The Weakness of Weimar

Note: Excerpt from the book published in 2004 by Richard J. Evans. “The Coming of the Third Reich”.

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“Fear and hatred ruled the day in Germany at the end of the First World War. Gun battles, assassinations, riots, massacres and civil unrest denied Germans the stability in which a new democratic order could flourish. Yet somebody had to take over the reins of government after the Kaiser’s abdication and the collapse of the Reich created by Bismarck. The Social Democrats stepped into the breach.

A group of leading figures in the labour movement emerged in the confusion of early November 1918 to form a revolutionary Council of People’s Delegates. Uniting, for a brief period at least, the two wings of the Social Democratic movement (the Majority, who had supported the war, and the Independents, who had opposed it), the Council was led by Friedrich Ebert, a long-time Social Democratic Party functionary. Born in 1871, the son of a tailor, he became a saddler and entered politics through his trade union activities.

He worked on the editorial staff of the Social Democratic newspaper in Bremen, then in 1893 opened a pub in the city, which like so many such institutions functioned as a centre for local labour organizations. By 1900 he was active in Bremen’s municipal politics, and as leader of the local Social Democrats he did much to improve the party’s effectiveness. In 1905 he was elected secretary to the national party’s central committee in Berlin, and in 1912 he entered the Reichstag.

Ebert won the respect of his party not as a great orator or charismatic leader, but as a calm, patient and subtle negotiator who always seemed to bring the different factions of the labour movement together. He was a typical pragmatist of the second generation of Social Democratic leaders, accepting the party’s Marxist ideology but concentrating his efforts on the day-to-day improvement of working-class life through his expertise in areas such as labour law and social insurance. It was his hard work that was mainly responsible for the remodelling and improved efficiency of the party’s administration and electoral machine before the war, and he took a great deal of the credit for the party’s famous victory in the Reichstag elections of 1912. On the death of the party’s long-term leader August Bebel in 1913, Ebert was elected joint leader of the party alongside the more radical Hugo Haase.

Like many Social Democratic organizers, Ebert put loyalty to the party above almost everything else, and his outrage at the refusal of Haase and other opponents of the war to follow majority decisions in the party was a major factor in persuading him to bring about their expulsion. Led by Haase, the dissidents formed the Independent Social Democrats in 1917 and worked from a variety of points of view to bring about an end to the war. Ebert believed in discipline and order, compromise and reform, and worked hard to bring about a co-operation with the Centre Party and the left-liberals during the war, in order to push the Kaiser’s administration towards an acceptance of parliamentarism. His main aim in 1918-19 was formulated by the characteristic concern of the sober administrator: to keep essential services going, to stop the economy from collapsing and to restore law and order. He was converted to the view that the Kaiser should abdicate only by the realization that a social revolution would break out if he did not, and, he added in conversation with the Kaiser’s last Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden, ‘I don’t want that, indeed I hate it like sin.’1

Instead of revolution, Ebert wanted parliamentary democracy. In collaboration with the Centre Party and the left-wing liberals, now renamed the Democrats, Ebert and his associates in the Council of People’s Delegates organized nationwide elections to a Constituent Assembly early in 1919, against the opposition of more radical elements who looked to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils to form the basis of some kind of Soviet-style administration. Many ordinary electors in Germany, whatever their private political views, saw voting for the three democratic parties as the best way to prevent the creation of a German Soviet and ward off the threat of a Bolshevik revolution. Not surprisingly, therefore, the Social Democrats, the left-liberal Democrats and the Centre Party gained an overall majority in the elections to the Constituent Assembly”.

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