Ernst Toller (TAWL-ur) was one of the most popular playwrights in Germany and abroad in the 1920’s, with translations in twenty-seven languages, although his fame quickly faded during the 1930’s. Toller’s creativity showed both in his activism and in his writings.
Toller’s first play, for example, was the antiwar drama Transfiguration, which made him famous. While its rhetoric may today seem stale and sermonizing, the play proved a public success. Also, as early as 1917, Toller very effectively used excerpts from it, both in public readings and in leaflets, to encourage people to become politically active. As Toller evolved toward skeptical realism, his work continued to be inseparable from his life, which provided him with three major themes: the outsider, pacifism, and the socialist revolution with its paradoxes.
Born into the Jewish minority of the German-speaking population of a Polish part of Prussia, Toller witnessed, on one hand, the anti-Semitism of the Germans, and on the other, German feelings of superiority toward the Poles. His youth was otherwise uneventful, but the conflict of establishing his individuality led Toller away from Judaism. He later had his name removed from the register of his hometown’s Jewish community.
World War I was the first major influence on Toller that converted him to pacifism. When the war started in 1914, he was swept up in the patriotism and volunteered for duty. Posted, upon his own request, to a machine-gun unit, Toller began to see all soldiers, even the enemy, as his brothers. After a nervous breakdown in May, 1916, he never returned to active duty and began his activism to win people over to his newly found nonviolent ideals, which would lead to the second major influence on Toller: the Munich revolution.
After leaving the front, Toller attended university and slowly turned to revolutionary socialism, but his ethical ideas were strongly influenced by Gustav Landauer, a contemporary who defined his brand of socialism in terms of pacifism and anti-Marxism. As a student in Heidelberg, Toller began to agitate against the ongoing war, barely evaded arrest, and left for Berlin in January, 1918. There he met the antiwar politician Kurt Eisner at a January, 1918, meeting of the Independent Social Democratic Party. Toller followed him to Munich and helped to organize a workers’ strike in support of a peace without annexations. The strike collapsed on February 4,...
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