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Odd Wisconsin Archive

"We Lose But We Win"

That was a maxim of Milwaukee socialist Victor Berger, who was born on this day in 1860. He came to Milwaukee about 1881, taught school, and broke with Marxist orthodoxy by insisting that socialism could come gradually through the ballot box, rather than only through violent revolution. Through his journalism and personal charisma, Berger shaped the Milwaukee socialist movement into a disciplined party which gained control of city and county government in the election of 1910, when the voters chose Berger the nation's first socialist Congressman.

When the U.S. entered World War One on Apr. 6, 1917, he opposed the action and urged resistance. This led the government to indict him for conspiracy, but with the charges still outstanding he was again elected to Congress. The House of Representatives, however, denied him his seat, and in January, 1919, he was convicted on the espionage charge and sentenced to 20 years in prison. This didn't discourage Milwaukee voters who, in a special election held in December 1919 to fill his vacated seat, returned him by an even greater margin than before. In 1921 the U.S. Supreme Court finally overturned his conviction, the conspiracy charges were dropped, and he was again elected to Congress in 1922, where he served from 1923 until his death in 1929.

In 1906, a cub reporter named William Evjue -- who would go on to become the state's leading journalist -- visited Berger's home on assignment from the Milwaukee Sentinel. The Sentinel fiercely opposed Berger and all he stood for, and Evjue was expecting a hostile reception.

"At the door I was graciously received by Mrs. Berger," Evjue recalled, "a fine looking matronly woman, who had been a Milwaukee school teacher... Mr. Berger soon came downstairs to join the company and he, too, was more than gracious to the representative of a newspaper that had been bitter and unfair in directing a campaign of calumny against him. .. When I told Mr. and Mrs. Berger that I was agreeably surprised with the reception that had been accorded me, Mr. Berger replied that he had no enmity against the employes of Milwaukee newspapers who were attacking him because, after all, they had to make a living. Then, too, Mr. Berger always looked upon every individual as a person who would respond to the appeals of reason and justice and as a possible recruit to the cause which he so ably defended."

Berger was also known for his down-to-earth, no-nonsense approach to politics and his straightforward comments to the press. In 1919, when he stepped down temporarily from the national executive committee of the party, he declared: "I have been a member of the committee since the party was organized and all I ever got out of it was a twenty-year prison sentence." In July 1928, at a meeting of the commitee of the Socialist Party in a sweltering Baltimore Hotel, Berger took off his suitcoat.

"You forgot your coat," said a member of the hotel staff.

"I didn't forget it -- I took if off," beamed Berger.

"I must ask you to put it on," said the house detective.

"But my shirt is pretty," replied the Congressman.

"I am not criticising your shirt, but you must wear your coat in the presence of the ladies," came the response, and Berger ultimately capitulated to convention.

You can see pictures and read more about Victor Berger, including selected letters and excerpts Mrs. Berger's autobiography, at Turning Points in Wisconsin History.

:: Posted in Odd Lives on February 27, 2006
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