December 1, 1893, is the birthdate of German playwright, poet and political figure Ernst Toller, who served as president of the “Bavarian Soviet Republic” for a mere four days, in 1919.
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Toller was born into a Jewish family in the town of Samotschin, in the Prussian province of Posen (today, Szamocin, Poland). His father, Mendel, was a prosperous wholesale grain merchant. He grew up speaking German and Yiddish.
In 1914, Toller began studies at the University of Grenoble, but, less than a year after his arrival in France, returned home, after Germany declared war on Russia, following the start of World War I. A patriot, he willingly enlisted to defend his country. When his First Bavarian Foot Artillery Regiment was sent off to the Western Front, he wrote in his diary, “How happy I am to go off to the front at last. To do my bit. To prove with my life what I think I feel.”
After experiencing abuse from the commanding officer in his unit, for what he described as anti-Semitic reasons, Toller asked to be transferred to the trenches, and served at Verdun and Bois-le-Pretre. As happened with so many others, this experience turned him against the war.
By May 1916, Toller had suffered a mental breakdown of sorts, and was discharged from the army as “unfit for active service.” His 1919 play “Transformation” is based in part on his experiences.
Back in Germany, he resumed studying, now at Heidelberg University. Simultaneously, he involved himself with vigor in political activity, and also became committed to the idea that art – wrote drama and poetry – had to serve a greater purpose. The poet, he wrote, needed not only “to decry the war, but to lead humanity toward his vision of a peaceful, just and communal society.”
War, peace and prison
As reward for his political attempts to end the war, Toller was expelled from school. He moved to Munich and became involved in union activity, helping to organize a munitions workers strike there, under the leadership of Social Democrat Kurt Eisner. He was arrested, together with a number of other strike leaders, and sentenced to prison, only to be released in May 1918, and sent back to the army. This time he was confined to a psychiatric hospital and then again discharged as unfit for service.
The end of the war coincided with the short-lived German Revolution, and a smaller revolution in Bavaria that overthrew the monarchy and led to the establishment of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. Between April 6 and April 12, Toller was president of the central committee of that republic, until it was overthrown by the Communist Party, which was in turn replaced by a right-wing government.
Toller was tried for treason and sentenced to five years in prison, having been spared a death penalty in part because of the testimony on his behalf of Thomas Mann and sociologist Max Weber. During his imprisonment, Toller wrote four plays, which earned him a reputation as one of the country’s leading dramatists. When “Transformation,” which he completed while behind bars, had its 100th performance, Toller was offered an amnesty, which he turned down, out of solidarity with other political prisoners.
Only upon his release, in July 1925, did he first have the opportunity to see one of his plays on stage. Shortly after, what was to be his most well-known drama, “Hoppla, We’re Alive,” had its premiere in Berlin. It tells the story of a political revolutionary who is released after five years’ confinement in a psychiatric hospital, only to find that his former comrades no longer have the will or desire to fight the system. He then kills himself in despair.
Banned in Germany – with Freud and Mann
Toller was conscious early on of the threat that Nazism posed to Germany and to world peace. And the Nazis, for their part, were conscious early of Toller’s standing as a literary figure and moral compass. By the 1930s, he was probably his country’s most admired playwright, and this, together with his outspokenness on public issues, brought him into the sights of the Nazis. On April 1, 1933, two months after his party had taken power, Joseph Goebbels declare Toller “political enemy number one,” telling an audience that "Two million German soldiers rise from the graves of Flanders and Holland to indict the Jew Toller for having written: 'The ideal of heroism is the stupidest ideal of all'."
After his works, together with those of other subversive writers like Freud, Mann and Brecht, were banned in Germany, Toller was convinced by friends that he should flee. He headed for London, where he remained for three years. It was during this time that he wrote his autobiography, “I Was a German,” and also frequent articles for the press about the dangers of Nazi Germany, and in support of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War.
In October 1936, while visiting the United States, Toller was offered a screenwriting contract by MGM. He signed, hoping that he would be given the opportunity to address the pressing issues of the day in his work. In the end, though, his work was too political for it to be produced in Hollywood.
Toller fell into deep depression after German’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and Franco’s victory in Spain and after learning that both his brother and sister back home had been taken to concentration camps. On May 22, 1939, he committed suicide by hanging himself in his room in the Mayflower Hotel, in New York.
The year after his death, the film version of Toller’s last play, “Pastor Hall,” was brought to the screen, in a British production. It presents the real-life story of Martin Niemoller, the German Lutheran churchman imprisoned for his outspoken opposition to the Nazis.