Berger, Victor, 1860-1929 | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Berger, Victor, 1860-1929

Symbol of Milwaukee Socialism

Berger, Victor, 1860-1929 | Wisconsin Historical Society
Enlarge Victor Berger Campaign Poster, 1918 ca. WHI 1901.

Victor Berger Campaign Poster, 1918 ca.

Campaign poster for Victor Berger (1860-1929), U.S. Senatorial campaign. View the original source document: WHI 1901

Just as Robert La Follette came to symbolize Wisconsin Progressivism, Victor Berger became the symbol of Milwaukee Socialism. The first and only Socialist elected to Congress, Berger developed a program of moderate reform and organized the Socialists into a highly successful political organization that drew on Milwaukee's large German population and active labor movement.

Victor Berger was born on February 28, 1860, in Neider-Rehback, Austria-Hungary. Fearing conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army, Berger came to the United States in 1878. He settled in Milwaukee and worked as a metal polisher, but his days among the working class were numbered. The son of a well-to-do family, Berger had received a thorough education in Vienna and Budapest, and soon became a German-language teacher in the Milwaukee public schools.

In 1892 Berger purchased his first newspaper, the German-language Wisconsin Vorwaerts. When this closed in 1901, he replaced it with another newspaper, the Social Democratic Herald. The previous year Berger, along with Eugene Debs, had formed the Social Democratic Party, which merged with the Social Labor Party to become the Socialist Party of America in 1901.

Under Berger's leadership, the Milwaukee Socialists won major electoral victories in city elections in 1910. Berger himself won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, becoming the first Socialist to win national office. He lost his seat in 1912. Even though he ran successfully for political office as a Socialist, Berger's brand of Socialism was far more practical than the international movement, echoing many of the calls for honest government heard from the Progressive party. Berger's most influential newspaper, the Milwaukee Leader, established in 1911, became the vehicle for his vocal opposition to World War I.

Long before the start of the war, Berger had established himself as an opponent of war and militarism, a stance he continued to hold throughout the war. In 1918 Berger again won a seat in Congress, but the House of Representatives refused to permit him to take his seat for violating the federal Espionage Act. The previous year Berger had supported the anti-war statement of the Socialist party, which had denounced World War I as a tool of U.S. capitalism and imperialism. The government had also suspended mailing privileges for his newspaper because of his continued opposition to the war.

Wisconsin's governor, Emanuel Philipp, called a special election to fill Berger's seat in 1919, but voters again elected Berger to Congress. The House still refused to seat him. Berger ran once again in 1920 but was defeated by Republican William Stafford. Although he lost the 1920 election, Berger's espionage conviction was overturned and his mailing privileges were restored. In 1922 Berger ran for Congress and won. This time the House allowed Berger to take his seat, and he served for three successive terms. While in office, he proposed pensions for the elderly, unemployment insurance and public housing. Defeated in 1928, Berger returned to Milwaukee and resumed his newspaper career until his untimely death in a streetcar accident on July 16, 1929.