Kurt Schumacher

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Kurt Schumacher
Schumacher between 1945 and 1948
Leader of the Social Democratic Party
In office
10 May 1946 – 20 August 1952
DeputyErich Ollenhauer
Wilhelm Knothe
Preceded byHans Vogel
Succeeded byErich Ollenhauer
Leader of the Opposition
In office
7 September 1949 – 20 August 1952
ChancellorKonrad Adenauer
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byErich Ollenhauer
Leader of the Social Democratic Party in the Bundestag
In office
7 September 1949 – 20 August 1952
DeputyErich Ollenhauer
Carlo Schmid
Preceded byOffice established
Succeeded byErich Ollenhauer
Member of the Bundestag
for Hannover South
In office
7 September 1949 – 20 August 1952
Preceded byConstituency created
Succeeded byErnst Winter
Member of the Reichstag
for Württemberg
In office
14 September 1930 – 22 June 1933
Preceded byMulti-member constituency
Succeeded byMulti-member constituency
Personal details
Curt Ernst Carl Schumacher[1]

(1895-10-13)13 October 1895
Kulm, West Prussia, German Empire (now Chełmno, Poland)
Died20 August 1952(1952-08-20) (aged 56)
Bonn, West Germany
Political partySPD
Alma materUniversity of Halle-Wittenberg
OccupationJurist, politician

Curt Ernst Carl Schumacher, better known as Kurt Schumacher (13 October 1895 – 20 August 1952), was a German politician who became chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany from 1946 and the first Leader of the Opposition in the West German Bundestag in 1949; he served in both positions until his death. An opponent of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer's government but an even stronger opponent of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany in East Germany, he was one of the founding fathers of postwar German democracy. He was an opponent of reactionary and revolutionary forces, the Nazi Party and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) during the Weimar Republic and described the KPD as "red-painted Nazis".[2]

Early life and career[edit]

Birthplace in Chełmno

Schumacher was born in Kulm in West Prussia (now Chełmno in Poland), the son of a small businessman who was a 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.[3] After contracting dysentery, he was finally discharged from the army and was decorated with the Iron Cross Second class. Schumacher returned to his law and political studies in Halle, Leipzig and Berlin from which he graduated in 1919.[3]

Inspired by Eduard Bernstein, Schumacher became a dedicated socialist and in 1918 joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD). He led ex-servicemen in forming Workers and Soldiers Councils in Berlin during the revolutionary days following the fall of the German Empire but opposed attempts by revolutionary left-wing groups to seize power. In 1920, the SPD sent him to Stuttgart to edit the party's newspaper there, the Schwäbische Tagwacht.[citation needed]

Schumacher was elected to the state legislature, the Free People's State of Württemberg Landtag in 1924. In 1928, he became the SPD leader in the state. To oppose the emerging Nazi Party, Schumacher helped organise socialist militias to oppose them. In 1930, he was elected to the national legislature, the Reichstag.[3] In August 1932, he was elected to the SPD leadership group. At 38, he was youngest SPD member of the Reichstag.[citation needed]

Nazi regime[edit]

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".[4] Schumacher was arrested in July 1933, two weeks before the SPD was banned, and was severely beaten in prison. Schumacher was given the opportunity to sign a declaration in which he renounced any political activity if released, but unlike Fritz Bauer and seven other political prisoners, he refused to sign it.[5] He spent the next ten years in Nazi concentration camps at Heuberg, Kuhberg, Flossenbürg, and Dachau.[3] The camps were initially intended for exploitation of those deemed by the Nazis to be undesirable people, such as Jews, socialists, communists, and criminals. Beginning in 1940, the prison camps were overcrowded with transports from the eastern front, leading to disease outbreaks and starvation. Under Action 14f13, beginning in 1941, the Nazis summarily murdered prisoners they deemed unfit for work, but Schumacher and some other disabled veterans were spared after they proved with their war medals that they had been disabled in service of Germany during World War I. The conditions in the camps continued to worsen and by 1943, nearly half of the prisoners died, in particular in Neuengamme of 106,000 inmates almost half died.[6]

In 1943, when Schumacher was near death, his brother-in-law succeeded in persuading a Nazi official to have him released into his custody. Schumacher was arrested again in late 1944 and was in Neuengamme when the British arrived in April 1945.[3]


Schumacher wanted to lead the SPD and bring Germany to socialism. By May 1945, 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 argued the SPD should merge with the KPD to form a united socialist party. Schumacher rejected Grotewohl's proposal and in August called an SPD convention in Hanover, which elected him as the Western leader of the party.[citation needed]

In January 1946, the British and the 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] 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 prewar German conservatives into a new party, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU). Schumacher campaigned throughout 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.[citation needed]

Schumacher wanted a new constitution with a strong national presidency since he was confident that he would occupy that post. The first draft of the 1949 Grundgesetz provided for a federal system with a weak national government, as was favoured both by the Allies and the CDU. Schumacher refused to give way and eventually, the Allies, keen to get the new German state functioning in the face of the Soviet challenge, acceded to some of Schumacher's demands. The new federal government would be dominant over the states, although the president would have limited powers.[citation needed]

1949 federal election[edit]

100 pfennigs 1995 postage stamp for his centenary since his birth

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. Much of the SPD's prewar power base was now part of the Soviet Zone, and the most conservative parts of prewar Germany, such as Bavaria and the Rhineland, were in the new Federal Republic of Germany. In addition, the American and the French occupying powers favoured Adenauer and did all they could to assist his campaign though the British remained neutral.[citation needed]

Further, the onset of the Cold War, particularly the behaviour of the Soviets and the German communists in the Soviet Zone, produced an antisocialist reaction in Germany as elsewhere. The SPD could very plausibly have won an election in 1945, but the tide had turned against it by 1949. That came even as the SPD became increasingly critical of the new East German government. Schumacher was especially critical and once called the communists "red-painted fascists". Schumacher attempted a heavy distinction in the public consciousness between his vision of "democratic socialism" and the realities in East Germany but still found his party partially damaged by association.[7]

Another factor was the recovery of the German economy, mainly because of the currency reform of the CDU's Ludwig Erhard. Matters were further complicated by Schumacher's declining health. In September 1948, he had one of his legs amputated.[8] Germans admired Schumacher's courage but doubted that he could carry out the duties of chancellor.[citation needed]

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 centre-right coalition government with the Free Democratic Party, the Christian Social Union, and the German Party. Adenauer was elected chancellor, a shock for 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. He saw them as devices to strengthen capitalism and to extend Allied control over Germany. That stand aroused the opposition of the other Western European socialist parties, and eventually, the SPD overruled him and sent delegates to the Council of Europe.

Death and legacy[edit]

During the remainder 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 success in gaining Germany's acceptance 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 after he had a stroke in December 1951.[9] They were spared having to deal with this dilemma when Schumacher died suddenly in August 1952.[10]


  1. ^ "Schumacher, Kurt" (in German). Deutsche Biographie. Retrieved 8 July 2020.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  2. ^ Schmeitzner, Mike (2007). Totalitarismuskritik von links deutsche Diskurse im 20. Jahrhundert. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht. p. 255. ISBN 978-3-525-36910-4.
  3. ^ a b c d e Spell, Hartmut (2012). "Für ein neues Deutschland" [For a new Germany]. Damals (in German). Vol. 44, no. 8. pp. 10–13.
  4. ^ Judt, p. 268
  5. ^ Steinke, Ronen (2020). Fritz Bauer. The Jewish Prosecutor Who Brought Eichmann and Auschwitz to Trial. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. p. 66. ISBN 9780253046895.
  6. ^ "Neuengamme". USHMM. Retrieved 11 October 2021. In all, more than 50,000 prisoners, almost half of those imprisoned in the camp during its existence, died in Neuengamme before liberation.
  7. ^ Plener, Ulla (2002). "Kurt Schumacher 1949–1952 - Die innere Gestaltung der BRD im Schatten seines Antikommunismus". Jahrbuch für Forschungen zur Geschichte der Arbeiterbewegung (3).
  8. ^ "Vor 60 Jahren: Todestag von Kurt Schumacher" (in German). Deutscher Bundestag. 20 August 2012. Retrieved 8 July 2020.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  9. ^ Augstein, Rudolf (25 April 1988). "Der Mann mit dem leeren, flatternden Ärmel" (in German). Der Spiegel. Retrieved 8 July 2020.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  10. ^ "Kurt Schumacher, 56, Dies in Bonn; Headed Opposition to Adenauer; Leader of German Socialists Was Foe of Nazis -- Put Unity Above Ties to West". The New York Times. 21 August 1952. Retrieved 8 July 2020.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)


Further reading[edit]

  • Peter Merseburger: Kurt Schumacher: Patriot, Volkstribun, Sozialdemokrat. Munich: Pantheon, 2010, ISBN 978-3-570-55139-4.
  • Maxwell, John Allen. "Social Democracy in a Divided Germany: Kurt Schumacher and the German Question, 1945-1952." Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, West Virginia University, Department of History, Morgantown, West Virginia, 1969.

External links[edit]

Party political offices
Preceded by Chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany
Succeeded by