In the aftermath of the November 1918 revolution in Germany, the playwright Ernst Toller spent six days as the leader of a Soviet Republic in Bavaria. Because of this, he wrote his most successful plays in prison. Born into a Jewish family in Posen (now Poznan, Poland), Toller volunteered for the First World War in 1914, had a breakdown in 1916, and became a committed pacifist who helped to organise a strike against munitions factories in Munich. By now a poet who felt his role was ‘not just to decry the war, but to lead humanity towards the vision of a peaceful, just, and communal society’, he was charged with ‘attempted treason’ for his role in the strike. After being released from jail, he supported the Kiel mutiny of October 1918, when sailors set up councils based on the Russian Soviets, which led to the kaiser’s overthrow the following month. Within weeks, the Social Democratic Party leader Friedrich Ebert became president; the German army and the Freikorps crushed the far-left Spartacists, killing Rosa Luxemburg and others; a Bavarian Soviet Republic was declared; and Toller completed his first play, Transfiguration, based on his experiences on the Western Front.
As well as briefly serving as president of the Munich Republic, Toller was a commander of its Red Army—which the Freikorps swiftly defeated. Around 700 people, including Toller’s successor as president, Eugen Leviné, were executed. Toller was convicted of high treason but given the minimum sentence of five years after Thomas Mann and Max Weber spoke in his favour, and the judge acknowledged his ‘honourable motives’—including his decision not to execute political prisoners. Sent to Niederschönefeld prison, Toller refused an offer of parole, saying he should not be free when others were not; there, he wrote Masse-Mensch (Masses-Man) about a bourgeois idealist who struggles for revolution without causing the deaths of her comrades, or her counter-revolutionary husband. Toller’s point was that political action is inseparable from guilt.