|1st President of Germany|
11 February 1919 – 28 February 1925
|Preceded by||Wilhelm II (as Head of State)|
|Succeeded by||Paul von Hindenburg|
|9th Chancellor of Germany|
November 1918 – 11 February 1919
|Preceded by||Maximilian von Baden|
|Succeeded by||Philipp Scheidemann|
|Minister President of Prussia|
9 November 1918 – 11 November 1918
|Preceded by||Maximilian von Baden|
|Succeeded by||Paul Hirsch|
|Born||4 February 1871
|Died||28 February 1925
|Political party||Social Democratic Party of Germany|
Friedrich Ebert (4 February 1871 – 28 February 1925) was a German politician of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and the first President of Germany from 1919 until his death in office in 1925.
Ebert was elected leader of the SPD on the death of August Bebel, and the SPD later became deeply divided because Ebert led it to support war loans for World War I. A moderate social democrat, Ebert was in favour of the Burgfrieden, in which domestic political squabbles were put aside and all forces in society were expected to support the war effort. He tried to isolate those in the party opposed to the war but could not prevent a split.
Ebert was a pivotal figure in the German Revolution of 1918-19. When Germany became a republic, he was its first chancellor. His policies at this time were primarily aimed at restoring peace and order and at containing the more extreme elements of the revolutionary left. For this he allied himself with conservative and nationalistic political forces, in particular with the leadership of the military under General Wilhelm Groener and the right wing Freikorps. With their help, Ebert's government crushed a number of leftist uprisings that were pursuing goals that were similar to those of the SPD. This has made him a controversial historical figure.
Ebert was born in Heidelberg on 4 February 1871 as the fourth of six children of the tailor Karl Ebert (1834–92) and his wife Katharina (née Hinkel; 1834–1897). Although he wanted to attend university, this proved impossible due to the lack of funds of his family. He thus trained as a saddle-maker from 1885 to 1888. After he had become a journeyman in 1889 he travelled, according to the German custom, from place to place in Germany, seeing the country and learning fresh details of his trade. In Mannheim, he was introduced by an uncle to the Social Democratic Party and joined the party in 1889. Although Ebert studied the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, he was less interested in ideology than in practical and organisational issues that would improve the lot of the workers then and there. Ebert was on the "black list" of the police due to his political activities, so he kept changing his place of residence. Between 1889 and 1891 he lived in Kassel, Braunschweig, Elberfeld-Barmen, Remscheid, Quakenbrück and Bremen, where he founded and chaired local chapters of the Sattlerverband.
After settling in Bremen in 1891, Ebert made a living doing odd jobs. In 1893, he obtained an editorial post on the socialist Bremer Bürgerzeitung. In May 1894, he married Louise Rump (1873–1955), a manual labourer, who had been employed as a housemaid and in labelling boxes and who was active in union work. He then rented a pub which became a centre of socialist and union activity and was elected party chairman of the Bremen SPD. In 1900, Ebert was appointed a trade-union secretary (Arbeitersekretär) and elected a member of the Bremer Bürgerschaft (comitia of citizens) as representative of the Social Democratic Party. In 1904, Ebert presided over the national convention of the party in Bremen and became better known to a wider public. He became a leader of the "moderate" wing of the Social Democratic Party and in 1905 Secretary-General of the SPD, at which point he moved to Berlin. At the time, he was the youngest member of the Parteivorstand (party executive).
Meanwhile, Ebert had run for a Reichstag (parliament of Germany) seat several times in constituencies where the SPD had no chance of winning: 1898 Vechta (Oldenburg), 1903 and 1906 Stade (Province of Hanover). However, in 1912, he was elected to the Reichstag for the constituency of Elberfeld-Barmen (today part of Wuppertal). This was the election which also made the SPD the strongest party in the Reichstag with 110 out of a total of 397 members, surpassing the Zentrum. On the death of August Bebel in 1913, Ebert was elected on September 20 as joint party chairman at the convention in Jena with 433 out of 473 votes. His co-chairman was Hugo Haase.
World War I
When the Julikrise of 1914 erupted, Ebert was on vacation. After war was declared in early August, Ebert travelled to Zurich with party treasurer Otto Braun and the SPD's money, to be in a position to build up a foreign organisation if the SPD should be outlawed in the Empire. He returned on 6 August and led the SPD Reichstag members to vote almost unanimously in favour of war loans, accepting that the war was a necessary patriotic, defensive measure, especially against the autocratic regime of the Tsar in Russia. In January 1916, Haase resigned. The party's stance and participation in the Burgfrieden, under the leadership of Ebert and other "moderates" like Philipp Scheidemann, in favour of the war with the aim of a compromise peace, eventually led to a split, with those radically opposed to the war leaving the SPD in early 1917 to form the USPD. For similar reasons, Ebert had ended the parliamentary union with several left-wing members of parliament and started to work closely with the Zentrum and the Progress Party in 1916. Later those kicked out by Ebert called themselves "Spartacists". Since 1916, Ebert shared the leadership of the Reichstag delegates (Fraktionsvorsitz) with Scheidemann. Although he was against a policy of territorial gains by military conquest, Ebert supported the war effort which he saw as a defensive struggle. Ebert experienced the traumatic loss of having two of his four sons killed in the war: Heinrich died in February 1917 in Macedonia, Georg was killed in action in May 1917 in France. In June 1917, a delegation of social democrats led by Ebert travelled to Stockholm for talks with socialists from other countries about a conference that could have ended the war based on a Verständigungsfrieden without any annexions of territory. The initiative failed, however.
In January 1918, when the workers in munition factories in Berlin went on strike, Ebert joined the strike leadership but worked hard to get the strikers back to work. He was pilloried from the left as a "traitor to the working class" and from the right as a "traitor to the fatherland".
Revolution of 1918–19
As the war continued, the military high command (OHL) and in particular Erich Ludendorff, had become the de facto ruler of Germany.:19–20 When it became clear that the war was lost in late summer/fall of 1918, Ludendorff started to favour the "parliamentisation" of the Empire, i.e. a transfer of power to those parties that held the majority in the Reichstag (SPD, Center Party and Progress Party). The goal was to shift the blame for the military defeat from the OHL to the politicians of the majority parties.:25–26
On 29 September 1918 Ludendorff suddenly informed Paul von Hintze, the German Foreign Minister, that the western front could collapse at any moment and that a ceasefire had to be negotiated without delay. However, he suggested that the request for the ceasefire should come from a new government, based on the Reichstag majority. A "revolution from above" was needed. Chancellor Georg von Hertling and Emperor Wilhelm II agreed, although the former resigned.:36–40 Scheidemann and a majority of SPD deputies were opposed to joining "a bankrupt enterprise" but Ebert convinced his party, arguing that "we must throw ourselves into the breach" and "it is our damned duty to do it".:44–45 In early October, the Emperor appointed a liberal, Prince Maximilian of Baden, as chancellor to lead peace negotiations with the Allies. The new government for the first time included ministers from the SPD, Phillip Scheidemann and Gustav Bauer. The request for a ceasefire went out on 4 October.:44 On 5 October, the government informed the German public about these events. However, there was then a delay, as the American President Wilson initially refused to agree to the ceasefire. His diplomatic notes seemed to indicate that the changes to the German government were insufficient and in particular that the fact that Wilhelm II remained head of state was an obstacle.:52–53 Ebert did not favour exchanging the monarchy for a republic but like many others he was worried about the danger of a socialist revolution—and this seemed to become more likely with every day that passed. On 28 October, the constitution was changed, transferring power to the Reichstag (Oktoberreformen). At this point, the majority parties of the Reichstag, including Ebert's SPD, were quite satisfied with the state of affairs—what they now needed was a period of calm to deal with the issue of negotiating an armistice and a peace treaty.:6
However, on 30 October, a confrontation between officers and crews on board the German fleet at Wilhelmshaven set in motion a train of events that would result in the German Revolution which spread over a substantial part of the country over the next week.:59–72 Against the backdrop of a country falling into anarchy, the SPD led by Ebert on 7 November demanded a more powerful voice in the cabinet, an extension of parliamentarism to the state of Prussia and the renunciation of the throne by both the Emperor and his oldest son, Wilhelm. Ebert had favoured retaining the monarchy under a different ruler, but: "If the Kaiser does not abdicate, the social revolution is inevitable. But I do not want it, I even hate it like sin"  he said to Max von Baden. On the left, the Spartacists (numbering around 100 in Berlin) and a group of around 80 to 100 popular labour leaders from Berlin known as Revolutionäre Obleute prepared for a revolution in the capital.:7
On 9 November, the revolution reached Berlin as the larger companies were hit by a general strike called by the Spartacists and the Obleute, but also supported by the SPD and the mainstream unions. Workers' and soldiers' councils were created and important buildings occupied. As the striking masses marched on the centre of Berlin, the SPD, afraid of losing its influence on the revolution, announced that it was resigning from the government of Prince Max.:7
Meanwhile, Prince Max failed to convince Emperor Wilhelm II, who was at the army headquarters at Spa at the time, of the need to abdicate. Wilhelm had resigned himself to the loss of the imperial crown, but still thought he could remain king of Prussia. When Max failed to convince him of the unreality of this belief, he unilaterally and untruthfully announced that Wilhelm had in fact abdicated and that the Crown Prince had agreed to relinquish his right of succession.:7 Shortly thereafter the SPD leadership arrived at the Chancellery and Ebert asked Prince Max to hand over the government to him.:7 After a short meeting of the cabinet, the chancellor resigned and, in an unconstitutional move, handed his office over to Ebert, who thus became Chancellor of Germany and Minister President of Prussia—the first socialist, the second politician and the second commoner to hold either office.:87 Ebert left the government of Prince Max mostly unchanged, but appointed SPD "minders" for the Prussian Minister of War and for the military commander of the Berlin area.:7
Ebert's first action as Chancellor was to issue a series of proclamations asking the people to remain calm, get off the streets and to restore peace and order. It failed to work. Ebert then had lunch with Scheidemann at the Reichstag and, when asked to do so, refused to speak to the masses gathered outside. Scheidemann, however, seized the chance.:88–90 In hopes of forestalling whatever the Communist leader Karl Liebknecht was telling his followers at the now-former royal palace, Scheidemann proclaimed Germany a republic. A furious Ebert promptly reproached him: "You have no right to proclaim the Republic!" By this he meant that the decision was to be left to an elected national assembly, even if that decision might be the restoration of the monarchy.:7–8 Later that day, Ebert even asked Prince Max to stay on as regent (Reichsverweser) but was refused.:90
Since Wilhelm II had not actually abdicated on 9 November, legally Germany remained a monarchy until the Emperor signed his formal abdication on 28 November.:92 But when Wilhelm handed over supreme command of the army to Paul von Hindenburg and left for Holland on the morning of 10 November, the country was effectively without a head of state.:8
An entirely Socialist provisional government based on workers' councils was about to take power under Ebert's leadership. It was called Rat der Volksbeauftragten (Council of the People's Deputies). Ebert found himself in a quandary. He had succeeded in bringing the SPD to power and he was now in a position to put into law social reforms and improve the lot of the working class. Yet as a result of the revolution, he and his party were forced to share power with those on the left whom he despised—the Spartacists and the Independents.:96 In the afternoon of 9 November, he grudgingly asked the USPD to nominate three ministers for the future government. Yet that evening a group of several hundred followers of the Revolutionäre Obleute had occupied the Reichstag and were holding an impromptu debate. They called for the election of soldiers' and workers' councils the next day with an eye to name a provisional government—the Rat der Volksbeauftragten.:100–103 In order to keep control of events and against his own anti-revolutionary convictions, Ebert decided that he needed to co-opt the workers' councils and thus—whilst the formal head of government—also become the leader of the revolution.
On 10 November, the SPD led by Ebert managed to ensure that a majority of the newly elected workers' and soldiers' councils came from among their own supporters. Meanwhile, the USPD agreed to work with him and share power in the Rat der Volksbeauftragten, the new revolutionary government. Ebert announced the pact between the two socialist parties to the assembled councils who were eager for a unified socialist front and approved the parity of three members each coming from SPD and USPD.:109–119 Ebert and Haase for the USPD were to be the joint chairmen. That same day, Ebert received a telephone call from OHL chief of staff Wilhelm Groener, who offered to cooperate with him. According to Groener, he promised Ebert the loyalty of the military in exchange for some demands: fight against Bolshevism, an end to the system of soldiers' and workers' councils, a national assembly and a return to a state of law and order.:120 This initiated a regular communication between the two—involving daily telephone conversations over a secret line, according to Groener.:121 It became known as the Ebert–Groener pact.
Council of the People's Deputies
In domestic policy, a number of social reforms were quickly introduced by the Council of the People's Deputies under Ebert's leadership, including unemployment benefits, the eight-hour workday, universal suffrage for everyone over the age of 20, the right of farmhands to organise, and increases in workers’ old-age, sick and unemployment benefits.
A decree of 12 November 1918 established the Reich Office for Economic Demobilization, with the purpose of carrying the German economy over “to peace conditions.” On the 23 November 1918, the Reich Office for Economic Demobilization issued twelve regulations which set forth rules governing duration of the working day, sick leaves, paid vacations, “and other aspects of labour relations within the German economy.” A decree of the Office for Economic Demobilization made on 9 December 1918 provided that the State governments “should require the communes and communal unions to establish departments for general vocational guidance and for placement of apprentices.”
In December 1918, the income limit for entitlement to health insurance coverage was raised from 2,500 to 5,000 mark. The right of free assembly and association, which was extended even to government workers and officials, was made universal, and all censorship was abolished. The Gesindeordnung (servant's ordinance promulgated in Prussia in 1810) was revoked, and all discriminatory laws against agricultural workers were removed. These discriminations were replaced by a Provisional Order on 24 January 1919 that provided various rights for agricultural workers. In addition, provisions for labour protection (suspended during the war) were restored, and a number of decrees were issued establishing freedom of the press, religious freedom, and freedom of speech, and amnesty of political prisoners. Protections for homeworkers were also improved, and housing provision was increased.
A decree of 23 December 1918 regulated wage agreements, laying down that a wage agreement that had been concluded in any branch of employment between the competent trade union authority and the competent employers’ authority had absolute validity, meaning that no employer could enter into any other agreement of his own initiative. In addition, an organisation of arbitral courts was set up to decide all disputes. A decree of 4 January 1919 compelled employers to reinstate their former labourers on demobilisation, while measures were devised to safeguard workers from arbitrary dismissal. Workers who felt that they had been treated unfairly could appeal to an arbitration court, and in case of necessity the demobilisation authorities “had the power to determine who should be dismissed and who should be retained in employment.”
In the weeks following the creation of the Rat der Volksbeauftragten, Ebert and the leadership of the SPD sided with the conservative and even nationalistic forces of society (the civil servants, the armed forces, the police, the judiciary) against the forces of the revolution. They wanted to eliminate the challenge to the existing order posed by the workers' councils as soon as possible.:129 Yet the majority of those in the workers' and soldiers' councils viewed themselves as supporters of the government. It was only the Spartacists who wanted a dictatorship of the workers.:130 Ebert and Groener worked out a "program" to restore order in Berlin by having army units returning from the western front move in and disarm all "inofficial" paramilitary forces from 10 to 15 December.:132–134 However, after the ten divisions had arrived, rather than remaining as a cohesive force they dispersed. On 16 December, the Reichsrätekongress (congress of councils) met in Berlin and set the date for elections to the National Assembly for 19 January 1919. However, it also passed a resolution which was aimed at ensuring that the military would be under the strict control of the civilian government, i.e. the Rat der Volksbeauftragten. It also called for a powerful position of the soldiers' councils vis-à-vis the professional officer corps. This was unacceptable to the leaders of the military and the OHL began to establish volunteer regiments in the Berlin area.:136–138
Fighting erupted on 24 December on the Schlossplatz in Berlin. On 23 December, dissatisfied members of the Navy (Volksmarinedivision) had occupied the Reichskanzlei and put the Volksbeauftragte under house arrest. Ebert had asked the OHL for help over the phone and troops assembled on the outskirts of the capital. During the night, Ebert then ordered these troops to attack, which they did in the morning of 24 December. When the fighting stopped in the afternoon the Volksmarinedivision held the field, but they returned to their barracks, ending the crisis.:139–147 As a result of this event, which Karl Liebknecht called "Eberts Blutweihnacht" ("Ebert's Bloody Christmas"), the USPD members left the Rat der Volksbeauftragten on 29 December. The next day, SPD members Gustav Noske and Rudolf Wissell took their place and from that point on, government communiques were signed Reichsregierung instead of Rat der Volksbeauftragten.:151–152 That same day, the Spartacists severed their remaining links with the USPD and set themselves up as Kommunistische Partei (KPD).:152
The week of 5 to 12 January 1919 became known as Spartakuswoche ("Spartacus week"), but historians view this as a misnomer.:155 The "Spartacist uprising" was more an attempt by the Berlin workers to regain what they thought had been won in the November revolution and what they now seemed to be in the process of losing. The trigger was a trivial event: The head of the Berlin police, a member of the USPD, refused to accept his dismissal.:155 The USPD called for a demonstration of solidarity but was itself surprised by the reaction as hundreds of thousands, many of them armed, gathered in the city centre on 5 January. They seized the newspapers and railway stations. Representatives from USPD and KPD decided to topple the Ebert government. However, the next day, the gathered masses did not seize government buildings, as the expected support from the military had not materialized. Ebert started to negotiate with the leaders of the uprising but simultaneously prepared for military action. Noske was made commander of the Freikorps and Ebert worked to mobilise the regular armed forces of the Berlin area on the government's side.:162 From 9 to 12 January on Ebert's orders, regular forces and Freikorps successfully and bloodily suppressed the uprising.:163–168
President of Germany
On 11 February 1919, five days after the Nationalversammlung (constituent assembly) convened in Weimar, Ebert was elected as provisional president of the German Republic. He remained in that position after the new constitution came into force and was sworn-in as Reichspräsident on 21 August 1919. He was Germany's first-ever democratically elected head of state, and was also the first commoner, the first socialist, the first civilian and the first person from a proletarian background to hold that position. In the whole time of the unified German Reich's existence from 1871 to 1945, Friedrich Ebert also was the only head of state who was unequivocally committed to democracy.
One of Ebert's first tasks as president was to deal with the Treaty of Versailles. When the treaty's terms became public on 7 May, it was cursed by Germans of all political shades as an onerous "Diktat," particularly because Germany had essentially been handed the treaty and told to sign without any negotiations. Ebert himself denounced the treaty as "unrealizable and unbearable." However, Ebert was well aware of the possibility that Germany would not be in a position to reject the treaty. He believed that the Allies would invade Germany from the west if Germany refused to sign. To appease public opinion, he asked Hindenburg if the army was capable of holding out if the Allies renewed hostilities. He promised to urge rejection of the treaty if there was even the remote possibility that the army could make a stand. Hindenburg, with some prodding from Groener, notified Ebert that the army was not capable of resuming the war even on a limited scale. Ebert thus advised the National Assembly to approve the treaty, which it did by a large majority on 9 July.
The government's fight against communist forces, as well as recalcitrant socialists, went on after Ebert became president. From January to May 1919, in some areas through the summer, civil war in Germany continued. Since the January 19 elections had returned a solid majority for the democratic parties (SPD, Zentrum and DDP), Ebert felt that the revolutionary forces had no legitimacy whatsoever left. He and Noske now used the same forces they had earlier employed in Berlin on a national scale to dissolve the workers' councils and to restore law and order.:183–196
In March 1920, during the right-wing Kapp Putsch of some Freikorps elements, the government including Ebert had to flee from Berlin. However, a refusal by civil servants to accept the self-declared government and a general strike called by the legitimate cabinet led to the collapse of the putsch. After the end of the putsch, striking workers in the Ruhr region refused to return to work and, led by members of the USPD and the KPD, presented an armed challenge to the authority of the government. It then sent Reichswehr and Freikorps troops to quell the Ruhr Uprising by force.
As president, Ebert appointed centre-right figures like Wilhelm Cuno and Hans Luther as chancellor and made rigorous use of his wide-ranging powers under Article 48 of the Weimar constitution (Kapp-Putsch, Hitler-Putsch). Through 1924, he used the presidency's emergency powers a total of 134 times.:135
After the civil war he changed his politics to a "policy of balance" between the left and the right, between the workers and the owners of business enterprises. For that he followed a policy of brittle coalitions. This resulted in some problems, such as the acceptance, during the crisis of 1923, by the SPD of longer working hours without extra compensation while the conservative parties ultimately rejected the other element of the compromise, the introduction of special taxes for the rich.
Ebert suffered from gallstones and frequent bouts of cholecystitis. Vicious attacks by Ebert's right-wing adversaries, including slander and ridicule, were often condoned or even supported by the judiciary when the president turned to the courts. The constant necessity to defend himself against those attacks also undermined his health. In December 1924, a court in Magdeburg fined a journalist who had called Ebert a "traitor to his country" for his role in the January 1918 strike, but it also said that, legally, Ebert had in fact committed treason. This court case prevented him from seeking medical help for a while, as he wanted to be available to give evidence. He became acutely ill in mid-February 1925 from what was believed to be influenza. His condition deteriorated over the following two weeks, and at that time he was thought to be suffering from another episode of gallbladder disease. He became acutely septic on the night of 23 February, and underwent an emergency appendectomy (which was performed by August Bier) in the early hours of the following day for what turned out to be appendicitis. He died of septic shock four days later, aged 54. He was buried in Heidelberg.
Friedrich Ebert Foundation
Ebert's policy of balancing the political factions during the Weimar Republic is seen as an important archetype in the SPD. Today, the SPD-associated Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Germany's largest and oldest party-affiliated foundation, which, among other things, promotes students of outstanding intellectual ability and personality, is named after Ebert.
Controversy about the Freikorps collaboration
Ebert remains a controversial figure to this day. While the SPD recognizes him as one of the founders and keepers of German democracy whose death in office was a great loss, others argue that he paved the way for national socialism by supporting the Freikorps and their suppression of worker uprisings.
Ebert effectively allied himself with forces that in truth considered the republic tainted beyond redemption for being associated with the national humiliation of November 1918 and the Treaty of Versailles. They also failed to thank him for working with them in suppressing the more radical leftist groups. As a social democrat Ebert was considered to be the political enemy by conservative and nationalistic groups. They subsequently claimed that the German working class, supported by the SPD, was responsible for Germany's defeat in World War I. The alleged proof of this Dolchstoßlegende was found in a number of strikes during 1917 and 1918 which had partly disrupted production in the Imperial German armaments industry. The aim of the striking workers and their socialist allies was said to have been to turn the German Empire into a Soviet Socialist Republic. In addition, it had been the majority parties of the Reichstag which formally asked for the ceasefire in October 1918 and it had been the civilian government rather than the military which represented Germany in the ceasefire negotiations of November 1918. Most historians, however, agree that military defeat was inevitable after the U.S. had joined the war against Germany.[better source needed]
Some historians have defended Ebert's actions as unfortunate but inevitable if the creation of a socialist state on the model that had been promoted by Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht and the communist Spartacists was to be prevented. Leftist historians like Bernt Engelmann as well as mainstream ones like Sebastian Haffner on the other hand, have argued that organized communism was not yet politically relevant in Germany at the time. However, the actions of Ebert and his Minister of Defense, Gustav Noske, against the insurgents contributed to the radicalization of the workers and to increasing support for communistic ideas.
Although the Weimar constitution (which Ebert signed into law in August 1919) provided for the establishment of workers' councils on different levels of society, they did not play a major part in the political life of the Weimar Republic. Ebert always regarded the institutions of parliamentary democracy as a more legitimate expression of the will of the people; workers' councils, as a product of the revolution, were only justified in exercising power for a transitive period. "All power to all the people!" was the slogan of his party, in contrast to the slogan of the far left, "All power to the (workers') councils!".
In Ebert's opinion only reforms, not a revolution, could advance the causes of democracy and socialism. He therefore has been called a traitor by leftists, who claim he paved the way for the ascendancy of the far right and even of Adolf Hitler, whereas those who think his policies were justified claim that he saved Germany from Bolshevik excesses.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Friedrich Ebert.|
- (German) President Friedrich Ebert Memorial in Heidelberg
- "Ebert, Friedrich". Collier's New Encyclopedia. 1921.
- Works by Friedrich Ebert at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)
Prince Maximilian of Baden
|Chancellor of Germany
|Prime Minister of Prussia
as German Emperor
|President of Germany
Paul von Hindenburg
|Party political offices|
Hugo Haase and
|Chairman of the Social Democratic Party of Germany
with Hugo Haase (1913—1916)
Philipp Scheidemann (1917—1919)
Otto Wels and