1922 Encyclopædia Britannica/Erzberger, Matthias

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ERZBERGER, MATTHIAS (1875-1921), German politician, was born Sept. 20 1875 at Buttenhausen in Württemberg. He began life as a national school-teacher and in 1896 became a member of the staff of the Deutsches Volksblatt at Stuttgart. In 1903 he was elected as a representative of the Catholic Centre party in the Reichstag, and soon, by virtue of his unusually varied activities, took a leading position in the parliamentary party. He occupied himself in particular with colonial questions. During the World War, although he had at first put forward in letters to leading military authorities, since published, extravagant plans for the German annexations, he soon became a most active agent in attempts to draw the Allies into negotiations for peace. He was the real author of the so-called Peace Resolutions adopted by the Reichstag July 17 1917. He likewise employed his relations with the Austrian Imperial Court in order to work for an early conclusion of peace. In Oct. 1918 he entered the Government as a Secretary of State after he had contributed to bring about the fall of Bethmann-Hollweg. Entrusted with the task of conducting the negotiations for the conclusion of the Armistice, he signed (Nov. 1918) the Armistice agreement in the saloon railway carriage of Marshal Foch in the Forest of Compiègne. After the elections for the National Assembly he entered the new Government of the German Republic in Aug. 1919 and was appointed Finance Minister of the Reich. In the National Assembly he succeeded in forcing through the new measures of taxation, notwithstanding the vigorous attacks made upon him by the Right. He set himself in particularly sharp opposition to the German National party (the old Conservatives), on whom he laid the responsibility for the World War; the result was a personal dispute with the leader of the Nationalists, the former Secretary of State for the Treasury, Dr. Helfferich, and Erzberger was ultimately compelled to bring an action against Dr. Helfferich for slander. The action resulted in Helfferich's being condemned to pay a small fine (the German law does not admit of any damages or penalties for slander); the court, however, in its judgment took the line that Helfferich's allegations regarding Erzberger's corrupt business practices and untruthful statements on the part of Erzberger were justified. Erzberger was consequently compelled by his party to resign his ministerial office. During the case an attempt was made upon his life as he was leaving the court by a youth who had been brought up under reactionary influences. He was rather seriously wounded by the bullet from the assassin's pistol. Erzberger was once more returned to the Reichstag at the general election of Jan. 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 policy during the war, and he followed it with interesting 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 workmen 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 Hartmann of Cologne (d. 1919) and of the Bavarian agricultural interest as represented by the Bavarian Catholic People's party in the 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 real vendetta, was based, not so much upon the foreign policy of its victim, 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 is said, the political adviser of the Catholic Chancellor of the Reich, Dr. 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 undoubtedly went beyond the ordinary limits of party polemics. Thus 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 assassinated on Aug. 26 1921 while taking a walk with a parliamentary colleague in a lonely part of the Black Forest near Griesbach. The assassins, two well-dressed young men, were very generally believed to have been at least voluntary agents of the reactionary and military cliques. The assassination caused great political excitement, and exacerbated existing party feuds.

(C. K.*; G. S.)