- German Social Democracy and the Rise of Nazism, and: Art, Ideology, and Economics in Nazi Germany: The Reich Chambers of Music, Theater, and the Visual Arts
The history of the Weimar-era German Social Democratic Party (SPD) is usually told as follows. 1 The party, and the larger movement attached to it, was monolithic. Its mindset was that of a middle-aged petit bourgeois: stolid, unimaginative, and unadventurous. The active, heroic era of the Empire was gone forever; leaders like August Bebel were replaced by a crowd of faceless bureaucrats. 2 According to this story, the political energy during the Weimar era belonged either to the Communists or to the National Socialists.
Donna Harsch’s German Social Democracy and the Rise of Nazism should give the lie to these easy assumptions. According to Harsch, rather than being trapped in rigid uniformity, the Social Democratic movement was a mansion with many rooms—or, to mix metaphors—riven by contrasting visions of what it was and should be. Furthermore, the movement’s ultimate breakdown was due not to a lack of imagination, but rather to a surfeit. Opposing assumptions about correct Socialist politics canceled one another out, ending in the movement’s ultimate paralysis. A second corrective to the literature is Harsch’s contention that the Social Democratic movement experienced a period of reinvigoration at the end of Weimar, a reinvigoration that sadly did not last long enough to stem the Nazi tide.
Harsch carefully examines the literature and conferences sponsored by the SPD during the Republican era. Rather than papering over the differences within the movement, or discounting the seriousness of party leftists (a mistake often made by contemporary Communists and later historians), Harsch examines the variety of political positions and solutions to Weimar’s crises propounded across the party’s political spectrum. Although she is quick to point out similarities among the positions (their general belief that politics should be a rational endeavor, their assumptions that class interests are real interests), she carefully dissects the differences among the party’s left and right, even as she questions the utility of this easy distinction.
The central question for Harsch is why the SPD, at the height of its power in 1928, was outmaneuvered from the end of that year until the end of the republic. Her first chapter shows that the movement’s apparent strength in 1928 hid a number of fundamental weaknesses. Its constituent organizations had very different agendas. The trade unions were more interested in social welfare programs than in democracy. The Reichsbanner—ostensibly an independent republican paramilitary force, but ultimately a Social Democratic organization—functioned as a propaganda machine for the republican ideal, but resisted a full-scale integration with bourgeois organizations. Although the party itself was a mixture of left-wing and [End Page 251] right-wing tendencies, its executive was well in place. The average member of the party executive was fifty-four years old and from a skilled working-class background. The party itself acted and spoke like a working-class institution, but the percentage of its membership that could be considered to be proletarian had dropped from the prewar period. Members were skilled and aging.
Perhaps Harsch’s discussion of ideology is the key to explaining the SPD’s collapse. She convincingly argues three points. The party’s center defended democracy, but never developed plans to extend it. The left wanted to extend democracy, but had no strategy with which to do so. Harsch focuses on the party’s lack of goals and strategy as well as its inability to project itself as a force to lead a nation, rather than a class within it.
The rest of Harsch’s book is a series of chronologically organized case studies that test her thesis. The period from June 1928 to March 1930 took the SPD from a successful...