Imagine being elected President in a time of economic crisis and systemic stress, with a hyper-polarized electorate teetering on the verge of apparent civil war. There is flagging faith in democratic institutions and pressure from your political opponents on both the left and the right. Right wing putschists attempt to foment attacks on the fundamental institutions and players of democratic governance and life. You, however, have worked your whole life for freedom, justice, and equality under the law. You are the safeguard and mediator in a democratic experiment.
In these terms, this framing sounds a bit like current events in the United States and elsewhere. But this is also part of the story of Friedrich Ebert – Germany’s first democratically elected head of state – who was born 150 years ago today. His legacy is an important chapter in Germany’s history, and this foundation works in his same spirit.
While little is known about Ebert’s childhood and youth, we know this: born in Heidelberg on February 4th, 1871 – in the same year as the unification of the first single German state – Friedrich was the seventh of nine children born to Karl and Katharina Ebert. His parents were tailors, and the family was part of a milieu of tradespeople, day laborers, and working-class wage earners. Friedrich apprenticed as a saddler and traveled through Germany. In 1889, he joined the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), which endorsed the values of freedom, equality, and justice.
The political environment Ebert came of age in was one of tension and flux. After German unification under Otto von Bismarck – resulting in a unified state under overwhelming Prussian rule and influence – the nascent democratic and worker’s movements were suppressed. The 1878 “Socialist Law” outlawed social-democratic organizations and publications in an attempt to end threats to the monarchist order. This effort backfired, with social democrats organizing internationally and diligently working in clandestine conditions. The Socialist Law was repealed in 1890, and democrats and workers continued to gain political traction.
In 1891, Ebert moved to Bremen, a port city in northwest Germany, and spent some months in 1893 editing the local social democratic newspaper, the Bremer Bürger-Zeitung. It was here he started a family and gained notice for his unusual oratory skills. His position at the newspaper gave him visibility among the workers and social democrats, but it was not a job he kept for long. A self-starter with great organizational skill, he became a restaurant manager and barkeep. For six years, he recieved a daily education behind the bar, keeping up with social, labor, and legal affairs of the local working class. Immersed in their worries, their struggles, and their experiences, and in front of the backdrop of Bismarck’s social insurance scheme, Ebert received a hands-on education in policy, provided advice to his community, and was elected by the local trade-unions to be a worker’s secretary in 1900. This position was a full-time job advocating for the welfare of the working class and was the first of Ebert’s elected offices.
From this modest start in local affairs, Ebert was recruited by the SPD to run for the Bremen state parliament, where he was elected and soon became Chair of the party’s parliamentary group. Five years later, he was off to Berlin and worked his way through the party, becoming Chair of the SPD in 1913 following the death of August Bebel – one of the founders of the party.
Following the First World War and the defeat of Imperial Germany, revolution swept the country that – though painfully – resulted in the creation of the first democratic German government in the Weimar Republic. On November 9, 1918, Prince Max von Baden transferred control of the government to Friedrich Ebert, the Social Democrat and son of garment workers. Ebert only exercised the office for a day, before a kind of transitional government took over and the fight for democracy began in earnest.
For Ebert, democracy meant freedom, equality in the equal participation of each citizen – male and female – and justice. It could only be safeguarded under a robust system of rule of law. On February 6, 1919, Ebert opened the first freely elected democratic parliament in German history in Weimar, and five days later, on February 11th, 1919, he was elected President of the Republic, Germany’s first democratically elected head of state.
The country Friedrich Ebert was now to lead was in profound transformation. A complete change of political system was taking place; economically and internationally, Germany was burdened by the consequences of the First World War, and a hyperpolarized society was teetering on the edge of civil war, while great lies and conspiracy theories circulated which attempted to explain away military defeat as the product of a ‘stab-in-the-back’ from inside German society.
As head of state of the young republic, Ebert had to confront profound and unusual challenges: collapsing coalition governments, reparations payments for WWI and the consequent economic burden, right-wing putschists fomenting attacks on the institutions and representatives of the young democracy, and a spate of political assassinations. Ebert’s six years as President saw no fewer than 9 different chancellors (heads of government) and twelve cabinets. The average political lifespan of a government was 6 months. At times overwhelmed by the challenges facing him in the fight for the preservation of democracy, Ebert considered resigning, but recognized this would be an even greater danger for the young republic, the fight for the common good, as well as Germany’s democratic promise and constitution.
The Weimar constitution gave the President great powers, to set the office against the power of government and the parliament. These Presidential powers included the ability to name the Chancellor, influence the representation of the state under international law, supreme command of the armed forces, and the ability to invoke an emergency under the 48th article of the constitution. The power of the President was enormous relative to the parliament and the government, yet Ebert viewed the Presidency differently: to support and be part of – not a counter to – the government. Motivated by his commitment to democratic governance – constructive relations with parliament and government, active involvement in mediating disputes, and setting precedents to stabilize the young democracy – Ebert saw the Presidency and his role in office as protector of the constitution and democratic order.
Attacked by reactionary opponents on the right and by communists on the left, Ebert’s health suffered. He died of appendicitis on 28 February 1925, at only 54 years of age. Paul von Hindenburg, a conservative and proponent of the stab-in-the-back conspiracy, became the second and last President of the Weimar Republic.
Friedrich Ebert defended democracy and fought for it – as well as solidarity, equality, and justice – his entire life. It remains worth fighting for, and we do so every day. Happy Birthday, Fritz!
To learn more about Friedrich Ebert (auf deutsch), click here. For further research resources, you could consult the FES Library and the Reichspräsident Friedrich Ebert Memorial Foundation.
What are the prospects of a reinvented transatlantic partnership between the US and Germany? More