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Victor Berger

Victor Berger

Victor Berger, the son of an innkeeper, was born in Nieder-Rehbach, Austria-Hungary, on 28th February, 1860. His father's fortunes declined during his childhood. After attending the universities of Vienna and Budapest, Berger emigrated to the United States in 1878.

Berger's family settled in the German-speaking city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He became a language teacher and in 1889 joined the Socialist Labor Party. Berger's involvement in radical politics resulted in him losing his job. In 1892 Berger established his own German-language daily newspaper, the Wisconsin Vorwarts. When this closed Berger replaced it with the Social Democratic Herald.

Berger was a political reformist and revisionist who supported the theoretical views of Eduard Bernstein. As his biographer, Sally M. Miller has pointed out: "Berger advocated educating the enfranchised proletariat while pursuing electoral politics. As a pragmatist, he believed that Marxist principles must be modified to meet the opportunities presented by changing political and economic conditions, an approach that led orthodox Marxists to call him an opportunist."

In 1901 Berger joined with Eugene Debs and Morris Hillquit to establish the American Socialist Party. The party was very strong in Milwaukee and played a major role in the city's government for the next fifty years. In 1910 Berger became the first socialist in the United States to be elected to Congress. The following year he proposed a bill to provide old age pensions.

Sally M. Miller has suggested that Berger was a "virulent bigot, believing that groups were innately unequal." He argued that "white civilization" in the United States was threatened by the influx of "new immigrants". Berger also believed in the "absolute inferiority of American blacks".

Berger was a strong opponent of America's involvement in the First World War, describing it as a "the wholesale murder in Europe". However, as Shane Hamilton has pointed out: "the main thrust of Berger's anti-war stance was socialistic, not pacifistic."

In 1918 Berger was charged under the Espionage Act and after being found guilty was sentenced to twenty years in prison. While free on appeal, Berger was elected to Congress in 1919 with an increased majority. In 1921 the Supreme Court overturned Berger's conviction.

As well as representing the people of Milwaukee in Congress, Berger edited the Milwaukee Leader (1911-1921) and served as chairman of the American Socialist Party (1927-1929). He was a strong opponent of the American Communist Party and warned against the "folly of imitating Soviet models, condemning the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat." A collection of his speeches and editorials, Voice and Pen, was published in 1929.

Victor Berger died on 16th July, 1929, from injuries sustained in a streetcar accident in Milwaukee.

Ethical pacifism played a minor and relatively insignificant role in Victor Berger's opposition to World War I. In fact, on several occasions Berger placed his opposition to war on the shelf and focused his attention instead on the potential boost war could provide for the Socialist cause. On the eve of Germany's declaration of war on Russia, Berger wrote his wife that the imminent war could be "a good thing because it would hurt both the Czar and the Kaiser - and surely hurt the cause of monarchy and absolutism in Europe." Certainly Berger did not view the war as "a good thing" for very long, but as the war first got under way, he interpreted the fight in Europe as a potential boost for the Socialist cause. Similarly, when America first became officially involved in the war, Berger viewed American participation in the war as a possible boon to the American Socialist cause. Berger thought the military's great and immediate demand for food, shelter, and munitions would force the government to adopt socialist ideas by running industries, fixing prices, and coordinating the distribution of goods. Berger's prediction was not far off the mark on this point, for countless government agencies were created during the Wilson administration, including the War Industries Board, to set production schedules, standardize production procedures, and coordinate government purchases. Berger believed the government would also have to assume control of all means of interstate transportation and communication (one of the major goals of the Socialist program) in order to effectively prosecute the war.

Thus, Berger did not immediately condemn America's involvement in the war on moral grounds. Instead, he viewed the situation in the context of socialism, stating that "There will be no return to the old order, once we shall have started on the path of collective activities." Berger's opposition to war was complex and not necessarily based on any sort of moral pacifism, for he was often willing to overlook the ethical concerns of war in order to view the possible benefits war could provide for the Socialists' political cause. Also, in cases of sustained repression of human rights, or if a country wrongfully invaded another country, Berger defended war as a practical means of defense. As he once commented in a Congressional committee meeting, "war sometimes cannot be avoided." Although Berger certainly did oppose World War I on moral grounds, calling it "the wholesale murder in Europe," the main thrust of Berger's anti-war stance was socialistic, not pacifistic.

If ethical concerns were not the driving force behind Berger's opposition to World War I, neither was his opposition simply a result of his German heritage. In fact, readers of the Milwaukee Leader (a great majority of whom were of German descent) often attacked Berger for his paper's unsympathetic coverage of Germany's involvement in the war. While other Milwaukeeans of German descent openly supported the Fatherland in the first years of war, Victor Berger "told the pro-Germans in plain words that their attempt to express the European partisanship through any old party will be a failure, and that they can not express such partisanship through the Socialist Party because it is pro-American to the core." The Milwaukee Free Press, responding to Berger's lack of sympathy for the German cause, labeled him "the original prophet of ill-omen for the German cause" and accused him of trying to "arouse prejudice against the German emperor." Berger rarely tried to hide his distaste for the autocratic regime of the German Kaiser; unfortunately, many Milwaukeeans could not accept attacks, whether justified or not, on their beloved Fatherland. As his daughter later noted in an unpublished biography, "Papa...hated the Kaiser. In Milwaukee, that didn't increase Papa's popularity." This lack of allegiance to the German cause may have been the primary reason for Berger's defeat in the 1914 Congressional elections. Berger's opponent, the incumbent Republican William Stafford (Berger had lost his 1912 bid for reelection to the House), coasted to victory by attacking Berger for not sufficiently supporting the German war cause. Thus, if Victor Berger's opposition to World War I resulted from his allegiance to the German nation, he certainly did a poor job of indicating this fact to his fellow German-Americans.


Eugene V. Debs with Victor Berger, 1897

Five-time Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs (left) with Victor Berger in 1897. Berger was instrumental in converting Debs to Socialism in 1895. Source: WHI-56204 View the original source document: WHI 56204

Milwaukee teacher and newspaper editor Victor L. Berger was arguably the most successful Socialist politician in the United States. This large poster documents Berger's campaign for United States Senate in a special election in April 1918. Berger, a co-founder of the Socialist Party of America, was not only the first Socialist ever elected to the U.S. Congress, but was also chief architect and strategist for the longest-running Socialist municipal government in America.

This two-color lithographed poster was printed on eight separate sheets of paper, which were glued together into a dramatic finished size of over 8 feet high and 6 feet across. It was produced by the Riverside Printing Company of Milwaukee, a general job printer founded in the 1860s. By the early 20th century, the company advertised printing, engraving, electrotyping, zinc etching and bookbinding services as well as lithography. Riverside also made large outdoor advertisements for circuses, theatrical productions and on occasion, political campaigns. The artwork shows the characteristic soft, pencil-like marks of a hand-drawn lithograph, and was probably printed on zinc plates. The poster was printed primarily in blue, with only four sheets accented in red. Because each color required a different plate, this approach added a splash of extra color, while keeping production costs down.

Born in Austria-Hungary in 1860, Berger emigrated to the United States in 1878 and settled in Milwaukee three years later. His frustration with the social conditions of the day led him to adopt socialism in 1892, and he soon set himself the task of developing it into an organized and effective political movement in the United States. Berger's approach was pragmatic and local, less concerned with splitting ideological hairs than with providing quality government services like parks and sanitation to working people. This approach earned Berger and his colleagues the nickname " Sewer Socialists ," a moniker they adopted with pride.

One of the keys to the Sewer Socialists' success was their ability to enlist the vigorous support of Milwaukee's substantial trade union movement. An inscription along the bottom edge of the poster, "Authorized and Published by Frank J. Weber," verifies that collaboration. Weber was one of Wisconsin's most influential and effective labor leaders. This inscription suggests that the Federated Trades Council of Milwaukee, of which Weber was the secretary, backed Berger's campaign.

At the time of Berger's April 1918 Senate campaign, Milwaukee's German community was in turmoil. America's entry into World War I a year earlier had unleashed a wave of anti-German sentiment. Wisconsin &ndash whose Congressional delegation overwhelmingly opposed entering the war &ndash was branded a hotbed of sedition. German language and culture were attacked, as was anyone who opposed the war effort. Berger, who as a socialist believed that international working class solidarity trumped the self-interest of nation states, dismissed the conflict as "a capitalist war caused chiefly by the struggle between Great Britain and Germany for the world market." Berger printed editorials opposing the war in his newspaper the "Milwaukee Leader", and in the fall of 1917, U.S. postal authorities revoked its second-class mailing privileges. In February 1918, Berger himself was charged with promoting the success of America's enemies under the recently passed Espionage Act of 1917.

Berger interpreted these attacks as infringements of free speech and freedom of the press, and said so on this campaign banner. "Freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of assemblage" were crucial components of the Wisconsin Socialist platform in 1918, as were "an early, general, lasting and democratic peace," "compelling the profiteers of the war to pay the cost of the war," and "national ownership of trusts and . public ownership of public utilities." Running under federal indictment, Victor Berger won 26% of the vote statewide in the April Senate election, winning 11 counties.

Berger was more successful that November, running for and regaining the Milwaukee Congressional seat he had held from 1911 to 1913. Before Berger was seated, however, his espionage trial began. In the trial, presided over by an obviously antagonistic Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Berger was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. Congress refused to seat Berger and declared his seat open. In a subsequent special election held on December 19, 1919, Berger won again, drawing 6500 additional votes, but Congress again refused to seat him. The seat remained open. A year later, perhaps frustrated with having no voice at all in Congress, Milwaukee voters chose Berger's long-time rival, moderate Republican William H. Stafford .

In 1921 the United States Supreme Court voided Berger's conviction on the grounds that Judge Landis, who had publicly made anti-German and anti-Socialist remarks, should have excused himself from the case. Berger commented, "I hail this decision as the first real sign of returning sanity in our ruling class." He continued, "I have proven my love for America, my faith in America's justice, by risking my liberty in defense of the constitutional right of all American citizens to discuss freely and fully the official acts and policies of their public servants."

Berger defeated Stafford in the 1922 elections and served in Congress from 1923 to 1929, where he continued to champion civil liberties. While World War I and its aftermath effectively destroyed the Socialist Party's influence on the state and national levels, Milwaukee voters continued to elect Socialist mayors until 1960.

Yet Berger's influence extended well beyond his party's electoral successes. Many of the causes Berger and his Socialist compatriots advocated &mdash votes for women, old age pensions and workers' compensation, reforestation, the eight hour day, limits on child labor &ndash nourished Wisconsin's famed Progressive tradition. Ultimately, they have become part of our baseline expectations of what a responsible government provides for its citizens.


Newly uncovered photos show private side of Victor and Meta Berger

After visiting the Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear, 839 N. 11th St., recently, Andrew Dobbs shared some photos with the museum. They are images that provide a look at a Milwaukee power couple of a century ago.

After visiting the Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear, 839 N. 11th St., recently, Andrew Dobbs shared some photos with the museum. They are images that provide a look at a Milwaukee power couple of a century ago.

The dozen photos, taken from 1902 to 1907, are of socialist politician and newspaper publisher Victor Berger and his wife, Meta (Schlichting) Berger, a longtime member of the Milwaukee School Board and other educational institutions in the state.

Dobbs is the great-grandson of Meta&rsquos sister Hedwig &ldquoHattie&rdquo Schweers (nee Schlichting).

Dobbs says that according to Meta's autobiography, &ldquoA Milwaukee Woman&rsquos Life on the Left,&rdquo Victor Berger courted them both.

&ldquoVictor and Meta built one of the first cottages on Shawano Lake in Shawano,&rdquo he says. &ldquoIt was near the cottage of Franklin Schweers, his wife Emma Weber and their five children. The two families became friends. When Franklin's wife Emma died young, leaving the children motherless, Meta's sister Hattie married Franklin and raised the children as her own.

&ldquoFranklin Schweers ran the small ferry boat from the town of Shawano, down the Wolf River channel to Shawano Lake and across the lake to North Beach.&rdquo

Some of the photos that Dobbs has include images from the Shawano house. Others show the family at their home at 2974 N. 2nd St., which survives today, heavily altered, as do other neighboring homes that can be seen in the photos.

Dobbs says the photos belonged to Hattie.

&ldquoThe photos got passed down to Hattie and Franklin Schweers' daughter, Marie,&rdquo he adds. &ldquoMarie's daughter Susan ended up with them and I am Susan's son.

&ldquoBy the time I got these photos, nobody seemed to know who the people besides Hattie and Franklin's family were.I had to do some digging to find out they were Victor and Meta Berger and their family.&rdquo

The Bergers were one of Milwaukee&rsquos power couples a hundred years ago. And a controversial one.

Born in what is now Romania but was then Austria-Hungary in 1860, Victor, who was Jewish, came to the U.S. with his parents in 1878, settling in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He moved to Milwaukee in 1881 and taught German in Milwaukee Public Schools and worked as a tutor and, according to John Gurda, a drama critic. He was also active in the Milwaukee Turners.

In 1897 he married Meta, a Milwaukee-born, Lutheran socialist organizer and schoolteacher, whose father Bernard &ndash a Republican &ndash was a school commissioner.

They had two daughters, including Doris, who later wrote soap operas like &ldquoSearch for Tomorrow&rdquo and created &ldquoGeneral Hospital&rdquo with her second husband Frank Hursley, and Elsa.

Already engaged in politics by 1892, Victor went to help launch the Social Democracy of America party in 1897 and the following year was part of a group that, after a schism, became the Social Democratic Party of America. In 1901 he co-founded the Socialist Party of America.

He was also a publisher, editor and writer at numerous newspapers, including the Milwaukee Leader, which he founded in 1911 and which survived his death and a number of name changes until 1940 when it became the Milwaukee Post.

After losing a 1904 congressional run, Berger gained a seat in 1910, though he lost the next three reelection campaigns.

In 1918, a vocal opponent to World War I, Berger was charged and, in 1919, convicted under the Espionage Act for his anti-war writings in the Leader. In the meantime he&rsquod won a seat in the House of Representatives, but when he went to Washington, Congress denied him his seat, which was declared vacant, claiming that as a convicted felon he should be denied. In a special election in 1919 to fill the seat, Berger was again elected and again was denied his seat.

In 1920, a Republican won Berger&rsquos seat, and the following year, the Supreme Court overturned Berger&rsquos conviction. Thus, when he won his seat back three times more times, Berger was allowed to serve.

However, in 1929, while crossing the street near his office, Victor was hit by a streetcar and died. When his body lay in state at City Hall, 75,000 Milwaukeeans came to pay their last respects.

The former Third Street School, 3275 N. 3rd St., was named in his honor, though in more recent times it was renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary.

During her 30-year tenure on the school board, Meta Berger was an advocate for affordable lunches and health exams for students, as well as pensions, tenure and fixed salaries for teachers. She was also a big supporter of the district's push to add playgrounds to schools which lacked them and to expand them at schools where they were too small.

She also served on the Wisconsin State Board of Education, the UW Board of Regents and the Board of Regents for state normal schools.

Though there was talk of the Socialist Party putting her up as a candidate for vice president in 1932, eight years later she left the party. In 1944, she died at home on her farm in Thiensville.

The photos that Dobbs has shared offer another side of the Bergers. In these images we see the interior of their 2nd Street home, where we also see them with family and friends out on the front porch, including with Jack Anderson. (Anderson, the son of Meta&rsquos sister Paula, lived with Victor and Meta). There are also photographs from Shawano Lake and a lake at East Troy.

They serve to remind us that these were more than figures in Milwaukee history, but real people with lives and loved ones just like the rest of us.

"(The) Berger(s)' life was not much different from the average bourgeois Milwaukeean's," wrote John Gurda in "The Making of Milwaukee." "Despite chronic financial woes, (the) family owned a cottage on Shawano Lake as well as a spacious home on North Second Street, and they enjoyed a generally warm domestic life.

"In letters home during his frequent travels, this scourge of the ruling class typically addressed his wife and two daughters as 'my Schatzl and my Schnuckies'."


Why Has Milwaukee Forgotten Victor Berger?

I recently spent several days in Milwaukee to give a talk at the University of Wisconsin about urban history and politics. My new book, The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, includes a profile of Victor Berger -- the leader of Milwaukee's vibrant Socialist movement, which ran the local government for most of the years from 1910 to 1960 -- so I was curious to learn how he is remembered in his city.

Berger, who helped make Milwaukee one of the most progressive and well-run cities in the country, was an easy choice for my book's roster of greatest Americans. Many of the ideas that he and other Milwaukee Socialists espoused in the early 1900s -- like municipal parks, public health programs, municipal ownership of utilities, old-age insurance, a minimum wage, and women's suffrage -- were considered radical at the time, but are now taken for granted. Indeed, remove the now-maligned word "socialist" and much of Berger's agenda has broad support today throughout the country, including Milwaukee.

Berger would be shocked that Wisconsin is currently ground-zero in the nation's right-wing crusade against unions and progressive government -- causes that he espoused. The leader of that assault, Republican Gov. Scott Walker, was previously the Milwaukee County executive. His current attack on unions, social services, and working families has triggered a huge backlash that catalyzed huge protests last year and now a grassroots movement to recall him from office.

So perhaps in the current political climate, Milwaukee's business establishment (which includes the conservative Bradley Foundation, one of the leading funders of right-wing causes) would prefer that residents forget about the city's Socialist past which -- along with the bold progressivism of Gov. Robert La Follette during part of the same era -- could inspire a new wave of radical activism.

It turns out that there are no buildings, streets, or other landmarks in Milwaukee named after Berger. One middle-aged Milwaukee native told me he had attended Victor Berger Elementary School, but in 1992 the school district had renamed it after Rev. Martin Luther King. So, not surprisingly, few Milwaukeeans today know much about Berger's accomplishments and legacy.

Born in 1860 in Austria-Hungary, Berger came to the United States in 1878, settled in Milwaukee, and soon became a German-language teacher in its public schools. He was president of the local Typographical Union and a frequent delegate to American Federation of Labor conventions. For years, he published newspapers in both German and English, distributing free editions to all Milwaukee homes on the eve of elections. In 1892 he bought the Wisconsin Vorwaerts (Forward), a
daily German-language newspaper affiliated with the Socialist Labor Party (SLP).

In 1900 he joined with labor leader Eugene Debs to form the Social Democratic Party, which merged the following year with the SLP to form the Socialist Party of America. Berger closed the Vorwaerts and began a new paper, the Social Democratic Herald, which carried on its masthead the description "Official Paper of the Federated Trades Council of Milwaukee and the Wisconsin State Federation of Labor." He was later editor of the Milwaukee Herald, an English-language labor paper owned primarily by the Brewery Workers union, a powerful force in the nation's beer-making capital.

In 1910, Milwaukee voters elected Emil Seidel, a pattern-maker, the first Socialist mayor of a major city. That year, the Socialists, building on their large German immigrant following and the city's strong labor movement, also won a majority of seats on the city council and the county board. At the same time, they made Berger the first Socialist elected to the U.S. Congress. Both Seidel and Berger lost in 1912, but in 1916 Milwaukee voters elected another Socialist, Daniel Hoan, as their mayor and reelected him through 1940. After a brief hiatus, in 1948, Milwaukeeans elected Frank Zeidler, a member of the school board, to be their third Socialist mayor. Zeidler was re-elected twice, serving until 1960, when he declined to run again for health reasons. In other words, Milwaukee had Socialist mayors for 40 of the 50 years between 1910 and 1960, a track record unparalleled in any other American city.

After they gained power in 1910, the Socialists turned Milwaukee into a laboratory for progressive change. Before the Socialists took office, Milwaukee was one of America's most corrupt cities. Businesses routinely bribed local officials to give favorite corporations private monopolies over utilities and streetcars, which were typically run inefficiently. Businesses paid little taxes while local government was starved for cash.

But under the Socialists, Milwaukee gained a reputation as a well-managed municipality They believed that government had a responsibility to promote the common good, but particularly to serve the needs of the city's working class. They built community parks, including beautiful green spaces and recreation areas along the lakefront that are still widely-used. They increased the citywide minimum wage (28 years before the federal government adopted the idea) and established an eight-hour day standard for municipal workers. They championed public education for the city's children, built excellent ibraries and sponsored vibrant recreation programs. The city municipalized street lighting, the stone quarry, garbage disposal and water purification. (Their biggest disappointment was their failure to take over the inefficient privately-owned street car system and electric utility company).

Proud of their well-managed public services, the Socialists constantly boasted about Milwaukee's excellent public sewer system. As both praise and irony, they were often known as "sewer socialists."

In May 1936, Time magazine put Mayor Hoan on its cover and reported that under him, "Milwaukee has become perhaps the best governed city in the U.S." Milwaukee won many awards for being among the safest and healthiest cities in the country. Thanks to its innovative public health programs, for example, Milwaukee regularly had among the lowest rates of infant mortality and epidemic diseases of any American city. During the global "Spanish flu" epidemic of 1918, Milwaukee's public health department closed down its schools, churches, and other public gathering places the prevent its spread. As a result, Milwaukee had one of the lowest contagion rates in the world.

Many of Milwaukee's urban reforms were later adopted by other cities, most of which were not run by Socialists.

In Congress, where he served intermittently until 1928, Berger sponsored bills providing for government ownership of the radio industry and the railroads, abolition of child labor, self-government for the District of Columbia, a system of public works for relief of the unemployed, and women's suffrage. He put forward resolutions for the withdrawal of federal troops from the Mexican border and for the abolition of the Senate (which was then not yet elected directly by the voters and was called the "millionaires' club"). He introduced the first bill in Congress to provide old-age pensions -- an idea that eventually adopted in 1935 when President Franklin Roosevelt created Social Security.

Despite these radical stances, Berger was criticized by the Socialist Party's left wing because, they argued, these measures, even if passed, would not add up to socialism. They criticized Berger's "step at a time" brand of socialism. Berger disagreed. One of his favorite mottoes was, "Socialism is coming all the time. It may be another century or two before it is fully established."

It was Berger who introduced Eugene Debs to socialism. In 1894, Debs, leader of the railroad workers union, was sentenced to six months in prison in Woodstock, Ill., for violating a federal injunction during his union's strike against the Pullman company. In jail, Debs read voraciously and began questioning many core beliefs, including his longtime membership in the Democratic Party. As Debs recalled, "Victor L. Berger -- and I have loved him ever since -- came to Woodstock, as if a providential instrument, and delivered the first impassioned message of socialism I had ever heard -- the very first to set 'the wires humming in my system.'" Debs became a beloved figure, running for president on the Socialist Party ticket five times, gaining almost one million votes -- 6 percent of the total -- in 1912. That year, 1,039 Socialist Party members held public office in 340 cities and towns.

Like Debs, Berger was a leader in opposing the U.S. entry into World War I. In an editorial on the mayoral election in the Milwaukee Leader, Berger wrote that the Socialist Party gave each voter a chance "to register his vote in favor of an immediate, general and democratic peace or for a bloody, long, drawn-out plutocratic war."

In 1918, Berger ran for the U.S. Senate from Wisconsin. In his campaign he demanded the return of American troops from Europe and a system of taxation on war industries that would "take every penny of profits derived from the sale of war supplies." He put up fifty billboards in Milwaukee that said, "war is hell caused by capitalism. socialists demand peace. read the people's side. Milwaukee Leader. Victor l. Berger, Editor."

During the campaign, Socialist meetings were harassed by organized mobs and local chambers of commerce. Berger had difficulty hiring halls in which to speak outside Milwaukee. Socialist Party members distributing campaign literature were arrested without cause. Berger's paper, the Milwaukee Leader (which he started in 1911 and which had a statewide circulation) was banned from the mails, so it could only be circulated in and near Milwaukee. In February 1918, in the middle of the campaign, Berger and four other Socialists were indicted under the Espionage Act. Despite this harassment, Berger won 26 percent of the vote statewide in the April Senate election.

Berger was more successful the following November, when Milwaukee voters returned Berger to the congressional seat he had held from 1911 to 1913. On Feb. 20, 1919, Berger was convicted and sentenced by Judge Kenesaw Landis (later famous as major league baseball's iron-fisted commissioner) to twenty years in federal prison for his opposition to World War I. In April 1919, his colleagues in Congress expelled him by a 309-1 vote.

Wisconsin's Emanuel Philipp, called a special election to fill Berger's seat in December of that year, and again Berger won, only to be refused his seat still another time by a 328-6 margin.

Berger appealed Landis's decision, and the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it in 1921. Berger was reelected in 1922 and seated he remained in Congress until he was defeated in 1928. He returned to Milwaukee, where the Socialists still had considerable influence, and resumed his newspaper career until he was killed in a streetcar accident the next year.

Milwaukee has a bridge named after Daniel Hoan and a municipal building named for Frank Zeidler, but Milwaukeeans will look in vain for a landmark named for Victor Berger, who was the genius behind the Socialists' initial triumphs. Milwaukee's progressives and liberals, its unions, the local historical society, and other civic activists should mount a campaign to restore Berger's name to its rightful place in the city's history.

How? The City Council could rename a major street Berger Boulevard. The Milwaukee Area Labor Council could install a statue of Berger, the guiding spirit of the city's union movement during its heyday, in front of its headquarters. The Milwaukee County Historical Society could sponsor a permanent exhibit about the city's illustrious Socialist past, including Berger's important role, so that current and future residents will learn about this important chapter of the city's history and its current legacy. The school district could repent for erasing Berger's name from a school 20 years ago by identifying another building that could bear the name of this former public school teacher. (Or they could restore his name to that school and share it with the slain civil rights leader, who was also an economic radical and who shared many of Berger's views, which would then be known as the "Berger King" school!)

Given his political base, Berger would certainly applaud having a local baseball team called the Brewers, but shouldn't Milwaukee's progressives and unionists insist that Miller Park -- the team's privately-owned stadium that was built with public funds -- be renamed Berger Ballpark? Shouldn't one of the city's few remaining breweries produce a new product called Berger Beer? And shouldn't one of Milwaukee's many German restaurants add to its menu a Berger Burger?

As a nation, we need to celebrate the achievements of the people and movements that have made America a more humane and democratic country. Unless we know our history, we will have little understanding of how far we have come, how we got here, and how that progress was made thanks to the moral convictions and political skills of great Americans like Victor Berger.


Victor Berger ‘ father name is N/A and his mother name is N/A.

  • Victor Berger was born in Los Angeles.
  • His birth sign is Leo.
  • He has gained popularity through his @VicBergerIV named Twitter account, known for uploading viral videos.
  • He has amassed over 162.4k followers on the platform
  • He studied songwriting at the Berklee College of Music.
  • He is on Instagram under the username @vicbergeriv, has over 124k followers.

Victor Berger and the Sewer Socialists

Five-time Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs (left) with Victor Berger in 1897. Berger was instrumental in converting Debs to Socialism in 1895. Source: WHI 56204

Born in Austria-Hungary in 1860, Victor Berger emigrated to the United States in 1878 and settled in Milwaukee three years later. His frustration with the social conditions of the day led him to adopt socialism in 1892, and he soon set himself the task of developing it into an organized and effective political movement in the United States. Berger’s approach was pragmatic and local, less concerned with splitting ideological hairs than with providing quality government services like parks and sanitation to working people. This approach earned Berger and his colleagues the nickname “Sewer Socialists,” a label they adopted with pride.

One of the keys to the Sewer Socialists’ success was their ability to enlist the vigorous support of Milwaukee’s substantial trade union movement. This support was on display during Berger’s 1918 campaign for U.S. Senate. An inscription along the bottom edge of one of his campaign posters, “Authorized and Published by Frank J. Weber,” verifies that collaboration. Weber was one of Wisconsin’s most influential and effective labor leaders. This inscription suggests that the Federated Trades Council of Milwaukee, of which Weber was the secretary, backed Berger’s campaign.

Berger became the first Socialist to serve in the United States House of Representatives, winning the election in Wisconsin’s 5 th congressional district in 1910. Although his first stint in Congress only lasted one term, and he did not win his 1918 bid for Senate, he won reelection to the House in 1922 and served from 1923 until 1929. While World War I and its aftermath effectively destroyed the Socialist Party’s influence on the state and national levels, Milwaukee voters continued to elect Socialist mayors, a trend that began in 1910 with the election of Emil Seidel, until 1960.

Emil Seidel (left) and Victor Berger, c. 1910. When he was elected mayor of Milwaukee in 1910, Seidel became the first Socialist to serve as mayor of a major American city. Source: WHI 56202

Yet Victor Berger’s influence extended well beyond his party’s electoral successes. Many of the causes Berger and his Socialist compatriots advocated — votes for women, old age pensions and workers’ compensation, reforestation, the eight hour day, limits on child labor – nourished Wisconsin’s famed Progressive tradition. Ultimately, they have become part of our baseline expectations of what a responsible government provides for its citizens.


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Earlier that year Berger had been convicted of violating the Espionage Act, by publicly opposing America’s entry into World War I.

Victor L. Berger was born on February 28, 1860, in the town of Nieder-Rehbach, in Austria-Hungary (today in Romania). His parents, Ignatz and Julia Berger, were Jewish, and the prosperous owners of an inn in nearby Letschau. The family emigrated to the U.S. in 1878.

Three years later, Victor moved from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There he began teaching German in the public schools and became involved in left-wing politics.

His political work landed him in frequent trouble with his employers, and in 1892, he left teaching to found a German-language daily newspaper, called the Vorwaerts. In 1898, he became editor of an English-language paper, the Social Democratic Herald, which in 1911 evolved into the Milwaukee Leader, which was owned by the Brewery Workers Union.

At the turn of the century, more than half of Milwaukee’s population was either German-born or first-generation German immigrants, and heavily socialist. Berger was part of a well-oiled socialist political machine, the Sewer Socialists, that ran the city for most of the period between 1910 and 1960.

As a Socialist (Berger co-founded, with Eugene V. Debs, what became the Socialist Party, in 1898), Berger was a moderate. He believed in gradual evolution to socialism, rather than violent revolution. While many party colleagues saw him as too moderate, on the national level he was viewed as a dangerous subversive, especially when he opposed U.S. involvement in World War I.

In 1910, Berger became the first Socialist elected to the House of Representative, but he lost a reelection bid two years later.

The U.S. entered World War I in April 1917. When Berger voted against mobilization, he was accused of sympathizing with Germany, as a native German-speaker. He denied that and argued that the capitalists would profit from the war while working men would die. He even proposed financing the fighting by taxing corporate profits instead of selling war bonds.

The system came down hard on Berger. First, the postmaster general, citing the recently passed Espionage Act, which was meant to prevent distribution of literature critical of the war effort, canceled the Milwaukee Leader’s second-class postal classification. This increased its postal costs sevenfold and also constituted prior restraint of the paper rather than restriction of specifically subversive editions.


Thunder on the Left: Socialist Victor Berger

Sanders is an old man, and an old story. Born in September 1941 in Brooklyn, New York, he has held office as a mayor, a congressman, or a U.S. senator almost continuously since 1981. By contrast Ocasio-Cortez, 29, is the youngest woman ever to serve in the House. Before her upset victory, she worked at a hip taqueria in Manhattan, where we knew each other to say hi.

Socialism is the flavor of the moment, a judo response to—or perhaps a parallax image of—Trumpian populism. However, socialists have long been an ingredient in the great stew of American third parties. At the end of the 19th century triumphant industrial capitalism became

the target of reformers and radicals from populists and progressives to anarchist assassins. Socialists, the leftmost reformers, sought nothing less than to transform the economic system. They also were the rightmost radicals, willing to work within the political system. In the presidential elections of 1912 and 1920, Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate, scored more than 900,000 votes—impressive, but nothing like successful Debs tallied zero electoral votes. During the same period two socialists did win House seats. The

In April 1918, the Berger camp defied mainstream public opinion with a poster advocating ending the war. (Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society)

first, and longest-serving, was Victor Berger.

Berger, born into a German Jewish family in Transylvania in 1860, came to America at the end of the 1870s and found his way to Milwaukee. Wisconsin was a magnet for Germans at the turn of the century they accounted for ten percent of the population there. Berger taught high school history and German, then switched to journalism—in late 1911 he founded the Milwaukee Leader, a daily newspaper—and politics. He flirted with radical factions—populism and Henry George’s single-tax theories—then set about building a Milwaukee-based Socialist Party political machine blending ideology and an emphasis on municipal infrastructure.

Berger believed, like Karl Marx, that the arc of capitalism bent inexorably toward oppression and class conflict, and that socialism was “the next phase of civilization, if civilization is to survive.” In the socialist phase, the government supposedly would own businesses and banks farms, Berger thought, should stay in private hands. He respected the capitalist enemy’s acumen. A socialized United States Steel, he wrote, might still be run by its former CEO. “But we would not pay him $800,000 a year,” he added.

Berger parted from Marx in thinking that socialism could arrive peaceably, via democratic elections. The American reality of a widely dispersed franchise made a profound impression on him. John D. Rockefeller cast the same number of votes—one—as any of his employees. “This is the first instance in the history of the world that the oppressed class has virtually the same political basis as the ruling class,” Berger wrote. “It is foolish to expect results from riots and dynamite, from murderous attacks and conspiracies, in a country where we have the ballot.” In 1910, as if in fulfillment of his hopes, a slate of Milwaukee socialists won local office on a platform of municipal ownership of utilities. The same year, Wisconsin’s Milwaukee-centered Fifth District sent Berger to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Berger’s first stint in Congress lasted only one term before world events changed the domestic political landscape. When Europe went to war in 1914, socialists wanted America to stay neutral—a stance rooted in the fact that, like Berger, many were culturally German. That affinity and their antiwar attitude made them pariahs in 1917, when America joined the fight on the side of the Allied Powers. The U.S. Post Office refused to deliver copies of the Leader, calling Berger’s paper disloyal. The December 1917 Bolshevik takeover of the Russian

Vandals defaced this Berger poster by adding the words “of the Russian kind” after “peace” and giving the candidate an Iron Cross and a Kaiser Bill mustache. (Courtesy of the Wisconsin Historical Society)

Revolution offered a nightmare image of socialism. The Bolsheviks appalled Berger—he called communist Russia “a super state supported by terrorism”—but during the 1919-20 Red Scare suspicion transmogrified anyone on the left into a murderous demagogue.

Undaunted, Berger toiled on. In 1918 he won a second congressional race. Now his troubles began. In December 1918, the U.S. Justice Department tried Berger and four other socialists in Chicago before elaborately named Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis for conspiracy to hinder the war effort. Convicted, the five drew 20 years in prison. In May 1919, free on appeal, Berger appeared in the House to be sworn in. The House refused, asserting that he had given aid and comfort to the enemy, a violation of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment, designed
to keep former Confederates from holding office. Only one member voted to admit the socialist. Wisconsin called a special election in December 1919 to fill Berger’s seat. He won handily Fifth District voters did not like to see him being pushed around. Again, the House voted to keep him out this time all of six congressmen spoke in his favor. “I do not share the views of Mr. Berger,” explained one, “but I am willing to meet his views in argument before the people rather than to say that we should deny him to opportunity to be heard.”

The next election, 1920, was the Harding landslide—bad news for any candidate lacking an R after his name. However, in 1922 Berger’s district voted him in once more, by which time the U.S. Supreme Court, on a technicality, had overturned those five convictions. A less feverish House calmly accepted Berger into the ranks. He served until 1928. He died the year after he left Congress, run over by a trolley on the streets of the city he loved.

Berger showed he could win elections, and his legal travails and vindication made a stirring story. Did he bring America nearer the “next phase of civilization”? Socialists to Berger’s left decried his moderation, branding it “slowcialism” or, mocking his focus on urban mechanics, “sewer socialism.” The academic Roderick Nash argued that Berger was too successful for his own good, proving only that socialism in America succeeded when it was “susceptible to absorption and dilution in the American ethos.” The mainstream has adopted Socialist Party platform plans piecemeal: public utilities, a graduated income tax, federal health insurance in the form of Obamacare. Public ownership of banks and transportation remain a way off, though the TARP bailout and Amtrak could be seen as steps in those directions.

The nation’s first 80 years saw major parties come and go—Federalists and Whigs, for instance, plus dramatic flare-ups like the Anti-Masons and the Know-Nothings—before the Civil War baptized the two-party system of Democrats and Republicans in blood. Subsequent political storms have beaten in vain against that plinth. New parties’ function for 150 years has been to bring to national notice issues like Prohibition and programs like populism or socialism to be absorbed and if necessary, discarded by donkeys and elephants. Hence Bernie Sanders, though mostly maintaining his label as an Independent, caucusing in Congress with the Democrats and running in 2016 in Democratic primaries, and Ocasio-Cortez making her maiden run as a Democrat.


World War I

Berger's views on World War I were complicated by the Socialist view and the difficulties surrounding his German heritage. However, he did support his party's stance against the war. When the United States entered the war and passed the Espionage Act in 1917, Berger's continued opposition made him a target. He and four other Socialists were indicted under the Espionage Act in February 1918 the trial followed on December 9 of that year, and on February 20, 1919, Berger was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. The trial was presided over by Judge Kenesaw Landis, who later became the first commissioner of Major League Baseball. His conviction was appealed, and ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court on January 31, 1921, which found that Judge Landis had improperly presided over the case after the filing of an affidavit of prejudice.

In spite of his being under indictment at the time, the voters of Milwaukee elected Berger to the House of Representatives in 1918. When he arrived in Washington to claim his seat, Congress formed a special committee to determine whether a convicted felon and war opponent should be seated as a member of Congress. On November 10, 1919 they concluded that he should not, and declared the seat vacant. Wisconsin promptly held a special election to fill the vacant seat, and on December 19, 1919, elected Berger a second time. On January 10, 1920, the House again refused to seat him, and the seat remained vacant until 1921, when Republican William H. Stafford claimed the seat after defeating Berger in the 1920 general election.


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