The Ebert years in Germany (successes and failures)

Freidrich Ebert was born on 4th February 1871 and was a politician who rose up in the ranks to finally occupy the post of the President after World War I. Ebert was born into a large family and was very interested in studying but due to poor financial situation his desire to study was not fulfilled. As a journeyman he travelled across the country. Ebert not only learnt his trade but also about his country. He was introduced to Social Democratic Party in 1889 by his uncle. He was introduced to the writings of Karl Marx and Engels but did not take on to the Socialist ideas completely. He however wanted to improve the lot of workers.

After years of moving around doing odd jobs, he rented a pub which soon became a hub for socialist and union activities. Slowly he moved up in the ranks and in 1904 he presided over the national convention held in Bremen. Through this convention he was known to a wider public. He soon became the leader of the moderate wing of the socialist party. In 1905 he became the secretary general of the party and he moved to Berlin and became one of the youngest members of the party’s executive council. In 1912 the Social Democratic Party emerged as the strongest party with 110 members out of 397. On August 13th 1913, the Chairman August Bebel died and Ebert was elected as joint party chairman on September 20th at a convention in Jena.

When the July Crisis happened in 1914, Ebert was on a holiday. Once the war was declared he travelled to Zurich with some money in anticipation of the party being outlawed in Germany but did not stay in Zurich for long. He believed that war was defensive measure against the rule of Tsar of Russia. He also felt it was patriotic to fight the war. The co chairman of the party Hugo Haase resigned in 1916 and party was being led by the moderate Ebert and Phillips Scheidemann. The moderates wanted a conclusion for the war. This naturally led to a split in the party because some of them were not as moderates as many. Soon Ebert started a Progress Party in 1916. War for defence was accepted by Ebert but not to gain political territories. Ebert had lost two sons in this war. In 1918 there was a strike in munitions factories in Berlin and Ebert joined the strike leadership. Even though he supported the strike he wanted the workers to get back to work. The result of this approach was that he was criticized both by the right and the left. The right called him “traitor of the fatherland” and the left called him “traitor to the working class”.

Views Held By Ebert

  • Ebert always supported the working class. He wanted to improve their conditions.
  • However he did not believe that work come to standstill in the name of a strike.
  • He hated social revolution.
  • He supported the war as a way to defend the country.
  • Ebert was worried of Socialist Russia taking over the country.
  • He did not want monarchy to replace republic and worked for this.
  • Ebert was against Kaiser’s rule in Germany but was open to monarchy by anyone else from royal families.
  • He was a progressive who was both liked and hated by the people.

Ebert as the Chancellor

Ebert was a Chancellor and Minister President of Prussia at the same time. He was the first socialist and a commoner to occupy these posts. As a Chancellor

  • He asked people to remain calm and embrace peace and order but it fell on deaf ears.
  • He wanted the elected members to make laws even if it meant to bring back the monarchy.
  • However Ebert knew he had a tough situation at hand as he had to share power with the extremists of the party.
  • On November 10th Social Democratic Party took the support of the workers and the socialists and a pact was signed between both of them.
  • The Chief of Staff agreed to support Ebert to bring law and order in the country.

Progress under the Leadership of Ebert

  • Benefits for the unemployed were revised.
  • Working hours were changed to eight hours.
  • Universal suffrage for all above the age of 20.
  • Farmhands had the right to organise.
  • Extended the age limit for retirement.
  • Departments were set for vocational guidance and thereafter the placement of the apprentice.
  • In December 1918 a proclamation was made to the farmers to re-employ the workers who were enrolled into the army during the war.
  • Food supply improved.
  • Decrees regarding aviation were issued.
  • A restriction on possession of arms was enforced.

Ebert was against revolutions and favoured progress. He was accepted by most but not by the Spartacists who had extreme views in the party. A civil war erupted in December 1918. Ebert was considered as a political enemy by the nationalists and the conservatives. They even blamed him for the defeat in World War I. Ebert feared a complete takeover of socialism in Germany and favoured ceasefire. It was the civilian government and not the military which took part in the negotiations after the war. Hence the blame fell on the civilian government led by Ebert for all the humiliation faced by Germany after the war through the Treaty of Versailles.

The Weimar Republic which was constituted in February 1919 ensured that workers’ council would be established at various levels. But these councils did not play an effective role in the administration as Ebert considered them a product of revolution. For this he was considered as a traitor by the leftists. Ebert believed in reforms and not in revolutions. He was of the opinion that only reforms could advance the cause of democracy. “All power to all people” was the slogan of Ebert’s party. He was a man who had the right intentions but his actions were considered by the left wing to have paved way for the extreme right wing which threw up Adolf Hitler. His supporters opined Ebert saved Germany from Bolshevik excess. Freidrich Ebert died on February 28th 1925 after being operated on a delayed treatment of gall bladder stones.

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