Guglielmo II and Friedrich Ebert

Wilhelm II was born in Berlin on 27 January 1859, with the name of Friedrich Wilhelm Viktor Albrecht von Hohenzollern. She was nephew of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and second in line of succession to the Prussian throne. In his destiny there was also the succession to the throne of the German empire, born in 1871. In the same year the son of a tailor from Heidelberg was born whose fate would be curiously crossed with that of the Prussian heir: Friedrich Ebert.

On 15 June 1888, Wilhelm became emperor of Germany and king of Prussia, after the premature death of Frederick III. In that same year, Ebert concluded his professional training as a saddler and began his career as a traveling artisan.

The reign of Wilhelm II was characterized by the continuous conflicts with the chancellors in office, against whom the emperor struggled to impose his plans for the future of Germany. The most illustrious victim of these contrasts was Otto von Bismarck, who resigned after the emperor issued a decree designed to circumvent the figure of the Chancellor in relations between the crown and the government. With the successive chancellors, Wilhelm II dismantled the work done by Bismarck putting an end to, among other things, the agreements between Germany and Russia and promoting imperialist and military and naval strengthening policies that would bring both Russia and the United Kingdom to closer to France. His actions were tightening that encirclement around Germany, which at the same time was his greatest fear.

It was during the chancellorship of von Buelow, from 1900 to 1909, that Wilhelm II succeeded in realizing his plans for naval strengthening, at the same time fueling tensions with France and the United Kingdom in the African chessboard that led the two European powers to stipulate the Entente Cordiale in 1904.

The year 1900 was also the turning point for Friedrich Ebert. After being introduced to the Social Democratic Party by his uncle, in Mannheim, in 1889, he took little interest in ideology and much more in the practice and political organization necessary to improve the condition of German workers. Settling in Bremen, he became a columnist for the Bremer Buergerzeitung, and then opened a brewery that became one of the centers of political and social democratic life in the city. In 1900 he became a trade union secretary and a member of city committees until he became famous in 1904, during the SPD national assembly held in Bremen, and then became general secretary the following year.

Member of the moderate faction of the SPD, Ebert obtained the first seat at the Reichstag in 1912, when the Social Democratic Party obtained the relative majority of the assembly.

Germany was then led by Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, longtime friend of Wilhelm II and more willing to go along with his plans. After the Agadir crisis, which had shown the weakness of the German fleet, the emperor succeeded in passing a further law to strengthen it.

In 1913, Wilhelm II was sure that a European conflict was now inevitable and this belief reflected in his behavior during the July 1914 crisis, when he reacted with the total mobilization and declaration of war to the partial mobilization of the Russian army against the Austria-Hungary.

During the crisis, Ebert, who was on vacation, went immediately, with the party's treasurer, Otto Braun, to Zurich, to lay the foundations of a structure in exile of the SPD in case the state of war had led to its mass outlawed. On 6 August he returned to Berlin and led the Social Democratic parliamentary group to the almost unanimous vote in favor of war credits. Ebert saw in the conflict a patriotic duty and a necessary defensive measure for Germany, especially against the authoritarian Tsarist regime. In 1916, as president of the party, he brought together the moderates, including Philipp Scheidemann, to promote "civil peace", an agreement with which the political forces in the German parliament would have set aside the differences in domestic politics until the end of the conflict. This positioning in favor of the war caused the splitting of the maximalist current, which founded the USPD.

In 1917 the German military and political situation deteriorated. Wilhelm II, pushed by the military summits, resumed the indiscriminate submarine, causing the United States to enter the war. Bethmann-Hollweg, conversely, resigned to avoid a conflict between the emperor and the military leadership. Inexorably, Hindenburg and Ludendorff gained more power and Germany became a de facto military regime. The emperor felt isolated and misunderstood. When, in 1918, the situation on the front was collapsing, the two generals pressed the parliament to present an armistice request. The intent was clearly to discharge the responsibility for the defeat on the Reichstag parties and the deputies of the SPD did not intend to accept, but were convinced by an appeal made to them by Ebert.

With the appointment of Maximilian von Baden, in October 1918, the first government was born with socialist ministers. The request for an armistice, presented on 4 October, the armistice request, presented on 4 October, did not convince the Americans, who demanded the abdication of the emperor.

Thus began a dramatic confrontation between the Reichstag and the government on the one hand and the emperor on the other, firmly determined not to leave the throne. The outbreak of the revolution in the first days of November, however, accelerated the crisis. General Groener convinced Wilhelm II, who was in Spa, Belgium, to abandon every unrealistic plan to restore order; von Baden communicated the abdication, not yet happened, and transferred his government to Ebert and the socialists.

Scheidemann, then, took Ebert's counterattack by proclaiming the birth of the German Republic. Ebert was furious, but he was not able to reverse the process. The effective abdication of Wilhelm  II, on 28 November, marked the end of the empire and the effective birth of the Republic.

Subsequently, Ebert, as the first president of Germany, had to face the revolution, isolating extremisms and guiding the constitutional process. He led Germany through the first violent republican years until the beginning of the economic recovery in 1925. He died on 23 February of that year due to a septic shock following an appendectomy.

Wilhelm II, in exile in Holland, managed to avoid extradition and the trial by the Entente countries by withdrawing to private life. He died in Doorn in 1941.

 

Bibliography:

Tyler Whittle, L’ultimo Kaiser. Vita di Guglielmo II imperatore di Germania, Mursia, Milano, 1981

John van der Kiste, Kaiser Wilhelm II: Germany’s Last Emperor, Sutton Publishing, 1999

Walther Mühlhausen, Friedrich Ebert 1871 – 1925. Reichspräsident der Weimarer Republik, Dietz, Bonn, 2006

Henning Köhler, Deutschland auf dem Weg zu sich selbst. Eine Jahrhundertgeschichte, Hohenheim Verlag, Stuttgart/Leipzig, 2002.