For four years, the German Empire took on much of the world in what was originally called the Great War. Berlin had allies, after a fashion — the decrepit Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, along with Bulgaria, a smaller kingdom on the outs with its Balkan neighbors. Against them was a formidable array: United Kingdom and its dominions/colonies, France, the Russian Empire, Italy, Japan, Romania, Serbia, and the United States.
The Germans did surprisingly well, defeating Russia and Romania, stalemating and almost knocking out France, and undergirding Vienna against Italy and Serbia. But preserving the Ottomans against the UK and an Arab revolt was beyond Germany’s power. The German military ultimately could not stop the disintegration of the ramshackle, multi-ethnic Austro-Hungarian Empire. Nor could the Reichsheer, the world’s finest fighting force, withstand years of privation from the crippling British blockade, increasing spread of destructive Bolshevik propaganda through German troops redeployed from the east, and arrival of the ever-expanding American Expeditionary Force.
By September 1918, the German army was losing ground as Berlin’s allies collapsed. The Supreme Army Command, represented by Gen. Erich Ludendorff, Germany’s de facto dictator, informed the Kaiser that a ceasefire was imperative. The government was turned over to the elected Reichstag as negotiations with the Allies commenced. The Entente agreed, but only on condition that the Reich surrender its heavy weapons to prevent resumption of hostilities. The result was the armistice that took effect on November 11.
The Kaiser wanted to remain, but his people had different ideas. The navy planned a last suicidal sortie for the Imperial Fleet, sparking a mutiny by sailors that grew as workers and soldiers joined in. Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils spread across the country. In Bavaria, socialist journalist Kurt Eisner led a revolution that proclaimed a Volksstaat, or People’s Republic. Widely hated for making public documents from Germany’s diplomatic campaign, he was later murdered as he prepared to resign. Secondary monarchs of individual states, who retained some authority, abdicated before mobs forced them to act. The Councils ended up in conflict with the Social Democrats, who pushed constitutional, democratic reform.
In early November, the Kaiser still hoped to return with the army from the battlefield to suppress opposition, but his plans were disconnected from reality. Friedrich Ebert, head of the Social Democrats, warned, “If the Kaiser does not abdicate, the social revolution is unavoidable. But I do not want it, indeed I hate it like sin.” On November 9, the civilian authorities announced the Kaiser’s abdication without his approval, followed by Ebert’s appointment as chancellor. Ebert’s short-lived predecessor, Prince Maximilian von Baden, a liberal, said to Ebert, “I entrust you with the German Reich.” That latter responded, “I have lost two sons for this Reich.”
Ebert was born in 1871 and later learned the saddlemaker trade. He became active politically and settled in Bremen, where he became local party chairman. In 1905, he became SPD secretary general and in 1913 was elected party co-chairman. A moderate, he led the majority into the Burgfrieden, a pact in which the political parties agreed to set aside their differences for the duration of the war. By backing the government, as most socialists in the other combatants also did, he ensured a split with radicals, who then left the SPD. In January 1918, he simultaneously supported striking workers at a munitions plant and urged them back to work. Some saw him as a traitor to Germany, others to the workers. Increasingly he cooperated with more moderate bourgeois parties, which continued after the Kaiser’s fall.
As Ebert took over as chancellor, Karl Liebknecht, founder of the radical Marxist Spartacus League, proclaimed a socialist republic, which envisioned revolutionary change. An intense power struggle ensued in the following weeks, with the moderate Social Democrats maintaining control of the government and ultimately relying on army troops and nationalist auxiliaries to rebuff communist rebellion. After the Kaiser’s departure, the pragmatic Ebert made what became known as the Ebert–Groener deal with Gen. Wilhelm Groener, successor to Ludendorff as army quartermaster general. Ebert promised to protect the military’s autonomy and suppress left-wing revolts while Groener pledged the armed services’ loyalty to the government.
The two set up a secret hotline for daily communication and worked together in December to suppress a short-lived revolt by naval personnel. Nationalist Freikorps forces also fought against revolutionaries with great ferocity. Such battles were replicated across the country. Many on the left turned against Ebert and the Social Democrats. In early January, the Spartacists, named after the famous Roman slave, and the newly founded Communist Party of Germany attempted to seize Berlin and oust the Ebert government. The army and Freikorps prevented the putsch.
A week later a constituent assembly was elected, which met in the city of Weimar, outside of Berlin, and chose Ebert as provisional Reichpräsident. A constitution was drafted for what became known as the Weimar Republic. Ebert’s presidential term was extended to 1925 to avoid an election amid political upheaval.
Perhaps his gravest challenge in 1919 was the Versailles Treaty. Negotiated by the allies without German input, it was presented as what the Germans called a Diktat. Government officials resigned rather than sign, leaving Gustav Bauer, a leading social democrat, head of the cabinet. He sought changes, but the allies issued an ultimatum: If Berlin did not sign, they would resume their march, which the German army admitted that it could not prevent. Bauer capitulated to the allied ultimatum. When the treaty came before the National Assembly, Ebert asked Germany’s military command if the army could defend Germany against an allied invasion. Told no, he urged the legislators to ratify the document, which they did on July 9.
Weimar’s life was more short than sweet. Regional resistance to Berlin’s rule continued elsewhere in Germany. Ebert turned to the security forces to eliminate radical workers’ councils. In 1920, disaffected army troops and Freikorps members staged a coup, known as the Kapp Putsch, named after civil servant Wolfgang Kapp. The government was forced to flee, but a general strike ended the revolt. The SPD-dominated regime told the German people, “Only a government based on the constitution can save Germany from sinking into darkness and blood. If Germany is led from one coup to another, then it is lost.”
In the following years, however, officials were assassinated by nationalists and Adolf Hitler joined the Nazi Party and in 1923 attempted to seize power in Bavaria with the Beer Hall Putsch, which was put down by the Germany police and army. Ebert appointed right-leaning officials and employed the president’s emergency powers — which eventually supplanted parliamentary rule — 134 times. The republic slowly gained authority, but not legitimacy.
Opponents concocted the infamous Dolchstoßlegende, or “stab-in-the-back myth.” Ludendorff’s request that the Kaiser seek a truce was conveniently forgotten as nationalists argued the military was not defeated in the field, but instead had been betrayed at home. This claim was reinforced by the fact that civilians signed the hated Versailles Treaty.
The agreement detached Germany territory, placed ethnic Germans under foreign rule, blamed the war on Berlin, restricted the German military, and obligated the Germans to pay reparations for the entire cost of the conflict. The Allies fell between two stools. They neither imposed a Carthaginian peace, effectively dismantling Germany, nor conciliated Berlin, creating a stable international order. And when Berlin failed to comply, the former Entente powers neither enforced nor rewrote the treaty’s terms. It fueled political discontent and extremism.
The result was disaster, but Ebert did not live to see the future. Sickly, he died of septic shock after an attack of appendicitis on February 28, 1925. In a tragedy that Germans did not then understand, he was replaced by conservative authoritarian Paul von Hindenburg, the talented field marshal whose reputation survived Germany’s defeat. The latter narrowly defeated Wilhelm Marx, the candidate of the moderate Centre Party of Germany, dominated by Catholics. Had Marx been elected, German democracy would have had a better chance to survive, despite the manifold challenges to come.
A decade later, wild inflation and the Great Depression had ravaged the German middle class. The Nazis and Communists gained a parliamentary majority, forcing the aging Hindenburg, no fan of Hitler, to rule by emergency decree. Eventually appointed chancellor, Hitler quickly consolidated power. And on the president’s death on August 2, 1934, the Nazi Führer took over those powers, as well. The sadly imperfect Weimar democratic experiment was over. From there the political road led directly to World War II and the Holocaust.
Ebert’s role remains controversial. Today’s Social Democrats embrace him, having named their party think tank after him. But some on the left attack his support for the German state in World War I and later tactical alliance with conservative, even reactionary forces. Some on the right argue that he undermined the German state when it was at its most vulnerable in World War I.
In fact, Ebert balanced conflicting responsibilities unusually well, despite inevitable missteps. He faced challenges beyond the abilities of most statesmen. Whatever his initial plans, he became Germany’s most pivotal defender of democracy and liberal governance. He steadfastly backed elections even when presented with the opportunity to seize power in the name of a socialist workers’ state. He turned to the military, but only against radicals determined to impose their rule on others. And he governed with prudence and restraint, refusing to wreck an already ravaged nation by embarking on hopeless resistance to the Allies and the Versailles Treaty.
Ebert was only 54 when he died. Had he lived, his nation still would have faced abundant economic and political crises. But it is hard to imagine him appointing Hitler as chancellor. Ebert might have found a way to create and preserve a Left–Right alliance against the extremes. Perhaps that, too, would have proved to be a dead end. But we shall never know since, tragically, it was the road not taken.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan. He is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire. He currently is Scholar-in-Residence at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney.