Carl Wilhelm Severing (1 June 1875, Herford, Westphalia – 23 July 1952, Bielefeld) was a German Social Democrat politician during the Weimar era.
He was seen as a representative of the right wing of the party. Over the years, he took a leading influence in the party district of Ostwestfalen and Lippe. He was a parliamentarian in the German Empire, the Weimar Republic and in Northrhine-Westphalia. He first played more than a regional role when he became Reich and later State Commissar in the Ruhr from 1919 to 1920.
He was Interior Minister of Prussia from 1920 to 1926, Minister of the Interior from 1928 to 1930 and Interior Minister of Prussia again from 1930 to 1932. Along with fellow Social Democrat, Otto Braun, Severing agreed to General Hans von Seeckt's plans for a secret army to protect Germany's eastern border against a sudden attack from Poland. At the Nuremberg Trials on 21 May 1946, Severing defended this strategy by saying:
That the army of 100,000 men granted to Germany was not sufficient even for a defensive war was and is known to-day possibly to everyone in Germany concerned with politics. Germany got into a very bad situation with regard to her eastern neighbours since the establishment of the Corridor. The insular position of East Prussia forced Germany, even at that time (1920–22), to take measures which I reluctantly helped to carry out.
According to Geoffrey Winthrop Young's diary entry for 14 December 1929: "A dramatic incident was the entry of Minister Severing three hours late at the end of a cabinet meeting which had lasted two days, during which time he had saved parliamentary government in Germany, and incidentally avoided being appointed himself dictator by Hindenburg. He was naturally fatigued, but took part in our discussions for the remainder of a long evening".
Severing introduced the law for the defence of the Republic and said of it on 13 March 1930:
The right of assembly has become the wrongs of assembly, and press freedom has become press licence. We cannot permit demagogues to inflame the masses any further. Last year in Prussia alone three hundred policemen were wounded and fourteen killed in the course of their duties.
Severing came from a working-class family from Herford, that lived in cramped conditions. His father Bernhard worked as a cigar-sorter, his mother Johanna was a seamstress. It was a Protestant family. Their circumstances became desperate when his father became mentally ill. Carl and his half-brother had to help their mother sort cigars, an activity which was performed at home. A pastor offered to pay for Carl to receive higher education. He suggested that Carl should himself later become a pastor. Carl however rejected this, wanting to become a musician. This turned out to be too expensive however, so after attending the Volksschule he started a locksmith's apprenticeship, which he finished in 1892.
Politics did not play a role in the family, but despite this Carl showed an early interest in the socialist workers' movement. A colleague explained to him what their aims were. Immediately after his journeyman's examination, he joined the Deutscher Metallarbeiter-Verband (DMV; German Metalworkers' Association). He soon took up various positions in the organisation. He became secretary, and, in 1893 was elected as the DMV's representative in the local trade unions' council. In the same year he organised the foundation of a social-democratic association in Herford. This organisation did not last long however, and was obliged to try a second attempt in 1894 with several others. In this period he was already active as a correspondent and contact person for the social democratic newspaper Volkswacht in the nearby Bielefeld. In this way he met Carl Hoffmann and Carl Schreck, then the leading social democrats of Bielefeld, with whom he would later have a close working relationship.
In 1894 he left Herford and moved to Bielefeld. There he gave up his craft-based job and moved into industry. He found a job at the Dürkopp works. In Bielefeld he was active in the party and the union. In 1896 he played a leading role in the failed strike or lock-out at Dürkopp. For this reason he lost his job.
After losing his job, Severing went south, and in 1895 came to Zürich after various other stops. There he was a skilled worker in a metalworking factory and was active in the Swiss metalworkers' association, which had sub-organisations for immigrated German workers. He also had connections to the local committee of German social democrats, and to the German workers' education association "Eintracht". In the various associations, Severing established himself in a short while as a leading figure. In the years in Switzerland, Severing's political views became markedly more radical. His criticism of social-democratic politics led to him giving up his posts in the workers' educational committee. In his speeches, he now often spoke of world revolution, and no longer of ameliorating the political and social situation of the workers. From afar he observed critically how the SPD of Ostwestfalen took a decidedly pragmatic course, and even considered taking part in the Prussian Landtag elections which until then had been spurned due to the three-class franchise. In 1898 he left Switzerland again and returned to Bielefeld.
After his return from Switzerland, he married a distant relative, Emma Wilhelmine Twelker, with whom he was to have 2 children. Their relationship with one another was in accordance with the petty bourgeois patriarchal norms of the time. She remained, as a housewife, entirely focused on the family. Severing had a traditional understanding of the roles of husband and wife and this manifested itself at the beginning of his daughter's studies: he allowed her to start studying medicine, but said that she would probably give up her studies after a few semesters to get married.
Immediately on his return he started being active again in the regional workers' movement. He gave a speech in 1899 in front of the Bielefeld social democrats, which was concerned with the poor-quality education in the Volksschule. He advocated self-education and support by social-democratically oriented organisations. He also advanced lively educational events as being more attractive than dry political speeches. With his radical views, he remained quite isolated in the party. He was not, for example, able to persuade the Ostwestfalen district to condemn the revisionists of Eduard Bernstein.
Due to the low support within the party, Severing moved the emphasis of his activities to trade union activism. He rose rapidly in this area, and in 1901 he became director of the local branch of the Deutscher Metallarbeiter-Verband. At this time the local union had only approximately 1300 members, which represented about 30% of the possible number. In Severing's time in office, the number of members rose sixfold, which was significantly higher than the national average. Already by 1906 the number of unionised workers was at 75%. What contributed to Severing's success was the introduction of a system of shop stewards. This system guaranteed closeness to the concerns and needs of the members. Severing's closeness to the grassroots was one reason for his popularity among the Bielefeld workers. In his activism work, he used unorthodox measures. He organised a 10-year anniversary orchestra concert that attracted 2000 visitors.
From his base in the metalworkers' movement, Severing expanded his influence to the whole union organisation in Bielefeld, against heavy opposition from other associations. At the latest by 1906 he was the central figure in the workers' movement of the city. In 1906 and 1910 Severing achieved successes for the workers without strikes. In 1911 there was a major work stoppage, which also went successfully. In 1912 he gave up his position in the DMV.
In the years of mainly trade union activity, Severing's political stance changed greatly. He abandoned his revolutionary positions for a marked pragmatism, which inside the party was often regarded as right-wing. His aim was no longer the "dictatorship of the proletariat," but the integration of workers in society. In this respect, he became closer to the revisionist stance he had once staunchly opposed.