Encyclopedia  |   World Factbook  |   World Flags  |   Reference Tables  |   List of Lists     
   Academic Disciplines  |   Historical Timeline  |   Themed Timelines  |   Biographies  |   How-Tos     
Sponsor by The Tattoo Collection
Friedrich Ebert
Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Friedrich Ebert

This is not the same Friedrich Ebert who was briefly East Germany's head of state, see Friedrich Ebert (GDR)


Friedrich Ebert (February 4, 1871 - February 28, 1925) was a German politician (SPD), who served as the last Chancellor of the German Empire and also as the first President of the Weimar Republic.

Born in Heidelberg as the son of a tailor, he himself was trained as a saddlemaker. He became involved in politics as a trade unionist and social democrat, and soon became a leader of the more moderate "revisionist" wing of the Social Democratic Party, becoming Secretary-General of the party in 1905, and party chairman in 1913.

In August 1914, Ebert led the party to vote almost unanimously in favor of war appropriations, accepting German propaganda that a war was a necessary patriotic, defensive measure. This refuted the belief of the German Kaiser who, on December 31, 1905, had written to chancellor Bülow that an "external war" was only possibly if the socialists were "shot, decapitated and defanged".

The party's stance, under the leadership of Ebert and other revisionists like Philipp Scheidemann, in favor of the war eventually led to a split, with the more left wing elements in the party leaving in early 1917 to form the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD).

When it became clear that the war was lost, a new government was formed by Prince Maximilian of Baden which included Ebert and other members of the Social Democratic party in October 1918. Following the outbreak of the German Revolution, Prince Max resigned on November 9, and Ebert was appointed Imperial Chancellor. The next day, however, in response to the unrest in Berlin, Ebert's associate Scheidemann declared the Kaiser had abdicated, ending the German Monarchy and proclaimed the German Republic, and an entirely Socialist provisional government took power under Ebert's leadership.

Ebert accepted this position only reluctantly. He was a supporter of the monarchy until the abdication of the Kaiser ("If the Kaiser abdicates, the social revolution is inevitable. But I do not want it, I hate it like sin", he said to Max von Baden on November 7), and when Schneidemann proclaimed the Republic he responded: "Is that true? 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 would be the restoration of the monarchy.

Ebert led the new government for the next several months, notably using the army to suppress an uprising by the leftist Spartacist movement, commonly identified with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, even though many of its members were centrist SPD supporters. (Ironically, years later, Ebert's son, Friedrich "Fritz" Ebert, became a Communist, served as Mayor of East Berlin, and briefly acted as East German interim head of state.) When the Constituent Assembly met in Weimar in February, 1919, Ebert was chosen to be the first president of the German Republic.

In spite of Ebert's support for the violent suppression of revolutionary uprisings, the German workers protected his government from the Kapp Putsch in 1920 by means of a nation-wide general strike. After the strike was over, however, Ebert's government again recruited the Freikorps and the soldiers who had wanted to overthrow him in order to quell remaining uprisings in western Germany.

While hundreds of civilians were killed (including many who had nothing to do with the uprising), most of the putschists were treated leniently. Some of the Freikorps already used the swastika 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.

In November 1923, Ebert rebuked his own party for leaving the coalition government of Gustav Stresemann.

Legacy

Ebert remains a highly 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, socialists and communists argue that he paved the way for fascism by supporting the ultra-right Freikorps and their violent suppression of workers' urprisings.

Those were the same people who spread the Dolchstoßlegende, the idea that the socialists were responsible for Germany's defeat in World War I. This was a particularly perfidious claim, as the socialists had entered the ceasefire negotiations on request of the military leadership, after the generals had decided that the war could no longer be won. To the generals, the Weimar Republic was a temporary, necessary evil to divert blame from themselves and prepare for the next war, and Ebert is viewed by his critics as playing exactly the role that the military wanted him to play.

Some historians have defended Ebert's actions as unfortunate but inevitable to prevent the creation of a communist state (which they view as unacceptable). Leftist historians like Bernt Engelmann have argued that many of the workers were in fact centrist SPD supporters, and that the communist party was not yet politically relevant (in part because of the assassination of Liebknecht and Luxemburg). However, the actions of Ebert and his Minister of Defense, Gustav Noske, against the workers contributed to their radicalization and to increasing support for communist ideas.

The creation of elected workers' councils, which Ebert had tolerated in the early days of the republic, was viewed by moderate workers as a legitimate centrist instrument to oversee the democratic government, when many government officials were reactionaries who yearned for a return of the monarchy, and when workers still enjoyed little protection from exploitation, so that strikes were frequently ended with machine guns.

Ebert's critics view him as a knowing or unknowing agent of the reaction who made the wrong decisions in shaping post-war Germany by giving power and influence to those who had already sought German world domination in World War I and preventing the creation of a united, progressive political party. Anti-SPD slogans such as "Wer hat uns verraten? Sozialdemokraten!" ("Who betrayed us? Social democrats!") were born out of the experiences of Ebert's era. Even his defenders acknowledge that with his death, the end of the Weimar Republic became inevitable. His successor, Paul von Hindenburg, had been one of the military leaders of World War I.

Chancellors of Germany
Preceded by:
Prince Maximilian of Baden
1918 Followed by:
Philipp Scheidemann
Prime Ministers of Prussia
Preceded by:
'''Prince Maximilian of Baden
1918 Followed by:
'''Paul Hirsch
Presidents of Germany
Preceded by:
(first President)
1919-1925 Followed by:
'''Paul von Hindenburg