Walter Mühlhausen. Friedrich Ebert 1871-1925: Reichspräsident der Weimarer Republik. Bonn: Verlag J.H.W. Dietz Nachf., 2006. 1064 S. + 76 Abb. EUR 48.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-8012-4164-3.
Reviewed by Gary Roth (Rutgers University at Newark)
Published on H-German (November, 2007)
The Rehabilitation of Friedrich Ebert
Despite Walter Mühlhausen's considerable efforts, the portrait that emerges from this biography of the Weimar Republic's premier statesman is not especially favorable. At every turn, Friedrich Ebert hesitated to make bold decisions, exhibited a slavish adherence to rules and formality that often placed him in a moral realm all his own, and seemed unable to judge situations independently of conceptions formed in other circumstances. More than any other individual, he bears responsibility for the failure of the political system he helped to bring into existence. He symbolizes much of what was hoped for in Weimar, but also much of what was compromised. As the leader of the Social Democratic Party, he oversaw its precipitous fall from grace; from its pinnacle of popularity during the November 1918 revolution, when virtually the entire working class showed its support, to the elections eighteen months later, when the Social Democrats lost nearly half their base and received only 22 percent of the vote. As Weimar's leading politician, Ebert failed to utilize one opportunity after another to strengthen its democratic institutions.
Mühlhausen's book treats each of Ebert's limitations and failures with great candor, but Mühlhausen's attempts to provide a firm rationale for Ebert only seems to cement an impression of someone who was constantly led by events but never able to lead them himself. At the root of the problem, for Mühlhausen, is a conception of statesmanship stripped to its most elemental form. Ebert is portrayed as Weimar's sole proponent of the modern democratic state, a man who persisted despite all opposition, even from within his own party, and who strove at all times to unite the many and divergent political and economic tendencies into a cohesive parliamentary system. For Mühlhausen, Ebert was Weimar's unsung hero, misunderstood in his own time and unfairly neglected ever since. Since Mühlhausen has gone to such great lengths in this carefully researched, elegantly written, thousand-page tome to rehabilitate Ebert, it is worth picking apart this political history in some detail to see if a more compelling (or perhaps, less partisan) explanation emerges.
Ebert (1871-1925) owed his career to the extraordinary growth of the Social Democratic Party during the twenty-five years preceding the First World War. A leather worker by trade, he was a minor official in the Bremen SPD in 1891 when the party emerged from the Anti-Socialist Laws. Ebert began his professional career as a union official and quite shrewdly added several key occupations to his mantle. For a time, he owned a pub, a crucial institution for the party since such locations were used as meeting halls and social clubs for members. In Bremen, there was one pub in operation for every 150 residents, and virtually every intersection in the city housed at least one. Ebert also edited the local social democratic newspaper. And as the party's ombudsman, he helped party members negotiate the labyrinth of legal and bureaucratic regulations that governed everyday life in Wilhelmine Germany.
These overlapping positions--as union official, pub owner, newspaper editor, and official ombudsman--ensured that Ebert was widely known and respected within the party organization and that his grasp of governmental matters was as good as anyone's in the socialist movement. His broad administrative experience and ability to remain neutral in intra-party feuds accounted for his appointment in 1913 as co-chair of the national party. He was a kindred spirit to the more conservative, bread-and-butter wing of the party, and as a compromise candidate he was viewed by the party's left wing as less odious than some other possible nominees. Mühlhausen is somewhat hesitant in his portrayal of this era, not quite willing to depict Ebert as a careerist but equally unwilling to attribute his rise to circumstances alone. Hence, it remains unclear to what degree Ebert engineered his own ascent through the party or whether he was tapped for promotion simply because the party needed trustworthy, competent officials during an era of rapid expansion. Ebert was a good public speaker and a competent administrator, but ultimately political maneuvering within the party accounted for an individual's upward mobility.
The hardening of Ebert's views vis-à-vis his own followers is another area not well documented by Mühlhausen's biography. The slowly emerging estrangement between Ebert and the Social Democratic Party was a dynamic that neither was eager to acknowledge, given their mutual dependencies. It is also easy to forget, but nonetheless true, that the Social Democratic Party was still organizing antiwar protests in the months before the outbreak of World War I, events in which Ebert took part. With the eruption of hostilities, however, matters changed overnight. Ebert was instrumental in the party's decision to support the war effort, and since decision-making within the party was a collective undertaking and the party's Reichstag delegation voted en bloc, the party would begin to unravel before an antiwar minority emerged. Ebert spoke often about the need to restructure the political system, even though he never made socialist support for the war contingent on democratic reforms. These awaited the November 1918 revolution--an event that frightened Ebert and at the same time catapulted him to the highest reaches of governmental power. No other political party was capable of dampening popular protest, and executive power was handed to the Social Democrats by the outgoing government. Ebert opposed the kaiser's abdication because he thought the nation was not yet ready for a republic, but he, along with everyone else, was pushed forward by the clamor for social and political transformation.
As one of six "people's representatives" charged with running Germany in the immediate postwar period, Ebert was obsessed with demobilization, re-incorporation of soldiers into civilian life, and food production and distribution, matters which he considered the primary responsibilities of the transitional government. The revolution, as far as he was concerned, had exhausted itself in the first weeks after the overthrow of the monarchy. The reform of the electoral system was its primary accomplishment, especially the introduction of female suffrage and the abolition of tiered voting systems based on tax payments. Other immediate reforms included the eight-hour day for workers, but this was about as far as the revolution extended. What other socialists referred to as bourgeois democracy, Ebert considered the endpoint of the revolutionary process, with nothing required of the middle and upper classes except that they abandon their exclusive monopoly over the political system.
According to Mühlhausen, Ebert viewed himself in ostensibly nonsectarian terms: as a mediator and unifying authority among the nation's contending forces and as someone who stood above politics. His relationship to the working classes and the SPD was already quite tenuous. His role, as he defined it, was to overcome class differences and tensions through reconciliation, coalition governments, and majority rule. For this aim, he was widely respected by other bourgeois politicians and military officials, who felt he was one of the few socialist leaders they could trust. In other words, he was one of the few socialists who jettisoned his principles in their entirety in order to forge close links with the business and military castes.
Mühlhausen acknowledges that Ebert miscomprehended the popular protests that guided the revolutionary developments. The workers' councils that had seized control of nearly every municipality and workplace throughout the country were also firm backers of the social democratic movement, and the party's own conservatism led to the piecemeal radicalization of the workforce in the months following the revolution. Ebert devoted himself to the suppression of this radicalizing trend by promoting and funding the organization of vigilantes and paramilitaries into the so-called Freikorps. Where workers' councils did not simply expire due to lack of official support, they were repressed militarily, with some 15,000 deaths reported during the first six months of the republic. Mühlhausen does not explain where this capacity to tolerate violence against one's own followers came from. To be sure, the war itself had been a brutalizing experience. Many leading Social Democrats had also suffered mini-breakdowns when the party disintegrated into pro- and antiwar factions. Similarly, the suppression of the radical Left in the months following the revolution provoked another crisis of conscience. But one suspects that these moments of deep psychological doubt, emotional collapses, and sudden disappearances from public view, which characterized Ebert's behavior as well, were part of a process that permitted the toleration of brutality when it was deemed instrumental to the furtherance of political goals and necessities. That Ebert regretted many of the retaliatory killings conducted by the Freikorps did not prevent him from ordering additional measures against the radicals. He harbored a deep, pathological distrust and hatred for all things to his own Left, such that opportunities to introduce democratic reforms through all-socialist coalitions were quickly abandoned or else jettisoned before they began.
If Ebert loathed the Left, he harbored genuine affection for the military, sentiments that led straight to the attempt to overturn the Weimar system during the Kapp Putsch. Perhaps no other event speaks so well to the conundrum to which Mühlhausen's analysis leads. Haunted by the possibility of civil war and revolution from the Left, even though this threat was more hopeful than real, Ebert strengthened the very forces that found intolerable even his mild-mannered form of democracy. The sought-after allegiance of the military with civilian government was never forthcoming. During the putsch, not a singe military unit defended the beleaguered government, and the overwhelming bulk of military officers declared their neutrality, lest soldiers shoot at other soldiers.
Even after the putsch, Ebert resisted any attempt to reform the armed forces and agreed only to the forced retirement of the military commanders who had actually participated in the rebellion. Mühlhausen makes much of this really rather unspectacular episode. Ebert feared the repercussions of the general strike that had toppled the putsch participants. Faced with a new round of radicalization of the workforce, he preferred the very same armed forces that had chased his government from Berlin only a few weeks earlier. Only a few hundred dismissals resulted from Ebert's diligence, in part because the Reichstag passed an amnesty law that was used to prevent the prosecution of putsch participants. And since the Versailles Treaty mandated a sharp reduction in the size of the armed forces, it remains unclear what, if anything, was accomplished due to Ebert's own efforts. To rid the armed forces of putsch participants in their entirety would have left the military without an adequate officer corps to oversee some of its divisions. Most significantly, however, the Social Democrats lost their foothold in the coalition government following the next round of national elections. Ebert's policies towards the military had proven to be a complete failure--for Weimar and for the SPD.
The remainder of Ebert's career was dedicated to the search for a stable combination of parties to rule Germany--a grand coalition of socialists, liberals, and conservatives that would exclude the extreme parties of the Left and Right. He maneuvered cautiously, since such a configuration proved to be impossible to forge. Ebert had been an able administrator in the social democratic and Wilhelmine contexts, but these skills did not translate particularly well when he became Germany's president. His history as a statesman was mediocre at best. He left no body of written or spoken work, and he was most comfortable working behind the scenes, a master at deal-making and hardly a paragon of a transparent and democratic Weimar. He is a curious figure to envision as a founding father of German democracy, even if the need to create foundational myths seems inherent to the biographical appreciation of leading statesmen.
During the six years of his presidency, Ebert appointed nine chancellors and more than a dozen cabinets--one every six months on average, most of which had only minority support. The near-constant process of selection and reshuffling is the major focal point of Mühlhausen's book, and he has reconstructed in detail Ebert's role in these negotiations through an intensive examination of source materials. The book often has the feel of a theatrical drama, in which characters appear suddenly onstage and then disappear, never to be heard from again. Despite the great length of this biography, with its fascinating side discussions of the evolving use of emergency decrees, vilification campaigns by ultra-rightists, and other aspects of Ebert's presidency, not enough context is included to evaluate Ebert's endeavors fully. Mühlhausen's descriptions are quite vivid and alive in detail and nuance, but we never learn, for instance, who kept voting for the many political parties that together could not arrange a workable coalition. Likewise, it is not clear if the technocrats with whom Ebert surrounded himself were as politically neutral as Mühlhausen suggests, or whether they too had been political appointees at some point in their careers. Ebert seems to have functioned similarly, unable to fully comprehend the forces that dominated Weimar society and thus unable to intervene except in the most immediate of ways.
In the end, this book does not offer us a satisfactory explanation of why Ebert remained a socialist. Surrounded by advisors drawn from the Right, unpopular within his own party, and estranged from its leadership, he had become a man without political moorings. This fate paralleled his efforts to create a political center, even though no such entity ever emerged. Ebert's conception of a polity lived in his mind only. At the risk of attributing too much to the individual, it might be said that Weimar never recovered from Ebert's stewardship. Mühlhausen has constructed an apologia in the form of a metanarrative--Ebert the visionary as Ebert the victim, the tragic leader isolated and misunderstood in his quest to create a stable democracy. Cut short by his sudden death in 1925 at age 54, he does not emerge as the great statesman Mühlhausen wants him to have been. Ebert clung to his single idea--of a grand coalition to rule the country--and applied it everywhere without regard to actual circumstances. One alternative might be to view Ebert as incompetent, restricted in vision and ability, and functioning in a position far above his capabilities, in which his limits became a drag on the entire system. Such an approach might have rendered him a bit more interesting psychologically, as well, and overcome some of the flatness that seemed to accompany Ebert no matter where he traveled or what he did.
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Gary Roth. Review of Mühlhausen, Walter, Friedrich Ebert 1871-1925: Reichspräsident der Weimarer Republik.
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