Born on March 25, 1860, in Saxony, Germany, as the son of a Protestant priest, Friedrich Naumann followed the family tradition and studied theology in Leipzig and Erlangen. As a social worker for the church and later a priest himself in the industrial areas of Saxony he was confronted with the social problems of the working class.
In 1890, he joined the conservative “Christian-Social movement”, which he left again in 1896. With people sharing more of his vision and ideology, he founded the so-called “National-Sozialer Verein” (National-Social Association), which was in fact a liberal workers’ party that attracted many young people. However, this association did not fare well in party politics and it had to join forces with the “Liberal Association” (“Freisinnige Vereinigung”) and it ceased to exist as a separate association in 1903. Naumann himself became more and more widely known throughout the German Reich for his editing of the magazine “Die Hilfe” (“Assistance”). In 1907 he was elected to parliament.
Naumann’s main aim was to unite the various progressive groups in the German Reich in order to form a broad coalition for reform, ranging from national-liberals to social democrats. This coalition should work toward a transformation of the political and economic system of the Reich, then ruled by emperor Wilhelm II. Naumann was convinced that liberal democracy was the political basis for a solution of the working class’ problems. He was partly successful in pursuing this approach, when 1910 the “Fortschrittliche Volkspartei” (Progressive People’s Party) – a social-liberal party uniting various movements – was formed and in 1912 agreements between liberals and social democrats led to a progressive majority in parliament. Naumann remained a member of parliament as the leading liberal representative until 1918.
In 1914 World War I had broken out. After the devastating defeat of the German Reich in 1918, the emperor had to abdicate. Naumann placed all his hopes in democratic reform as the way to reconstruction. As a pioneer of European integration, Naumann propagated an economic and military union of central-European countries, an idea that found broad support among the German population, but not among the military leadership.
Naumann believed in peaceful reform. He considered political education as one of the most important ways to bring about such reform and build the basis for democracy. As early as 1917 he had founded the “Staatsbürgerschule” (Citizens’ School) in Berlin, which became the German University for Political Science after his death. His views regarding civic education are also his most important legacy. In his 1909 paper on German liberalism he writes: “Education for liberalism is in no way merely the education of members of parliament; at a much higher level, it is about education the people for liberal thinking and action. [...] A people that is strong enough to develop a new form of leadership out of its own ranks already has the men that it needs, but what is still lacking today is a broad, general flow of liberal thought.”
To induce the democratic change needed in the post-war German Reich, Naumann co-founded a new party, the “Deutsche Demokratische Partei” (German Democratic Party). As the party’s head, he became member of the national assembly that was to work on a new constitution. Naumann substantially contributed to the so-called “Weimar constitution” that enumerated citizen rights and prescribed a federal democracy. A coalition of pro-democratic forces succeeded in adopting this constitution that led to the proclamation of the “Weimar Republic”. A few days after this great victory for liberal democracy, Friedrich Naumann died on August 24, 1919 in the German city of Travemünde.
When after World War II Naumann’s student and collaborator Theodor Heuss was elected first president of the new Federal Republic of Germany, he set the initiative to found the Friedrich Naumann Foundation. Its aim was to continue Naumann’s heritage of political education and support the worldwide struggle for liberal democracy.