The origins of Jusos date back to the early 1900s, when its predecessors existed chiefly as a loose collection of makeshift night schools and political clubs for young working people. Steeped in the Marxist tradition, these Arbeiterjugendvereine, or young workers’ associations, taught their members about the concept of a living wage and workers’ rights. 1914 saw the founding of a distinct youth section within the Munich branch of the SPD, whose founder, Felix Fechenbach, coined the term Jungsozialisten. More SPD youth groups began appearing in the 1920s, around the time that the party entered government for the first time. There, it championed reforms that protected workers’ unions and helped establish benefits for the sick, elderly, and unemployed.
In 1931, the SPD dissolved Jusos for its increasingly radical leftist views, as the group began to openly protest against the party’s support for the policies of Germany’s Weimer-era minority conservative government. Hitler’s ban on the SPD in 1933 did little to brighten the prospects for the group’s future. After World War II, however, the reconstituted SPD revived Jusos in West Germany, with a significant chunk of its membership comprising of former soldiers.
In the late 1960s, Jusos veered left of the party line once again. It offered a platform for young leftists and students who rejected American-style consumer capitalism, and railed against the failure of their parents’ generation to atone for Germany’s fascist past. By the mid-1970s, Jusos had some 300,000 members—roughly a third of the SPD’s total membership—and successfully lobbied for elements of the “dare for more democracy” policies of Willy Brandt, who in 1969 became Germany’s first postwar SPD chancellor. This platform mandated that students and workers be granted seats on university boards of directors; analogous measures for workers’ unions and the boards of large corporations followed in the mid-1970s. Jusos also became a training ground for future party leaders like Hans Eichel, Rudolf Scharping, and former chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who served as the head of the Jusos in the 1970s.
But by the early 1980s, German socialists began moving to the center as the SPD tried to extend its reach into the growing West German middle class. So followed Jusos. Its members distanced themselves from the Marxist lingo of class conflict, replacing it with less charged terms like “progressivism” and “fairness” to describe their view of social democracy. “In the SPD, politics came to be oriented according to the existing beliefs of voters, and thus more arbitrary. Rather than aiming to change society's beliefs, the SPD measured and approximated around them,” Heinz Thoermer and Edgar Einemann wrote in the Rise and Fall of the Schroeder Generation.
Today, the political mood in Germany is leaning away from centrism. The SPD’s electoral calamity last September came as voters abandoned it for far-left and far-right alternatives, including the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD). “Only a few percentage points separate us and the SPD in the polls, and that’s for a reason: The SPD has long since lost its relationship with the working class. We will replace the SPD as the people’s party,” Alice Weidel, the leader of the AfD, recently wrote in a series of sarcastic tweets. Judging from recent studies of the German electorate, she was hardly exaggerating.