Ebert's Enlightening Biography
Author: Walter Mühlhausen,
translated by Christine Brocks
Published by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung
Friedrich Ebert: A Social Democratic
Statesman, a biography by Walter Muhlhausen; translated
by Christine Brocks; Price not mentioned; ISBN 978-3-8012-4228-2;
Friedrich Ebert, the first chancellor and the first democratically
elected president of German Republic, was a pioneering
figure in introducing and consolidating parliamentary
democracy in his country. Moreover, he was a devoted and
true social democrat, who rose from proletariat background
and established social democracy as the foundational values
of German society. He steered the nation through revolution
and civil war. In his turbulent political career, he fought
against ultra-right, ultra-left and international isolation
simultaneously in the wake of First World War. He is credited
to have prevented Germany from sliding into Bolshevik-styled
revolution. As a moderate social democrat, Ebert often
believed in gradual reform and evolution. He abhorred
convulsive and bloody revolution that would invite unbearable
suffering to the masses and destroy the social fabric.
German took the middle-of-the-road course following the
abolition of the monarchy. No matter which party is at
the helm of power, social democracy principles remain
at the core of every government's policies, programmes
and conduct in the federal republic of Germany today.
For this, much of credit goes to Ebert, who had proclaimed
many a far-reaching programme to the benefit of working
class and general public.
With a view to see and interpret Ebert's
political career and legacy from fresh perspective, Walter
Muhlhausen, the managing director of the Reich President
Friedrich Ebert Memorial Foundation in Heidelberg, has
brought 'Friedrich Ebert: A Social Democratic Statesman'.
Like its petite size, the book crisply and pointedly highlights
momentous moments of German statesman, who presided over
'the most unpopular republic,' and tested adulation and
criticism in equal measure during the final years of his
life. With five chapters plus prologue, the biography
delves into Ebert's ideological underpinning, political
struggle and rise to power.
Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin and Ebert
were contemporary. Both were the paladin of socialist
movement but their understanding of democracy was incompatible
with each other. Muhlhausen writes: "Ebert did not
aspire to a new class rule. 'All power to the councils',
the rule which a particular class made up of a minority
of revolutionaries around the radical Spartacus League-
led by Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht- demanded, was
incompatible with Ebert's democratic convictions. For
him it was about equality of all people, the great, ideal
concept of democracy." The author quotes Ebert's
speech delivered in the first conference of the Workers'
and Soldiers' Council on 16 December, 1918: "There
can only be one source of law in Germany in the long run:
the will of the entire German people. That was the purpose
of the revolution. [....] The victorious proletariat does
not impose class rule. It overcomes the old system of
class rule, first in political, then in economic terms
and establishes equality of all beings with a human face.
This is the grand idea of democracy."
Author seems to have missed to elucidate
a potential ideological union between Ebert and Rosa.
Like Ebert, Rosa too strongly rejected the notion of 'the
dictatorship of proletariat' espoused and practiced by
Lenin. She vehemently protested the 'suppression of democracy
and freedom' at the hand of Bolsheviks. In a twist and
turn of history, Rosa as an influential figure of Communist
Party of Germany was brutally killed by the right-wing
Freikorps on President Ebert's watch. Both Liebknecht
and Rosa had participated in the January uprising in 1919.
Ebert had tried to do justice to his jilted comrades posthumously
by bringing their killers to book but to little avail.
In history, there is no space for 'the
might-have-been' theory but historian invokes it to criticise
Ebert for letting great opportunities slip through his
fingers. They argue that 'Ebert and the majority of Social
Democrats did not make any attempts to democratise administration,
economy and military vital to stabilise the foundation
of the new republic. It is also said the delay in the
drastic reform brought two nastier consequences- first,
it radicalised the workers, who posed a Bolshevik threat
to the new republic and second, it set the stage for the
rise of National Socialism under Hitler. However, the
author of the book rebuts these charges. He says that
this line of argument 'ignores what had been accomplished
only a few weeks after the changes of 9 November 1918
and- of equal importance- what had been accomplished.
There was not only (allegedly) missed chances but also
Consensus, compromise and collaboration
form the basis of Ebert's political template. It was his
mantra before and after the revolution. During the revolution,
he forged an alliance with Independent Social Democratic
Party but he went for 'grand coalition' as the nation
was passing through great chaos. To save the new republic
and end deepening social divide, he entered into a partnership
with democratic bourgeois. This political arrangement
has evolved into an accepted norm in Germany in the era
of peace too.
Ebert has been rightly hailed as one
of the pioneers and pillars of the Weimar Republic because
of his selfless service to and sacrifice for its establishment.
Sadly, 'Abraham Lincoln of German History' became the
victim of fatal defamation campaign from both sides- the
radical left and ultra-right. The left derided him as
'traitor to the working class' because he stopped Germany
from turning into a communist state. He embraced the motto
of 'All power to all the people!' against the slogan of
'All power to the (workers') councils!' Unlike Lenin,
Ebert took workers' councils only as the by-product of
revolution. For him, only the institutions of parliamentary
democracy represent the legitimate will of the people.
Anti-republican monarchists, who considered the republic
nothing else than the despicable system of the 'November
criminals' accused him of being a 'traitor to the fatherland'-
the most offensive allegation heaped on the Reich president.
The book highlights a cherished chapter
of Germany's modern history overshadowed by the Nazi rule,
Second World War and painful division. To read a book
that intriguingly narrates the epic struggle of a journeyman
saddler before ascending to the highest public post, is
both exciting and enlightening. With weighty language
and intellectual analysis, it is immensely useful for
all interested in history, ideology and revolution.
The book review was published in Friday
Supplement, The Rising Nepal (8 April 2016)