Mit dem Aufstieg der Massenpresse Ende des 19. Jahrhunderts geriet die SPD in einen Zwiespalt zwischen interner Meinungsfreiheit und dem Umgang mit abweichenden Stimmen. Einerseits konnte sie sich nicht zu Meinungsfreiheit bekennen, ohne diesen Grundsatz auch auf sich selbst anzuwenden, andererseits musste sie stärker als zuvor auf ein geschlossenes Auftreten in der Öffentlichkeit achten. Gestützt auf Medialisierungsforschung und Diskursiven Institutionalismus analysiert der Beitrag die Machtkämpfe innerhalb der Partei, die in öffentlichen Diskursen ausgetragen wurden und in die Presse- und Öffentlichkeitsstrukturen sowie politischen Kontexte im Kaiserreich eingebettet waren. Inhalts- und Dokumentenanalysen zeigen, dass sich die Kritik an mangelnder innerer Meinungsfreiheit in einer medialisierten Umwelt seit den 1890er Jahren verstärkte. Abweichler von der Parteilinie forderten Meinungsfreiheit, um Sichtbarkeit und Legitimation für ihre politischen Ideen und Anerkennung für die Parteiredakteure zu bekommen. Die Organisationsmehrheit hingegen stellte Außenwirkung über Meinungsfreiheit und reagierte damit auf die wachsende Bedeutung öffentlicher Kommunikation.
The study analyzes the consequences of the emerging mass press for the Social Democratic Party of Germany with regard to the value of freedom of speech. It discusses how one of the largest and most successful political parties at that time dealt with the increasing significance of mass media as part of society’s functional differentiation in the late 19th century. In view of a more or less differentiated media system, public visibility became a main resource for actors in the German Empire as well as in other Western societies to legitimize their goals and mobilize consent. Earlier than other organizations, political parties realized the importance of public communication for gaining attention, acceptance and legitimation.
However, the emergence of the mass press created a dilemma for the Social Democratic Party in particular. On the one hand, the party that was rooted in the oppressed labor movement demanded freedom of speech from the authoritarian state and therefore had to respect the right to communicate in its own ranks. Freedom of speech was an important value for the Social Democrats especially due to their experience of the oppressive Anti-Socialist-Laws and even ongoing suppression in the Wilhelmine era. On the other hand, the party was increasingly forced to keep a public image of unity in view of the changing media environment. The Social Democrats felt to be persecuted not only by the state but also by liberal, conservative or plain commercial—in the view of the labor movement bourgeois—newspapers. The study analyzes how freedom of speech became a problem for the Social Democratic Party, although the organization strongly identified with this value. The case of the Social Democratic Party is suitable to analyze the question of freedom of speech in view of the changing media environment in the late 19th century, because of the party’s organizational structures. The party significantly grew and even had one million members on the eve of World War I. This went along with the establishment of a party bureaucracy and different rules to communicate for officials and ordinary members. Furthermore, several factions of the party fought over power and influence of either revolutionary or reformist ideas.
Against this background, the study analyzes the struggles over power within the party that were fought in public discourses. Therefore, the study builds on previous research on the Social Democratic press that highlighted the complicated relation to the bourgeois press as well as the Social Democratic journalists’ attempts to gain autonomy from the party administration. Theoretically, the study relies on the approaches of mediatization and discursive institutionalism. Mediatization depicts societal actors’ adaption to a growing importance of media as it can first be detected with the rise of the mass press in the late 19th century. Beyond that, the concept of discursive institutionalism allows describing how actors such as political parties dealt with changes of mediatization via discourses that were embedded in the structures of the press and the public sphere as well as politics in the German Empire.
In order to analyze the internal party discourse about the individual right to communicate for Social Democrats, we conducted qualitative content and document analyses. The analyses are guided by categories derived from the theoretical assumptions. The period of investigation covers the time between the foundation of the first unified party of the German labor movement in 1875 and the last party conference before the outbreak of World War I in 1913. The sources comprise minutes of the annual party congresses and by the party steering committee, party journals, brochures and position papers as well as biographical material such as memoirs, (auto-)biographies or letters between party leaders and journalists.
The analyses reveal that criticism of insufficient freedom of speech within the party increased in view of a mediatized environment since the 1890s. With the end of the Anti-Socialist-Laws that had united and radicalized the party members, the individual right to communicate became a recurring issue discussed in different contexts on the annual party conferences until 1913. Party members dissident from the official party line demanded freedom of speech in order to gain visibility as well as legitimation of their political ideas. Apart from that, editors of the party press claimed freedom of speech aiming to find recognition for their work and achieve better equipment of the editorial offices. In contrast, members of the organization’s majority put public image before freedom of speech and therefore reacted to the increasing importance of public communication. According to them, public criticism put damage to the party’s image. This view was interwoven with the idea of an own party press. Overall, even among critics the distinction between the Social Democratic party press and bourgeois newspapers remained dominant.