Ebert, Friedrich (1871–1925)

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EBERT, FRIEDRICH (1871–1925)


German Social Democratic politician.

Friedrich Ebert was born in Heidelberg. The son of an independent tailor, he studied to be a saddler and during travels as a journeyman joined the Social Democratic Party (SPD), becoming a trade union activist. Because of the repressive (anti) Socialist Laws, he moved from place to place continually until he settled in Bremen in 1891, becoming a leading local functionary in both the federation of trade unions and the SPD. He served on the city parliament from 1900 to 1905, when he entered national politics, becoming a secretary to the executive office of the SPD and moving to Berlin. Elected to the Reichstag in 1912, he became one of the two co-presidents of the SPD after the death of its founder, August Bebel.

During the crises of July 1914, following the assassination of Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand, Ebert left Germany for some weeks to prepare for an executive office-in-exile in case the SPD was banned. Joining the majority of the party's parliamentary members in approving the war budget, he became the leading Social Democratic politician after the left-wing and pacifist opponents of the war left the party in 1916 and 1917. In January 1918 he attempted to settle a Berlin metalworkers strike smoothly and quickly, an effort that attracted polemics both from chauvinists and leftists, who denounced him as a traitor to the fatherland and the working class, respectively.

He stayed in contact with reform-oriented elements of the administration and supported the constitutional reforms of October 1918, which favored a constitutional monarchy, and joined the new government of Chancellor Prince Max von Baden as undersecretary of state. With the outbreak of revolution in November and the abdication of Emperor William II, Ebert became co-president of the Council of the People's Commissioners, the six-person committee leading the revolutionary movement, and he worked for a rapid transition to parliamentary rule. This policy was based on his personal alliance with the Supreme Army Command under General Wilhelm Groener, an alliance that enabled him to suppress left-wing attempts to establish alternative centers of revolutionary power—Räte, the equivalent of soviets—in Berlin, Bremen, and Bavaria.

On 11 February 1919 Ebert was elected president of the Reich by the National Assembly, which had adopted a republican constitution in Weimar, where the assembly met in order to escape an insecure situation in the capital (hence the name Weimar Republic). From the beginning of his term, Ebert came under ferocious attacks by right-wing opponents of the new political order, who accused him, and Social Democrats in general, of obstructing the German army during World War I. In a defamation trial, a local district court even deemed his participation in the Berlin strike high treason. On 28 February 1925, six month before his term as Reich president was to end, Ebert died of an untreated inflammation of the appendix.

To Social Democratic leaders of the German Empire, Ebert represented a generation of young pragmatists with a reformist worldview who were prepared to integrate the working class into the existing order if they were granted political equality and social rights in a modern welfare state. He remained true to this antirevolutionary approach during the postwar crisis of 1918 and 1919, when he decided that making a rapid transition to a constitutional government based on an agreement with the military leadership was more important than creating a broad alliance of the Left, which would have entailed cooperation with movements that wanted to complete the revolution's socialist agenda. This antirevolutionary partnership, however, led to the tragic end of his career as well as the fatal flaw in the Weimar Republic: that representatives of the ancient elites, who were spared a violent revolution thanks at least in part to Ebert's intervention, focused their opposition to the young republic on its top representative. In the last two years of his life, the republican center of the political landscape had already been deserted as a result of growing political polarization, making Ebert the head of a "republic without republicans." When the war hero General Paul von Hindenburg—an open opponent of the republic and a zealous proponent of the belief that Germany had been defeated from within during World War I—was elected to Ebert's former office of Reich president, the end of the first modern German democracy had begun.

Ebert's legacy is marked in his native city of Heidelberg, and as early as 1925 the German Social Democratic Party established a foundation named after him to support cultural, scholarly, and educational activities. It has become one of the largest foundations of its kind in the world.

See alsoGermany; Hindenburg, Paul von; Social Democracy; World War I.


"Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung." Available at http://forum.fesinternational.de/sets/s_stif.htm

Mühlausen, Walter. Friedrich Ebert, 1871–1925. Reichspräsident der Weimarer Republik. Bonn, 2006.

Thomas Lindenberger