Erzberger in 1919
|Vice-Chancellor of Germany
21 June 1919 – 3 October 1919
|Preceded by||Bernhard Dernburg|
|Succeeded by||Eugen Schiffer|
|Reich Minister of Finance|
21 June 1919 – 12 March 1920
|Preceded by||Bernhard Dernburg|
|Succeeded by||Joseph Wirth|
20 September 1875|
Buttenhausen, Württemberg, German Empire
|Died||26 August 1921
|Political party||Centre Party|
Prominent in the Catholic Centre Party, he spoke out against World War I from 1917 and as authorized representative of the Reich government signed the armistice between Germany and the Allies. He was assassinated for this act by the right-wing terrorist Organisation Consul.
He was born on 20 September 1875 in Buttenhausen (today part of Münsingen) in the Kingdom of Württemberg, as the son of Josef Erzberger (1847-1907), a tailor and postman, and his wife Katherina (née Flad; 1845-1916). In his early life he gained massive weight, which he lost in the course of thirty years. He attended the seminaries in Schwäbisch Hall and Saulgau, where he graduated in 1894, and started his career as a primary school (Volksschule) teacher. Whilst teaching, he also studied constitutional law and economics at Fribourg, Switzerland. Two years later, he became a journalist working for the Catholic Centre party's publication Deutsches Volksblatt in Stuttgart, where he also worked as a writer. Erzberger joined the Catholic Centre Party and was first elected to the Reichstag in 1903 for Biberach. By virtue of his unusually varied activities, he took a leading position in the parliamentary party. He became a specialist in colonial policy and financial policy, contributing to the financial reforms of 1909. In 1912, Erzberger became a member of the Fraktionsführung, the leadership of the parliamentary party. He supported a significant military build-up in Germany in the years 1912/13.
During the Great War
Like many of his party, he initially supported Germany's involvement in World War I and was carried along by a wave of nationalistic enthusiasm. In September 1914, he wrote a memorandum in which he laid out his view on Germany's war aims, advocating inter alia the annexation of Belgium and parts of Lorraine.  By this stage he was rapporteur to the Reichstag's Military Affairs Committee, and the "right-hand man" of the Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg. He was in charge of foreign propaganda, especially relating to Catholic groups, and set up a system of information gathering using the resources of the Vatican and of the Freemasons. Erzberger was also involved in some diplomatic missions: working with Bernhard von Bülow he tried (but failed) to keep Italy from entering the war in 1915. He wrote letters to leading military authorities, later published, with extravagant plans for German annexations. Seen as an opportunist, he was said to have "no convictions, but only appetites".
Erzberger contributed to bring about the fall of Bethmann Hollweg in the summer of 1917, hoping to have him replaced with von Bülow. Instead, Erich Ludendorff's nominee Georg Michaelis became chancellor.
By 1917, with the armies stalemated on both fronts, he had come to a change of heart. Erzberger became one of the leading opponents of the uneingeschränkter U-Boot-Krieg (unrestricted submarine warfare) and in April 1917 met a Russian envoy in Stockholm. He elucidated his views on the war in a brilliant speech in the Reichstag on 6 July, in which he called on the government to denounce territorial ambitions and urged a negotiated end to the war (Verständigungsfrieden). The speech was remarkable at the time in that he carefully delineated the extent of German military weakness. Two weeks later, on 19 July, he put to the vote what he called a 'Peace Resolution', embodying all the points he had made in his speech. The resolution passed 212 to 126, and even received the support of Chancellor Michaelis. But the Chancellor had hamstrung the resolution by adding to his support the proviso 'as I interpret it', which he then used as an excuse to completely ignore its prescriptive power.
That July, at a closed conference in Frankfurt, Erzberger revealed the content of a pessimistic secret report from Austria-Hungary's foreign minister Count Czernin to Emperor Karl. This report came into the possession of the Allies. Although it has never been proven that Erzberger was responsible, those on the radical right now saw him as a traitor to his country.
In March 1918 Erzberger was the most influential supporter in government of the candidacy of Wilhelm, Duke of Urach for the proposed throne of the still-born Kingdom of Lithuania. He and Duke Wilhelm were both Catholics from Württemberg.
Erzberger's political attempts failed, but by his very public attack on the war effort, and his dissemination of information about the fragility of the German military he created a climate in which the government found it increasingly difficult to maintain the belief that the war could be won. When, towards the end of the war, the German Navy mutinied at Kiel, the sailors informed their officers that what they wanted was 'Erzberger'—his name by then being synonymous with 'peace'.
Signing the Armistice
On 3 October 1918, Erzberger entered the government of Prince Max von Baden as a Staatssekretär (Secretary of State) without a specified portfolio. On 6 November 1918, a reluctant Erzberger was sent to negotiate with the Allies in the Forest of Compiègne.:73 Prince Max supposed that Erzberger, as a Catholic civilian, would be more acceptable to the allies than a Prussian military officer; in addition, he believed that Erzberger's reputation as a man of peace was unassailable.
Against hopes that Erzberger would be able to obtain better conditions from the Allies, Ferdinand Foch, the chief Allied negotiator, was unwilling to make any concessions, with the exception of a slight extension of the time allotted to the German army to withdraw.:11 Erzberger was unsure whether he should hold out for further changes in Germany's favour. On 10 November, Paul von Hindenburg himself telegraphed back that the armistice should be signed, with or without modifications, and a while later the new Chancellor, the Social Democrat Friedrich Ebert, telegraphed authorizing Erzberger to sign.:113
As the head of the German delegation, he signed the armistice ending World War I on 11 November 1918 at Compiègne with French representative Ferdinand Foch. He made a short speech on the occasion, protesting the harshness of the terms, and concluded by saying that "a nation of seventy millions can suffer, but it cannot die". Foch ignored Erzberger's attempt to shake his hand and is said to have replied, "Très bien".
After the war
Returning to Berlin, Erzberger agreed to serve under Ebert as Chairman of the Armistice Commission, a difficult and humiliating task. He fell out with Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau in early 1919 for advocating handing over Karl Radek, the Bolshevik diplomat and agitator, to the Entente following the collapse of the German Revolution.
After the elections for the national assembly, Erzberger entered the government of the German Republic led by Philipp Scheidemann, again as minister without a specified portfolio but responsible for matters relating to the armistice. When Scheidemann resigned over the Treaty of Versailles and a new government led by Gustav Bauer took over on 21 June 1919, Erzberger became finance minister and vice chancellor. After the Weimar Constitution came into force in August 1919 Erzberger remained in that position. He supported the Treaty of Versailles, as he saw no military or political alternatives. He was treated with particular contempt by the nationalist right wing, as the man who had signed what was coming to be viewed as a humiliating and unnecessary surrender.
However, he succeeded in pushing new taxation measures through the National Assembly. In July 1919, Erzberger introduced what became known as Erzbergersche Reichsfinanzreform. The reform pursued two goals. First, it was to give the Reich supreme authority to tax and spend and thus end the dependence of the central government on the constituent states as in the German Empire. Second, Erzberger aimed for a significant redistribution of the tax burden in favour of low- to moderate income households. In July 1919, Kriegsabgaben (war levies) on income and wealth were introduced, as well as the first German inheritance tax.:23 In December 1919, an additional Reichsnotopfer (a one-off tax on wealth) was levied, causing outrage among the better-off. In March 1920, a Reichseinkommenssteuer (income tax) followed. Its high tax rates made Erzberger even more unpopular with many on the right.
The German tax code to this day bears Erzberger's imprint. He stabilized national finances although they remained strained by the burden of reparations. He also reformed and unified the previously independent state railway administrations into the German Reichsbahn, which began to make a profit for the first time and helped pay the war reparations.
In his disputes with the political right, he set himself in particularly sharp opposition to the German National People's Party (the old conservatives), on whom he laid the responsibility for the war; the result was a personal dispute with the leader of the Nationalists, the war-time Secretary of State for the Treasury, Karl Helfferich, who published a brochure titled Fort mit Erzberger! (Get rid of Erzberger!) and Erzberger was ultimately compelled to bring an action against Helfferich for slander. The case was heard at the Landgericht Berlin-Moabit from 19 January to 12 March 1920. The action resulted in Helfferich's being sentenced to pay a small fine (German law did not admit of any damages or penalties for slander); the court, however, in its judgment on 12 March 1920 took the line that Helfferich's allegations regarding Erzberger's corrupt business practices and untruthful statements on the part of Erzberger were partly justified. Erzberger was consequently compelled by his party to resign his ministerial office and to give up his seat in the National Assembly in March 1920. During the trial, an attempt was made upon Erzberger's life as he was leaving the court, leaving him rather seriously wounded.
Erzberger was once more returned to the Reichstag (which replaced the National Assembly) at the general election of June 1920, but in accordance with the wish of his party abstained from immediate participation in politics, as proceedings had been instituted against him on a charge of evading taxation. In 1920, he published a memorandum endeavouring to justify his position during the war, and he followed it up with disclosures regarding the attitude of the Vatican in 1917 and the mission of the papal legate in Munich, Pacelli, to Berlin.
Erzberger's power in German politics was based upon his great influence with the Catholic working classes in the Rhineland and Westphalia, in central Germany and in Silesia. In the industrial regions of these districts the Catholic workers were organized in their own trade unions on lines of very advanced social policy, and Erzberger became the leading exponent of their views in the Reichstag and on public platforms. On the other hand, he incurred the strong opposition of the conservative and landed section of the Catholics, of some of the higher clergy like Cardinal Archbishop Felix von Hartmann of Cologne, and of the Bavarian agricultural interests as represented by the Bavarian Catholic People's Party in the State Diet at Munich and in the Reichstag in Berlin.
Erzberger continued to be pursued by the relentless animosity of the reactionary parties, the conservatives (now called Deutsch-Nationalen) and the national liberals (now styling themselves the Deutsche Volkspartei). This hostility, which amounted to a vendetta, was based, not so much upon Erzberger's foreign policy — his negotiation of the Armistice terms and the decisive influence which he exercised in securing the acceptance of the Treaty of Versailles — as upon his financial policy both as finance minister in 1919 and as the Democratic Catholic supporter and, it was said, the political adviser of the Catholic Chancellor of the Reich, Joseph Wirth, in the preparation in the summer of 1921 of a fresh scheme of taxation designed to impose new burdens upon capital and upon the prosperous landed interest.
The denunciations of the conservative and national liberal press went beyond the ordinary limits of party polemics: the Tägliche Rundschau observed, in allusion to Erzberger's personal appearance, “he may be as round as a bullet, but he is not bullet-proof.” The climax of these attacks was that Erzberger was murdered on 26 August 1921 in Bad Griesbach, a spa in the Black Forest (Baden) while he was out for a walk. Due to his signing the armistice of 1918, Erzberger was regarded as a traitor by many on the political right. Manfred von Killinger, a leading member of the Germanenorden, masterminded his killing recruiting two members of the ultra-nationalist death squad Organisation Consul, Heinrich Tillessen and Heinrich Schulz, former Navy officers and members of the disbanded Marinebrigade Ehrhardt. Erzberger's assassins were later smuggled into Hungary and were prosecuted only after World War II.
Erzberger was instrumental in preparing the German nation for peace and in ensuring that, even in the increasingly radicalized Germany, the Catholic Centre Party remained an important political actor. His financial, federal and rail reforms transformed Germany.
Erzberger, with his optimism and sense of responsibility, never retreated even in front of the most difficult tasks. In fact his greatest, and most tragic legacy, was the signature on the Armistice. This, despite the fact that the military was actively pressuring him to sign as soon as possible, was pointed out for decades afterwards as evidence for the Dolchstoßlegende (Stab-in-the-back myth), under which the surrender was betrayed by the civilians on the home front, especially Socialist politicians for personal gain, undermining the German Army's will to fight. Later the Stab-in-the-back legend helped to propel to power Adolf Hitler who made it an integral part of Nazi propaganda. For his role, Erzberger was branded as one of the Novemberverbrecher ("November Criminals").
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|Vice Chancellor of Germany