Philipp Scheidemann was born in Kassel on 26th July 1865. After leaving school he became a printer. He joined the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and in 1895 he began a career in journalism. A committed socialist, he usually worked for left-wing newspapers. Scheidemann became a Reichstag delegate from Solingen for the SDP in 1903
At the time the SDP was in conflict over the views of Eduard Bernstein. He had published a series of articles where he argued that the predictions made by Karl Marx about the development of capitalism had not come true. He pointed out that the real wages of workers had risen and the polarization of classes between an oppressed proletariat and capitalist, had not materialized. Nor had capital become concentrated in fewer hands. His analysis of modern capitalism undermined the claims that Marxism was a science and upset leading revolutionaries such as Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky.
Another SDP member, Paul Frölich, has argued: "The SPD divided into three clear tendencies: the reformists, who tended increasingly to espouse the ruling-class imperialist policy; the so-called Marxist Centre, which claimed to maintain the traditional policy, but in reality moved closer and closer to Bernstein's position; and the revolutionary wing, generally called the Left Radicals (Linksradikale)." Scheidemann tended to support Bernstein in this dispute.
The chairman of the SDP, August Bebel, died following a heart attack on 13th August, 1913. Friedrich Ebert now replaced him as leader of the party. Like most socialists in Germany, Ebert and Scheidemann were initially opposed to the idea of the country going to war. However, once the First World War had started, Ebert ordered the SDP members in the Reichstag to support the war effort.
Karl Liebknecht was the only member of the Reichstag who voted against Germany's participation in the war. He argued: "This war, which none of the peoples involved desired, was not started for the benefit of the German or of any other people. It is an Imperialist war, a war for capitalist domination of the world markets and for the political domination of the important countries in the interest of industrial and financial capitalism. Arising out of the armament race, it is a preventative war provoked by the German and Austrian war parties in the obscurity of semi-absolutism and of secret diplomacy."
Liebknecht now joined with Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Jogiches, Paul Levi, Ernest Meyer, Franz Mehring and Clara Zetkin to establish an underground political organization called Spartakusbund (Spartacus League). The Spartacus League publicized its views in its illegal newspaper, Spartacus Letters. Liebknecht, like the Bolsheviks in Russia, began arguing that socialists should turn this nationalist conflict into a revolutionary war.
Scheidemann agreed with Friedrich Ebert that Germany should fight a defensive, rather than an offensive war. With the formation of the Third Supreme Command, in August, 1916, Ebert's political power was undermined. Other members of the SDP also began questioning the policies of Ebert and in April 1917 they formed the Independent Socialist Party. Members included Kurt Eisner, Karl Kautsky, Julius Leber, Rudolf Breitscheild and Rudolf Hilferding.
For the next two years Scheidemann, along with other leaders of the SDP, continued to call for peace negotiations with the Allies. When Erich von Ludendorff returned power to the Reichstag in September, 1918, Max von Baden invited Friedrich Ebert to join the German government. Scheidemann entered the government as a minister without portfolio.
Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to abdicate on 9th November, 1918. He fled the country with the rest of his family and lived in Holland for the rest of his life. Prince Baden also resigned and Ebert became the new head of the government. At a public meeting, Scheidemann, finished his speech with the words: "Long live the German Republic!" He was immediately attacked by Ebert, who was still a strong believer in the monarchy and was keen for one of the his grandsons to replace Wilhelm.
In Germany elections were held for a Constituent Assembly to write a new constitution for the new Germany. As a believer in democracy, Rosa Luxemburg assumed that her party would contest these universal, democratic elections. However, other members were being influenced by the fact that Lenin had dispersed by force of arms a democratically elected Constituent Assembly in Russia. Luxemburg rejected this approach and wrote in the party newspaper: "The Spartacus League will never take over governmental power in any other way than through the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian masses in all Germany, never except by virtue of their conscious assent to the views, aims, and fighting methods of the Spartacus League."
Paul Frölich has argued: "The enemies of the revolution had worked circumspectly and cunningly. On 10th November Ebert and the General Army Headquarters concluded a pact whose preliminary aim was to defeat the During that month there were bloody clashes between workers. During this month there were bloody clashes between workers and returning front-line soldiers who had been stirred up by the authorities. On military drill-grounds special troops, in strict isolation from the civilian population, were being ideologically and militarily trained for civil war."
On 29th December, 1918, Friedrich Ebert gave permission for the publishing of a Social Democratic Party leaflet. "The shameless doings of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg besmirch the revolution and endanger all its achievements. The masses cannot afford to wait a minute longer and quietly look on while these brutes and their hangers-on cripple the activity of the republican authorities, incite the people deeper and deeper into a civil war, and strangle the right of free speech with their dirty hands. With lies, slander, and violence they want to tear down everything that dares to stand in their way. With an insolence exceeding all bounds they act as though they were masters of Berlin."
In January, 1919, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Jogiches and Clara Zetkin organised the Spartakist Rising that took place in Berlin. Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the Social Democrat Party and Germany's new chancellor, called in the German Army and the Freikorps to bring an end to the rebellion. By 13th January the rebellion had been crushed and most of its leaders, including Liebknecht and Luxemburg. They were both murdered while in police custody.
The author of Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Work (1940) has argued: "As members of the government, together with Ebert and Scheidemann, the party's leaders bore a joint responsibility for all the official acts of the government. Although it is very unlikely that they knew anything definite about its unofficial counter-revolutionary machinations, nevertheless they were misused and let themselves be misused."
The following month Friedrich Ebert was elected as President of the new German Republic. He selected Scheidemann as Chancellor and although the SDP was the largest party in the Reichstag, Ebert attempted to obtain national unity by appointing ministers from other parties. Scheidemann resigned in June, 1919 because he disagreed with by the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty.
Scheidemann serving as Mayor of Kassel (1920–1925). He was also a vocal opponent of the growing influence of the military in the government. After Adolf Hitler gained power in 1933, Scheidemann fled to Denmark.
Philipp Scheidemann died in Copenhagen on 29th November 1939.