Berger, Victor L. (Victor Luitpold), 1860-1929Variant names
Victor Luitpold Berger (February 28, 1860 – August 7, 1929) was an Austrian American socialist politician and journalist who was a founding member of the Social Democratic Party of America and its successor, the Socialist Party of America. Born in the Austrian Empire, Berger immigrated to the United States as a young man and became an important and influential socialist journalist in Wisconsin. He helped establish the so-called Sewer Socialist movement. Also a politician, in 1910, he was elected as the first Socialist to the U.S. House of Representatives, representing a district in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Born in the Nieder-Rehbach region of the Austrian Empire (now part of Romania), he attended the Gymnasium at Leutschau (today in Slovakia), and the major universities of Budapest and Vienna before immigtating to the United States, first settling near Bridgeport, Connecticut. In 1881, Berger settled in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, joined the Socialist Labor Party (then headed by Daniel de Leon), and became the editor of two newspapers: Vorwärts [Forward] and Die Wahrheit [The Truth]. Berger also taught German in the public school system.
In 1896, Berger was a delegate to the People's Party Convention in St. Louis. He was a founding member of the Social Democracy of America in 1897 and led the split of the "political action" faction of that organization to form the Social Democratic Party of America (SDP) in 1898. In 1901, Berger joined with Eugene Debs and Morris Hillquit to establish the American Socialist Party. In 1904, Berger unsuccessfully ran for Mayor of Milwaukee and for the U.S. House of Representatives from Wisconsin's 5th congressional district under the Socialist banner. In 1910, Berger successfully ran for the 5th district seat, becoming the first socialist in the United States to be elected to Congress. The following year he proposed a bill to provide old age pensions. Although he did not win re-election in 1912, 1914 or 1916, he remained active in Wisconsin and Socialist Party politics and published and edited the Milwaukee Leader newspaper.
Berger's opposition to World War I led him to be indicted under the Espionage Act of 1917. Though unsuccessful in his April 1918 bid for the U.S. Senate, he was re-elected to the 5th district seat in November 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 concluded that he should not, and declared the seat vacant. isconsin promptly held a special election to fill the vacant seat, and on December 19, 1919, elected Berger a second time. On January 10, 1920, the House again refused to seat him, and the seat remained vacant until 1921. Berger defeated Republican William Stafford in 1922 and was reelected in 1924 and 1926. In those terms, he dealt with Constitutional changes, a proposed old-age pension, unemployment insurance, and public housing. He also supported the diplomatic recognition of the Soviet Union and the revision of the Treaty of Versailles. After his defeat by Stafford in 1928, he returned to Milwaukee and resumed his career as a newspaper editor.
On July 16, 1929, while crossing the street outside his newspaper office, Berger was struck by a streetcar travelling on North Third Street (now Dr. Martin Luther King Drive) at the intersection with West Clarke Street in Milwaukee. The accident fractured his skull, and he died of his injuries on August 7, 1929. Prior to burial at Forest Home Cemetery his body lay in state at City Hall. 75,000 residents of the city came to pay their respect.
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