Friedrich Ebert

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Friedrich Ebert

The German Social Democratic leader Friedrich Ebert (1871-1925) served as the first president of Germany.

Friedrich Ebert was born in Heidelberg on Feb. 4, 1871, the son of a master tailor. Trained as a saddler, he turned to socialism at the age of 18 under the influence of an uncle. Although the anti-Socialist law was repealed that same year (1889), political harassment forced the young journeyman to change jobs and residences several times until he settled in Bremen in May 1891. Elected head of the local saddlers' union shortly after his arrival, he devoted his time increasingly to politics. He left his job and joined the Social Democratic organ Bremer Buerger-Zeitung, becoming editor in March 1893.

A tireless agitator, popular campaigner, and able organizer, Ebert quickly rose in the Bremen Social Democratic party (SPD). In 1900 he was elected to the City Parliament and became secretary of the local consolidated union organization. From his dominant position in the Bremen labor movement he entered the national party hierarchy in 1905 as secretary of the party Executive Committee and in 1912 was elected to the Reichstag (Imperial Diet). Here his reputation as a mediator between the right and left wings of the party brought his election to the SPD Executive in 1913; in 1916 he became party floor leader in the Reichstag.

A vigorous advocate of peace and an opponent of annexations during World War I, Ebert was the man to whom the defeated monarchist leadership turned in the face of threatening revolution and chaos in 1918. Initially opposed to the proclamation of the republic, he organized a provisional People's Commission of Social Democrats and Independent Socialists on Nov. 9, 1918. This government signed the armistice with the Western Powers (Nov. 11, 1918), dealt with revolutionary threats from left and right (chiefly through an agreement with the army, the "Ebert-Groener Deal"), and made preparations for the election of a Constitutional Assembly (January 1919). On Feb. 11, 1919, the National Assembly elected Ebert provisional president of the new German Republic; he was reelected by the Reichstag in October 1922.

Ebert gave the presidential office a special dignity through his honesty, simplicity, strong convictions, and concern for the common man. Continually striving to maintain government stability, he promoted strong coalitions of the moderate forces of the Reichstag in order to combat the numerous antirepublican threats from right and left and to strengthen a foreign policy of reconciliation. He was, however, virulently attacked by the nationalist press, and his health finally broke in a bitter struggle against a malicious accusation of high treason (December 1924) which was upheld by a reactionary court. He died in Berlin on Feb. 28, 1925.

Further Reading

There is no biography of Ebert in English. For general information see Erich Eyck, A History of the Weimar Republic (2 vols., 1954-1956; trans., 2 vols., 1962-1963), and Carl E. Schorske, German Social Democracy, 1905-1917 (1955). □