This Day in Jewish History Victor Berger, a Socialist, Is Denied a Seat in Congress

German immigrant opposed U.S. entry into World War I, which prompted accusations that he sympathized with Germany.

David Green
David B. Green
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U.S. Congress.
U.S. Congress.Credit: Reuters
David Green
David B. Green

On November 10, 1919, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to deny Victor Berger the seat to which he had been elected a year earlier, as Socialist congressman from Wisconsin’s Fifth District.

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.

That was followed by indictment, in March 1918, on 26 charges of Espionage Act violations. He was convicted at trial in a Chicago federal court and sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment.

Even after his indictment, Berger received 26 percent of the vote in a special election to the Senate, in April 1918. The following November, he was reelected to Congress.

The House convened a committee to consider whether he should be allowed to take his seat. The committee said no, and the full House agreed, voting 309-1, on November 10, 1919, to deny Berger his seat. It mandated a special election in the Fifth District. That was held a month later – and again, Berger won the vote. Again, the House refused to seat him.

The U.S. Supreme Court overruled Berger’s conviction in January 1921, and the following year the government dropped its charges against him. He ran for the House again in November 1922, and this time, when he won, he was permitted to take his seat. He was reelected in 1924 and 1926 too, before being defeated in 1928 by William Stafford, his perennial opponent.

In Congress, Berger occupied himself largely with domestic issues, including with proposals to nationalize large industrial concerns, mandated pensions, unemployment insurance and public housing.

Leaving Congress, Berger returned to the Milwaukee Leader. Outside its offices, on July 16, 1929, he was hit and badly injured by a streetcar. On August 7, he died, aged 69.

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