August Bebel


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(b. Deutz, 22 Feb. 1840; d. Tel Aviv, Zurich, 13 Aug. 1913)

German; leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) 1868–1913 There were 50,000 mourners at the funeral of Bebel in Zurich, a remarkable number considering the place and the fact that he had never held official office in Germany. Yet he was the internationally admired leader of Germany's biggest political party, the SPD, and had been an active socialist for fifty years. In 1867 he was the first workers' representative to be elected to the North German parliament. He was a member of the Reichstag from 1883 until his death. He had served the movement in other ways too, having been jailed on two occasions for his political activities. From 1892 on he was one of the two chairmen of the SPD. In the controversy over ‘revisionism’ in the SPD Bebel steered a middle course between Bernstein and the militant Marxists.

Bebel was not a theorist but wrote a widely read book expressing advanced views on the place of women in society. He had seen his mother struggle against poverty and die of consumption when he was 13. Both Bebel's father and his stepfather also died young of consumption. He was lucky enough to be able to stay at school to 14 and then complete a four-year apprenticeship as a master thresher. His involvement in working-class politics began when he joined a workers' education association in 1861. After bitter controversy he was able to overcome the divisions in the workers' movement and found, with Wilhelm Liebknecht in 1869, the Social Democratic Workers' Party.

Bebel was an internationalist who had played a decisive part in founding the Second International in 1889. At his last national election in 1912 the SPD gained 34.8 per cent of the vote, the largest of any party. The party had one million members. Whether, had he lived, Bebel could have steered the SPD to oppose the war in 1914 is debatable. By agreeing to support ‘defence of the homeland’ it disappointed the hopes of millions in Europe and beyond.

Subjects: Politics.

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