Kurt Schumacher
Dr. Kurt Schumacher was chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany
Social Democratic Party of Germany
The Social Democratic Party of Germany is a social-democratic political party in Germany...

 from 1946 and first Leader of the Opposition
Leader of the Opposition
The Leader of the Opposition is a title traditionally held by the leader of the largest party not in government in a Westminster System of parliamentary government...

 in the West German Bundestag
The Bundestag is a federal legislative body in Germany. In practice Germany is governed by a bicameral legislature, of which the Bundestag serves as the lower house and the Bundesrat the upper house. The Bundestag is established by the German Basic Law of 1949, as the successor to the earlier...

parliament from 1949 until his death. A fierce opponent of both the East German Socialist Unity Party
Socialist Unity Party of Germany
The Socialist Unity Party of Germany was the governing party of the German Democratic Republic from its formation on 7 October 1949 until the elections of March 1990. The SED was a communist political party with a Marxist-Leninist ideology...

 and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer
Konrad Adenauer
Konrad Hermann Joseph Adenauer was a German statesman. He was the chancellor of the West Germany from 1949 to 1963. He is widely recognised as a person who led his country from the ruins of World War II to a powerful and prosperous nation that had forged close relations with old enemies France,...

's government, he was one of the founding fathers of post-war German democracy.

Early career

Kurt Schumacher was born in Kulm in West Prussia
West Prussia
West Prussia was a province of the Kingdom of Prussia from 1773–1824 and 1878–1919/20 which was created out of the earlier Polish province of Royal Prussia...

 (now Chełmno in Poland
Poland , officially the Republic of Poland , is a country in Central Europe bordered by Germany to the west; the Czech Republic and Slovakia to the south; Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania to the east; and the Baltic Sea and Kaliningrad Oblast, a Russian exclave, to the north...

), the son of a small businessman, member of the liberal German Free-minded Party and deputy in the municipal assembly. The young man was a brilliant student, but when the First World War
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 broke out in 1914 he immediately abandoned his studies and joined the German Army
German Army (German Empire)
The German Army was the name given the combined land forces of the German Empire, also known as the National Army , Imperial Army or Imperial German Army. The term "Deutsches Heer" is also used for the modern German Army, the land component of the German Bundeswehr...

. In December, at Bielawy west of Łowicz in Poland, he was so badly wounded that his right arm had to be amputated. After contracting dysentery
Dysentery is an inflammatory disorder of the intestine, especially of the colon, that results in severe diarrhea containing mucus and/or blood in the faeces with fever and abdominal pain. If left untreated, dysentery can be fatal.There are differences between dysentery and normal bloody diarrhoea...

, he was finally discharged from the army and was decorated with the Iron Cross
Iron Cross
The Iron Cross is a cross symbol typically in black with a white or silver outline that originated after 1219 when the Kingdom of Jerusalem granted the Teutonic Order the right to combine the Teutonic Black Cross placed above a silver Cross of Jerusalem....

 2nd class. He returned to his law and poltics studies in Halle
University of Halle-Wittenberg
The Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg , also referred to as MLU, is a public, research-oriented university in the cities of Halle and Wittenberg within Saxony-Anhalt, Germany...

, Leipzig
University of Leipzig
The University of Leipzig , located in Leipzig in the Free State of Saxony, Germany, is one of the oldest universities in the world and the second-oldest university in Germany...

 and Berlin
Humboldt University of Berlin
The Humboldt University of Berlin is Berlin's oldest university, founded in 1810 as the University of Berlin by the liberal Prussian educational reformer and linguist Wilhelm von Humboldt, whose university model has strongly influenced other European and Western universities...

, where he graduated in 1919.

Inspired by Eduard Bernstein
Eduard Bernstein
Eduard Bernstein was a German social democratic theoretician and politician, a member of the SPD, and the founder of evolutionary socialism and revisionism.- Life :...

, Schumacher became a dedicated socialist
Socialism is an economic system characterized by social ownership of the means of production and cooperative management of the economy; or a political philosophy advocating such a system. "Social ownership" may refer to any one of, or a combination of, the following: cooperative enterprises,...

 and in 1918 joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD) leading ex-servicemen in forming Workers and Soldiers Councils in Berlin during the revolutionary days following the fall of the German monarchy
German Empire
The German Empire refers to Germany during the "Second Reich" period from the unification of Germany and proclamation of Wilhelm I as German Emperor on 18 January 1871, to 1918, when it became a federal republic after defeat in World War I and the abdication of the Emperor, Wilhelm II.The German...

. He opposed various attempts by Communist groups to seize power. In 1920 the SPD sent him to Stuttgart
Stuttgart is the capital of the state of Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany. The sixth-largest city in Germany, Stuttgart has a population of 600,038 while the metropolitan area has a population of 5.3 million ....

 to edit the party newspaper there, the Schwäbische Tagwacht.

Schumacher was elected to the Württemberg
Württemberg , formerly known as Wirtemberg or Wurtemberg, is an area and a former state in southwestern Germany, including parts of the regions Swabia and Franconia....

 Landtag (state legislature) in 1924 and in 1928 became the SPD leader in the state. When the Nazi Party rose to prominence, Schumacher helped organize socialist militias to oppose them. In 1930 he was elected to the national legislature, the Reichstag
Reichstag (Weimar Republic)
The Reichstag was the parliament of Weimar Republic .German constitution commentators consider only the Reichstag and now the Bundestag the German parliament. Another organ deals with legislation too: in 1867-1918 the Bundesrat, in 1919–1933 the Reichsrat and from 1949 on the Bundesrat...

. In August 1932 he was elected to the SPD leadership group; at age 38 he was youngest SPD member of the legislature.

Under the Nazis

Schumacher was staunchly anti-Nazi. In a Reichstag speech on February 23, 1932, he excoriated Nazism as "a continuous appeal to the inner swine in human beings" and stated the movement had been uniquely successful in "ceaselessly mobilizing human stupidity." The inability of the SPD and the German Communist Party
Communist Party of Germany
The Communist Party of Germany was a major political party in Germany between 1918 and 1933, and a minor party in West Germany in the postwar period until it was banned in 1956...

 to form a united front meant that they couldn't prevent the Nazis coming to power in January 1933. Schumacher was arrested in July and was severely beaten in prison. He spent the next ten years in concentration camps at Heuberg, Kuhberg, Flossenbürg
Flossenbürg concentration camp
Konzentrationslager Flossenbürg was a Nazi concentration camp built in May 1938 by the Schutzstaffel Economic-Administrative Main Office at Flossenbürg, in the Oberpfalz region of Bavaria, Germany, near the border with Czechoslovakia. Until its liberation in April 1945, more than 96,000 prisoners...

 and Dachau. The camp at Dachau was intended for people whom the Nazis wanted to keep alive, and the fact that he was a disabled ex-service man gained Schumacher some leniency, but he risked his life through repeated defiance and hunger strikes.

In 1943, when Schumacher was near death, his brother-in-law succeeded in persuading a Nazi official to have him released into his custody. He was arrested again in late 1944, and he was in Neuengamme concentration camp when the British arrived in April 1945.

Postwar politics

Schumacher wanted to lead the SPD and bring Germany to socialism. By May he was already reorganising the SPD in Hanover
Hanover or Hannover, on the river Leine, is the capital of the federal state of Lower Saxony , Germany and was once by personal union the family seat of the Hanoverian Kings of Great Britain, under their title as the dukes of Brunswick-Lüneburg...

, without the permission of the occupation authorities. He soon found himself in a battle with Otto Grotewohl
Otto Grotewohl
Otto Grotewohl was a German politician and prime minister of the German Democratic Republic from 1949 until his death. According to Roth , "He was a figurehead who led various economic commissions, lobbied the Soviets for increased aid, and conducted foreign policy tours in the attempt to break...

, the leader of the SPD in the Soviet Zone of Occupation, who was arguing that the SPD should merge with the Communists to form a united socialist party. Schumacher rejected Grotewohl's plan. In August he called an SPD convention in Hanover, which elected him as "western leader" of the party.

In January 1946 the British and Americans allowed the SPD to reform itself as a national party, with Schumacher as leader. As the only SPD leader who had spent the whole Nazi period in Germany, without collaborating, he had enormous prestige. He was certain that his right to lead Germany would be recognised both by the Allies and by the German electorate.

But Schumacher met his match in Konrad Adenauer
Konrad Adenauer
Konrad Hermann Joseph Adenauer was a German statesman. He was the chancellor of the West Germany from 1949 to 1963. He is widely recognised as a person who led his country from the ruins of World War II to a powerful and prosperous nation that had forged close relations with old enemies France,...

, the former mayor of Cologne
Cologne is Germany's fourth-largest city , and is the largest city both in the Germany Federal State of North Rhine-Westphalia and within the Rhine-Ruhr Metropolitan Area, one of the major European metropolitan areas with more than ten million inhabitants.Cologne is located on both sides of the...

, whom the Americans, not wanting to see socialism of any kind in Germany, were grooming for leadership. Adenauer united most of the prewar German conservatives into a new party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Schumacher campaigned through 1948 and 1949 for a united socialist Germany, and particularly for the nationalisation of heavy industry, whose owners he blamed for funding the Nazis' rise to power. When the occupying powers opposed his ideas, he denounced them. Adenauer opposed socialism on principle, and also argued that the quickest way to get the Allies to restore self-government to Germany was to co-operate with them.

Schumacher wanted a new constitution with a strong national presidency, confident that he would occupy that post. But the first draft of the 1949 Grundgesetz provided for a federal system with a weak national government, as favoured both by the Allies and the CDU. Schumacher refused to give way on this, and eventually the Allies, keen to get the new German state functioning in the face of the Soviet challenge, conceded some of what Schumacher wanted. The new federal government would be dominant over the states, although the president would be weak.

Schumacher versus Adenauer

The Federal Republic's first national elections were held in August 1949. Schumacher was convinced he would win, and most observers agreed with him. But Adenauder's new CDU had several advantages over the SPD. Some of the SPD's strongest areas in pre-war Germany were now in the Soviet Zone, while the most conservative parts of the country - Bavaria
Bavaria, formally the Free State of Bavaria is a state of Germany, located in the southeast of Germany. With an area of , it is the largest state by area, forming almost 20% of the total land area of Germany...

 and the Rhineland
Historically, the Rhinelands refers to a loosely-defined region embracing the land on either bank of the River Rhine in central Europe....

 - were in the new Federal Republic of Germany. In addition both the American and French occupying powers favoured Adenauer and did all they could to assist his campaign; the British remained neutral.

Further, the onset of the Cold War
Cold War
The Cold War was the continuing state from roughly 1946 to 1991 of political conflict, military tension, proxy wars, and economic competition between the Communist World—primarily the Soviet Union and its satellite states and allies—and the powers of the Western world, primarily the United States...

, and particularly the behavior of the Soviets and the German Communists in the Soviet Zone, produced an anti-socialist reaction in Germany as elsewhere. The SPD would very plausibly have won an election in 1945; by 1949 the tide had turned. The German economy was also recovering, thanks mainly to the currency reform of the CDU's Ludwig Erhard
Ludwig Erhard
Ludwig Wilhelm Erhard was a German politician affiliated with the CDU and Chancellor of West Germany from 1963 until 1966. He is notable for his leading role in German postwar economic reform and economic recovery , particularly in his role as Minister of Economics under Chancellor Konrad Adenauer...

. Matters were complicated by Schumacher's ill-health: in September 1948 he had one of his legs amputated. Germans admired Schumacher's courage, but they doubted that he could carry out the duties of federal Chancellor.

Although Schumacher's SPD won the most seats of any single party in the election (though the CDU and its sister party the CSU together won more seats), the CDU was able to form a coalition government with the Free Democratic Party
Free Democratic Party (Germany)
The Free Democratic Party , abbreviated to FDP, is a centre-right classical liberal political party in Germany. It is led by Philipp Rösler and currently serves as the junior coalition partner to the Union in the German federal government...

, the Christian Social Union
Christian Social Union of Bavaria
The Christian Social Union in Bavaria is a Christian democratic and conservative political party in Germany. It operates only in the state of Bavaria, while its sister party, the Christian Democratic Union , operates in the other 15 states of Germany...

, and the German Party
German Party
The German Party is a name used by a number of German political parties in the country's history. The current incarnation is represented only at the local level in Germany. However, from 1949 to 1961, a German Party was part of the ruling coalition in the Bundestag...

, and Adenauer was voted Chancellor. This was a shock to Schumacher. He refused to co-operate in parliamentary matters and denounced the CDU as agents of the capitalists and foreign powers. Although he also denounced the Communists, and in fact organised an underground SPD resistance network in eastern Germany, his anti-capitalist and anti-Western rhetoric sounded sufficiently similar to Communist propaganda
Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position so as to benefit oneself or one's group....

 to undermine his support.

Schumacher further damaged his standing by opposing the emerging new organisations of European co-operation, the Council of Europe
Council of Europe
The Council of Europe is an international organisation promoting co-operation between all countries of Europe in the areas of legal standards, human rights, democratic development, the rule of law and cultural co-operation...

, the European Coal and Steel Community
European Coal and Steel Community
The European Coal and Steel Community was a six-nation international organisation serving to unify Western Europe during the Cold War and create the foundation for the modern-day developments of the European Union...

 and the European Defence Community
European Defence Community
The European Defense Community was a plan proposed in 1950 by René Pleven, the French President of the Council , in response to the American call for the rearmament of West Germany...

, which he saw as devices for strengthening capitalism (which in a way they were), and for extending Allied control over Germany (which they were not). This stand aroused the opposition of the other west European socialist parties, and eventually the SPD overruled him and sent delegates to the Council of Europe.

During the rest of Adenauer's first term in office, Schumacher continued to oppose his government, but the rapid rise in German prosperity, the intensification of the Cold War and Adenauer's increasing success in getting Germany accepted in the international community all worked to undermine Schumacher's position. The SPD began to have serious doubts about going into another election with Schumacher as leader, particularly when he had a stroke in December 1951. They were spared having to deal with this dilemma when Schumacher died suddenly in August 1952.

Adenauer admired Schumacher's integrity, willpower and courage, even while opposing his policies, and was shocked at his death. "Despite our differences", he said, "we were united in a common goal, to do everything possible for the benefit and well-being of our people."


  • Tony Judt. Postwar A History of Europe since 1945, New York: Penguin Books, 2005. ISBN 0-14-303775-7.

External links

SPD Schumacher tribute website
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