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
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 The leftists who had withdrawn from the SPD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:
democracy there is no freedom. Violence, no matter who is using
it, is always reactionary.
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 Eberts 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
especially groups loyal to the German army, continued to systematically
undermine Eberts 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
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
- and to contribute
to international understanding and cooperation wherever possible
as a protection against new wars and conflicts.