Wels, Otto

(1873-1939)
   politician; on 23 March 1933, before the Reichs-tag,* he bravely condemned Hitler's* proposed Enabling Act.* Born to a Berlin* restaurant proprietor, he apprenticed as an upholsterer. At seventeen he joined the SPD and became Brandenburg's Party secretary in 1907 and chairman of the Vorwarts* press organization in 1908. He was also a trade-union* activist. He was elected to the Reichstag in 1912 and, working with Friedrich Ebert* during World War I, he championed the SPD's promotion of Burgfrieden with the Kaiserreich.
   Wels sat with the Berlin Workers' and Soldiers' Councils* during the No-vember Revolution.* As Berlin's commandant, charged with defending the Council of People's Representatives,* he was arrested by revolutionary sailors on 23 December 1918 for refusing to meet pay demands. When his life was threatened, the council's three SPD members (Ebert, Philipp Scheidemann,* and Otto Landsberg*) rescued him with Imperial Army troops. The action provoked the resignation of the council's three Independent Socialists.*
   A political pragmatist, Wels promoted coalition politics. He entered the Na-tional Assembly* and remained in the Reichstag until 1933; throughout, he was a member of the SPD's Parteivorstand, a position he had held since 1913. With Carl Legien,* he incited the general strike during the March 1920 Kapp* Putsch that toppled the illicit regime; in the putsch's aftermath he forced Gustav Noske's* resignation as Defense Minister, but then rejected the Defense port-folio. Wary of the Reichswehr,* he championed the Reichsbanner.*
   From 1921 Wels was the perennial cochairman of the annual SPD congress. In 1931 he succeeded Hermann Müller* as senior Party chairman and Reichstag faction leader. Afraid of fomenting civil war or a military dictatorship, he came out against a general strike in the wake of Franz von Papen's* July 1932 coup against the Prussian government. Yet he was Hitler's outspoken opponent; on 23 March 1933, in response to the proposed Enabling Act, he exclaimed that no blessing would accrue from "a peace imposed by violence"; "one can take our freedom and our lives, but not our honor." He was fortunate to escape the chamber and soon fled Germany. He lived initially in Prague and led the exiled SPD in Paris from 1938. He died shortly after the outbreak of World War II.
   REFERENCES:Brecht, Prelude to Silence; Breitman, German Socialism; Richard Hunt, German Social Democracy; Stachura, Political Leaders.

A Historical dictionary of Germany's Weimar Republic, 1918-1933. .

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