Kurt Schumacher

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Kurt Schumacher
As witness during the Nuremberg trials
Leader of the Social Democratic Party
In office
10 May 1946 20 August 1952
Preceded by Hans Vogel
Succeeded by Erich Ollenhauer
Personal details
Curt Ernst Carl Schumacher

13 October 1895
Kulm, West Prussia, German Empire
Died20 August 1952(1952-08-20) (aged 56)
Bonn, West Germany
Political party Social Democratic Party of Germany
Occupation Jurist

Kurt Ernst Carl Schumacher (13 October 1895 – 20 August 1952) was a German social democratic politician, who served as chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany from 1946 and was the first Leader of the Opposition in the West German Bundestag from 1949 until his death in 1952. An opponent of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's government, but an even stronger opponent of the East German Socialist Unity Party and communism in general, he was one of the founding fathers of post-war German democracy. He was also a noted opponent of the far-right and the far-left, i.e. the Nazi Party and the Communist Party of Germany, during the Weimar Republic, and is famous for his description of the communists as "red-painted Nazis." [1] He spent over ten years in Nazi concentration camps, where he was severely mistreated.

Social Democratic Party of Germany Social-democratic political party in Germany

The Social Democratic Party of Germany, is a social-democratic political party in Germany.

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. The Leader of the Opposition is seen as the alternative Prime Minister, Premier or Chief Minister to the incumbent and heads a rival alternative government known as the Shadow Cabinet or Opposition Front Bench.

Bundestag Federal parliament of Germany

The Bundestag is the German federal parliament. It can be compared to the chamber of deputies along the lines of the United States House of Representatives or the House of Commons of the United Kingdom. Through the Bundesrat, a separate institution, the individual states of Germany participate in legislation similar to a second house in a bicameral parliament.


Early career

Birthplace in Chelmno Chelmno, ul. sw. Ducha 1 (Kurt Schumacher birth house).jpg
Birthplace in Chełmno

Kurt Schumacher was born in Kulm in West Prussia (now Chełmno in Poland), 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 broke out in 1914 he immediately abandoned his studies and joined the German Army. In December, at Bielawy west of Łowicz in Poland, he was so badly wounded that his right arm had to be amputated. [2] After contracting dysentery, he was finally discharged from the army and was decorated with the Iron Cross 2nd class. He returned to his law and politics studies in Halle, Leipzig and Berlin, where he graduated in 1919. [2]

Chełmno Town in Kuyavian-Pomeranian, Poland

Chełmno is a town in northern Poland near the Vistula river with 20,000 inhabitants and the historical capital of Chełmno Land. Situated in the Kuyavian-Pomeranian Voivodeship since 1999, Chełmno was previously in Toruń Voivodeship (1975–1998).

West Prussia province of Prussia

The Province of West Prussia was a province of Prussia from 1773 to 1829 and 1878 to 1922. West Prussia was established as a province of the Kingdom of Prussia in 1773, formed from Royal Prussia of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth annexed in the First Partition of Poland. West Prussia was dissolved in 1829 and merged with East Prussia to form the Province of Prussia, but was re-established in 1878 when the merger was reversed and became part of the German Empire. From 1918, West Prussia was a province of the Free State of Prussia within Weimar Germany, losing most of its territory to the Second Polish Republic and the Free City of Danzig in the Treaty of Versailles. West Prussia was dissolved in 1922, and its remaining western territory was merged with Posen to form Posen-West Prussia, and its eastern territory merged with East Prussia as the Region of West Prussia district.

Poland Republic in Central Europe

Poland, officially the Republic of Poland, is a country located in Central Europe. It is divided into 16 administrative subdivisions, covering an area of 312,696 square kilometres (120,733 sq mi), and has a largely temperate seasonal climate. With a population of approximately 38.5 million people, Poland is the sixth most populous member state of the European Union. Poland's capital and largest metropolis is Warsaw. Other major cities include Kraków, Łódź, Wrocław, Poznań, Gdańsk, and Szczecin.

Inspired by Eduard Bernstein, Schumacher became a dedicated socialist 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. He opposed various attempts by Communist groups to seize power. In 1920 the SPD sent him to Stuttgart to edit the party newspaper there, the Schwäbische Tagwacht.

Eduard Bernstein German politician

Eduard Bernstein was a German social-democratic Marxist theorist and politician. A member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), Bernstein had held close association to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, but he saw flaws in Marxist thinking and began to criticize views held by Marxism when he investigated and challenged the Marxist materialist theory of history. He rejected significant parts of Marxist theory that were based upon Hegelian metaphysics and rejected the Hegelian dialectical perspective.

Socialism is a range of economic and social systems characterised by social ownership of the means of production and workers' self-management, as well as the political theories and movements associated with them. Social ownership can be public, collective or cooperative ownership, or citizen ownership of equity. There are many varieties of socialism and there is no single definition encapsulating all of them, with social ownership being the common element shared by its various forms.

German Empire empire in Central Europe between 1871–1918

The German Empire, also known as Imperial Germany, was the German nation state that existed from the unification of Germany in 1871 until the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1918.

Schumacher was elected to the Württemberg Landtag (state legislature) in 1924 and in 1928 became the SPD leader in the state. When the Nazis rose to prominence, Schumacher helped organise socialist militias to oppose them. In 1930 he was elected to the national legislature, the Reichstag. [2] In August 1932 he was elected to the SPD leadership group; at age 38 he was youngest SPD member of the legislature.

Free Peoples State of Württemberg former country

The Free People's State of Württemberg was a state in Württemberg, Germany, during the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany.

Reichstag (Weimar Republic) legislative body of Weimar Germany

The Reichstag was the Lower house of the Weimar Republic's Legislature. It originated in the creation of the Weimar Constitution in 1919. After the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933, the Reichstag continued to operate, albeit sporadically, as the nominal Legislature of Nazi Germany.

Under the Nazis

Schumacher was staunchly anti-Nazi. In a Reichstag speech on 23 February 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." [3] Schumacher was arrested in July 1933, two weeks before the SPD was banned. He was severely beaten in prison. He spent the next ten years in concentration camps at Heuberg, Kuhberg, Flossenbürg and Dachau. [2] 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.

Lager Heuberg is a Bundeswehr quarters located in the southern corner of the Truppenübungsplatz Heuberg in (Baden-Württemberg), near the city of Stetten am kalten Markt.

Oberer Kuhberg concentration camp was a concentration camp built and operated by Nazi Germany on the site of Fort Oberer Kuhberg.

Flossenbürg concentration camp Nazi concentration camp in the Upper Palatinate region of Bavaria, Germany

Flossenbürg was a Nazi concentration camp built in May 1938 by the SS Main Economic and Administrative Office in a remote area of the Upper Palatine Forest of Bavaria, Germany, near Flossenbürg and the border with Czechoslovakia. The camp's initial purpose was to exploit the forced labor of prisoners for the production of granite for Nazi architecture. In 1943, the bulk of prisoners switched to producing Messerschmitt Bf 109 fighter planes and other armaments for Germany's war effort. Although originally intended for "criminal" and "asocial" prisoners, after Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union, the camp's numbers swelled with political prisoners from Eastern Europe. It also developed an extensive subcamp system that eventually outgrew the main camp.

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. [2]

Neuengamme concentration camp

The Neuengamme concentration camp was a network of Nazi German concentration camps in Northern Germany that consisted of the main camp, Neuengamme, and its over 85 satellite camps. Established in 1938 near the village of Neuengamme in the Bergedorf district of Hamburg, the Neuengamme camp became the largest concentration camp in Northwest Germany. Over 100,000 prisoners came through Neuengamme and its subcamps, 24 of which were for women. The verified death toll is 42,900: 14,000 in the main camp, 12,800 in the subcamps, and 16,100 in the death marches and bombings during the final weeks of World War II. Following Germany’s defeat in 1945, the British Army used the site as an internment camp for SS and other Nazi officials. In 1948, the British transferred the land to the Free Hanseatic City of Hamburg, which summarily demolished the camp’s wooden barracks and built in its stead a prison cell block, converting the former concentration camp site into two state prisons operated by the Hamburg authorities from 1950 to 2004. Following protests by various groups of survivors and allies, the site now serves as a memorial. It is situated 15 km southeast of the centre of Hamburg.

Postwar politics

Schumacher wanted to lead the SPD and bring Germany to socialism. By May, he was already reorganising the SPD in Hanover, without the permission of the occupation authorities. He soon found himself in a battle with Otto Grotewohl, 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 proposal. In August, he called an SPD convention in Hanover, which elected him as the "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 by both the Allies and the German electorate.[ citation needed ]

However, Schumacher met his match in Konrad Adenauer, the former mayor of Cologne, whom the Americans, not wanting to see socialism of any kind in Germany, were grooming for leadership. Adenauer united most of the pre-war 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 have limited powers.

Kurt Schumacher Kurt Schumacher.jpg
Kurt Schumacher

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 Adenauer'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 and the Rhineland - 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, and particularly the behaviour 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 social democrats themselves were extremely critical of the Eastern German governments, including Schumacher who once labelled the Communists "red-painted fascists". Schumacher attempted to heavily distinguish in the public consciousness between his vision of "democratic socialism" and the realities in East Germany but nevertheless found his party partially damned by association. [4] Another factor was the recovery of German economy, thanks mainly to the currency reform of the CDU's Ludwig Erhard. 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, the Christian Social Union, and the German Party, 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.

Schumacher opposed the emerging new organisations of European co-operation, the Council of Europe, the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Defence Community, which he saw as devices for strengthening capitalism, and for extending Allied control over Germany. This stand aroused the opposition of the other west European socialist parties, and eventually the SPD over-ruled 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.[ citation needed ] "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."


  1. Schmeitzner, Mike (2007). Totalitarismuskritik von links deutsche Diskurse im 20. Jahrhundert. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. p. 255. ISBN   978-3-525-36910-4.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Spell, Hartmut (2012). "Für ein neues Deutschland" [For a new Germany]. Damals (in German). Vol. 44 no. 8. pp. 10–13.
  3. Judt, p. 268
  4. Ulla Plener: Kurt Schumacher 1949-1952 - Die innere Gestaltung der BRD im Schatten seines Antikommunismus, in: Jahrbuch für Forschungen zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung, No. III/2002.


Further reading

Party political offices
Preceded by
Hans Vogel
Chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany
Succeeded by
Erich Ollenhauer

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