Matthias Erzberger
Matthias Erzberger was a German
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

 politician. Prominent in the Centre Party
Centre Party (Germany)
The German Centre Party was a Catholic political party in Germany during the Kaiserreich and the Weimar Republic. Formed in 1870, it battled the Kulturkampf which the Prussian government launched to reduce the power of the Catholic Church...

, he spoke out against the First World War from 1917 and eventually signed the Armistice with Germany for the German Empire. He was assassinated for this act by the Organisation Consul
Organisation Consul
Organisation Consul was an ultra-nationalist force operating in Germany in 1921 and 1922. It was formed by members of the Marinebrigade Ehrhardt, a Freikorps unit which disbanded after the Kapp Putsch failed to overthrow the German Weimar Republic...


Early career

He was born in Buttenhausen in the Kingdom of Württemberg
Kingdom of Württemberg
The Kingdom of Württemberg was a state that existed from 1806 to 1918, located in present-day Baden-Württemberg, Germany. It was a continuation of the Duchy of Württemberg, which came into existence in 1495...

, the son of a craftsman. In his early life he gained massive weight, which he lost in the course of thirty years. He started his career as a school teacher. In 1896, he became a journalist working for the Catholic Centre party's Stuttgart publication Deutsches Volksblatt. Erzberger joined the Catholic Centre Party
Centre Party (Germany)
The German Centre Party was a Catholic political party in Germany during the Kaiserreich and the Weimar Republic. Formed in 1870, it battled the Kulturkampf which the Prussian government launched to reduce the power of the Catholic Church...

 and was first elected to the Reichstag
Reichstag (German Empire)
The Reichstag was the parliament of the North German Confederation , and of the German Reich ....

 in 1903. By virtue of his unusually varied activities, he took a leading position in the parliamentary party. He became a specialist in colonial policy.

During the Great War

Like many of his party, he initially supported Germany's involvement in World War I
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

. He drafted Germany's war aims
The Septemberprogramm was a plan drafted by the German leadership in the early weeks of the First World War. It detailed Germany's ambitious gains should it win the war, as it expected...

 that were published on 9 September 1914. By this stage he was rapporteur to the Reichstag's Military Affairs Committee, and the "right-hand man" of the Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg
Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg
Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg was a German politician and statesman who served as Chancellor of the German Empire from 1909 to 1917.-Origins:...

. 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".

By mid-1917, however, with the armies stalemated on both fronts, he had come to a change of heart, which he elucidated in a brilliant speech in the Reichstag on July 6, in which he called on the government to denounce territorial ambition and urged a negotiated end to the war. The speech was remarkable at the time in that he carefully delineated the extent of German military weakness. Two weeks later, on the 19th, 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 Erich Ludendorff
Erich Ludendorff
Erich Friedrich Wilhelm Ludendorff was a German general, victor of Liège and of the Battle of Tannenberg...

's nominee in the Reichskanzlei, Chancellor
Chancellor is the title of various official positions in the governments of many nations. The original chancellors were the Cancellarii of Roman courts of justice—ushers who sat at the cancelli or lattice work screens of a basilica or law court, which separated the judge and counsel from the...

 Georg Michaelis
Georg Michaelis
Georg Michaelis became the first Chancellor of Germany with a non-noble background.-Biography :Michaelis, born in Haynau in the Prussian Province of Silesia, grew up in Frankfurt...

. 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.

In March 1918 Erzberger was the most influential supporter in government of the candidacy of Wilhelm, Duke of Urach
Mindaugas II of Lithuania
Prince Wilhelm of Urach, Count of Württemberg, 2nd Duke of Urach was a German prince who was elected King of Lithuania with the regnal name Mindaugas II on 11 July 1918...

 for the proposed throne of the still-born Kingdom of Lithuania
Kingdom of Lithuania (1918)
The Kingdom of Lithuania was a short-lived constitutional monarchy created towards the end of World War I when Lithuania was under occupation by the German Empire. The Council of Lithuania declared Lithuania's independence on February 16, 1918, but the Council was unable to form a government,...

. 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

In October 1918, Erzberger entered the government as a Secretary of State after he had contributed to bring about the fall of Bethmann Hollweg. Prince Max von Baden's last act as Chancellor was to send Erzberger on 7 November 1918, to negotiate with the Allies in the Forest of Compiègne
Compiègne is a city in northern France. It is designated municipally as a commune within the département of Oise.The city is located along the Oise River...

. He 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. This decision was to have unexpected ramifications in the years that followed.

Over the next few days, Erzberger obtained important concessions from Ferdinand Foch
Ferdinand Foch
Ferdinand Foch , GCB, OM, DSO was a French soldier, war hero, military theorist, and writer credited with possessing "the most original and subtle mind in the French army" in the early 20th century. He served as general in the French army during World War I and was made Marshal of France in its...

, the chief Allied negotiator; but he was unsure whether he should hold out for further changes in Germany's favour. Paul von Hindenburg
Paul von Hindenburg
Paul Ludwig Hans Anton von Beneckendorff und von Hindenburg , known universally as Paul von Hindenburg was a Prussian-German field marshal, statesman, and politician, and served as the second President of Germany from 1925 to 1934....

 himself telegraphed back that the armistice should be signed, modifications or no. A while later, the new Chancellor, the socialist Friedrich Ebert
Friedrich Ebert
Friedrich Ebert was a German politician of the Social Democratic Party of Germany .When Ebert was elected as the leader of the SPD after the death of August Bebel, the party members of the SPD were deeply divided because of the party's support for World War I. Ebert supported the Burgfrieden and...

, telegraphed authorizing Erzberger to sign.

As the head of the German delegation, he signed the armistice ending World War I
Armistice with Germany (Compiègne)
The armistice between the Allies and Germany was an agreement that ended the fighting in the First World War. It was signed in a railway carriage in Compiègne Forest on 11 November 1918 and marked a victory for the Allies and a complete defeat for Germany, although not technically a surrender...

 on 11 November 1918 at Compiègne with French representative Ferdinand Foch
Ferdinand Foch
Ferdinand Foch , GCB, OM, DSO was a French soldier, war hero, military theorist, and writer credited with possessing "the most original and subtle mind in the French army" in the early 20th century. He served as general in the French army during World War I and was made Marshal of France in its...

. 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
Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau
Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau was a German diplomat, the first Foreign Minister of the Weimar Republic and German Ambassador to the USSR for most of the twenties.-Early career:...

 in early 1919 for advocating handing over Karl Radek
Karl Radek
Karl Bernhardovic Radek was a socialist active in the Polish and German movements before World War I and an international Communist leader after the Russian Revolution....

, the Bolshevik
The Bolsheviks, originally also Bolshevists , derived from bol'shinstvo, "majority") were a faction of the Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party which split apart from the Menshevik faction at the Second Party Congress in 1903....

 diplomat and agitator, to the Entente
Triple Entente
The Triple Entente was the name given to the alliance among Britain, France and Russia after the signing of the Anglo-Russian Entente in 1907....

 following the collapse of the German Revolution
German Revolution
The German Revolution was the politically-driven civil conflict in Germany at the end of World War I, which resulted in the replacement of Germany's imperial government with a republic...


After the elections for the national assembly, Erzberger entered the new government of the German Republic
Weimar Republic
The Weimar Republic is the name given by historians to the parliamentary republic established in 1919 in Germany to replace the imperial form of government...

 and was appointed finance minister in August 1919. He endorsed the Treaty of Versailles
Treaty of Versailles
The Treaty of Versailles was one of the peace treaties at the end of World War I. It ended the state of war between Germany and the Allied Powers. It was signed on 28 June 1919, exactly five years after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The other Central Powers on the German side of...

. 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. He taxed luxuries and war profits, and replaced all state taxes with a uniform central tax code; the German tax code to this day bears his imprint. He thus stabilized national finances, and reduced the financial independence of states. He reformed and unified the previously independant state railway administrations into the a German Reichsbahn, which began to make a profit for the first time and helped pay the war reparations
War reparations
War reparations are payments intended to cover damage or injury during a war. Generally, the term war reparations refers to money or goods changing hands, rather than such property transfers as the annexation of land.- History :...


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
Karl Helfferich
Karl Theodor Helfferich was a German politician, economist, and financier from Neustadt an der Weinstraße in the Palatinate.-Biography:...

, and Erzberger was ultimately compelled to bring an action against Helfferich for slander. The action resulted in Helfferich's being condemned to pay a small fine (German law did 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 in March 1920. During the case, 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 at the general election of January 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 disclosures regarding the attitude of the Vatican
Holy See
The Holy See is the episcopal jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome, in which its Bishop is commonly known as the Pope. It is the preeminent episcopal see of the Catholic Church, forming the central government of the Church. As such, diplomatically, and in other spheres the Holy See acts and...

 in 1917 and the mission of the papal legate in Munich, Pacelli
Nunciature of Eugenio Pacelli
Eugenio Pacelli was nuncio in Munich to Bavaria from April 23, 1917 to June 23, 1920. As there was no nuncio to Prussia or Germany at the time, Pacelli was, for all practical purposes, the nuncio to all of the German Empire....

, 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
Vendetta may refer to:*Feud, a long-running argument or fight between parties-Film and television:* Vendetta, a 1919 German film featuring Harry Liedtke* Vendetta , an American drama produced by Howard Hughes...

, 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
Joseph Wirth
Karl Joseph Wirth, known as Joseph Wirth, was a German politician of the Catholic Centre Party who served as Chancellor of Germany from 1921 to 1922.-Biography:...

, 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: 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
Bad Peterstal-Griesbach
Bad Peterstal-Griesbach is a municipality in the district of Ortenau in Baden-Württemberg in Germany.Matthias Erzberger was murdered here on August 26, 1921, for signing the 1918 Armistice for the German Empire....

, a spa in the Black Forest
Black Forest
The Black Forest is a wooded mountain range in Baden-Württemberg, southwestern Germany. It is bordered by the Rhine valley to the west and south. The highest peak is the Feldberg with an elevation of 1,493 metres ....

Baden is a historical state on the east bank of the Rhine in the southwest of Germany, now the western part of the Baden-Württemberg of Germany....

). Due to his involvement with the Versailles Treaty, Erzberger was regarded as a traitor by members of the ultra-nationalist death squad
Death squad
A death squad is an armed military, police, insurgent, or terrorist squad that conducts extrajudicial killings, assassinations, and forced disappearances of persons as part of a war, insurgency or terror campaign...

 Organisation Consul
Organisation Consul
Organisation Consul was an ultra-nationalist force operating in Germany in 1921 and 1922. It was formed by members of the Marinebrigade Ehrhardt, a Freikorps unit which disbanded after the Kapp Putsch failed to overthrow the German Weimar Republic...

. Erzberger's assassins were smuggled out of Germany and were prosecuted only after World War II.

Erzberger is buried in the Catholic cemetery of Biberach an der Riss.


Erzberger was instrumental in preparing the German nation for peace and in ensuring that the Catholic Centre Party, the predecessors of today's Christian Democratic Union
Christian Democratic Union (Germany)
The Christian Democratic Union of Germany is a Christian democratic and conservative political party in Germany. It is regarded as on the centre-right of the German political spectrum...

, retained a modicum of power in an increasingly radicalized Germany. His financial, federal and rail reforms transformed Germany. But his greatest, and most tragic legacy, was his signature, as a civilian, on the Armistice. This, despite the fact that the military was actively pressuring Erzberger to sign as soon as possible, was pointed to for decades afterwards as evidence for the Stab-in-the-Back Legend, under which the surrender was an act by scheming Socialist politicians for personal gain that defied the German Army's will to fight, and which later helped to propel Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler
Adolf Hitler was an Austrian-born German politician and the leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party , commonly referred to as the Nazi Party). He was Chancellor of Germany from 1933 to 1945, and head of state from 1934 to 1945...

to power. For his action, Erzberger was branded as one of the "November Criminals".
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