Matthias Erzberger

The German statesman Matthias Erzberger (1875-1921) is best known for his sponsorship of the German parliamentary peace resolution during World War I and for his subsequent signing of the armistice agreement.

Matthias Erzberger was born in Buttenhausen, Württemberg, on Sept. 20, 1875, the son of a Catholic tailor and postman. Trained as an elementary teacher, he gave up his teaching career in 1896 to join the Catholic (and anti-Marxist) social movement as a lecturer and pamphleteer. Later he became editor of the Catholic Center party's Stuttgart publication, Deutsches Volksblatt. Erzberger's energy, dedication, and polemical skill soon made his reputation. In 1903 he was elected to the Reichstag (the parliament) as a delegate of the Center party's left wing.

As a member of the parliament, Erzberger combined the qualities of a master of financial intricacies with those of a Christian crusader. Appointed to the budget committee in 1904, he immediately became the sponsor and explicator of major fiscal legislation, most significantly the Finance Reform of 1909 and the military expansion bills of 1911-1913. Meanwhile, he crusaded for the rights of Catholics and against the suppression of West Prussian Poles and abuses and injustices in the colonies.

In the early years of World War I Erzberger was a fervent annexationist and served as propaganda chief toward neutral countries. He went on several important diplomatic missions, chiefly to Italy and to the Vatican. The realities of the war, however, caused him to oppose by 1916 an escalation to unlimited submarine warfare and to advocate a negotiated peace. In July 1917 he became the main sponsor of the famous Reichstag Peace Resolution.

In the government of Prince Baden, appointed to preside over the end of the war, Erzberger became state secretary without portfolio, and he was subsequently appointed armistice commissioner. In that capacity he signed the armistice agreement for Germany at Compiène on Nov. 11, 1918, and directed all armistice negotiations with the Allies. In 1919 he became the most prominent spokesman for the unconditional ratification of the Treaty of Versailles.

As vice-chancellor and finance minister in the first coalition government of the republic, Erzberger attempted an ambitious financial reform, which simultaneously aimed at social justice and at centralization of the financial system through radical changes in the German tax structure. This reform intensified the virulent attacks on him from the right, which climaxed in a vituperous assault by a former vice-chancellor, Karl Helfferich. The subsequent libel suit necessitated Erzberger's resignation. On Aug. 26, 1921, he was murdered by two members of an ultranationalist fraternal order.

Further Reading on Matthias Erzberger

Neither Erzberger's early memoirs nor his numerous books and pamphlets, with the exception of The League of Nations: The Way to the World's Peace, translated by Bernard Miall (1919), are available in English. The best biography is Klaus Epstein, Matthias Erzberger and the Dilemma of German Democracy (1959).