Friedrich Ebert was the first President of the Weimar Republic. Ebert took over during a very toxic period in history. There was a desire by many in France, Belgium and Britain to impose such a harsh peace treaty on the German people that the nation could never rise up again and start another war – the Treaty of Versailles was to directly blame Germany for starting the World War One. Ebert also had to deal with the perceived threat from the east. The country was bankrupt, hungry and to many leaderless. Ebert not only had to confront this, he had to address it.
Ebert was born in Heidelberg on February 4th 1871. He became a saddler by trade and drifted towards the liberal side of politics. Ebert became the editor of the ‘Bremer Bűrgerzeitung’, a Social Democrat newspaper, in 1893. It was effectively the start of his political career. In 1905, Ebert was appointed secretary of the Central Committee of the Social Democrats and in 1913, he became the party chairman.
During World War One Ebert was the leader of a political group called the ‘Majority Socialists’. To some he was the obvious choice to lead Germany out of her defeat in World War One. On February 11th 1919, Ebert was named as the Provisional President of the Weimar Republic. To ensure that he was not challenged in this position – the National Assembly wanted a period of political calm – the new constitution was altered so that Ebert was President until June 30th 1925.
From 1919 to 1924, Ebert had to deal with some very serious issues.
Ebert’s first major crisis was the June 1919 Treaty of Versailles that horrified many in Germany. Nationalists were spurred into action; Ebert was called a traitor and many predicted that it would mean the end for Germany. Few accepted that Ebert’s government had little choice other than to sign the peace treaty. It could be argued that the treaty could have been far harsher on Germany and that what Ebert’s team negotiated was better than it could have been – not that this argument would have been accepted by the many right wing nationalist groups that existed at the time.
The second major issue that Ebert needed to tackle was the Frei Korps and their attempted takeover of Berlin along with the Kapp Putsch. Also a soviet was established in Bavaria for a very short time but it was a sign of the government’s weakness that this was violently put down by the Frei Korps because the government was not able to do this. Such was the threat of the Frei Korps that the government actually moved out of Berlin which was the home of the national government, to the safer Weimar.
Ebert also had to deal with the occupation of the Ruhr by French and Belgian troops after reparations had not been paid in 1923. This resulted in a general strike and the consequent economic impact of this was huge as Weimar simply could not financially survive with her most valuable industrial zone on strike. As a follow on from this, Ebert had to deal with hyperinflation that was only ‘solved’ by a loan from America courtesy of the Dawes Plan. If the Ruhr invasion and hyperinflation are combined (as the two were inextricably linked) the attempted Nazi uprising in Munich in 1923 must have seemed like small fry.
Ebert’s time as President started with many detractors. However, his handling and leadership during the crises mentioned above won over many of his critics. Ebert was seen as a skilled political operator and he won respect from some of those who had previously criticised him. It is a sign of just how much he tamed the more extreme elements in Germany that the extremist parties did so badly in elections. However, he still had his detractors. On December 25th 1924, a court stated that he had been guilty of treason in January 1918 because he had taken part in a munitions strike.
From the depression of 1923, he led Germany into the start of the so-called ‘Golden Years’ of 1924 to 1929. However, the stress involved in his work took its toll.
Ebert was due to stand down or go for re-election in June 1925. However, he died in office on February 28th1925.