890, by which time it had more or less invented the rudiments of democratic socialism. Under leaders like Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, the SPD groped its way toward a set of enduring propositions. A good and just society is one in which the fruits of labor are shared by labor and the basic material needs of life are socially guaranteed — and it is one in which the freedom to think and speak and publish and organize is politically guaranteed. That is, the “democracy” part is as fundamental as the “social” part. Revolution? That was always a very last resort, abandoned long ago. The economy must be managed for the benefit of all, but the struggle is to be waged by peaceful, constitutional means, even if the resulting reforms are gradual and fitful.

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The SPD was alone among German political parties in passing most of the moral tests of the past hundred years. True, it did go along with imperial Germany’s warmaking in 1914 (a shameful decision, and one from which many SPDers, including Bernstein and Kautsky, dissented). But it was always steadfast and brave in its resistance to Bolshevism, Nazism, and Stalinism. Tens of thousands of its members and supporters ended up in Nazi and Communist concentration camps. It was the only German party whose record on these nontrivial points was unambiguous, which is why it was the only German party that did not have to change its name and start from scratch after the Second World War. And, of course, the SPD was instrumental in the creation and consolidation of the democratic, humane, and wealthy society that West Germany became after the war and, despite its share of troubles, united Germany remains.

Read the whole thing.