Kurt Schumacher (1895-1952) was the leading German socialist statesman during the period of recovery and reconstruction following World War II. Although his views on the future organization of Germany were not accepted, he continued to exercise an important influence on the political ideas of his countrymen decades after his death.
Born into a West Prussian merchant family of liberal political views, Schumacher shared the exhilaration followed by disillusionment which so many young men of his generation experienced during World War I. He volunteered for military service, but after being seriously wounded he returned to the study of law. He felt increasingly drawn to politics, however, and in 1918 he joined the Social Democratic Party. Active at first as a journalist and politician in the state of Württemberg, Schumacher was elected to the Reichstag in 1930. His vigorous opposition to National Socialism led not only to his banishment from public life in 1933, but to imprisonment in a succession of concentration camps and to brutal hardship which permanently impaired his health. Learning in the last weeks of the war that his name was on a Nazi execution list, he went underground until the collapse of the Third Reich in the spring of 1945.
Welcomed as one of the "good Germans" who had resisted the Hitler tyranny, he immediately plunged into the work of rebuilding the Social Democratic Party. Fearing that a union with the Communist Party, which the Soviets were encouraging in their zone of occupation, would lead to domination by the Communists, he concentrated on the creation of a vigorous independent socialist movement in the parts of Germany occupied by the Western allies. At the first postwar convention of the Social Democratic Party in May 1946, he rejected the theory of class conflict, emphasizing the importance of political freedom and economic justice for all groups in society. He hoped thereby to broaden the social base of his party and to attract democratic forces within the bourgeois camp. He defined his brand of socialism as the "economic liberation of the moral and political personality." Regarding the future organization of the German state, he favored a democratic federal union with a central government strong enough to maintain economic unity, financial independence, and social welfare. The administrative system, he insisted, should be "as centralistic as necessary, but as federalistic as possible."
His views soon brought him into conflict with the occupying powers. He charged, not without justice, that the Allied authorities (France, Great Britain, United States) opposed his socialist policies and that they therefore favored "candidates of the bourgeois parties" for key positions in politics, economics, and administration. Their disapproval was sharpened by his convictions regarding what the international position of the new Germany should be. Hoping to avoid the permanent division of his country into two hostile states, he advocated neutrality in the incipient Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. A believer in a united Europe, he nevertheless continued to cling to the concept of a strong German national state, embracing all four occupation zones (the Allies plus the Soviet Union), which could play an important role in the political affairs of the continent. Above all, he opposed the military alignment of his country with either East or West, maintaining that reunification could be achieved only by a policy of strict neutrality. His goal was a united, democratic, socialistic, and peaceful Germany acting as a diplomatic buffer between the two superpowers.
In the political battles of the early postwar years Schumacher was defeated by his opponent Konrad Adenauer, leader of the middle-of-the-road Christian Democratic Union. This was partly a result of the indirect support which the latter received from the Allied occupation authorities; partly it was due to Schumacher's own brusqueness and irritability, aggravated by his declining health. But the main reason was that most Germans, eager for American aid in the recovery of their ravaged economy and convinced that entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) would hasten the political rehabilitation of their country, favored close ties to the West.
The German Federal Republic, as it developed in the period after its founding in 1949, did not follow the policies urged by Schumacher. While material prosperity and political respectability have been amply achieved, chances for the reunification of Germany seem as remote today as ever. Yet Schumacher's vision continues to appeal to many of his countrymen. The concept of a socialist Germany in which the rights of property are subordinated to society's collective welfare is still central to the program of the Social Democratic Party, and the longing for the union of all Germans— those in the German Democratic Republic in the East with those in the German Federal Republic—remains undiminished. The ideals Schumacher advocated have survived the political disappointments and defeats he suffered during his lifetime.
Further Reading on Kurt Schumacher
Although Schumacher's speeches and writings have been published in several editions, none, unfortunately, has been translated into English. There is, however, a first-rate study of his public career: Lewis J. Edinger, Kurt Schumacher: A Study in Personality and Political Behavior (1965). In addition, any book dealing with the recovery of Germany after World War II is bound to contain information about him. See, for example, Richard Hiseacks, Democracy in Western Germany (1957) or Harold Zink, The United States in Germany, 1944-1956 (1957). Finally, there are several contemporary articles by well-known journalists and scholars, among them Flora Lewis, "The Hard-Bitten Herr Schumacher," New York Times Magazine (July 31, 1949); Theodore H. White, "Kurt Schumacher: The Will to Power," The Reporter (December 11, 1951); and Felix Hirsch, "Adenauer or Schumacher?" Current History (February 1952).
Additional Biography Sources
Kurt Schumacher, Dusseldorf; New York: ECON, 1988.