Key Facts & Summary
- The labour front in Germany led by trade unions and socialist parties.
- The main cause of the labour movement was the need by workers to improve their standards of living.
- The labour movement was a socialist idea.
Labor Movement was a group of activists from socialist parties and trade unions fighting to achieve an improvement in their daily lives and political, economic and social emancipation.
In the nineteenth century, Europe is industrializing and the workers constitute an expanding social class, which takes awareness of its specificities and its condition. In a context of the struggle against labour exploitation in a world of work where social regulation is non-existent, socialism is born, a new ideology which revolves around the class struggle and the revolution to overthrow the bourgeois order.
In the German Empire, socialism, organized around a powerful party and a mass unionism, becomes a major political and social force. During the twentieth century it divides itself between a branch always revolutionary, communism, and a reformist socialism less concerned with revolution than concrete improvements in the living conditions of the workers.
How socialist ideology fitted the socio-economic context of a Germany in transformation?
The German working world from 1875 to 1914
Germany of the late nineteenth century is an empire, called the 2nd Reich, proclaimed in the victory over French in 1871. It consists of Prussia and the states of southern Germany such as Bavaria, Wurtemberg, as well as annexed departments of Alsace and Lorraine (25 sovereign states in all). The population is 43 million. The industrial growth is impressive: the production of triple coal between 1870 and 1890 (70 million tons); Germany dominates the markets for electrical construction (Siemens) and for the chemical industry (Bayer, Hoechst); German trade ranks second behind the UK.
The main industrial areas are the Ruhr, Saarland, Saxony and the big cities, Berlin especially. The working and living conditions of the workers are very harsh like the rest of Europe and Strikes are recurrent.
The labour movement under the empire: vicissitudes and affirmation
How does the labour movement, the main opposition force under the German Empire, succeed in becoming the first German political force in 1912?
The first unified socialist party of Europe
In 1875, at the Congress of Gotha, the Socialist Party of German Workers it results from the merger of the party of Ferdinand Lassalle tend to Reform Party and the party of August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht marked by the refusal of any cooperation with imperial power and a desire to conquer power by force. Despite their differences, both trends unite to not weaken the labour movement in a Germany where power is very authoritarian.
Officially Marxist, he advocates the armed revolution. But, in practice, he participates in life as an opposition party demanding reforms.
From prohibition to electoral triumph
In 1878, the Reich Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had a series of anti-socialist laws passed, taking advantage of emotion caused by two attacks against Emperor William I, unrelated attacks real with socialism. They prohibit any group (parties and unions) and any gathering purpose of overthrowing society and the state. Socialist propaganda is forbidden (meetings, press), many activists are imprisoned or exiled. But socialists are allowed to participate in elections, by presenting individually.
The party continues to exist but in hiding. At the same time, Bismarck enacted important social laws from 1883 to 1889 to defuse the discontent of the workers and divert them from the socialist vote: laws creating health insurance, caisses de retirement, laws forcing bosses to compensate for accidents at work … Socialists call this the policy of the “sugar tip”.
The attempt fails: the Socialist Party progresses in the elections. Anti-socialist legislation is abolished 1890 with the dismissal of Bismarck by the new Emperor William II. The power of the German labour movement is illustrated by its role held during the founding of the Second in 1889 (great role of August Bebel).
Between 1871 and 1912, the electoral victories of the Social Democrats followed one another consequences :
– The progress of the Socialist elected representatives who obtains 12 seats in the Reichstag in 1877 is broken by the laws anti-socialists of 1878.
– But, as early as 1881, the progression resumed and was dazzling from 1887 to 1890 despite the social legislation from Bismarck. This shows the considerable spread of socialism in the working class world.
The rebirth of the labour movement at the Erfurt Congress in 1891: then the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD or Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands) is created. This party has issued a revolutionary program that responds to several key ideas:
– Capitalism leads to the dispossession of workers who lose their working tools for the benefit of big landowners or capitalists.
– The worker becomes a mere proletarian without any property.
– So, capitalism increases the inequalities on which it thrives.
– Also, the two classes will oppose more and more violently, bourgeois and proletarians. that
become the others? The program is silent on this point.
– The revolution is the solution to free the proletarians from this exploitation. And this fight will have to be led by the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD).
The Erfurt program, written by Karl Kautsky, is indeed a revolutionary Marxist program. And in fact, the SPD engages alongside unions called “free trade unions” in strikes more and harder:
– Miners strike of the Ruhr in 1905,
– obtaining collective agreements in 1902, an agreement negotiated between unions and employers who improve working conditions within a branch of activity
.Relations between SPD and trade unions are a German specificity: the SPD directs and finances the trade union movement. The unions, born in the wake of socialism, are therefore very close. MPs Socialists are at the same time the principal trade union leaders. In 1911, 2.5 million workers Germans are unionized (compared to 2.9 million in the UK and 350 000 in France). In the United Kingdom, the Labor Party is the transmission belt for unions to bring their claims.
From division to the prohibition of the labour movement (1918-1945)
The war divides the socialists Karl Liebknecht was the only member of the SPD who refused to vote for war credits. But from the end of the first year of the war, members of the SPD opposed the Sacred Union and founded in 1917 the USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party). Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, at the head of the group Revolutionary Spartakus (created in 1916) or League Spartacist, join the USPD and denounce the war imperialist and capitalist.
November 9, 1918, the revolution, part of the revolt of the sailors of the fleet of Kiel, carries the regime imperial; Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicates; it is the legend of the “stab in the back” that would have caused the war to be lost to the German army. Workers and soldiers seize Berlin where is proclaimed the Republic, and by Scheidemann (SPD), and by Liebknecht (USPD). Now, the two currents of socialism no longer have the same ideas.
Liebknecht and Luxemburg want a social revolution, called Spartacist, in the manner of the Bolshevik revolution and Lenin, which would overthrow society on the basis of soldiers and workers. They founded the KPD on January 1, 1919 (German Communist Party), intersecting of the SPD. Remarks: The Spartacists denounce the alliance between the bourgeoisie and the socialists, this which is a betrayal of the workers’ cause because this alliance is done on the backs of the proletarians.
Ebert (SPD), who became chancellor in the wake of Scheidemann, wants to crush the Spartacist revolution. The Minister of the Interior Noske, with the support of the army and free-will (voluntary), crushes in the communist’s blood during the “Bloody Week” (January 6-13, 1919). Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht are murdered by the Free Corps. This is a real civil war.
The 1920s and the Weimar Republic: the apex of social democracy
The Weimar Republic is a fragile regime born of defeat and the blood of Spartacist rebels. By elsewhere, the regime accepted the Versailles Treaty denounced as a “diktat” by the Nationalist Right and the most conservative elements.
The SPD, with President Ebert, dominates this parliamentary regime and has many laws passed in favour workers: 8-hour working day, business council institutions in 1920 (negotiations between staff and management representatives), mandatory collective agreements, unemployment insurance in 1927 while Germany has 1 million unemployed, construction of housing workers.
The ADGB then has 3 million members. However, the regime is still threatened on its right by the nationalists, on its left by the KPD which following the Kominterm’s instructions from Moscow and Stalin: the Communist International, created in 1919. Stalin imposes on all the communist parties of Europe to fight first against the socialists, qualified as “social-fascist”. And this in defiance of the rise of fascist currents in Europe related to the crisis
1929 and its consequences. While the Weimar Republic knew a certain stabilization, Germany is hit hard and has 6 million unemployed in 1932.
The 1930s are marked by the rise of the Nazi Party (NSDAP) which designates officials: the regime Parliament, the Treaty of Versailles, the Jews, the Socialists, and the Communists. Hitler promises workers to return to full employment and the party is developing welfare structures. In 1930, 28% of its members are workers. The SA maintain a permanent street violence against the militants of Left, with the complicity of the Police and Justice.
However, the KPD led by Ernst Thälmann refuses to form a Republican front with the socialists against Nazis: he applies Stalin’s instructions to class-versus-class tactics. Not only KPD see in the SPD the ally of capitalism, but in addition, he hopes that the excesses of the Nazis will bring a workers revolution.