John Wilkins
John Wilkins

Fellowship Title:

Squeezing The Social Democrats

John Wilkins
November 17, 1967

Fellowship Year


November 13, 1967


Mr. Wilkins is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner, on leave from The Tacoma News Tribune. Permission to publish this article may be sought from The Managing Editor, The Tacoma News Tribune, Tacoma, Washington.

The vote was 441 for, 84 against.

Those opposed were all Social Democrats. Standing against the new chancellor’s request for special powers for his cabinet, they were casting a long shadow.

They stood for the political conscience of Germany that day in March of 1933. It was just about the last time that anyone said “no” to Hitler in the Reichstag. Many of those Social Democrats were soon to follow others of their party in flight or imprisonment. Some were soon to die. Some were to continue saying “no” but only inwardly.

True, some conservatives were to meet the same fates, and the Communists already had been bloodily smashed, but generally the conservatives had leaned to accommodation, and the Communists at some crucial moments had been more intent on weakening the Social Democrats than on stemming the Nazis. The result is that today the “old Social Democrats” carry the most readily acceptable passport to acceptance by outsiders who view Germany through the filter of the Nazi period.

But anti-Nazi credentials are not enough to guarantee political success in the Federal Republic. Even as the Social Democrats have steadily broadened their base, shedding socialist doctrines and the working-class image, it appears that they have paid a price: softening of their hard-core support.

Right now, the party sees danger flags. Some of them are literally red. Some are the red, white and black of the National Democratic Party (NPD), the nationalists whose flag resembles the swastika flag and some of whose oratory is similarly evocative.

The disaffection comes at a perplexing time for the Social Democrats (SPD), when the party is sharing lead role at center stage and is attempting to prove its ability and responsibility to all segments of the population. Today, as in the days of the Weimar Republic, the party does not command a parliamentary majority — but for a year now it has shared the responsibility of government in coalition with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the CDU’s Bavarian affiliate, the Christian Social Union (CSU). The coalition partners are trying to make the coalition work but they also have their eyes on the day when they will part company.

The red flags referred to above were flown in October (and “The Internationale” was sung) during a demonstration of Ruhr coal miners. The flags were neither a call to the barricades nor tokens of love for the Ulbricht regime in East Germany. They were flown to protest the closing of two more mines in the economically sick Ruhr.

(On Nov. 10, Foreign Minister Willy Brandt, leader of the SPD, said he would welcome formation of a new Communist Party in the Federal Republic. The old one was made illegal in 1956, though the Interior Ministry says there are about 7,000 members.)

Until last year, working-class discontent of the great magnitude that now exists in the Ruhr would have been a political boost for the SPD. But with the SPD now sharing federal power, much of the miners’ resentment is focused on that party. There is a feeling that the SPD has broken the faith, lost its socialist mission, been taken in by its “capitalist” coalition partner.

“Undoubtedly, many of our members are impatient with the coalition,” Alexander Kohn-Brandenburg, a veteran SPD staff member, told me. “They have the illusion that we can do as we will and that we can do it immediately.

But we are not a majority in the Bundestag. It will take time to get even some of our proposals passed, time to acquire the funds to implement them.”

Time, the SPD leadership says, is what the CDU/CSU did have but misused. The case is stated along these lines:

. . . With heavy German industry dependent upon coal, and with Ruhr coal declining in the face of cheap American coal and Vie Increasing availability or cheaper fuels, it was obvious even in the early 1950s that an extensive re-structuring of the coal industry was necessary. The time to begin adjusting was during the subsequent national boom, when immediate effects of the Ruhr’s weakness were suspended. But Erhard’s policies were weak on middle-term planning — and consequently, now that the boom is over, the inefficiency and high prices of the Ruhr coal industry are making German steel uncompetitive…

A ‘Malaise,’ or a Fracturing?

Coal production is now about half what it was at the boom’s peak. Two hundred thousand miners have left the pits in the last 10 years, and the government estimates that in the next three years another 70,000 will be seeking new jobs because of mine closures and steel-mill automation.

While the Ruhr itself is traditionally leftist, the over-all vote in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia kept the SPD in second place to the CDU until the state election in July 1966, when the positions were reversed. This month, however, a respected opinion poll indicated that the SPD would be defeated now, not only in the state but in the Ruhr precincts.

The splintering off to the left is termed “merely a malaise” by Kohn-Brandenburg, a trend that should be reduced by the program of Economics Minister Karl Schiller (SPD) for re-structuring the coal industry and easing the adjustments — and by the general economic upswing that apparently is getting underway, boosted by a billion-and-a-third-dollar pump-priming operation.

But the potential of a movement to the far right by workers is hard to analyze. True, there is the memory of 1930, with millions of unemployed, when extremists carved into the Social Democrats. The Nazis, who in 1928 appeared to be dying with only 810,000 votes, leaped to 6,400,000 in two years. The Communists leaped from 3,265,000 to 4,592,000. The Social Democrats lost more than a million.

Now, however, there is little prospect of massive unemployment.

But while the far right is not now a magnet for a large number of Germans, even a small number can throw a wrench into what had been emerging — until the Grand Coalition hiatus, with its similarity to a one-party system — as essentially a two-party system. (The present feeble “opposition” is the Free Democrats (FDP), who recently have lost heavily to the NPD in state elections and seem likely to pass from the national scene.)

If the NPD should land in the Bundestag with the 40 or more seats that are being predicted, and if neither of the two major parties should win a majority, there would be no alternative but a continuation of the Grand Coalition. Neither main party would join with the NPD.

Renewal of the Grand Coalition would lead to increased public dissatisfaction with the two major parties, increased support for the opposition party (NPD), increased splintering on the left. And in my opinion the party to suffer the greater loss would be the SPD.

For a period of several months ending Nov. 10-12, I had a growing feeling that there was a movement to the right of educated, SPD-oriented Germans in their twenties and early thirties. Now it is no longer a feeling; it is a strong opinion, though I cannot measure the magnitude of the drift.

Nov. 10-12 was the national convention of the NPD at Hanover. A popular misconception about this party is that it is top-heavy with old people. It used to be — but it is changing rapidly. One out of every six or seven of the numerous young members with whom I talked (luring the three days told me he had been sympathetic with the SPD or even an active worker until fairly recently.

The development may not be “logical” if one sees parties as static ideological packages lined up with their edges touching. Under such logic, the NPD’s gains should be from the right wing of the CDU/CSU. Some of the gains are -but because of a complex of regional, religious, emotional and historical factors; most of the gains are coming from the SPD.

At least that is my opinion. I hope to back it up somewhat in another newsletter, focusing on the NPD.

Received in New York November 17, 1967.