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Is This the End for the German SPD?

The laughably garish party congress of the once mighty Social Democratic Party is a perfect metaphor for its continued decline.

Nathaniel Flakin

May 14, 2021
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Originally published in Ex Berliner

These days, every party in Germany has weird-looking congresses. A few leaders are spaced out across the stage, while a handful of delegates sit at individual tables, or at home in front of their computers.

Even by pandemic standards, though, the congress of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) last weekend looked extraterrestrial. The stage was decked entirely in shiny red, while all the politicians wore black and white suits. It looked like the world’s worst, but also most expensive, White Stripes cover band.

Jack and Meg White this was not. The videos kept the same red-white-black colour scheme. The SPD logo was combined with a heart – I guess that was supposed to look like an emoji? A DJ was playing what these grey bureaucrats must imagine house music sounds like. And an unfortunate singer was doing her best to expunge the desperately sad vibes with Marvin Gaye.

These posters give an idea of both the uninspired visuals and complete lack of political content:


The centrepiece of the event was a small, bald man grasping a microphone with both hands, as if worried he would disappear should the camera turned away for even a second. Olaf Scholz is Germany’s finance minister, and he thinks he has what it takes to be chancellor. According to recent surveys, 14-16% of eligible voters agree with him.

We might be looking at the end of Germany’s oldest party, founded in 1875. The SPD was actually founded by Marxist revolutionaries. Its original goal was “doing away with the system of wage labour, to abolish exploitation of every kind, and to extinguish all social and political inequality.”

Now, the most Scholz can promise is that, if elected, he would raise the minimum wage to €12 an hour within a year — in order to make things “a little bit fairer.”

It’s hard to imagine that just 20 years ago, the SPD could surpass 40% of votes. Where they were one of the two main parties of post-war Germany, it is now the CDU and the Greens who are competing for the top spot.

Older social democrats like Wolfgang Thierse are blaming the decline on – what else? – “identity politics.” Did the modern SPD ever have a reputation for defending the rights of the oppressed? (The old Marxist SPD was a different story: August Bebel was the first German politician to speak out against the criminalisation of homosexuals way back in 1898.)

Instead, it was their policies in government, especially the Red-Green coalition of 1998 to 2005, that led to their progressive dissappearance. The “Agenda 2010,” implemented by chancellor Gerhard Schröder, massively reduced wages and increased precarious working conditions in Germany. The SPD was leading the attack on its own social base – unionised workers – in ways the CDU would never have dared.

Today, while the CDU is mired in hair-raising corruption scandals, the SPD could be on the attack. But that would beg the question: why have the social democrats been in government with these cynical self-dealers for so long? SPD politicians do not exactly have clean hands, either. Schröder, for example, has made millions lobbying for the Russian state-owned energy company Gazprom.

Former vice chancellor Sigmar Gabriel collected €10,000 per month as an “advisor” for Germany’s most exploitative meatpacking company, Tönnies. Tönnies played such an outsized role in spreading Covid-19 in Germany last year that one could say Gabriel was lobbying directly for the coronavirus.

Scholz himself, just a week before the party congress, had to appear before an investigative committee of the Hamburg parliament looking into – what else? – government corruption. When he was mayor of Hamburg, Scholz had several meetings with the owners of the local Warburg Bank. They had been involved in a massive tax fraud, the “cum-ex” deals, that cost German tax payers tens of billions of euros. Warburg was facing a bill of €90 million – after the meetings with Scholz, those bills silently disappeared.

Germany’s finance minister said he couldn’t remember the meeting with the bankers. It’s just crazy to think about. The German state throws people in prison for taking the subway a few times without a ticket. But it’s unlikely that more than a handful of bankers will see the inside of a jail for stealing billions.

Not attempting to hide this legal form of corruption, the SPD congress featured a long list of sponsors. These included formerly state-owned companies that the social democrats helped privatise, namely Telekom, Deutsche Post and EnBW. Investors made billions – and are now expressing their thanks. There are also multinational corporations like Microsoft and Pfizer on the list. SPD politicians are standing up for the latter’s vaccines patents, at the cost of human lives. The alphabetical list is rounded out by ZIA, the lobby group for Germany’s realty industry. Here in Berlin, we’ve seen SPD leaders pushing against the nationalisation of big landlords, even when the majority of their members are in favour.

This might be the SPD’s farewell concert. And it’s not a purely German phenomenon. The SPD’s Greek sister party, the PASOK, was once a big player. After implementing neoliberal policies, its support collapsed so thoroughly that the party dissolved itself into a new formation garnering just 8% of votes at the last election. France’s Parti Socialiste, who not so long ago boasted the president of the republic, got a similarly dismal 6% in the last vote.

In both of those countries, new centre-left forces took the place of the disappearing social democrats. In Germany, however, nothing similar has happened. DIE LINKE, the Left Party, have failed to profit as they are themselves part of local governments that implement equally neoliberal policies. So the time is ripe for a new Left in Germany – one that would combine the anachronistically red aesthetics of the SPD with genuinely red policies, such as taxing the rich and expropriating big capital.

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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French. He is on the autism spectrum.

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