This Day in Milwaukee County History: After being struck by a streetcar, Victor L. Berger, first socialist elected to the United States Congress, dies of his extensive injuries on August 7, 1929.
Victor Luitpold Berger was born on February 28, 1860 in Nieder-Rehbach, Austria-Hungary (in what is today, Romania). He and his parents emigrated to the United States in 1878, first settling near Bridgeport, Connecticut, before moving on to Milwaukee in 1881.
In Milwaukee, Berger joined the Socialist Labor Party and became the editor of two Newspapers – the Social Democratic Herald and the Milwaukee Leader. As a result, Berger’s influence within the part grew substantially. He is credited for having won over perpetual Presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs to the Socialist cause. He was a founding member of the Social Democracy of America Party in 1897 and in turn, split of from his own part to establish the Social Democratic Party of America just a year later. Finally, he founded the Socialist Party of America in 1901.
Berger ran for Congress in 1904 and lost, before going on to win Wisconsin’s 5th congressional district seat in 1910 as the first socialist to serve in the United States Congress. During his time as a Congressman, Berger was a radical, even by the standards of the early 20th century. He proposed abolishing the presidential veto and the Senate, viewing both institutions as highly undemocratic. He also argued for the social take over of major industries. Immediately following the Titanic disaster, Berger called for the nationalization of the radio-wireless systems, believing the chaos of the contemporary system to be the cause of dysfunction and confusion.
Berger did not win reelection in 1912, 1914 or 1916, but remained an active member of the Socialist Party of America. He, along with Eugene Debs, was instrumental in the eviction of “Big Bill” Haywood and syndicalism from the party during the 1912 National Convention.
Berger as a vocal opponent of the United States’ involvement in World War I and was indicted for disloyalty under the Espionage Act of 1917. On February 20, 1918, Berger was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison. In spite of this indictment, Berger was once again elected to the House of Representatives in 1918.
When he returned to Washington D.C., Congress determined that a convicted felon and an opponent of the War could claim a congressional seat and declared his position effectively vacant. The voters of Wisconsin responded by holding a special election and elected Berger a second time. The House refused to seat him and the position remained vacant until 1921 when William H. Stafford defeated Berger in a third election.
On January 31. 1921, Berger’s conviction was overturned by the Supreme Court , allowing Berger to be sworn in as Congressman following his victory in the 1922 elections. He was reelected in the following two congressional races in 1924 and 1926. During his last six years in office, he focused of socialist issues such as old-age pensions, unemployment insurance and public housing. His was defeated by William H. Stafford in the 1928 elections and returned to Milwaukee to to resume his career as newspaper.
On July 16, 1929, Victor Berger was struck by a streetcar while crossing the road outside his newspaper office on West Clarke Street and North Third Street (now Dr. Martin Luther King Drive). The accident fractured his skull and he died from his injuries several weeks later. His body was buried at in an unassuming grave at Forest Home Cemetery. His papers have since been transferred to the Wisconsin Historical Society in Madison.