Victor Berger and the Milwaukee Socialists | Wisconsin Historical Society

Classroom Material

Victor Berger, Milwaukee Socialists, and Civil Liberty

Conflict on the Homefront: Wisconsin During World War I

Victor Berger and the Milwaukee Socialists | Wisconsin Historical Society
Enlarge Vandalized Victor Berger Campaign Poster, WHI 57783

Vandalized Victor Berger Campaign
Poster, 1918

The poster was used by Berger, Socialist candidate for the U.S. Senate in the campaign to succeed Paul O. Hustin, held in April 1918. View the original source document: WHI 57783

Grade level: Secondary

Duration: One class period

In times of war American ideals of civil liberty and national security often clash. The resulting tension has brought out both the best and worst in Americans. Students will learn firsthand how the people of Wisconsin experienced the tension and conflict of wartime emotions from the posters, documents, photographs, and newspaper articles in this unit. Inspired by a temporary exhibit at the Wisconsin Historical Museum, Conflict on the Homefront: Wisconsin During World War I will help you engage your students in complex thinking and analytical skill-building activities.


Students will:

  • Work with primary source documents
  • Compare and contrast differing opinions on historical events


Born in Austria-Hungary, Victor L. Berger emigrated to the United States at age eighteen. He arrived in Milwaukee in 1881 and became active in several German-American organizations that thrived in the city. He contributed articles for a German-language newspaper and taught German in the city's public schools. Berger became a U.S. citizen in 1886.

In the 1880s young Berger began studying the great social issues of the era, including the organization of labor and ways of protecting people from many of the harsh conditions introduced by the new industrial system. By the 1890s Berger had become actively involved in socialism and the labor movement. He left teaching to work as a newspaper editor and political organizer. In 1901 he helped found the Socialist Party of America.

Led by Berger, the Socialist movement achieved significant results in Milwaukee. In 1910, Victor L. Berger became the first Socialist elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. The next year, Berger launched the Milwaukee Leader, a Socialist newspaper published in English, which reached a national audience. Although Berger failed to gain reelection to Congress in 1912, Socialists remained a powerful force in Milwaukee politics as the clouds of war appeared.

Socialists opposed United States intervention in WW I, believing that capitalist interests were profiting at the expense of working class people. Members of the Socialist party in Milwaukee, like Socialists everywhere, opposed the war but disagreed among themselves on what should be done about it. Berger took his stand in opposition to the American involvement when in the spring of 1917 he went as a delegate to a special emergency party conclave in St. Louis.

Called to determine policy in the event that the United States abandoned neutrality, the meeting actually convened just one day after Congress had passed a war resolution. Berger served on a committee that drafted a report branding the American declaration of war "a crime of our capitalist class against the people of the United States and against the nations of the world." Adopted by the convention, the report also pledged "continuous active and public opposition to the war, through demonstration, mass petition, and all other means within our power."

The Socialist Party lost many of its members following the declaration of war. Berger remained anti-war; however, concerned about the crackdown on dissenters, he became more cautious in Leader editorials. Nonetheless, the postmaster general removed the Leader's second-class postal permit, effectively banning it from the mail. Local patriotic organizations pressured businesses to stop advertising in the newspaper. In 1918 federal officials indicted Berger on charges of conspiracy, accusing the ex-congressman of using the newspaper to hinder the war effort.

These challenges did not stop Berger from launching a campaign for Congress. Newspapers refused to print Berger's political advertising, and the Socialists were unable to rent meeting space for rallies. A week prior to the election, the federal government announced additional charges against Berger. Nonetheless, voters in Wisconsin's 5th Congressional District returned Berger to the U.S. House of Representatives. Declaring that he had provided aid and comfort to the enemy, the U.S. House of Representatives refused to permit Berger to take the oath of the office. The congressional seat remained vacant.

In the months following the armistice Berger remained embroiled in legal struggles. In early 1919 federal judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis sentenced Victor Berger and four other Socialists to 20 years in prison on charges of conspiracy, stating afterwards that the law did not permit him to "have Berger lined up against a wall and shot." The U.S. Supreme Court eventually heard the case and overturned the conviction, yet charges were not dropped until 1923.

Voters returned Victor Berger to the U.S. House of Representatives in three consecutive elections in the 1920s. He fought the repeal for Prohibition and anti-lynching legislation and was a leading advocate of civil liberties legislation.

The documents included in this lesson were originally published in the editorial section of Berger's Milwaukee Leader in 1917, following the declaration of war. Microfilm copies of these newspapers can be found in the Wisconsin Historical Society Library.

Resource Materials


  1. Ask students to examine the editorials by using the analysis question sheet and encourage them to add questions of their own that seem pertinent.

  2. Have students examine the role and beliefs of the Socialist Party in the United States today. The website of the Democratic Socialists of America can serve as a starting point.

  3. Ask students to discuss whether Congress acted appropriately in denying Victor L. Berger a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.


  • Cary, Lorin Lee. "The Wisconsin Loyalty Legion, 1917-1918," Wisconsin Magazine of History, Autumn (1969): 33-50.
  • Cornebise, Alfred E. War as Advertised: The Four Minute Men and America's Crusade, 1917-1918. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1984.
  • Creel, George. How We Advertised America. New York: Arno Press, 1972.
  • Crowell, Benedict. The Giant Hand: Our Mobilization and Control of Industry and Natural Resources, 1917-1918. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921.
  • Cuff, Robert D. The War Industries Board. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1973.
  • Darracott, Joseph, and Belinda Loftus. First World War Posters. London: Imperial War Museum, 1972.
  • Falk, Karen. "Public Opinion in Wisconsin During World War I," Wisconsin Magazine of History, June (1942): 389-407.
  • German-Americans. Produced by Jerry Baber. 30 min. Schlessinger Video Productions, c. 1993. Videocassette.
  • Glad, Paul. The History of Wisconsin, Volume V, War, a New Era, and Depression, 1914-1940. Madison: The State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1990.
  • History Committee of the Four Minute Men of Chicago. The Four Minute Men of Chicago. Chicago: 1919.
  • Krog, Carl E. "The Battle Against the Kaiser: Social and Cultural Conflict in Marinette, Wisconsin During the World War I Era," The Yearbook of German-American Studies, 26 (1991): 231-247.
  • Lorence, James J. Enduring Voices: Document Sets to Accompany The Enduring Vision. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1993.
  • Lorence, James J. The Enduring Vision: A History of the American People. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1993.
  • Mock, James R. and Cedric Larson. Words That Won the War. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1939.
  • The Moving Picture Boys in the Great War: Hollywood Goes to War with Cameras Blazing. Produced by David Shepard. 52 min. Republic Pictures Home Video, 1986. Videocassette.
  • The Papers of Woodrow Wilson-November 11, 1917- January 15, 1918, Volume 45. Princeton: Prince ton University Press, 1984.
  • Paris, Michael. The First World War and Popular Cinema. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999.
  • Stevens, John Dean. "Suppression of Expression in World War I." Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1967.
  • Tindall, George Brown. America: A Narrative History, Volume II. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1988.
  • Tolzmann, Don Heinrich. The German-American Experience. Amherst: Humanity Books, 2000.
  • Tolzmann, Don Heinrich. The German-American Soldier in the Wars of the U.S. Bowie: Heritage Books, Inc., 1996.
  • Trask, David. World War I at Home. New York: Wiley, 1969.
  • Trattner, Walter J. "Julia Grace Wales and the Wisconsin Plan for Peace," Wisconsin Magazine of History, Spring (1961): 203-213.
  • Vogt, George. "When Posters Went to War," Wisconsin Magazine of History, Winter (2001), 38 -47.
  • Zeitlin, Richard H. Germans in Wisconsin. Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 2000.
  • Zwick, Jim. "World War I Posters: Artists Mobilizing the Home Front," (2001)


This lesson was developed by the Office of School Services for the secondary-level classroom. Please adapt to fit your students' needs.

Primary Sources Used in "Conflict on the Homefront" Lessons

Additional World War I Resources