Wirth, Joseph

(1879-1956)
   politician; the youngest Chancellor (forty-two) in German history and one of the few Catholic* leaders to give unequivocal support to parliamentary democracy. Born to a machinist in Freiburg, he was raised in a home that engaged in political debate; an older brother joined the DDP, while a younger one represented the SPD in Baden's Landtag. After taking a doctorate in mathematics in 1905, he taught from 1908 at Freiburg's Real-gymnasium. But social issues led him to the Center Party,* and he entered the city council in 1911. He was elected to Baden's Landtag in 1913 and won a Reichstag* seat the next year in a runoff election; he remained in the national chamber until 1933.
   Wirth was soon linked with Matthias Erzberger,* the Center's most progres-sive voice (the two men were never close colleagues). When the Kaiserreich collapsed, Erzberger and Wirth were identified as the Party's "new men," al-though neither had called for the Kaiser's abdication. Wirth became Baden's Finance Minister after the Armistice* was signed, a position he retained until March 1920. Soon after the Kapp* Putsch Hermann Müller* named him Reich Finance Minister. Preserving the policies of his predecessor, Erzberger, he sup-ported a progressive tax that might solidify Germany's weak finances. But the task grew onerous when finances were aggravated by reparations* while he was Finance Minister under Konstantin Fehrenbach* (June 1920-May 1921).
   Wirth did not enjoy deep support in his Party (his opponents included Adam Stegerwald* and Heinrich Brauns*), but when Fehrenbach's cabinet collapsed in May 1921, senior Party leaders Peter Spahn and Karl Trimborn endorsed a Wirth government. Once in office, he showed an enthusiasm unmatched by Center colleagues. His optimism and republicanism also set him apart from Catholic cohorts, many of whom viewed the Chancellorship as a burden, not an honor. He also enjoyed an excellent relationship with Hans von Seeckt*; taking office amidst a crisis in Upper Silesia,* he facilitated the use of Freikorps* units to combat Polish insurgents in the province.
   Wirth was a lightning rod for controversy. Throughout his two cabinets (May-October 1921 and October 1921-November 1922), he allowed Seeckt to pursue secret talks aimed at enhancing military cooperation with Soviet Russia, and he shielded President Ebert* from the details. His enmity toward Poland* encour-aged an ambivalent foreign policy. Although he was identified with fulfillment,* he equivocated between East and West, prompting Walther Rathenau,* his friend and Foreign Minister, to sign the Rapallo Treaty* with Russia. His final months as Chancellor were plagued by worries. Rathenau's murder led him to denounce the Republic's "enemies on the Right" ("Dieser Feind steht rechts!"). His subsequent Law for the Protection of the Republic* alienated conservatives and sharpened conflict with Bavaria.* Finally, his own cabinet disparaged both Rapallo and his reparations policy.
   Out of office, Wirth became a loner, identified more with the SPD than with his own Party. As a leading republican, he opposed the Center's entry into Hans Luther's* cabinet in 1924—a cabinet that included four members from the DNVP. When in August 1925 his faction supported a DNVP bill for agricultural tariffs, he announced his desire to organize Center deputies supportive of the Republic; the result, his Republikanische Union, alienated Catholics fearful that he might split the Party. Publicly supportive of the Reichsbanner,* he warned Catholics that the future of democracy depended upon their loyalty to the Re-public. In 1927, while he was denouncing a bill to increase civil-service* sal-aries, his censure of Wilhelm Marx* was so extreme that Marx, the Party chairman, threatened to have him disciplined.
   After serving as Minister of Occupied Territories in Hermann Müller's* sec-ond cabinet, Wirth became Heinrich Brüning's* Interior Minister. By this point he had lost his spark and no longer spoke against his Party. In 1930 he severed his ties with the Reichsbanner and disbanded the Republikanische Union.In October 1931, at President Hindenburg's* request, he was dropped from Brü-ning's cabinet.
   Although Wirth was one of the few Catholics ready to vote against Hitler's* March 1933 Enabling Act,* he maintained Party discipline and helped pass the law. He soon moved to Switzerland, where he associated with the resistance. When he died, an embittered old man, his passing went unnoticed—a sad epi-logue for a political rebel so devoted to the Republic.
   REFERENCES:Ellen Evans, German Center Party; Eyck, History of the Weimar Repub-lic, 2 vols; Freund, Unholy Alliance; Harold Gordon, Reichswehr; Knapp, "Joseph Wirth."

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

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