Ernst Toller was born on December 1, 1893, in the little town of Samotschin near Posen in what was then eastern Prussia and is now western Poland. His father was a fairly well-to-do shopkeeper and, as a member of the town council, one of the most prominent Jewish citizens in the area. Toller attended the local Jewish grade school and in 1913 was graduated from the Realgymnasium (academic high school) in Bromberg, the county seat.
Among his more vivid recollections were experiences of national, religious, and class hatred. Toller once wrote a piece in the local press condemning the authorities. Only the intervention of Toller’s father saved the high school student from a libel suit by the mayor. The young Toller clearly evinced the symptoms of a vulnerable heart. The sensitive side of his nature succumbed to the fear of alienation as a “dirty Jew.” Security lay in becoming more German than the kaiser himself, in drowning himself in the narrow ambience of Wilhelminian nationalism; hence, his choice of university: Grenoble in France. It was the fashionable thing for solid middle-class burghers to send their sons abroad, and one of the foreign centers of higher learning favored by the Germans was Grenoble with its attractive location. Here Toller spent most of his time at the German Students’ Union and adopted a supercilious attitude toward France and its civilization. There was an occasional tug of guilt at being able to live it up because of his parents’ money while his former childhood “Polack” friends were drowning in poverty.
When World War I broke out, Toller managed to catch the last train to Switzerland before the closing of the frontier. From there he rushed to Munich. His jingoistic enthusiasm knew no bounds. After being rejected by both infantry and cavalry because of poor health, he lied his way into the artillery but not before being almost beaten to death by some irate citizens who took him for a spy because of the French label in the lining of his hat. Toller went out of his way to volunteer for frontline duty and saw thirteen months of almost continuous action in some of the bloodiest fighting on the western front. Then his frail constitution and his hypersensitivity betrayed him. He collapsed from psychosomatic exhaustion. He was honorably discharged as a corporal in January, 1917, haunted by the feeling that the soldiers dying at the front were not Frenchmen and Germans but men—in fact, brothers.
Toller sought to bury his memories of the war in an orgy of work at the University of Munich, but to no avail. At a gathering in Castle Lauenstein of some of Germany’s most respected intellectuals, including the renowned sociologist, Max Weber, to which Toller was invited as a promising student, the former soldier, Toller, was appalled at the bankruptcy of ideas evinced by the older generation in its discussion of Germany’s future. Later, he was shocked to learn through his readings that the German government and the German industrialists bore considerable responsibility for the war and that the former had, in fact, lied to the nation about its aims, that its policy of aggrandizement was needlessly prolonging the war.
In the meantime, determined to take the easiest route to the fashionable but meaningless doctor’s degree, Toller had transferred to the University of Heidelberg, which had a notorious reputation as a degree factory. He opted for economics because it was the rage; his topic, “Pig-breeding in East Prussia,” would allow him time to cater to his newly acquired pacifist convictions. He set up an antiwar organization called Young Germans’ Cultural and Political Union. The group was outlawed by order of the High Command and its members pressed into military service regardless of physical fitness. Toller managed to escape to Berlin, where he met the man who was to have the greatest influence on the course of his life: Kurt Eisner, the leader of the Independent Socialist Party (USPD) in Bavaria, under whose influence Toller became a non-Marxist socialist. This conversion to socialism was at the core of the play on which Toller was working (entitled appropriately enough Transfiguration) when he followed Eisner to Munich, where early in 1918 the socialist leader organized a strike of munitions workers to end the war. Toller distributed excerpts from his uncompleted play to the strikers and very quickly assumed a position of leadership. He was arrested, put back into uniform, and jailed. In prison, he read the works of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Rosa Luxemburg, grounding himself in the theoretical side of classical Marxism and embracing its central indictment of capitalism, although he rejected much else. In prison, Toller also managed to complete the final scenes of his play. On his release, he was assigned to a reserve unit. Then, at the instigation of his patriotic mother, who was convinced that her son had gone out of his mind, Toller was put into a psychiatric clinic in Munich. He was discharged from both the clinic and the army in time to become fully enmeshed in the so-called November Revolution of 1918, one of the most complicated and tragic events in the history of Germany. On November 7, 1918, the Democratic and Social Republic of Bavaria was proclaimed by Kurt Eisner, the first republic on German soil since the Revolution of 1848. Toller became deputy chairman of the Central Council of Workers’, Peasants’, and Soldiers’ Councils, a type of grassroots governmental organization that, in the opinion of Eisner and Toller, was far more democratic than the parliamentary system represented by the Bavarian Landtag.
In February, 1919, Eisner was assassinated by a young ultrarightist determined to prove that he was more patriotic than the neo-Fascist members of the Thule Society, which had blackballed him because of a Jewish skeleton in his family closet. The Landtag, controlled by the SPD, established a government under Johannes Hoffmann akin in counterrevolutionary sentiment to the Ebert government in Berlin. Inspired by the establishment of a Soviet Republic in Hungary, strongly urged on by the workers’ and soldiers’ councils in outlying cities, and determined not to let the policies of Eisner go to rack and ruin, the revolutionary workers of Munich proclaimed on April 7, 1919, the existence of the (first) Bavarian Republic of Councils. Within a day, Toller was elected head of state. The rival government of Prime Minister...
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