Today is the birthday of Victor Louis Berger, a Jewish American US politician and a founding member of the Socialist Party of America. In 1919 he was convicted of violating the Espionage Act of 1917, a law passed after our entry into WWI which made it a crime for a person oppose the war. The legislation was passed at the urging of then United States President Woodrow Wilson, who feared any widespread dissent in time of war constituted a real threat to an American victory. It was punishable by a $USD 10,000 fine and 20 years in jail.
Berger and his parents immigrated to the United States from Austria-Hungary in 1878, settling near Bridgeport, CT. He moved to Milwaukee in 1881, where he was a schoolteacher and newspaper editor, publishing and editing a number of different papers, including the German language Wisconsin Vorwaerts (Forward) (1892-1911), the Social-Democratic Herald (1901-1913), and the Milwaukee Leader (1911-1929). His papers were tied to the socialist movement and organized labor through the Milwaukee Federated Trades Council.
“You got nothing out of the war except the flu and prohibition,” Berger told readers after the US entered the war.
His continued opposition made him a target. In February 1918 he and four other Socialists were indicted for insubordination and disloyalty under the Espionage Act. In spite of his being under indictment the people of Milwaukee elected Berger to the House of Representatives. When Berger 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 concluded that he should not, and declared the seat vacant. Wisconsin promptly held a special election to fill the vacant seat, and on December 19, 1919 elected Berger a second time; the House again refused to seat him.
The trial began on December 9 of that year, and on February 20, 1919, Berger was sentenced to 20 years’ hard labor in Leavenworth Prison by Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis. The conviction was appealed and ultimately overturned by the Supreme Court on a technicality. His twice elected seat in Congress remained vacant until 1921, when Republican William H. Stafford claimed the seat after defeating Berger in the 1920 general election.
Berger returned to defeat Stafford in 1922 and was reelected in 1924 and 1926. He dealt with Constitutional changes, a proposed elderly pension, unemployment insurance, and public housing. He also supported the recognition of the Soviet Union and the revision of the Versailles Treaty. After his defeat by Stafford in 1928, he returned to Milwaukee and resumed his career as a newspaper editor until his death caused by a traffic accident.
Thanks to Rick Kisséll and Wikipedia for inspiration and content.