In 1875, at Gotha, the followers of Lassalle united with the Marxist group of Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel to form the Socialist Labor party, later known as the Social Democratic party of Germany (Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands, or SPD). Despite repressive laws the SPD grew rapidly and by 1912 was the largest single party in the Reichstag.
In 1891 the Erfurt Program, adopted at a party congress in Erfurt, repudiated Lassalle's theories and placed the party on a strictly Marxist theoretical basis. Ideological debate shook the party throughout the 1890s. Bernstein led the revisionists in urging the SPD to weaken its commitment to Marxist theories of inevitable revolution and class struggle and to form alliances with middle-class parties. Karl Kautsky was the leading supporter of Marxist orthodoxy, and his position was formally upheld by the party, but in practice revisionism prevailed.
When World War I broke out (1914), the Social Democrats in the Reichstag voted for war credits, and in 1916 SPD deputies entered the government. Late in 1915 a group opposed to the continuation of the war broke off from the Majority Socialists and took (1917) the name Independent Socialists. They were led by Hugo Haase. Another, more radical group also broke away; the Spartacus party led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. With the German revolution of Nov., 1918, an SPD government under Friedrich Ebert and Haase took control, but its failure to promote socialist policies led to Haase's withdrawal and the brutally suppressed Spartacist revolt of Jan., 1919. Under the Weimar Republic the Social Democrats joined coalitions with other parties and succeeded in improving the condition of the working classes but were unable to counter extremist resurgence, and with the rise of Adolf Hitler the SPD was destroyed.
After World War II the revived SPD in East Germany was forced to merge (1946) with the Communists in the Socialist Unity party. In West Germany, the SPD emerged as the leading opposition party. In 1966 it entered a "grand coalition" with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and in 1969 the SPD, led by Chancellor Willy Brandt, became the dominant party in a governing coalition with the small Free Democratic party. Brandt pursued a policy of normalizing relations with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, including East Germany. In 1974, Brandt resigned as the result of a spy scandal and was succeeded by Helmut Schmidt. The SPD maintained a majority coalition, winning reelection in 1976 and 1980, but went into opposition when the Free Democrats switched to the CDU in 1982.
The SPD was a member of the East German transitional government in 1990, but lost again in the first all-German elections that year. The SPD was in opposition until 1998, when Gerhard Schröder led the party to a victory over the CDU coalition. Schröder's movement of the party toward the center led, in 2005, to formation of the more traditionally socialist Left party, an alliance of dissident SPD members (including former party leader Oskar Lafontaine) and former Communists. The SPD narrowly lost the 2005 elections to the CDU and entered into coalition with them as a junior partner (2005–9); the SPD suffered significant losses in the 2009 elections.
See studies by C. E. Schorske (1955, repr. 1970), D. W. Morgan (1975), G. Braunthal (1978 and 1983), and V. L. Lidtke (1985).
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