This article was last modified on June 16, 2011.

Empire Strikes First: Victor Berger, Forgotten Hero?

Who are those on the left in Wisconsin supposed to turn to for inspiration these days? Senator Russ Feingold was dethroned by a half-baked Ayn Rand disciple who married into money. Senator Herb Kohl, who never was terribly remarkable, is stepping down and opening the door for Tommy Thompson to return to public office. We have traditionally looked back to Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette and continue to gather for the Fighting Bob Festival in Baraboo each September. But perhaps we have overlooked Wisconsin’s place in history for those even farther left — the socialists.

Today, “socialism” is often considered a dirty word, and those on the most liberal end prefer to identify with the Green Party. Yet, Milwaukee was once a socialist haven, with mayors of that political stripe being elected consistently from 1910 through 1960. Wisconsin was also the first and only state to elect a socialist member of the House — Victor Berger, a forgotten hero.

Berger was an Austrian-born Romanian Jew who came to the United States in 1878, and took up work in Milwaukee as a teacher and newspaper editor. Perhaps his greatest contribution to history came in 1894, when he met Eugene Debs in jail and turned him on to the tenets of socialism. Debs later said that Berger “delivered the first impassioned message of socialism I had ever heard — the very first to set the wires humming in my system.” The jailed man would go on to run for president, earning the most votes for a socialist in American history.

Berger was a founding member and leader of the Social Democratic Party of America in 1898, which then merged with the Social Labor Party to become the Socialist Party of America in 1901. He was considered a “revisionist Marxist”, advocating for trade unions and pushing the idea that gradual, meaningful reforms could be achieved through elections and the current political system rather than a complete overthrow of the system. The American Constitution is a flexible document and can accommodate many different democratic systems.

His political stamp was left on Milwaukee almost immediately, as he published and edited a variety of newspapers, including the German-language Vorwärts (“Forward”) (1892–1911), the Social-Democratic Herald (1901–1913), and the Milwaukee Leader (1911–1929). Today, Berger’s papers are housed at the Wisconsin Historical Society, as is the complete run of the Milwaukee Leader on microfilm.

Berger ran for Congress, winning Wisconsin’s 5th congressional district seat in 1910 as the first (and still only) Socialist to serve in the United States Congress. He called for the social takeover of railroads, telegraph and telephones, and gained national publicity for his old-age pension bill, the first of its kind introduced into Congress. Social Security would come many years later in 1935. Berger won, though belatedly.

He notably submitted a constitutional amendment to abolish the Senate on April 27, 1911. He claimed that “the Senate in particular has become an obstructive and useless body, a menace to the liberties of the people, and an obstacle to social growth” and that “the Members of which are representatives neither of a State nor of its people, but solely of certain predatory combinations”. At the time, senators were not elected by the people but rather appointed. Not surprisingly, this proposal died in committee, but seven weeks later the Senate passed a resolution calling for direct elections and it was enacted as the 17th Amendment. Berger had won again.

Representative Berger supported the Socialist Party’s stance against World War I, but when the United States passed the Espionage Act in 1917, his opposition to the conflict made him a target. His newspaper was also barred in October 1917 from using the United States Postal Service. He quipped in 1921, “A person can mail a letter to the German Kaiser and have it delivered, but none to The Leader or its editors.” The block was later lifted.

Berger and four other Socialists were indicted under the Act on February 2, 1918. The trial followed in December of that year, and on February 20, 1919, Berger was convicted and sentenced to twenty years in federal prison. The trial was presided over by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis (later the first commissioner of Major League Baseball). Berger’s conviction was appealed, and ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court on January 31, 1921, deciding that Judge Landis had a known prejudice against Germans. He was, in fact, on record saying their “hearts are reeking with disloyalty” and further said, “If anybody has said anything worse about the Germans than I have I would like to know it so I can use it.”

In spite of his being under indictment at the time, the voters of Milwaukee re-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 decided against him 309-1, and declared the seat vacant. Conservative Republican Wisconsin governor Emanuel Philipp called a special election to fill the seat, and on December 19, 1919, the people elected Berger yet again. On January 10, 1920, the House again refused to seat him, and the position remained vacant until Republican William H. Stafford defeated Berger later that year.

Berger did not give up, defeating Stafford in 1922 and getting reelected in 1924 and 1926. During those terms, he proposed the old-age pension, unemployment insurance, and public housing. Wisconsin was the first state to offer unemployment insurance in 1932, another belated victory. After his defeat by Stafford, again, in 1928, he returned to Milwaukee and resumed his career as a newspaper editor.

What can we learn from Berger today? Menasha resident and outspoken socialist Robert Nordlander told me, “Victor Berger would undoubtedly be expelled from the House of Representatives today had he dared to call to the attention of the American public that the United States political establishment is under the control of a foreign country through the Jewish and Christian partisans of the State of Israel.”

At the least, he is an inspiration to those who dream big. Wisconsin has always been a progressive state, despite recent setbacks, and we will provide for our people — jobs, health care and more. Berger would also tell us that the key to a democratic is the furthering of democracy itself. Just as he pushed to make the Senate accountable to the people, we must always remember that government is there to serve the people. If we do not let our voices be heard, we are partially to blame for poor service.

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