Erzberger, Matthias

(1875-1921)
   politician; as Armistice* Com-missioner and Finance Minister, he became a symbol of the Republic and Ger-many s most hated individual. Born to a master tailor in the village of Buttenhausen in Württemberg, he studied to be a schoolteacher (Volksschulleh-rer), but in 1896, with under two years in the classroom, he joined the editorial staff of Deutsches Volksblatt, the Center Party* newspaper* in Stuttgart. He also engaged in organized labor, first with the Peasants' League in Württemberg and then with a Christian trade union in Mainz. Chiefly concerned with politics, he was elected in 1903 to the Reichstag.* Entering parliament when democratiza-tion was in its infancy, he shocked older colleagues by his facility for working with the masses. He was soon a spokesman of new times and led the small democratic Left in the Center Party; in 1905-1906 he bluntly exposed the scan-dals that were tainting Germany s colonial experience. Karl Helfferich,* later his mortal enemy, served at the time as a Colonial Office counselor.
   Until World War I Erzberger focused on financial issues; as a Budget Com-mittee member, he acquired a reputation as an expert on fiscal and colonial issues. The war brought him unparalleled prominence while testing and changing many of his positions. When a memorandum of 2 September 1914 placed him squarely in the camp of Germany s annexationists, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg asked him to organize the information bureau of the Naval Office. He was soon engaged in manifold diplomatic and propaganda activities, won growing influence, and was even on the supervisory board of the powerful August-Thyssenhutte. But his perspective slowly changed. Opposed to unre-stricted submarine warfare, he inspired the Peace Resolution in the early summer of 1917 that undermined Bethmann s cabinet and created a parliamentary ma-jority favoring peace without annexations. Although he supported the harsh Brest-Litovsk Treaty of March 1918, he did so in the curious hope that it would lead to Slavic self-determination. In any case, a growing number of nationalists viewed him as their nemesis, and the Kaiser called him a "personal enemy of my House.
   In a September 1918 pamphlet supportive of a League of Nations, Erzberger proclaimed his optimism in the coming peace process. On 3 October 1918, after Prinz Max* von Baden became Chancellor, Erzberger was appointed Secretary without Portfolio. Supportive of parliamentary monarchy, he was named to the Armistice Commission and, at Hindenburg s* request, was persuaded by Prinz Max to lead the delegation. This proved a most fateful decision. Although the truce terms were more severe than anticipated, he was empowered to sign them, and the Armistice thereby became his albatross. During the three-month hiatus in which Germany was governed by the Council of People s Representatives,* he pressed for measures against the Spartacus League* and swift elections of a National Assembly.* While he continued as Armistice Commissioner and signed three renewals of the truce accord, he joined the first postelection cabinet as Minister without Portfolio. The further concessions forced on him by Marshal Foch, head of the Allies Armistice delegation, were resented by the political Right. When the treaty was ready, Erzberger, believing that famine and dis-memberment might follow were it rejected, urged its acceptance. After Philipp Scheidemann* resigned in June 1919, Erzberger became Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister in Gustav Bauer s* new cabinet. Acting upon earlier efforts by Eugen Schiffer,* he established a highly progressive tax system, overhauled the method of raising money, and enhanced Germany's financial sovereignty. But his policies angered the political Right; led by Helfferich, his opponents determined to drive him from office through a celebrated trial in early 1920. Unable to give sufficient attention to the campaign of his antagonist, he failed to establish the inaccuracy of Helfferich s charges of dishonesty. An ensuing inquiry did little to clear his name.
   Although Erzberger was easily returned to the Reichstag in June 1920, he abstained from parliamentary activity for more than a year. In mid-1921 he resolved to return to politics; however, members of Organisation Consul* earmarked him for assassination.* While he was vacationing in the village of Bad Griesbach, he was murdered on 26 August. His assassins escaped Germany and were not brought to trial until 1947.
   Erzberger was vigorous, energetic, ambitious, and given to trusting the psy-chology of the little man. Through copious letter writing and publication, he made himself both known and indispensable. As a member of the Imperial Reichstag, he strove for general reform. He was often impulsive and careless, and his superb political instincts ultimately failed him; in 1919 it was largely due to his position in the Party that the Center s Bavarian branch separated to form the BVP. Yet he remains a symbol of both the Republic and its ambition to introduce parliamentary democracy to Germany.
   REFERENCES:Klaus Epstein, Erzberger; Eyck, History of the Weimar Republic, vol. 1; Feldman, Great Disorder; Morsey, "Matthias Erzberger"; NDB, vol. 4.

A Historical dictionary of Germany's Weimar Republic, 1918-1933. .

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