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Ernst Toller: In Memoriam

As a socialist playwright, revolutionary president, and exile from the Nazis, Ernst Toller’s life and work demonstrated the importance of conviction in creativity.

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.

When Masse-Mensch had its premiere at the Volksbühne in 1920, Toller was on hunger strike. Members of the German People’s Party, who had killed one of the Bavarian Soviet Republic’s leaders, Kurt Eisner, rioted at the opening of his anti-war play Hinkemann in Dresden in 1922. By his release in 1924, Toller was one of Germany’s most popular playwrights. He ignored accusations of tendentiousness, saying that ‘only a play that implied wholehearted acceptance of the existing order’ would not be ‘tendentious’ in his critics’ eyes. Instead, he wrote a play that aimed to capture his own feeling of isolation, and that of atomisation in a Republic struggling to find some stability.

This work was Hoppla! Wir Leben! (Hurrah! We’re Alive!), first performed in 1927. Set ‘eight years after the crushing of a people’s uprising’, it opens in prison, where Karl Thomas awaits execution with his comrades. Though their sentences are commuted, they remain pessimistic: borrowing a line from Eugen Leviné, a fellow prisoner laments that ‘We revolutionaries are all dead men on leave’. Thomas’s experiences after their release bear that out, especially when he confronts his old friend, Wilhelm Kilman, who has renounced socialism and become minister of the interior. He finds that Kilman thinks siding with the state is braver than standing against it.

The play’s focus on the connections between democratic government and the deep state was inspired by revelations about Ebert’s secret pact with German army quartermaster general Wilhelm Groener, where the army agreed to tolerate an SPD government in return for crushing the movements to its left. Both the fictional Karl Thomas and the real Ernst Toller took their own lives. It may seem that those of us fighting a resurgent, transnational far-right cannot learn much from the ironic fatalism of Hurrah, We’re Alive! However, Toller’s fearlessness, first in throwing himself into revolutionary politics, and then in using his art to illuminate the murky complexities of its fallout, can inspire contemporary writers. As our own time rapidly approaches the chaos of the 1920s, it is imperative that we use creative work to call people to action, reaching individuals where theory, or political propaganda, might not.