'To Free Humanity'

The 20th century knew a few instances of poets and other artists wresting control over governments. Unfortunately, they were not much more successful than the politicians at running things.

El Lissitzky, "New Man," 1923.
El Lissitzky, "New Man," 1923. El Lissitzky

A government of poets ruled in Bavaria for all of six whole days, from Monday, April 7, 1919, to the following Sunday. Its formation was announced in what had been the bedroom of Bavaria's queen, several months after she fled with the king.

The government was headed by avant-garde poet Ernst Toller, a 25-year-old Jewish student, and a discharged soldier who had served in the German army during World War I, before becoming a pacifist and a rebel. Several anarchist poets and philosophers became ministers. Most of them were also young Jews. They knew each other from their meetings at the Golden Anchor cafe in Munich, where they used to gather during the months leading up to their seizure of power.

Toller's prior political experience was limited to writing an innovative Expressionist play that became a hit on Berlin's stages. Perhaps it was not such a meager experience after all. "The world is here, there is no need to repeat it," he said in one of the Expressionist manifestos, in which he called for "recreating the world."

The story of that eccentric republic has to do with the situation that existed in Germany after its defeat in World War I. Revolutionary republics were established in a variety of German cities; they maintained that the imperial regime ought to be done away with, and earned the support of some discharged soldiers and workers. On November 7, 1918, after a series of strikes, workers councils and veterans announced in Munich the formation of the Free State of Bavaria.

King Ludwig III, scion of a dynasty that had ruled the kingdom for some 700 years, fled from Munich. A left-wing Jewish journalist, Kurt Eisner, was elected prime minister. He headed the government for three months until a right-wing assassin killed him. The revolutionary councils then met in Munich and elected the young poet, Toller, to succeed Eisner.

Today, poets and artists are often perceived as detached characters, whose intentions and political views are sometimes hard for others to divine. The media pay little attention to them, and certainly do not consider them capable of leading masses or determining foreign policy. But poets had a key place among the radical political movements that emerged in Europe between the two world wars.

'Comrade Pope'

Toller and his generation did not consider art as a marginal occupation. Their poetry was political and their politics were equally poetic. They sought to carry out new social experiments the same way they broke artistic conventions. Their hope was "to free humanity in a new way."

In his autobiography, written after he fled from Germany after the rise of the Nazis, Toller described the way the government looked the day after it was sworn in. After the authoritarian royal regime collapsed, the palace was opened to the public and masses of self-styled advisers came to talk to him.

"All day long people converged at the entry hall hoping to meet me. Each one of them thought that the republic of councils had been established in order to make his dreams come true," wrote Toller. "Each was sure his remedies would transform the world into a Garden of Eden. There were people who believed the source of evil was cooked food, the gold standard, unhygienic underwear, machinery, the absence of a universal language, retail chains, or limits on the number of children one can bear."

Meanwhile, the anarchist finance minister of Toller's government launched an unprecedented, radical reform, calling for the elimination of banknotes. But the person whose actions most hampered the operation of the republic was the foreign minister, Dr. Franz Lipp. Few knew where he had come from, or who had nominated him. It was rumored that not long before he was sworn in, he was released from a psychiatric institution.

Immediately upon occupying his bureau, Lipp began to dispatch odd cables to prominent world figures. The first was addressed to the "Comrade Pope" in Rome. In it, Lipp declared that "the liberal bourgeoisie has been disarmed." He included a passage from Immanuel Kant's essay "Perpetual Peace," and also complained to the leaders of the Catholic Church that Bavaria's former minister-president escaped from the capital taking with him the keys to the toilet.

More dangerous was a cable in which Lipp declared war on Switzerland because "the dogs refused to provide us, immediately, with 60 locomotives." Despite Toller's efforts to restrain his foreign minister, there was a sense that the experimental government was out of control.

After less than a week, the Communist Party declared it was forming a new government made up of professional rebels who would install a dictatorship of the proletariat. Toller lost the premiership and despite his pacifist principles was appointed commander of the republic's Red Army.

The new regime, too, did not last long. Within a week Munich was captured by units of Freikorps paramilitaries and forces sent by the central government in Berlin. Several members of the revolutionary government were executed and others, including Toller, were arrested. The innovative political experiment initiated by the Bavarian Soviet Republic came to an end.

Ernst Toller, who was released from prison in 1925 and then exiled from Nazi Germany in 1933, committed suicide in the United States in 1939, months before the outbreak of World War II, but not before writing several groundbreaking plays.

In September 1919, some months after the demise of Toller's government, another poet, the Italian Gabriele D'Annunzio, established his own state. Unlike Toller and his friends, who belonged to the radical left, D'Annunzio was an Italian nationalist.

Well known in the country - in particular for the dramatic love affairs in which he was involved - D'Annunzio was furious over the decision of the Paris Peace Conference to have the city of Fiume (today Rijeka; it had until then been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire ) ceded to Croatia. He assembled a militia made up of Italian residents of the city, which forcefully evicted the Allied powers' multinational force from Fiume. D'Annunzio announced the establishment of the Italian Regency of Carnaro, an independent state that covered a small area around Fiume. He appointed himself duce ("leader" ), with dictatorial powers.

The Duce introduced a constitution stating that Fiume would be dedicated to the arts, and accorded music a distinguished religious and political role. "A preeminent people only creates a god in its own image, for itself, but also creates its own hymn for god," he stated in the constitution. According to his decree, all schooling was to center around the study of music.

D'Annunzio never had the opportunity to implement his plans. Forces loyal to the central Italian government captured Fiume within about a year. His ideas, however, are thought to have influenced a far more dangerous duce who rose in Italy: Benito Mussolini.

Poetry played a significant role in the Bolshevik revolution too. After the revolution, futurist poets, led by Vladimir Mayakovsky, called for a democratization of art. "Friends and comrades," they wrote in their manifesto, "from now on, along with eradicating the czarist regime, the housing of arts in the warehouses and stables of the human genius - in palaces, galleries, salons, libraries, theaters - is cancelled .... The painters and the writers must take forthwith buckets of paint and with their brushes must enlighten and decorate all the ribs, foreheads and faces of the cities."

Even the revolution's most senior leaders were interested in developments in poetry. Leon Trotsky is known as the founder of the Red Army, which enabled the communists to win the civil war that followed the Soviet revolution. Between battles, Trotsky wrote literary criticism. In one essay, called "Literature and Revolution," he declared that "the new art hasn't been created yet," and that that would happen only after the revolution succeeds.

The importance that the revolution's leaders attributed to poetry's social role occasionally led to the suppression of poets whose style did not find favor with the authorities. Lenin himself limited the amount of paper allocated to Mayakovsky for writing. Joseph Stalin also used to read avant-garde poetry, which is how he knew that Osip Mandelstam had written a piece making fun of the general secretary's mustache, an infraction that got the poet sent to a labor camp. Other revolutionary poets were sentenced to death during the Stalinist terror era.

Initiated sleep

During their early years, in the 1920s, French surrealists used techniques such as automatic writing and "initiated sleep" to impose imagination, madness and dreams on creativity and life.

In January 1925, a group of poets issued a statement headlined "Surrealism in Service of the Revolution." The poets, who described sleep as their work, announced a new goal: to join the proletariat's world revolution. "We are determined to create a revolution," they wrote, adding that surrealism "is a tool to a full release of the spirit."

The Communist Party did not express much enthusiasm for the idea that the patrons of the Parisian coffee shops were going to join them. It turned out, in fact, that no one in the Kremlin intended to give the Red Army's soldiers or the masses of rebelling workers the opportunity or ability to liberate their subconsciousness. Nor did anyone want to fulfill the surrealists' demand to "open the prison gates, disband the army." The French Communist Party's organ, L'Humanite, attacked the surrealists for their "anarchistic" and "bourgeois" attitudes, which the paper said contradicted Marxism.

The surrealists, headed by Andre Breton, took umbrage. Breton wrote that L'Humanite was a stupefying and "unreadable" newspaper, unfit to educate the working class. He also slapped, on a Paris street, the Soviet poet Ilya Ehrenburg, for having called the surrealists "a bunch of pederasts." Following their actions and declarations, the Communist Party decided to expel Breton and his associates.

The surrealists joined Trotsky in his opposition to Stalin. Breton met Trotsky in Mexico, where he was in exile, and with him composed the manifesto "For an Independent Revolutionary Art," which attacked Stalinist communism's artistic conservativism. But the poet and the revolutionary leader had their differences as well - especially when Breton expressed his doubts about the communist determination that all the world's contradictions and conflicts would disappear after the elimination of class divisions. A Stalinist agent killed Trotsky in 1940, two years after his meeting with Breton, and the alliance between the surrealists and the revolution ended.