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Matthias Erzberger
Matthias Erzberger (September 20, 1875 ‚Äď August 26, 1921) was a Germanmarker politician. Prominent in the Centre Party, he spoke out against the First World War from 1917 and eventually signed the Armistice for the German Empire. He was assassinated for this act by the Organisation Consul.

Early career

He was born in Buttenhausenmarker, W√ľrttembergmarker, the son of a craftsman. In his early life he gained massive weight, which he lost in the course of thirty years. He became a journalist working for the Deutsches Volksblatt. Erzberger joined the Centre Party and was first elected to the Reichstag in 1903.

During the Great War

Like many of his party, he initially supported Germany's involvement in World War I. He drafted Germany's war aims 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. 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's nominee in the Reichskanzleimarker, Chancellor Georg Michaelis. 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.

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'‚Äď-his name by then being synonymous with 'peace'.

Signing the Armistice

Prince Max von Baden's last act as Chancellor was thus to send Erzberger on the November 7, 1918, to negotiate with the Allies in the Forest of Compiègnemarker. 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, the chief Allied negotiator; but he was unsure whether he should hold out for further changes in Germany's favour. Paul von Hindenburg himself telegraphed back that the armistice should be signed, modifications or no. A while later, the new Chancellor, the socialist Friedrich Ebert, telegraphed authorizing Erzberger to sign.

As the head of the German delegation, he signed the armistice ending World War I on November 11 1918 at Compiègnemarker with French representative Ferdinand Foch. 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 in early 1919 for advocating handing over Karl Radek, the Bolshevik diplomat and agitator, to the Entente following the collapse of the German Revolution.

Erzberger became finance minister in June 1919, and endorsed the Treaty of Versailles. He was treated with particular contempt by the right wing, as the man who had signed what was coming to be viewed as a humiliating and unnecessary surrender. He managed, however, to stabilize national finances, and reduced the financial independence of states. He reformed and unified the Deutsche Reichseisenbahnen, which began to make a profit for the first time and helped pay the war reparations. In addition, he taxed luxuries and war profits, and replaced all provincial taxes with a uniform central tax code. The German tax code to this day bears his imprint.

He was forced from office in March 1920, and was later murdered in Bad Griesbachmarker, a spa in the Black Forestmarker (Baden) by members of the Organisation Consul, an act which was celebrated by right-wing extremists at the time. 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 Rissmarker.

Legacy

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

References

Bibliography

  • Kurt Diemer, Matthias Erzberger (1875 - 1921). Staatsmann und Demokrat, Biberacher Verlagsdruckerei, Biberach 1986. ISBN 3-924489-36-X
  • Theodor Eschenburg, Matthias Erzberger. Der grosse Mann des Parlamentarismus und der Finanzreform, Piper Verlag, M√ľnchen 1973. ISBN 3-492-00339-7
  • Klaus Epstein, Matthias Erzberger and the dilemma of German democracy, Princeton University Press, Princeton 1959.
  • Josef Heinzelmann, "Zur Herkunft Matthias Erzbergers", Genealogie 18 (1969), p. 593‚Äď604.
  • Michael Krausnick, & G√ľnter Randecker, Mord Erzberger!, BoD GmbH, Norderstedt 2005, ISBN 3-8334-3586-0
  • Christian Leitzbach, Matthias Erzberger. Ein kritischer Beobachter des Wilhelminischen Reiches 1895-1914, Europ√§ischer Verlag der Wissenschaften GmbH, Frankfurt am Main 1998. ISBN 3-631-33492-3
  • Wolfgang Michalka (ed.), Matthias Erzberger: Reichsminister in Deutschlands schwerster Zeit, Verlag f√ľr Berlin-Brandenburg, Potsdam 2002, ISBN 3-935035-32-2
  • Christoph E. Palmer & Thomas Schnabel, Matthias Erzberger 1875 - 1921, Patriot und Vision√§r, Hohenheim-Verlag, Stuttgart 2006, ISBN 3-89850-141-8


Notes

  1. Barbara Tuchman, August 1914 Papermac, London 1983, pp.314-316.
  2. Tuchman, p.315



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