Born in 1873, Otto Wels joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) at the age of 18 and served in the German parliament (Reichstag) for over twenty years. He was the only German parliamentary leader to openly oppose passage of the Enabling Act, legislation proposed by the Nazis that turned over authority to pass laws to Hitler's ruling coalition for a period of 4 years.
Following the establishment of the Weimar Republic, Wels became co-chairman of the SPD and used his authority to bolster democracy and combat extremism. In 1920, he helped to organize the general strike in Berlin, which led to the collapse of a right-wing coup, the so-called Kapp Putsch.
In late 1923, following the separate, abortive attempts by the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) and the Nazi Party (NSDAP) to overthrow the republican government, Wels initiated plans to create a paramilitary organization to defend German democracy. In February 1924, the SPD announced the creation of the Reichsbanner Red-Black-Gold, named after the republican flag. Although open to all democrats, regardless of party affiliation, the paramilitary group drew largely on the SPD's rank and file membership. By 1932, it had over 3 million adherents. In its very first public appeal, the Reichsbanner vehemently denounced antisemitism as a danger to the country's youth and its domestic and international politics.
As Nazi Party support and storm trooper violence grew after 1930, Wels pressed for the creation of the Iron Front, an organization composed of the Reichsbanner, trade unions, and some youth sports groups, to combat Nazism. Established the following year, the Iron Front, like the Reichsbanner and the Communist Red Front, engaged in street battles with Nazi SA units.
Following Hitler's appointment as German chancellor on January 30, 1933, the SPD, under Wels' leadership, stood as the main defender of the German republic. On March 23, 1933, during the Reichstag deliberations on the Law to Remedy the Distress of the People and the Reich (The Enabling Act), Wels was the only German parliamentary leader to openly oppose passage of the legislation. Proposed by the Nazis, the act turned over authority to pass laws to Hitler's ruling coalition for a period of 4 years, essentially denuding the German parliament of its powers.
In his speech, Wels pointed to the recent persecutions of the SPD and indicated that the party's Reichstag representatives would not vote in support of the Enabling Act. The current government, a coalition of Nazis and conservatives, already had a parliamentary majority and could rule within the parameters of the constitution. He accused the Nazis of wanting to eliminate the Reichstag in order to continue their “national revolution.”
He concluded his speech by expressing the SPD's support of a state guided by the rule of law, equal rights, and social justice. “In this historical hour, we German Social Democrats pledge ourselves to the principles of humanity and justice, of freedom and socialism. No Enabling Act gives you the power to eradicate ideas, which are eternal and indestructible.”
When the votes were cast, only the SPD delegation voted against the bill. The Communist representatives had either been arrested or driven into exile, along with 26 members of the SPD faction, had been denied their seats. The remaining delegates, more than 400, voted in support of the Enabling Act.
Escape from Germany
In May 1933, as the Nazi regime began its systematic crackdown on the SPD, Wels escaped from Germany to Prague and then Paris, where he died in September 1939, at the age of 66.
Donald L. Niewyk, Socialist, Anti-Semite, and Jew: German Social Democracy Confronts the Problem of Anti-Semitism 1918-1933, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971).
Otto Wels, Rede zur Begründung der Ablehnung des »Ermächtigungsgesetzes« durch die Sozialdemokratische Fraktion in der Reichstagssitzung vom 23. März 1933 in der Berliner Krolloper, mit einem Essay von Iring Fetscher, (EVA Reden, Bd. 10), (Hamburg: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, 1993).