Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) has found itself between a rock and a hard place for several decades now. Originally founded in 1863, the once-mighty organization appears caught in an ineluctable decline from the country’s strongest political force — at least in terms of membership and often enough electorally — to a party that increasingly failed to muster more than 30 percent of the popular vote and now barely approaches 20.1 Long reduced to a caste of professional functionaries at the top and an aging layer of true believers below, what was at one point the industrialized world’s largest and proudest mass socialist party2 now teeters on the edge of political oblivion.
Since its initial turn toward a supply-side economic agenda in the early 2000s under Gerhard Schröder,3 and particularly after inaugurating its long tenure as Angela Merkel’s junior coalition partner in 2005, the SPD has hemorrhaged more than two hundred thousand members4 and shuffled through seven different leaders. Practically all of the latter came into office promising to reinvigorate the party base and win back voter confidence, yet all of them left more or less in disgrace. Schröder’s six-year tenure was succeeded by his minister of labor, Franz Müntefering, in 2004. He declined to run for reelection following internal wrangling and was succeeded in 2005 by the minister president of Brandenburg, Matthias Platzeck, who soon stepped down for health reasons to be replaced by a nominal left-winger from Rhineland-Palatinate, Kurt Beck, six months later. Beck resigned after another round of political intrigue in 2009 and was briefly replaced by Müntefering, who then cleared the stage for Sigmar Gabriel — the only leader since Schröder to hang on for more than a few years.