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Who was Friedrich Ebert?

Freedom and Justice are twin sisters. Freedom can only flourish when protected by strong governmental order. To protect this order and to recreate it where it was violated is of the highest importance to those who love freedom.

First presidential inaugural address, 1919

Friedrich Ebert played a tremendously important role in the history of German democracy. As the first-ever democratically elected president of Germany, and as the leader of the Social Democratic movement, he made seminal contributions in bringing about the Weimar constitution that turned Germany into a republic for the first time and attempted to unite it after its defeat in World War I. He was president of the Weimar Republic from 1919 until his death in 1925.

Ebert was born in Heidelberg in 1871. He learned the saddler's trade and traveled through Germany as a journeyman saddler. He soon became a Social Democrat and trade unionist, representing the so-called revisionist – gradualist, liberal – "trade-union" wing of the party that was less involved in the ideological struggles of Marxism. His attention was always directed toward practical improvement in the living conditions of the German working class and, above all, its social betterment.

In 1905 Ebert became secretary general of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and in 1913 succeeded August Bebel as party chairman. By the time he was chairman, the SPD was established as a major democratic force, despite decades of repression and continuing harassment from the ultra-conservative powers in Germany.

Under his leadership, the Social Democratic movement gained increasing influence in German national politics. But he could not hold the entire party to his course for long. In March 1917 a left-wing faction left the party to become the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (USPD), strenuously rejecting Germany's war policy. Another group split from the SPD to form the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). The leftists who had withdrawn from the SPD sought a social revolution, while Friedrich Ebert and the majority of his party wanted to establish a German parliamentary democracy. In the midst of the war, the Catholic Centre Party, the Democratic Party (previously the Progressive Party), and the Social Democrats had formed the so-called Weimar coalition to push for a reform of the monarchy.

With Ebert's active cooperation, a new government, headed by Prince Max of Baden and consisting of the three parties of the Weimar coalition, was organized in October 1918 through a sweeping constitutional reform that in essential respects foreshadowed the Weimar Constitution. Thus, Germany would not have needed a revolution to achieve parliamentary democratic reform, and Ebert did everything he could to prevent such a revolution from occurring. He was afraid of the often violent consequences of revolutions and of the tyranny of extremists groups, as reflected in his statement at the height of the inevitable revolution:

“Without democracy there is no freedom. Violence, no matter who is using it, is always reactionary.”

The revolution came three days before the armistice. It triumphed in Berlin on November 9, and on the same day Prince Max of Baden, acting on his own authority, asked Friedrich Ebert to replace him as chancellor. Ebert actually held office as chancellor under the empirial constitution for one day. On November 10 he yielded to the fait accompli of the revolution and set up an entirely Socialist government, with representatives from the SPD and USPD. Ebert was determined to place the power of the revolutionary government as soon as possible in the hands of a freely elected German parliament. He wished to see a legitimately elected coalition government in power rather than a Socialist regime.

The elections of January 1919 gave the Weimar coalition a sweeping victory with a majority of 85 percent, showing the strong support of the German people for Ebert’s position. The new German constitution, the Weimar Constitution, so called after the town in which it was drawn up, was the work of the coalition. By the votes of the three parties forming the coalition, Ebert was elected the first president of the republic.

Yet with the elections to the republic's first parliament on June 6, 1920, the Weimar coalition lost its majority and was never to regain it. The Social Democratic Party thereby lost its commanding position in the Reich, and the political constellation on which Ebert's leadership had been based dissolved. The electoral defeat was a direct result of the Treaty of Versailles. At that time many Germans were convinced that the peace of Versailles aimed at the destruction of Germany. The resulting loss of confidence in the ruling democratic parties was the death blow of the Weimar republic.

Reactionary forces, especially groups loyal to the German army, continued to systematically undermine Ebert’s effort to reconcile the politically divided German society and treated him with outright hostility. His efforts to keep the struggling fragile democracy afloat found no support of the German right, which eventually succeeded in their attempt to abolish democracy with tragic consequences.

The judgement of a German court, which ruled that Ebert had committed high treason, at least in the legal sense, during the war by his support of a munition workers' strike, contributed to his early death in 1925.

In order to honor his steadfast believe in democracy, freedom and peace, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung was established soon after his death. Building on his experience, the foundation serves a triple aim:

- to further a political culture based on democracy and pluralism by means of civic education for all strata of German society.

- to facilitate access to higher education for gifted young people from the less advantaged groups of the German population by means of scholarships,

- and to contribute to international understanding and cooperation wherever possible as a protection against new wars and conflicts.


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