Guest Post by Friederike Runge (Göttingen): German Social Democrats in London Exile during World War II
Since I first went online to research the history of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) a few years ago, the party has given its website a thorough makeover. Much cleaner and containing a number of videos, it now seems to aim to appeal to a clientele of digital natives. What hasn’t changed is the party’s neglecting to give credit in its self-portrayal to its representation in exile during World War II. One image film hits the very spot by jumping from Otto Wels’ famous speech on the Ermächtigungsgesetz in 1933 straight to Willy Brandt’s Warsaw genuflection in 1970. One could venture a guess and suppose that the SPD wanted to swiftly brush over a less presentable chapter in its history. In fairness, this episode probably just isn’t exciting enough to keep up with having been the only party to collectively vote against Hitler or forming an opposition to the GDR’s Socialist Union Party (SED). And yet, the SPD’s period in exile deserves its moment in the spotlight. If only to show that its role remained marginal through no (or only a fracture of a) fault of its own.In 1933, members of the last official party executive committee met in Prague to form the Sopade, a new executive committee functioning as a trust. From thence, it moved to Paris, and finally, in 1941, committee members Erich Ollenhauer, Hans Vogel, Curt Geyer and Fritz Heine met in London and decided to uphold their mandate working from the British capital.
Keeping up with their resolution, however, proved difficult due to several confining factors. One of them was the British government. While Downing Street didn’t openly oppose or hinder the exiled Social Democrats’ work in any way, it did nothing to support them, either. Having turned from Chamberlain’s Appeasement strategies towards a course of action meant to cumulate in Germany’s unconditional surrender, British officials felt that anti-Hitler propaganda efforts coming from German emigrés didn’t fit in with their own agenda. Ollenhauer markedly noted resistance towards their engagement with the BBC coming from the lines of the conservatives, who apparently feared an excessively socialist make-up of the BBC’s programs. And yet, hinderance came not only from political opponents, but from their very own socialist comrades, too. While at first Ollenhauer was able to secure the support of William Gillies, Labour’s Overseas Secretary, internal turbulence soon put a strain on the relationship. Fuelled by comments made by Lord Robert Vansittart, advisor to Winston Churchill, (such as calling the German people “the moral and political scum of the earth”), Geyer and Loeb began to voice rather controversial (that is, anti-German) ideas regarding plans for a post-war German state, the Social Democrats’ role in World War I and the 1818/19 revolution, and Hitler’s rise to power. This lead to the so-called Nationalismusstreit between the pair and Ollenhauer, Heine and Vogel on opposing sides, which, of course, did not help the already flailing relations between the emigrants and their British counterparts. Accordingly, Gillies adopted a more sceptical stance. His Notes Concerning the Foreign Policy of the German Social Democratic Party during the World War, 1914-18, and on the Eve of the Third Reich contributed to a climate that was already marked by, in Heine’s words, contempt towards the Emigrants. Eventually, Gillies even terminated Labour’s financial contribution to Ollenhauer and Vogel’s livelihoods, claiming that while the manual labour of a young man like Ollenhauer was not dispensable with respect to the war effort – his political work was.
These were unarguably adverse circumstances. Still, the emigrants did contribute to a certain extent to the Allies’ work. One of their main incentives was assisting in their fellow party members’ escapes from unsafe locations in France, Spain, and Portugal, and helping them settle in once arrived in Britain. Heine was active on location until mid-1941 while Ollenhauer secured visa and found ways to fund travel expenses. By translating and distributing a report by Geyer on the doings of the Vichy regime, by contributing to BBC programs, and by supplying information for the US Office for Strategic Services on how to get their bearings in Germany after the invasion of Allied troops, the emigrants did their best to offer their expertise to those in charge.
When the German Communist Party (KPD) voiced critical opinions during the Nationalismusstreit, the Social Democrats’ notion of the KPD as being a direct link to the Soviet government solidified. The KPD was seen as a threat to German democratic endeavours. As a result, the Social Democrats revised their 1934 manifesto (Prager Manifest) in 1944, eliminating all chapters exhibiting revolutionary or Marxist tendencies. This set in motion a process culminating in the 1959 Bad Godesberg party program. Ollenhauer’s special interest lay with the SPD’s image as a workers’ party. He had understood that if the party wanted to successfully impact the traditional order of society, it would have to transform itself into a true people’s party by including the majority of the population in political processes. This he saw as a key instrument of fostering a truly democratic orientation in the German population.”
Vogel and Ollenhauer also pursued another approach in founding the Union of German Socialist Organisations in Great Britain in 1941, comprising the Sopade, the German Socialist Workers’ Party (SAP), the International Socialist Militant League (ISK) and the Neu Beginnen group. The idea was, naturally, for the Sopade to take on a leading role within the Union, and future plans probably foresaw the Union members becoming part of the SPD after the war. In any case, the Union served as a platform to continue to practice and evolve its members’ democratic thinking and acting.
One of the Unions final achievements was a brochure published in the autumn of 1945 containing a compilation of ideas for a new political order for Germany. Meanwhile, Ollenhauer travelled to Wennigsen near Hannover to officially transfer the Sopade’s mandate to the newly forming SPD under the leadership of Kurt Schumacher. It was Schumacher who finally put the emigrant Social Democrats’ work to good use, basing upon it the conception of a modernised post-war SPD. And while it can be argued that the party would have eventually taken the course of the modern Volkspartei on its own, the exiled party members’ preparatory work certainly sped up the process.
As mentioned before, this may not be one of the more exciting chapters in the history of the German Social Democratic Party. It was originally a workers’ party, though, and even if its committee members did not achieve much in exile: work they did.