The 150th anniversary of the Social Democratic Party was marked this week by a gathering of SPD leadership in Leipzig. Germany’s oldest political party reflected on its roots as a movement that began with a commitment reflected in the name of the SPD’s first formation in 1863: the Allgemeinen Deutschen Arbeiterverein (General German Worker’s Association). The founder, Ferdinand Lassalle, perceived himself to be a protagonist for the working class. Lassalle’s belief was to be part of the brand of the party over the following fifteen decades, even as German society continually changed around it.

The figures who led the SPD over those many years were each a product, as well as a shaper, of their time in history. August Bebel, Rosa Luxemburg, Otto Wels, Kurt Schumacher, Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt, and Gerhard Schroeder each defined and then redefined the challenges and responses the party faced under their influence—all of which  became part of Germany’s long struggle for the political and economic benchmarks which outline the Federal Republic’s democracy today. That commitment was demonstrated uniquely and historically by the courage of Otto Wels refusing, in the name of the SPD, to accept Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship in 1933, a decision which was to cost many Social Democrats their lives during the years of Nazi terror.

Following the war, the SPD initially emerged in the Federal Republic of Germany maintaining its tradition as a workers’ party, as well as in opposition to rearmament of West Germany during the first years of the Cold War. At the same time, the party distanced itself from the Communist dictatorship establishing power in East Germany. Eventually the party’s leaders Herbert Wehner and Willy Brandt were to create a different path for the party—the so-called Godesberger Programm—which would lead the party from opposition to government participation. The result was a dozen years of SPD leadership in Bonn, to be followed by another seven years under Gerhard Schroeder in a unified Germany. The Social Democrats added four more years in a coalition government under Chancellor Merkel before returning to the banks of the opposition in 2009.

This year’s elections will once again test the ability of the Social Democrats to persuade German voters to give them another chance at the helm in Berlin. As of today, those chances don’t look terribly promising, but the volatility of voters gives pause to those who believe that Chancellor Merkel has a lock on a third term.

There are some who might question what the unique selling principle of the SPD can be one hundred and fifty years after its inception. Modern Germany has absorbed much of the mission of the Social Democratic platform of social and economic justice. Labor is firmly integrated into political decision making, and the social market economy is an all encompassing product of a wider consensus on the equation of social values. Some critics of Chancellor Merkel even accuse her of turning her party into an “SPD light” by moving left of the traditional conservative agenda. On the other hand, critics of the SPD complain that Gerhard Schroeder gutted the accomplishments of his party by giving too many of them away in his effort to modernize the social security system through his Agenda 2010.

The social structure of Germany may be impacted by economic inequities, but it is nothing like it was in the earlier years of the SPD. Indeed, the structure of labor is being transformed by the forces of globalization. Though Germany has maintained a unique strength in its manufacturing base, there is no doubt that the composition of the work force is changing and, therefore, the traditional base of support for the SPD is changing with it. At its highpoint of over a million members three decades ago, the party membership has shrunk to half that number. While many parties suffer from membership loss these days, the question for today’s Social Democrats revolves around the twin need to inspire and to mobilize voters. Four years ago, the federal elections gave the SPD one of its worst results in history. Yet, the party has seen more recent success in several state elections. The SPD currently runs governing coalitions in the states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Lower Saxony, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Schleswig-Holstein, Rhineland-Palatinate, Hamburg, Bremen, Brandenburg, and Berlin. They are also part of coalitions in Baden-Wuerttemberg, Saarland, Saxony-Anhalt, and Thuringia. Additionally, the SPD has found success at the city level, where they have elected mayors in several major cities, including Munich, Hamburg, Frankfurt, and Berlin, among others.

The traditional slogans of the SPD—standing for those less fortunate or those with less influence in society—remain relevant today. The class conflict paradigm is less easy to boil down to a bi-polar struggle in today’s economy, but there is a larger global framework in which those issues remain concerns. The crisis in Europe involves a hard and unblinking look at social and economic asymmetries, not only at the hardness of the euro. Germany’s role in Europe and on the global stage is in transition, and the need for a more vibrant debate about what that means for Germany is increasingly important, just as it was in the early seventies when Chancellor Brandt pushed on the parameters of the Cold War and again after unification when Chancellor Schroeder pushed on Germany’s role in the Balkans.

Does Germany need the Social Democratic Party one hundred and fifty years after it was born? That answer depends on its ability to represent not only the present needs of voters, but also on its ability to speak to their future needs. The legacies of the past represent a proud tradition. It also tells the story of a party that has transformed itself to keep pace with, but also help, shape the major transformations of Germany over many decades. Sometimes those transitions have been painful for the SPD. Nevertheless, making those changes requires looking in the mirror and answering a central question: how much social, market and state are Germans willing to have and support to maintain one of the highest standards of living in the world?

One can see such trials and tribulations in other political parties. Think what an equally old Democratic Party went through after its losses in 1980, and then how it reshaped itself a decade later. The GOP—the Grand Old Party of the Republicans—are going through a similar phase of self-searching after their second defeat at the polls last November. Both the Tory and then the Labor Parties in the UK had to walk through this catharsis during past decades; the French Socialists are in the process of redefining their platform right now.

Yet the questions are similar for most of these parties: who do we want to represent and with what profile, program and people? And can a majority of voters identify with them? In a democracy, one hopes that political parties are able to compete on the political playing field by contributing to a greater good for the country as a whole. On this 150th anniversary, the record of the SPD can stand on its own as having done that. However, there is no rest allowed in the political process. There is always an election on the horizon as the next hurdle. Whatever the results come September, the Social Democrats remain a cornerstone of modern Germany’s story and will continue to help write the next chapter. It’s earned a good birthday party this week.

  • K Bledowski

    Judging by the yardstick of “political longevity”, the SPD ought to be congratulated. While entire ideologies appeared only to vanish on short order, to sustain continuity around a fairly broad political idea is no small achievement. The SPD will be around in 150 years if it adapts to the times, technology, demographics, mores, and is lucky to pick the right people to lead.