Many German towns have a Friedrich-Ebert-Street. There is also a number of schools, even a foundation, named after Friedrich Ebert. So who was this man whose name is remembered so widely?
In short – the first man to ever be head of a German democracy. But of course there is far more to tell.
He was born on February 4, 1871 as the seventh child of a tailor and his wife. It was an important year in German history, the first year that there was a Germany. The Kingdom of Prussia, with the help of the other German kingdoms and duchies, had just defeated France in the Franco-Prussian War. Prussia, strengthened in its position by the victory, used it as an occasion to proclaim the German Empire, with the Prussian King Wilhelm I as the German Emperor. There had been previous attempts to form alliances and unite the multitude of often tiny sovereignties, but they were all short-lived and never included all the territory that was now part of the German Empire.
Friedrich Ebert, born in the same year as the German Empire, started an apprenticeship as a saddlemaker at the age of fourteen, but never took his final exam. His master gave him a slap in the face four weeks before the exam, and while harsh treatment of apprentices was common, Friedrich Ebert decided to leave. His hot temper has been mentioned quite often later on. He became a travelling craftsman and while he toured Germany, working here and there, he came in touch with the unions and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), which was to shape his life.
He engaged himself for the workers, something that was not looked upon favourably in an Imperial Germany where the ruling classes worried about the “red danger“. With dedication he carried out his work for union and party, founding union offices, organizing a successful strike in Kassel – making himself unpopular with the government and employers. In fact, his name was black-listed.
For three years, he moved from town to town before eventually settling down in Bremen in 1891. After earning his money with occasional jobs for another three years, he opened an inn in 1894 right after his marriage to the worker Louise Rump. The inn became a central meeting place for unionists and Social Democrats, while the marriage brought Friedrich Ebert four sons and one daughter. When the first son was born five months after the wedding, the parents placed a birth notification in the newspaper, saying “A small subversive has arrived,” referring to the derogatory term many used for Social Democrats.
Far from just giving speeches – which were known for being well-researched and sharp-tongued – Friedrich Ebert did his best to listen to and help the workers. Workers in Bremen knew that when they went to Ebert’s inn, they would find an open ear and help. Ebert was in direct contact with the workers, he knew their problems first-hand and he realized that the state needed to make changes to help the working class. In 1900, he closed the inn, never having enjoyed the life of an inn keeper. From then on, he fully concentrated on politics and rose continuously within the SPD, to become party leader in 1913.
1914 marked the beginning of Europe being flooded with blood and violence for four years. Friedrich Ebert and his wife lost two of their sons to the war in 1917. In 1918, the population of Germany started to demonstrate against the war, which culminated in the November revolution. In October, German Emperor Wilhelm II had made some last attempts to save himself by reorganising the government. For the first time in German history, SPD party members, including Friedrich Ebert, were part of an Imperial government in Germany. Interestingly, Ebert was in favour of the monarchy and when demands for an abdication of the Emperor grew stronger, he made his position clear, while also acknowledging that the abdication was necessary to avoid further unrest, since the people blamed their Emperor for the war.
Then things happened swiftly. In an attempt to prevent Civil War, the Reichskanzler (Imperial Chancellor) Max von Baden announced the dethronement of Emperor Wilhelm II on November 9, 1918 as well as his own resignation as Reichskanzler. The new Reichskanzler (later Reichspräsident) was to be – Friedrich Ebert. For the first time in its history, Germany was a Republic (founded in 1919 in Weimar as the Weimarer Republik). Its head Friedrich Ebert faced a mountain of problems.
The country was in chaos, 8 million demobilised soldiers had to be re-integrated, left wing and right wing politicians argued with and amongst each other. While most German people had been glad to see their Emperor go, they didn’t care for the new form of government. Friedrich Ebert made it his task to convince his people of this new Republic, but he was seen as one of those who had brought the shameful defeat onto the country. In a swift twist of the truth, the military leadership had concocted the Dolchstoßlegende (stab-in-the-back-legend), claiming that it had been the SPD which had stabbed the German people in the back during the war by lack of unlimited support.
Friedrich Ebert tried hard to reconcile the different groups and parties. He wanted to be the President of all German people, wanted to make them all work for democracy. He was to some extent successful and also did much for the economy – stabilizing the currency after the horrible inflation of 1923, negotiating better reparation terms and lowering government expenses. No small feat in that volatile time period.
Still, he was often subjected to verbal attacks and slander by communists as well as right-wing groups. He filed charges 170 times, not willing to take the abuse. In December 1924, a court did find a journalist guilty of libel against Ebert, but also claimed that Ebert had committed treason in 1918 by leading a major strike. It was a painful blow to the Reichspräsident, who already was in ill health due to untreated appendicitis. This eventually caused his death at the age of 54 on February 28, 1925.
Friedrich Ebert was a man who tried to bring democracy to a country that wasn’t ready yet. Still, his work lives on in the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, founded in 1925 by the SPD, according to his last will, with the aim of educating people in a democratic way and to help provide workers with an education. This foundation still exists today.