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Book Review:

Ebert's Enlightening Biography

Friedrich Ebert 1871-1925

Author: Walter Mühlhausen, translated by Christine Brocks

Published by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung

Price: Undisclosed

Pages: 128

Friedrich Ebert: A Social Democratic Statesman, a biography by Walter Muhlhausen; translated by Christine Brocks; Price not mentioned; ISBN 978-3-8012-4228-2; Page 128.

Friedrich Ebert, the first chancellor and the first democratically elected president of German Republic, was a pioneering figure in introducing and consolidating parliamentary democracy in his country. Moreover, he was a devoted and true social democrat, who rose from proletariat background and established social democracy as the foundational values of German society. He steered the nation through revolution and civil war. In his turbulent political career, he fought against ultra-right, ultra-left and international isolation simultaneously in the wake of First World War. He is credited to have prevented Germany from sliding into Bolshevik-styled revolution. As a moderate social democrat, Ebert often believed in gradual reform and evolution. He abhorred convulsive and bloody revolution that would invite unbearable suffering to the masses and destroy the social fabric. German took the middle-of-the-road course following the abolition of the monarchy. No matter which party is at the helm of power, social democracy principles remain at the core of every government's policies, programmes and conduct in the federal republic of Germany today. For this, much of credit goes to Ebert, who had proclaimed many a far-reaching programme to the benefit of working class and general public.

With a view to see and interpret Ebert's political career and legacy from fresh perspective, Walter Muhlhausen, the managing director of the Reich President Friedrich Ebert Memorial Foundation in Heidelberg, has brought 'Friedrich Ebert: A Social Democratic Statesman'. Like its petite size, the book crisply and pointedly highlights momentous moments of German statesman, who presided over 'the most unpopular republic,' and tested adulation and criticism in equal measure during the final years of his life. With five chapters plus prologue, the biography delves into Ebert's ideological underpinning, political struggle and rise to power.

Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin and Ebert were contemporary. Both were the paladin of socialist movement but their understanding of democracy was incompatible with each other. Muhlhausen writes: "Ebert did not aspire to a new class rule. 'All power to the councils', the rule which a particular class made up of a minority of revolutionaries around the radical Spartacus League- led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht- demanded, was incompatible with Ebert's democratic convictions. For him it was about equality of all people, the great, ideal concept of democracy." The author quotes Ebert's speech delivered in the first conference of the Workers' and Soldiers' Council on 16 December, 1918: "There can only be one source of law in Germany in the long run: the will of the entire German people. That was the purpose of the revolution. [....] The victorious proletariat does not impose class rule. It overcomes the old system of class rule, first in political, then in economic terms and establishes equality of all beings with a human face. This is the grand idea of democracy."

Author seems to have missed to elucidate a potential ideological union between Ebert and Rosa. Like Ebert, Rosa too strongly rejected the notion of 'the dictatorship of proletariat' espoused and practiced by Lenin. She vehemently protested the 'suppression of democracy and freedom' at the hand of Bolsheviks. In a twist and turn of history, Rosa as an influential figure of Communist Party of Germany was brutally killed by the right-wing Freikorps on President Ebert's watch. Both Liebknecht and Rosa had participated in the January uprising in 1919. Ebert had tried to do justice to his jilted comrades posthumously by bringing their killers to book but to little avail.

In history, there is no space for 'the might-have-been' theory but historian invokes it to criticise Ebert for letting great opportunities slip through his fingers. They argue that 'Ebert and the majority of Social Democrats did not make any attempts to democratise administration, economy and military vital to stabilise the foundation of the new republic. It is also said the delay in the drastic reform brought two nastier consequences- first, it radicalised the workers, who posed a Bolshevik threat to the new republic and second, it set the stage for the rise of National Socialism under Hitler. However, the author of the book rebuts these charges. He says that this line of argument 'ignores what had been accomplished only a few weeks after the changes of 9 November 1918 and- of equal importance- what had been accomplished. There was not only (allegedly) missed chances but also prevented disasters.'

Consensus, compromise and collaboration form the basis of Ebert's political template. It was his mantra before and after the revolution. During the revolution, he forged an alliance with Independent Social Democratic Party but he went for 'grand coalition' as the nation was passing through great chaos. To save the new republic and end deepening social divide, he entered into a partnership with democratic bourgeois. This political arrangement has evolved into an accepted norm in Germany in the era of peace too.

Ebert has been rightly hailed as one of the pioneers and pillars of the Weimar Republic because of his selfless service to and sacrifice for its establishment. Sadly, 'Abraham Lincoln of German History' became the victim of fatal defamation campaign from both sides- the radical left and ultra-right. The left derided him as 'traitor to the working class' because he stopped Germany from turning into a communist state. He embraced the motto of 'All power to all the people!' against the slogan of 'All power to the (workers') councils!' Unlike Lenin, Ebert took workers' councils only as the by-product of revolution. For him, only the institutions of parliamentary democracy represent the legitimate will of the people. Anti-republican monarchists, who considered the republic nothing else than the despicable system of the 'November criminals' accused him of being a 'traitor to the fatherland'- the most offensive allegation heaped on the Reich president.

The book highlights a cherished chapter of Germany's modern history overshadowed by the Nazi rule, Second World War and painful division. To read a book that intriguingly narrates the epic struggle of a journeyman saddler before ascending to the highest public post, is both exciting and enlightening. With weighty language and intellectual analysis, it is immensely useful for all interested in history, ideology and revolution.

The book review was published in Friday Supplement, The Rising Nepal (8 April 2016)

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