In 1866, Paul Karl Friedrich Ernst was born in Elbingerode, a small town in the Harz Mountains of central Germany. The son of a miner who valued education and learning, the young Ernst was encouraged to pursue his early interests in literature and philosophy. These interests, combined with his generally brooding temperament, earned for him the nickname Philosopher from his schoolmates. In 1885, he began his university training at Göttingen and, complying with the wishes of his parents, took up the study of theology. In the following year, after a semester at Tübingen, he transferred to Berlin, where his interest in literature brought him into contact with Gerhart Hauptmann, Arno Holz, and Johannes Schlaf, the leading figures of the naturalist movement in Germany. Through his close association with these politically engaged writers, he developed an intense concern for the plight of the exploited working class, and shortly after his arrival in Berlin he joined the Social Democratic Party. Having abandoned theology to devote himself to the study of political science and economics, Ernst felt obliged to forgo the financial support of his parents. For the next twelve years, until he married into the financially secure von Berda family, he supported himself as a freelance journalist, writing emotionally charged essays on a wide range of subjects, from politics and social reform to literary criticism.
During this period—from the late 1880’s to the early 1890’s—Ernst put political activism above everything else in his life because, as a confirmed Marxist, he believed that the revolutionary Social Democratic movement was capable of altering the socioeconomic structure and achieving social equality. Though he was drawn to great works of literature, especially the monumental works of Fyodor Dostoevski, he felt no compelling inner need to take up the literary pen himself. By the mid-1890’s, however, he began to realize that the social reform he sought was unattainable by political means. Bitterly disillusioned by the lack of progress made by the Social Democrats, indeed by political activism in general, he left politics for good in 1896, channeling his revolutionary zeal into literary production. Literature, he had come to believe, must strive to achieve that which is unattainable in the political arena.
Though his early one-act plays Lumpenbagasch and Im Chambre séparée won the praise of his naturalist contemporaries,...
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