Friedrich Ebert

Friedrich Ebert

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Friedrich Ebert was a German politician of the Social Democratic Party of Germany
Social Democratic Party of Germany
The Social Democratic Party of Germany is a social-democratic political party in Germany...

 (SPD).

When Ebert was elected as the leader of the SPD after the death of August Bebel
August Bebel
Ferdinand August Bebel was a German Marxist politician, writer, and orator. He is best remembered as one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party of Germany.-Early years:...

, the party members of the SPD were deeply divided because of the party's support for World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

. Ebert supported the Burgfrieden
Burgfrieden
Burgfrieden—literally "fortress peace" or "castle peace" but more accurately "party truce"—is a German term used for the political truce the Social Democratic Party of Germany and the other political parties agreed to during World War I...

 and tried to isolate the war opposers in the party. After the war and the end of the monarchy he served as the first President of Germany from 1919 until his death in office. Before being elected as President, he briefly served as Chancellor
Chancellor of Germany
The Chancellor of Germany is, under the German 1949 constitution, the head of government of Germany...

 during the last months of the German Empire
German Empire
The German Empire refers to Germany during the "Second Reich" period from the unification of Germany and proclamation of Wilhelm I as German Emperor on 18 January 1871, to 1918, when it became a federal republic after defeat in World War I and the abdication of the Emperor, Wilhelm II.The German...

. After he was announced as the new President, the government intervened together with the army and right wing Freikorps
Freikorps
Freikorps are German volunteer military or paramilitary units. The term was originally applied to voluntary armies formed in German lands from the middle of the 18th century onwards. Between World War I and World War II the term was also used for the paramilitary organizations that arose during...

 against the leftist uprisings, which resulted in the death of several left politicians and ended the partnership of the SPD in government with the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany
Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany
The Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany was a short-lived political party in Germany during the Second Reich and the Weimar Republic. The organization was established in 1917 as the result of a split of left wing members of the Social Democratic Party of Germany...

 (USPD).

After that he changed his politics to a “policy of compensating“ between the left and the right, between the workers and the enterprises. For that he followed a policy of brittle coalitions. This resulted in some problems, for example the SPD agreed during the crisis of 1923 to an extension of the work time without extra payment for the workers, but the conservative parties hadn’t agreed to also introduce taxes for the rich as an compensation. His death, which resulted in the monarchist Paul von Hindenburg
Paul von Hindenburg
Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg , known universally as Paul von Hindenburg was a Prussian-German field marshal, statesman, and politician, and served as the second President of Germany from 1925 to 1934....

 as his Presidential successor, is seen as an important break in the Weimar Republic
Weimar Republic
The Weimar Republic is the name given by historians to the parliamentary republic established in 1919 in Germany to replace the imperial form of government...

, which ended less than a decade later.

Biography


Born in Heidelberg
Heidelberg
-Early history:Between 600,000 and 200,000 years ago, "Heidelberg Man" died at nearby Mauer. His jaw bone was discovered in 1907; with scientific dating, his remains were determined to be the earliest evidence of human life in Europe. In the 5th century BC, a Celtic fortress of refuge and place of...

 as the son of a tailor, he himself was trained as a saddlemaker. He became involved in politics as a trade union
Trade union
A trade union, trades union or labor union is an organization of workers that have banded together to achieve common goals such as better working conditions. The trade union, through its leadership, bargains with the employer on behalf of union members and negotiates labour contracts with...

ist and Social Democrat, and soon became a leader of the "moderate" wing of the Social Democratic Party, becoming Secretary-General in 1905, and party chairman in 1913. In 1912 he was elected as a Member of the Reichstag (parliament of Germany) for the constituency of Elberfeld-Barmen (now part of Wuppertal).

In August 1914, Ebert led the party to vote almost unanimously in favour of war loans, accepting that the war was a necessary patriotic, defensive measure, especially against the autocratic regime of the Czar in Russia. The party's stance, under the leadership of Ebert and other "moderates" like Philipp Scheidemann
Philipp Scheidemann
Philipp Scheidemann was a German Social Democratic politician, who proclaimed the Republic on 9 November 1918, and who became the second Chancellor of the Weimar Republic....

, in favour of the war with the aim of a compromise peace, eventually led to a split, with those radically opposed to the war leaving the SPD in early 1917 to form the USPD
Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany
The Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany was a short-lived political party in Germany during the Second Reich and the Weimar Republic. The organization was established in 1917 as the result of a split of left wing members of the Social Democratic Party of Germany...

. For similar reasons several left-wing members of parliament had already distanced themselves from the party in 1916. Later they called themselves "Spartacists".

When it became clear that the war was lost, a new government was formed by Prince Maximilian of Baden
Prince Maximilian of Baden
Maximilian of Baden was a German prince and politician...

 which included Ebert and other members of the SPD in October 1918. Following the outbreak of the German Revolution
German Revolution
The German Revolution was the politically-driven civil conflict in Germany at the end of World War I, which resulted in the replacement of Germany's imperial government with a republic...

, Prince Max resigned on 9 November, and handed his office over to Ebert. Prince Max also declared that the Kaiser
William II, German Emperor
Wilhelm II was the last German Emperor and King of Prussia, ruling the German Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia from 15 June 1888 to 9 November 1918. He was a grandson of the British Queen Victoria and related to many monarchs and princes of Europe...

 had abdicated. Ebert favoured retaining the monarchy under a different ruler ("If the Kaiser does not abdicate, the social revolution is inevitable. But I do not want it, I even hate it like sin" he had said to Max von Baden on 7 November). On the same day, however, Scheidemann proclaimed the German Republic, in response to the unrest in Berlin and in order to counter a declaration of the "Free Socialist Republic" by Karl Liebknecht
Karl Liebknecht
was a German socialist and a co-founder with Rosa Luxemburg of the Spartacist League and the Communist Party of Germany. He is best known for his opposition to World War I in the Reichstag and his role in the Spartacist uprising of 1919...

 later that day. Ebert reproached him: "You have no right to proclaim the Republic!" By this he meant that the decision was to be made by an elected national assembly, even if that decision might be the restoration of the monarchy.

Scheidemann's proclamation ended the German monarchy, and an entirely Socialist provisional government based on workers' council
Workers' council
A workers' council, or revolutionary councils, is the phenomenon where a single place of work or enterprise, such as a factory, school, or farm, is controlled collectively by the workers of that workplace, through the core principle of temporary and instantly revocable delegates.In a system with...

s took power under Ebert's leadership.

Ebert led the new government for the next several months. He used the army under the command of Minister of Defense Gustav Noske
Gustav Noske
Gustav Noske was a German politician of the Social Democratic Party of Germany . He served as the first Minister of Defence of Germany between 1919 and 1920.-Biography:...

 and also Freikorps
Freikorps
Freikorps are German volunteer military or paramilitary units. The term was originally applied to voluntary armies formed in German lands from the middle of the 18th century onwards. Between World War I and World War II the term was also used for the paramilitary organizations that arose during...

(paramilitary organizations of ex-soldiers) to suppress a Spartacist uprising
Spartacist uprising
The Spartacist Uprising , also known as the January uprising , was a general strike in Germany from January 5 to January 15, 1919. Its suppression marked the end of the German Revolution...

 against the establishment of a parliamentary democracy. Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxemburg
Rosa Luxemburg
Rosa Luxemburg was a Marxist theorist, philosopher, economist and activist of Polish Jewish descent who became a naturalized German citizen...

 and Karl Liebknecht
Karl Liebknecht
was a German socialist and a co-founder with Rosa Luxemburg of the Spartacist League and the Communist Party of Germany. He is best known for his opposition to World War I in the Reichstag and his role in the Spartacist uprising of 1919...

 were murdered by members of the Freikorps. When the Constituent Assembly
Weimar National Assembly
The Weimar National Assembly governed Germany from February 6, 1919 to June 6, 1920 and drew up the new constitution which governed Germany from 1919 to 1933, technically remaining in effect even until the end of Nazi rule in 1945...

 met in Weimar in February, 1919, Ebert was chosen to be the first president of the German Republic
Weimar Republic
The Weimar Republic is the name given by historians to the parliamentary republic established in 1919 in Germany to replace the imperial form of government...

.

In 1920, the German workers protected his government from the right-wing Kapp Putsch
Kapp Putsch
The Kapp Putsch — or more accurately the Kapp-Lüttwitz Putsch — was a 1920 coup attempt during the German Revolution of 1918–1919 aimed at overthrowing the Weimar Republic...

 of some Freikorps elements by means of a nationwide general strike. The armed forces Reichswehr
Reichswehr
The Reichswehr formed the military organisation of Germany from 1919 until 1935, when it was renamed the Wehrmacht ....

 remained neutral and did not defend the republic. Nevertheless the government used the army and parts of the Freikorps in order to suppress a communist-led rebellion in Germany's main industrial area, the Ruhr district in north-west Germany. Thousands of people were killed.

Participants in the Kapp Putsch were treated leniently. The judiciary in the Weimar Republic was "blind in the right eye". Some of the Freikorps already used the swastika
Swastika
The swastika is an equilateral cross with its arms bent at right angles, in either right-facing form in counter clock motion or its mirrored left-facing form in clock motion. Earliest archaeological evidence of swastika-shaped ornaments dates back to the Indus Valley Civilization of Ancient...

 as their symbol of resistance against the "red pack" at the time, and many of them as well as right-wing members of the Reichswehr would later become influential National Socialists.

Vicious attacks by Ebert's right-wing adversaries, including slander and ridicule, were often condoned or even supported by the judiciary when the president turned to the courts. The constant necessity to defend himself against those attacks also undermined his health.

Ebert died on 28 February 1925, aged 54 from untreated appendicitis
Appendicitis
Appendicitis is a condition characterized by inflammation of the appendix. It is classified as a medical emergency and many cases require removal of the inflamed appendix, either by laparotomy or laparoscopy. Untreated, mortality is high, mainly because of the risk of rupture leading to...

.

Friedrich Ebert Foundation


Ebert‘s politics of compensating during the Weimar Republic is seen as an important archetype in the SPD. Today, the SPD-associated Friedrich Ebert Foundation
Friedrich Ebert Foundation
The Friedrich Ebert Foundation is a German political foundation associated with the Social Democratic Party of Germany , yet independent of it...

, Germany's largest and oldest party-affiliated foundation, which, among other things, promotes students of outstanding intellectual ability and personality, is named after Ebert.

Controversy about the Freikorps collaboration


Ebert remains a somewhat controversial figure to this day. While the SPD recognizes him as one of the founders and keepers of German democracy whose death in office in February 1925 was a great loss, communists and others on the left argue that he paved the way for fascism by supporting the ultra-right Freikorps and their violent suppression of "Marxist" uprisings.

The Freikorps, which consisted of World War I veterans, maintained that the German working class, supported by the SPD, was responsible for Germany's defeat in World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

. The alleged proof of this Dolchstoßlegende was found in a number of strikes during 1917 and 1918 which had partly disrupted production in the Imperial German armaments industry. The aim of the striking workers and their socialist allies was said to have been to turn Imperial Germany into a Soviet Socialist Republic. Most historians, however, say that military defeat was inevitable after the USA had joined the war against Germany. In November 1918, a delegation of members of parliament represented Germany in the ceasefire negotiations at the request of the military leadership after the generals had decided that the war could no longer be won. Critics say that thus the politicians exactly played the role that the military wanted them to play. Ebert later on even co-operated with the generals in order to prevent the country from falling into chaos, as he saw it.

Some historians have defended Ebert's actions as unfortunate but inevitable if the creation of a socialist state on the model that had been promoted by Rosa Luxemburg
Rosa Luxemburg
Rosa Luxemburg was a Marxist theorist, philosopher, economist and activist of Polish Jewish descent who became a naturalized German citizen...

, Karl Liebknecht
Karl Liebknecht
was a German socialist and a co-founder with Rosa Luxemburg of the Spartacist League and the Communist Party of Germany. He is best known for his opposition to World War I in the Reichstag and his role in the Spartacist uprising of 1919...

 and the communist Spartacus Group was to be prevented. Leftist historians like Bernt Engelmann, on the other hand, have argued that organized communism was not yet politically relevant in Germany at the time. However, the actions of Ebert and his Minister of Defense, Gustav Noske
Gustav Noske
Gustav Noske was a German politician of the Social Democratic Party of Germany . He served as the first Minister of Defence of Germany between 1919 and 1920.-Biography:...

, against the insurgents contributed to the radicalization of the workers and to increasing support for communist ideas.

Although the Weimar constitution (which Ebert signed into law in August 1919.) provided for the establishment of workers' councils on different levels of society, they did not play a major part in the political life of the Weimar Republic. Ebert always regarded the institutions of parliamentary democracy as a more legitimate expression of the will of the people; workers' councils, as a product of the revolution, were only justified in exercising power for a transitional period. "All power to all the people!" was the slogan of his party, in contrast to the slogan of the far left, "All power to the (workers') councils!".
In Ebert's opinion only reforms, not a revolution, could advance the causes of democracy and socialism. So he has been called a traitor by the far left, paving the way for the ascendancy of the far right and even of Hitler, whereas those who think his policies were justified claim that he saved Germany from Bolshevik excesses.

External links


President Friedrich Ebert Memorial in Heidelberg