Sheri Berman
The Social Democratic Moment

Even though white-collar workers and civil servants began to show interest in the SPD, the party failed to develop a coherent appeal to these groups or put forth a practical long-term strategy for integrating their interests with those of the working class. Indeed, despite the fact that the share of workers in the SPD dropped from 90 percent before the First World War to 60 percent by 1930, the party remained largely ignorant of, or indifferent to, the problems of groups outside the proletariat and gradually slipped back to its prewar identification as an exclusively workers' party.

Another consequence of the SPD's proletarian emphasis was a failure to formulate an agricultural program until the late 1920s, despite the insistence of many that ignoring the increasingly desperate plight of farmers contributed to the destabilization of the German political system. At the 1927 Kiel congress the party dropped its insistence that small-scale agriculture had to disappear, but it continued to emphasize public control of production and focus almost exclusively on the needs of consumers as opposed to those of producers. The SPD also ignored the important differences between small and large farmers. For example, when Karl Bohme, a leader of south Germany's farmers, protested the unfair advantages given to Prussia's large landowners by the tax system, then finance minister Hilferding remained deaf to his pleas—this despite the fact that Bohme's organization, the Deutscher Bauernbund, was an early and important friend of the republic. Given the paucity of the SPD's understanding of agriculture and its problems, as well its failure to devote much effort to publicizing its new program after 1927, it is not surprising that not much success was achieved in breaking down the traditional hostility between Germany's workers and farmers.

We cannot understand the SPD's failure to break out of its 'workers' ghetto' and respond to increasing demands for new political and social relationships simply by looking at the environment the party faced. The reason the SPD rejected such a change lies largely in the party's programmatic beliefs and prewar history. Having so long conceived of itself as the party of the proletariat, the SPD dreaded the loss of its ideological purity and was skeptical of risking the traditional support of industrial workers in an attempt to reap the hypothetical rewards of a cross-class strategy—and so it retained its sectarian focus. The Weimar Republic thus found itself in the unfortunate position of having its most important defender unwilling or unable to reach out explicitly to, or accept direct responsibility for, more than a minority of German society.

Throughout much of Europe, the political and economic confusion of the 1920s led to a widespread longing for a sense of national unity and purpose and an end to societal cleavages and strife. The political party capable of tapping into and exploiting these failings would profit tremendously. In Sweden the SAP co-opted the 'people's party' concept and offered the country a chance to radically reshape traditional political alliances and patterns. In Germany, however, the concept of the 'people's party' became almost exclusively associated with the right, and in particular with the NSDAP. It was the Nazis, not the Social Democrats, who proved adept at tapping into and exploiting the desire for community and rejection of the old order. Indeed, a common and effective theme of right-wing propaganda during the Weimar years was the 'divisive' class focus of the SPD. The NSDAP's ability to achieve what no other German party had ever done—namely, develop an explicity cross-class appeal and vision of the future that tapped into the needs and desires of society's different segments—was crucial in its eventual supplanting of the SPD as Weimar's dominant party.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.