Ebert and the Weimar Republic

Friedrich Ebert was the first president of the Weimar Republic. Born into a working-class family in 1871, Ebert was trained in leathercraft and made his early living as a saddler. In his twenties Ebert became involved in trade unions, then the left-wing of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). He became a member of the Reichstag in 1912 and leader of the SPD the following year. By then, Ebert’s own political views had mellowed – he remained sympathetic to unions and working class interests, but was no radical, preferring the civility and certainty of political reform to upheaval, disorder and revolution. “Without democracy, there is no freedom”, Ebert said in 1918. “Violence, no matter who is using it, is reactionary.”

During World War I, Ebert had invited criticism and controversy by supporting the war effort and the Kaiser’s wartime government – a position that caused a major split in the ranks of his party. In 1915 a radical anti-war faction of the SPD broke away to form the Spartakusbund; this group would form the basis of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD). In October 1918, with the war going poorly and public morale collapsing, the government was assumed by a coalition led by liberal politician Prince Max von Baden. Ebert and Philipp Scheidermann became ministers, the first time that members of the SPD had been appointed to the national cabinet. When Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated on November 9th, von Baden resigned and Ebert became the first president of the new German republic.

As this was transpiring, KPD members were themselves preparing to fill the power vacuum left by the departing kaiser. As the communists organised and rallied their members for an attempt at socialist revolution, Ebert stood firm. His preference was for Germany to evolve into a social democracy, not have socialism thrust upon it by force. (He would later say of the revolution: “I do not want it, I even hate it like sin!”) On November 9th, the day he was proclaimed as president, Ebert made a handshake agreement with Wilhelm Groener, a member of the Reichswehr high command. Recognising the weakness of his government, Ebert sought the backing of the army. Groener reluctantly agreed, though he insisted that the new civilian government agree not to disband, reform or interfere with the Reichswehr. The Ebert-Groener pact, as it became known, proved critical factor to the government’s survival. The brigades of Freikorps (returned soldiers) who would defeat the Spartacist revolt acted with the endorsement of Reichswehr officers.

“In the early years of Weimar, Ebert acted as primus inter pares, or ‘big brother’, to coalition governments. Ebert possessed mixed values. On the one hand, Ebert had strong paternal tendencies… On the other hand, he was a self-proclaimed democrat and considered himself to be above petty factional disputes. Ebert was the idol of the revolutionary factions. He was a strong silent type who despised the hierarchical nature of the old order… To his followers within the Weimar coalition, he was often regarded as a saint… But to his enemies, Ebert was the devil incarnate, referred to by a collection of derogatory titles (the ‘November Criminal’, the ‘Traitor to Germany’, the ‘Back Stabber’).”
Matthew C. Wells, historian

To the radical left-wing of German politics, Ebert was damned as a traitor, a man who aligned himself with monarchists, militarists and reactionaries so he could cling to power. But to the moderates and liberals, he seemed the best candidate to oversee Germany’s transition to democracy. In December 1918, Ebert convened elections for a new National Assembly; these elections were held on January 19th the following year. The new assembly met for the first time on February 6th in Weimar, due to the continuing unrest in Berlin. This first meeting place lent its name to the new government: the Weimar Republic. Ebert was confirmed as president, a position he held until his death in 1925. But in his six years in office, Ebert would be confronted by political opposition and economic crises which threatened the fledgeling republic. The communists, defeated in 1919 but not annihilated, continued to threaten revolution; so too did radical elements in the Reichswehr and Freikorps. Though the political right wing had helped save Ebert and the republic in 1919, their ranks contained few supporters of republicanism or liberal democracy. The 1920s would be littered with dozens of right-wing political and paramilitary groups, all dreaming of the return of the monarchy, Bismarckian authority, restored military power and revived German prestige.

The Weimar Republic managed to survived these internal challenges – but it came at considerable cost. The political divisions in Germany made government a long, arduous and sometimes impossible task. Extremists conducted a campaign of intimidation and political violence; several high profile Weimar politicians were assassinated. Ebert and other leaders were subject to stinging political and personal criticism. In 1924 a conservative judge declared the president to be guilty of “high treason” because he had supported striking munitions workers during the war. All this took a toll on Ebert’s health, and he died in office shortly after (February 1925). Ebert’s successor as president was Paul von Hindenburg, the Junker aristocrat who had been Germany’s military commander and de facto dictator for much of World War I. Hindenburg’s election was indicative of growing conservatism among German voters.

Historians are divided about Ebert’s legacy and the effectiveness of his presidency. His fellow socialists criticise Ebert as a traitor for ignoring fundamental left-wing values and relying on the dangerous Freikorps to impose control. To those on the political right wing, Ebert was a ‘November criminal’, a signatory to the hated Treaty of Versailles and a weak politician infected by socialist and democratic values. More realistically, Ebert’s challenge of uniting Germany – at a time when it was so bitterly divided and stricken by economic problems – was perhaps an impossible one.

1. Ebert was the leader of the SPD and a former socialist whose views had moderated over time.
2. He became a minister in October 1918, then the first president of the German republic in November.
3. His support for the war led to radical breakaway factions of the SPD, such as the Communist Party.
4. Ebert opposed the communist revolution in January 1919 and called in Freikorps units to quash it.
5. This made him controversial, despised by radicals on both the left- and right-wing of German politics.

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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Ebert play and the Weimar Republic”, Alpha History, 2014, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/weimarrepublic/ebert-birth-weimar-republic/.