Ernst Toller, the son of Mendel Toller, a successful Jewish wholesale grain merchant, was born in Samotschin in 1893. At the age of twelve Toller was sent to boarding school in Bromberg. Later Toller described it as a "school of miseducation and militarization". He was not a good student but while there managed to have several of his articles published in the local newspaper, the Ostdeutsche Rundschau.
In 1914 Toller moved to France where he studied at the University of Grenoble. Six months after arriving, Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo. When Germany declared war on Russia, Toller headed back home and was in one of the last trains to be allowed out of France before the border was closed.
Toller, like most Germans, accepted that it was his duty to join the German Army and defend the Fatherland. He immediately enlisted in the First Bavarian Foot Artillery Regiment. In March 1915, he was sent to the Western Front. When he heard the news he wrote in his diary: "How happy I am to go to the front at last. To do my bit. To prove with my life what I think I feel."
After six months working as an observer with an artillery unit, Toller asked to transferred to the front-line trenches. The reason for this request was that because he felt he was being victimized by his platoon commander. Like at school, Toller believed he was being persecuted because he was Jewish.
Toller served at Bois-le-Pretre and then at Verdun. Appalled by the physical slaughter that he witnessed in the trenches, Toller began to question the nationalistic propaganda that he had experienced since his schooldays. He wrote in one letter: "Most people have no imagination. If they could imagine the sufferings of others, they would not make them suffer so. What separated a German mother from a French mother? Slogans which deafened us so that we could not hear the truth."
In May 1916 Toller became very ill. Taken to a hospital in Strasbourg, his doctor diagnosed him as suffering from "physical exhaustion and a complete nervous breakdown". After being transferred to a hospital near Mainz, he was discharged from the German Army as "unfit for active service".
Toller returned to his studies and now went to Heidelberg University where he met the pioneering sociologist, Max Weber. Although the two men became close friends, they disagreed about the war. Weber believed that Germany must continue to prosecute the war, whereas Toller favoured a negotiated peace. Toller also returned to writing poetry. His views on the subject had been dramatically changed by his experiences on the Western Front. He completely rejected the idea of "art for art's sake". The purpose of art was no longer simply aesthetic.
Toller believed that it was his duty as a human being to write political poetry. The role of the poet was not only to "decry the war, but to lead humanity towards his vision of a peaceful, just and communal society". In the poem, To the Mothers, he included this message to poets writing about the war: "Dig deeper into your pain, Let it strain, etch, gnaw. Stretch out arms raised in grief. Be volcanoes, glowing sea: let pain bring forth deeds."
Toller, who by 1917 was both a socialist and pacifist, formed the Cultural and Political League of German Youth, an organisation which called for an end to the war. Toller's political activities soon resulted in him being expelled from Heidelberg University. Toller now moved to Munich where he helped Kurt Eisner to organize a munitions workers' strike. When 8,000 workers withdrew their labour in Munich, Eisner, Toller and other trade union leaders were arrested and sent to Leonrodstrasse military prison. Toller was charged with "attempted treason" but was released in May 1918 and returned to the German Army. He expected to be sent to the Western Front but instead he was committed to a Psychiatric Clinic in Munich. Once again he was diagnosed as being "unfit for active service" and discharged from the army.
Toller supported the German Revolution began on 29th October 1918, when sailors at Kiel refused to obey orders and engage in battle with the British Navy. The sailors in the German Navy mutinied and set up councils based on the soviets in Russia. By 6th November the revolution had spread to the Western Front and all major cities and ports in Germany.
On 28th October, 1918, Admiral Franz von Hipper and Admiral Reinhardt Scheer, planned to dispatch the fleet for a last battle against the British Navy in the English Channel. Navy soldiers based in Wilhelmshaven, refused to board their ships. The next day the rebellion spread to Kiel when sailors refused to obey orders. The sailors in the German Navy mutinied and set up councils based on the soviets in Russia. By 6th November the revolution had spread to the Western Front and all major cities and ports in Germany.
Kurt Eisner, the leader of the Independent Socialist Party, called for a general strike. As Paul Frölich has pointed out: "They (Eisner and his political supporters) were enthusiastic about the idea of the political strike especially because they regarded it as a weapon which could take the place of barricade-fighting, and it seemed a peaceable weapon into the bargain."
Chris Harman, the author of The Lost Revolution (1982), has argued: "On 7th November, 1918, the city was paralysed by the strike. Auer (the SDP leader) turned up to address what he expected to be a peaceful demonstration, to find the most militant section of it composed of armed soldiers and sailors, gathered behind the bearded Bohemian figure of Eisner and a huge banner reading Long Live the Revolution. While the Social Democrat leaders stood aghast, wondering what to do, Eisner led his group off, drawing much of the crowd behind it, and made a tour of the barracks. Soldiers rushed to the windows at the sound of the approaching turmoil, exchanged quick words with the demonstrators, picked up their guns and flocked in behind."
Eisner led the large crowd into the local parliament building, where he made a speech where he declared Bavaria a Socialist Republic. Eisner made it clear that this revolution was different from the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and announced that all private property would be protected by the new government. Eisner explained that his program would be based on democracy, pacifism and anti-militarism. The King of Bavaria, Ludwig III, decided to abdicate and Bavaria was declared a republic.
Kurt Eisner had the support of the 6,000 workers of the munitions factory in Munich that was owned by Gustav Krupp. Many of them had come from northern Germany and were much more radical than those of Bavaria. The city was also a staging post for troops withdrawing from the Western Front. It is estimated that the majority of the 50,000 soldiers also supported Eisner's revolution. Ernest Toller and the anarcho-communist poet, Erich Mühsam arrived in the city to take part in the revolution.
On 9th November, 1918, Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated and the Chancellor, Max von Baden, handed power over to Friedrich Ebert, the leader of the German Social Democrat Party. At a public meeting, one of Ebert's most loyal supporters, Philipp Scheidemann, finished his speech with the words: "Long live the German Republic!" He was immediately attacked by Ebert, who was still a strong believer in the monarchy and was keen for one of the his grandsons to replace Wilhelm.
Kurt Eisner wrote in a letter dated 14th November to Gustav Landauer: "What I want from you is to advance the transformation of souls as a speaker." Others who arrived in the city to support the new regime included Otto Neurath, Silvio Gesell and Ret Marut.
In January, 1919, the Spartakist Rising, led by Rosa Luxemburg, Leo Jogiches, Clara Zetkin and Karl Liebknecht took place in Berlin. Friedrich Ebert now saw his own power under threat and called in the German Army and the Freikorps to bring an end to the rebellion. By 13th January the rebellion had been crushed and its leaders, including Luxemburg and Liebknecht, had been captured and executed.
In Bavaria Eisner was forced to form a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party. During this period the living conditions of the Munich workers and soldiers were rapidly deteriorating. It was not a surprise when at the election on 12th January, 1919, in Bavaria, Eisner and the Independent Socialist Party received only 2.5 per cent of the total vote. Eisner remained in power by granting concessions to the SDP. This included agreeing to the establishment of a regular security force to maintain order. As Chris Harman pointed out: "In office without any power base of his own, he was forced to behave in an increasingly arbitrary and apparently irrational manner".
On 21st February, 1919, Kurt Eisner decided to resign. On his way to parliament he was assassinated by Anton Graf von Arco auf Valley. It is claimed that before he killed the leader of the ISP he said: "Eisner is a Bolshevist, a Jew; he isn't German, he doesn't feel German, he subverts all patriotic thoughts and feelings. He is a traitor to this land." Johannes Hoffmann, of the SDP, replaced Eisner as President of Bavaria.
One armed worker walked into the assembled parliament and shot dead one of the leaders of the Social Democratic Party. Many of the deputies fled in terror from the city. Max Levien, a member of the German Communist Party (KPD), became the new leader of the revolution. Rosa Levine-Meyer argued: "Levien.... was a man of great intelligence and erudition and an excellent speaker. He exercised an enormous appeal of the masses and could, with no great exaggeration, be defined as the revolutionary idol of Munich. But he owed his popularity rather to his brilliance and wit than to clear-mindedness and revolutionary expediency."
On 7th April, 1919, Levien declared the establishment of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. Paul Frölich later commented: "The Soviet Republic did not arise from the immediate needs of the working class... The establishment of a Soviet Republic was to the Independents and anarchists a reshuffling of political offices... For this handful of people the Soviet Republic was established when their bargaining at the green table had been closed... The masses outside were to them little more than believers about to receive the gift of salvation from the hands of these little gods. The thought that the Soviet Republic could only arise out of the mass movement was far removed from them. While they achieved the Soviet Republic they lacked the most important component, the councils."
Ernst Toller, a member of the Independent Socialist Party, became a growing influence in the revolutionary council. Rosa Levine-Meyer claimed that: "Toller was too intoxicated with the prospect of playing the Bavarian Lenin to miss the occasion. To prove himself worthy of his prospective allies, he borrowed a few of their slogans and presented them to the Social Democrats as conditions for his collaboration. They included such impressive demands as: Dictatorship of the class-conscious proletariat; socialisation of industry, banks and large estates; reorganisation of the bureaucratic state and local government machine and administrative control by Workers' and Peasants' Councils; introduction of compulsory labour for the bourgeoisie; establishment of a Red Army, etc. - twelve conditions in all."
As the author of The Lost Revolution (1982) has pointed out: "Meanwhile, conditions for the mass of the population were getting worse daily. There were now some 40,000 unemployed in the city. A bitterly cold March had depleted coal stocks and caused a cancellation of all fuel rations. The city municipality was bankrupt, with its own employees refusing to accept its paper currency."
Eugen Levine, a member of the German Communist Party (KPD), arrived in Munich from Berlin. The leadership of the KPD was determined to avoid any repetition of the events in Berlin in January, when its leaders, Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches, were murdered by the authorities. Levine was instructed that "any occasion for military action by government troops must be strictly avoided". Levine immediately set about reorganising the party to separate it off clearly from the anarcho-communists led by Erich Mühsam and Gustav Landauer. He reported back to Berlin that he had about 3,000 members of the KPD under his control.
Levine pointed out that despite the Max Levien declaration, little had changed in the city: "The third day of the Soviet Republic... In the factories the workers toil and drudge as ever before for the capitalists. In the offices sit the same royal functionaries. In the streets the old armed guardians of the capitalist world keep order. The scissors of the war profiteers and the dividend hunters still snip away. The rotary presses of the capitalist press still rattle on, spewing out poison and gall, lies and calumnies to the people craving for revolutionary enlightenment... Not a single bourgeois has been disarmed, not a single worker has been armed." Levine now gave orders for over 10,000 rifles to be distributed.
Inspired by the events of the October Revolution, Levine ordered the expropriated of luxury flats and gave them to the homeless. Factories were to be run by joint councils of workers and owners and workers' control of industry and plans were made to abolish paper money. Levine, like the Bolsheviks had done in Russia, established Red Guard units to defend the revolution. He also argued that: "We must speed up the building of revolutionary workers' organisations... We must create workers' councils out of the factory committees and the vast army of the unemployed."
Johannes Hoffmann and other leaders of the Social Democratic Party in Munich fled to the town of Bamberg. Hoffman blocked food supplies to the city and began looking for troops to attack the Bavarian Soviet Republic. By the end of the week he had gathered 8,000 armed men. On 20th April Hoffmann's forces clashed with troops led by Ernst Toller at Dachau in Upper Bavaria. After a brief battle, Hoffmann's army was forced to retreat.
Some of the revolutionaries realised that it was not possible to create a successful Bavarian Soviet Republic. Paul Frölich argued: "Bavaria is not economically self-sufficient. Its industries are extremely backward and the predominant agrarian population, while a factor in favour of the counter-revolution, cannot at all be viewed as pro-revolutionary. A Soviet Republic without areas of large scale industry and coalfields is impossible in Germany. Moreover the Bavarian proletariat is only in a few giant industrial plants genuinely disposed towards revolution and unhampered by petty bourgeois traditions, illusions and weaknesses."
On 26th April, Ernst Toller made an attack on the leaders of the German Communist Party in Munich that had established the Second Bavarian Soviet Republic. "I consider the present government a disaster for the Bavarian toiling masses. To support them would in my view compromise the revolution and the Soviet Republic."
Friedrich Ebert, the president of Germany, eventually arranged for 30,000 Freikorps, under the command of General Burghard von Oven, to take Munich. At Starnberg, some 30 km south-west of the city, they murdered 20 unarmed medical orderlies. The Bavarian Soviet Republic issued the following statement: "The White Guards have not yet conquered and are already heaping atrocity upon atrocity. They torture and execute prisoners. They kill the wounded. Don't make the hangmen's task easy. Sell your lives dearly."
With Ebert's troops massing on Bavaria's northern borders, the Red Guards began arresting people they considered to be hostile to the new regime. On 29th April, 1919, eight men were executed after being found guilty of being right-wing spies. Rosa Levine-Meyer, the author of Levine: The Life of a Revolutionary (1973) wrote: "It was never established who ordered the shooting. None of the Communist leaders were at that time in the building. Levine for one left it long in advance of the deplorable act." Ten members of the Thule Society, the anti-Semitic precursor of Nazism, were also murdered.
The Freikorps entered Munich on 1st May, 1919. Over the next two days the Freikorps easily defeated the Red Guards. Gustav Landauer was one of the leaders who was captured during the first day of fighting. Rudolf Rocker explained what happened next: "Close friends had urged him to escape a few days earlier. Then it would have still been a fairly easy thing to do. But Landauer decided to stay. Together with other prisoners he was loaded on a truck and taken to the jail in Starnberg. From there he and some others were driven to Stadelheim a day later. On the way he was horribly mistreated by dehumanized military pawns on the orders of their superiors. One of them, Freiherr von Gagern, hit Landauer over the head with a whip handle. This was the signal to kill the defenseless victim.... He was literally kicked to death. When he still showed signs of life, one of the callous torturers shot a bullet in his head. This was the gruesome end of Gustav Landauer - one of Germany's greatest spirits and finest men."
Allan Mitchell, the author of Revolution in Bavaria (1965), pointed out: "Resistance was quickly and ruthlessly broken. Men found carrying guns were shot without trial and often without question. The irresponsible brutality of the Freikorps continued sporadically over the next few days as political prisoners were taken, beaten and sometimes executed." An estimated 700 men and women were captured and executed. This included Eugen Levine, who was shot by firing squad in Stadelheim Prison on 5th July, 1919.
Toller was arrested and charged with high treason. Toller expected to be found guilty and sentenced to death but his friends began an international campaign to save his life. At his trial Toller argued: "We revolutionaries acknowledge the right to revolution when we see that the situation is no longer tolerable, that it has become a frozen. Then we have the right to overthrow it.
The working class will not halt until socialism has been realized. The revolution is like a vessel filled with the pulsating heartbeat of millions of working people. And the spirit of revolution will not die while the hearts of these workers continue to beat. Gentlemen! I am convinced that, by your own lights, you will pronounce judgement to the best of your knowledge and belief. But knowing my views you must also accept that I shall regard your verdict as the expression, not of justice, but of power." Max Weber and Thomas Mann gave evidence on his behalf in court and although Toller was found guilty of high treason, the judge acknowledged his "honourable motives" and sentenced him to only five years in prison.
While in prison Toller wrote a series of plays that established him as one of the country's most important writers. By the time he left prison in 1924, plays such as Transformation, The Machine Wreckers, Hinkemann and Masses and Man had been performed all over Germany.
After leaving prison Toller wrote Hoppla, Such is Life (1927), Once a Bourgeois Always a Bourgeois (1928), Draw the Fires (1930), Miracle in America (1931) and the Blind Goddess (1932). He also remained active in politics and was a leading member of the League for Human Rights and the Group of Revolutionary Pacifists.
When Adolf Hitler became Chancellor on 30th January 1933, it soon became clear that no left-wing author would be allowed to write or publish in Germany. On 1st April, 1933 Josef Goebbels announced an official boycott of Jewish shops and businesses and denounced Toller as a public enemy of the Third Reich. Goebbels told his 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'."
Later that month Goebbels published a list of authors that were now banned. This included the work of Toller, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Bertolt Brecht, Ludwig Renn and Thomas Mann. When Hitler's government began arresting socialists and communists and putting them in concentration camps, Toller was persuaded by friends to leave Germany.
Toller arrived in London in September, 1933. While in England he completed his autobiography, I Was a German was published in 1933. He travelled extensively, where he lectured on the need for the international community to join together in order to resist fascism. He also wrote articles for the Manchester Guardian, the Observer, the New Statesman, Time & Tide and the Spectator.
In October 1936 Toller left London for a lecture tour of North America. While he was there he was offered a contract to write film-scripts for MGM. Toller hoped that he would be given the freedom to write films that dealt with political issues such as the rise of fascism in Europe. This did not materialize, and the one script that he wrote that was used, Hangman Also Die, was changed so much that he disowned it. Toller returned to writing plays and in 1938 completed Pastor Hall. The play was based on the life of Martin Niemöller, the Protestant pastor, whose opposition to Adolf Hitler in Nazi Germany resulted in his arrest and trial for high treason.
While in the USA, Toller was also active in the campaign to raise funds to help the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. He went to Spain as a journalist. Alvah Bessie, met him at the Ebro: "Toller was a quiet, heavy-set man, who wandered about talking to the soldiers, asking questions; how much did we get to eat, and did we get enough to smoke, and watching the Fascist airplanes through a pair of opera-glasses, when everybody else was under cover."
In 1939 Toller became increasingly depressed. Fascism in Europe continued to grow and Adolf Hitler remained firmly in control of Nazi Germany. News had also reached him that his sister and brother had both been arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Ernst Toller committed suicide in his hotel room in New York City on 22nd May, 1939. His friend, Alvah Bessie, wrote: "Ernst Toller, the anti-Nazi dramatist and poet. He had been unable to adjust himself to what he saw as a life in exile and which need not have been one at all-had he only waited."