The Nazis did not scare Kurt Schumacher, a tough ex-soldier who had lost
his right arm and nearly his life in World War I.
No sooner was the amputee elected to the German parliament in 1930 than
he stood up to Adolf Hitler’s storm troopers, according to German
Social Democrats in Opposition, 1949-1960: The Case Against Rearmament
by Gordon D. Drummond.
|Kurt Schumacher was elected
chairman of the SPD, a post he held until his death in 1952.
|This stamp is in the public
“He exchanged insults with them, even going so far as to label
national socialism ‘an appeal to the inner swine in man,’”
World War I
Three years later, the Nazis would imprison Schumacher, a member of the
staunchly anti-Nazi Social Democratic Party. Mistreatment would cause the
eventual loss of his left leg. Even so, Schumacher would overcome his
disability to become the post-World War II leader of his party and one of the
most important politicians in the new West Germany.
Schumacher was born in 1895 in the small West Prussian town of Kulm, now
Chelmno, Poland. Still in school when World War I broke out in 1914, he
enlisted in the German Army.
Schumacher fought the Russians in Poland. In December 1914, Russian
shrapnel and machine gun fire mangled his arm; he was barely 19 years old.
“Two bullets through his right arm shattered the bone,” wrote
Lewis Joachim Edinger in Kurt Schumacher: A Study in Personality and
Political Behavior. “After many agonizing hours on the battlefield,
he was finally taken to the rear where doctors removed the entire arm up to the
Schumacher remained in the army for almost a year, recuperating in
military hospitals where he also learned to function with one arm.
“The nature of the amputation made it impossible for him to wear an
artificial arm, and for the rest of his life he was troubled by painful
contractions of the ‘phantom limb,’” the author added.
Schumacher, who earned an Iron Cross, Second Class, for bravery,
enrolled in college before the war ended. Ultimately, he would earn a doctorate
in political science from the University of Münster, Edinger wrote.
Meanwhile, in 1918, Schumacher joined the Social Democrats
(Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands or SPD). As Germany’s oldest
political party, the SPD was — and still is — a democratic socialist,
center-left party committed to parliamentary democracy.
Schumacher denounced the far-left German Communist Party (Kommunistische
Partei Deutschlands or KPD) and Germany’s various far right-wing parties.
He said such anti-democratic extremists were a dire threat to the fledgling
Weimar Republic, which was founded after the war.
In 1920, Schumacher moved to Stuttgart, the capital of Württemberg,
to be editor of the local SPD paper.
“He quickly established a reputation for himself as ‘a man
with one arm and a dozen elbows,’” Drummond wrote.
In the late 1920s, the Nazis began to emerge as Germany’s main
far-right-wing party. Editor Schumacher blasted them.
He said the Nazis had usurped and perverted the term
“socialist.” Schumacher denounced them for their violent hatred of
Jews and republican government and for their love of authoritarianism and
“He led counterdemonstrations against the Nazis in the early
twenties and even organized a paramilitary group of young Socialists to defend
the Weimar regime against its enemies,” Drummond wrote.
Hitler was determined to crush all who opposed him. His enemies included
Schumacher rejected an SPD-KPD alliance, though the two parties shared a
common and deadly foe.
“To Schumacher the Communists were nothing more than ‘a
redlaquered second edition of the Nazis,’” Drummond wrote.
While the Nazis and the Communists detested Schumacher, many
Württemberg voters obviously did not; they elected him to the state
parliament in 1924. He served until 1930, when voters elevated him to the
national parliament in Berlin, Germany’s capital.
World War II
Although not in power in 1930, Hitler and the Nazis were gaining support
throughout Germany. Hitler’s success at winning over so many Germans was
proof of the Nazi chief’s genius at “mobilizing human
stupidity,” Schumacher said, according to historian Tony Judt.
Hitler became dictator in 1933. Immediately, the Nazis wiped out all
opposition. Hitler opened his first concentration camp at Dachau and soon
filled with it anti-Nazis, including Schumacher. The amputee would spend most
of the next dozen years in concentration camps.
“Schumacher survived the camps mainly because, as Lewis Edinger
points out, he was not the sort of person ‘whose spirit could be broken
even under the worst conditions,’” Drummond wrote. “Life in the
Nazi camps did take its toll, however. At the end, he ‘was a pitiful
walking cadaver, with ulcers, yellowing stumps for teeth, flickering eyesight
[and still carrying in him] seventeen pieces of shrapnel from World War
Mistreatment in the camps led to thrombosis in his left leg.
“Although pain was a constant companion for the rest of his life,
Schumacher endured it because of his commitment to a cause,” Drummond
The Nazis set him free in April 1945. In early May 1945, World War II in
Europe ended in German defeat.
After the war, Schumacher worked tirelessly to resurrect the SPD. In
October, he invited SPD representatives from across the country to a party
conference in Wennigsen, near Hannover, in western Germany. “This first
postwar gathering of the SPD was a remarkable triumph for Schumacher,”
More than a party leader
His labors did not go unrewarded. Schumacher was elected chairman of the
SPD, a post he held until his death in 1952.
“… Schumacher was more than just a dynamic party leader,”
Drummond wrote. “He was a powerful moral force in the democratic renewal
of Germany and a courageous spokesman for the rights of his countrymen during
the postwar years.”
At the end of the war, the Allies divided Germany into four occupation
zones. In 1949, the American, British and French zones became the democratic
German Federal Republic, or West Germany. Also in 1949, Soviet-occupied eastern
Germany became the communist German Democratic Republic, or East Germany.
In West Germany, Schumacher’s chief political rival was
conservative Konrad Adenauer, leader of the new center-right Christian
Democratic Union (Christlich Demokratische Union Deutschlands or CDU). Like
Schumacher, Adenauer had opposed the Nazis, who jailed him also.
Meanwhile, the Soviets were encouraging a merger of the SPD and the KPD
into a nationwide “Socialist Unity Party.” Schumacher vehemently
opposed such a union.
He said the new party (Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands or
SED) would be a Soviet puppet. Drummond quoted Schumacher’s response to
the suggestion that democratic socialism and Communism were ideological
brothers: “Yes, like Cain and Abel.”
In the 1949 West German parliamentary elections, the CDU emerged as the
strongest party. As a result, Adenauer became chancellor.
The Schumacher-led SPD won 131 seats. But his failing health possibly
contributed to his party’s defeat.
Doctors amputated Schumacher’s left leg in 1948. Many Germans may
have worried that minus two limbs, Schumacher would be physically unable to be
head of state.
Schumacher, who never married, suffered a stroke in 1951 and died in
1952 at 56 years of age. Mourners included Adenauer, who said of Schumacher,
“Despite our differences, we were united in a common goal, to do
everything possible for the benefit and well-being of our people.”
For more information:
Drummond GD. German Social Democrats in Opposition,
1949-1960: The Case Against Rearmament. Norman: University of Oklahoma
Edinger LJ. Kurt Schumacher: A Study in Personality and
Political Behavior. Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1965.
Judt T. A History of Europe Since 1945. New York,
Penguin Books, 2005.