Tag Archives: Ernst Toller

I was a German

The plays by Ernst Toller are occasionally still performed on stage, his poetry, however, is little read today. In the years after the end of WWI he was a celebrity and not just for literary reasons. The best-known book by him today is his autobiographical I was a German (Eine Jugend in Deutschland), which I discuss here. It was originally published in 1933 by Querido, one of the most important publishing houses for exiled German authors; one year later an English-language edition was printed by Paragon in New York.

Toller was born in 1893 in Samochin (today Samoczin), a small town north of Poznan, which belongs since 1921 to Poland. This region was characterized by a centuries-long coexistence of Germans, Poles and Jews. At the time of Toller’s birth, the city was already marked by a strong antagonism between mostly Protestant Germans and Catholic Poles; the Jews in the region were predominantly pro-German and usually identified very strongly with Prussia and with German culture. In the description of his childhood, Toller mentions that even as a child he was aware of this division of local society – the Poles were usually very poor and often did the physically hardest work. Among the Polish boys of his age, he had only one friend; he writes how he often had lunch at the family of this friend, where he noticed the poor diet; nevertheless the big family always shared without hesitation the little they had with an additional eater. This early experience of class differences and correspondingly divergent life perspectives should later become very important for Toller.

Toller, who showed already in school literary and poetic talent, was interested in French culture at an early age, an interest that was also reinforced by a French exchange teacher whom most other teachers at his school suspected of being a French spy, without reason as we can assume.

Despite the early death of his father Toller could complete his school education and he started to study in France, shortly before the beginning of WWI. However, he took little interest in attending lessons and spent most of his time in the circle of other German-speaking students. If you want to get an idea of ​​what an average student life of a foreigner at a French university looked like before the First World War, you will read the corresponding chapter with great interest. Particularly interesting is the description of rising tensions immediately before the outbreak of war, the strange atmosphere in which the majority of Germans in France considered a war to be very unlikely.

If one speaks of a key experience for Toller, one which shaped his future life and work, this was undoubtedly WWI, more precisely, the trench warfare on the Western Front in France. Like many others, Toller volunteered with some enthusiasm and optimism, but the terrible experiences in the trenches changed his attitude very quickly. He describes as particularly repugnant the inhumane propaganda of the domestic media, which denies the French enemy any humanity; At the same time he sees this as an insult and a degradation of the German frontline soldiers, who share the same experiences in the trenches with their French counterparts. One day, when repairing a ditch, he stumbles upon the remains of a human body, of which he does not know whether he was once a Frenchman or a German; and it does not really matter. The remains belong in any case to a man whose life was ended much too early by a war that Toller now finds pointless and completely wrong. Toller, who slowly admits his opposition to the war, wants to get away from the trenches and volunteers for the Air Force. Finally, a serious illness leads to his dismissal as unfit for military service and he can resume his university studies.

At the university, he encounters war cripples, a surprisingly big number of female students and professors, who are torn between national chauvinism and skepticism. By now most people realize that Germany can not win the war; the nutrition situation is getting from bad to worse. Turnip becomes a major food source. In this slowly changing atmosphere, a large conference organized by leading scientists and intellectuals, is held at Lauenstein Castle; Toller takes part in this event alongside many other students, but also professors, intellectuals, poets and supporters of the Lebensreform movement. The participants discuss their vision of Germany’s future. It quickly becomes clear that the restorative forces have the upper hand in this event. Romantic and backward-looking ideas of state far from a democratic society are preferred by the majority of participants; a real signal of departure for which Toller is waiting, is not coming. Toller is severely disappointed, but receives encouragement by the famous sociologist and economist Max Weber and the poet Richard Dehmel, who seek a real change in Germany and work towards the abolition of the authoritarian state and the monarchy.

The same period sees also an increased productivity of the author Toller and meetings with prominent colleagues, such as Rilke or Thomas Mann. Mann invites the by then almost unknown Toller to his home and is helping him editing texts. He is also providing valuable advice for his writing, something very encouraging for Toller. He mentions it in his autobiographical book with great gratitude.

Toller is tired of talking and wants to see actions that are geared towards ending the war. He joins the war opponent Kurt Eisner, who is trying to organize a strike of workers in the armaments industry. Toller is briefly arrested and locked up in a lunatic asylum.

The end of the war finally comes in November 1918. The sailors in Kiel and other port cities mutiny and refuse to follow orders, within a short time large parts of the army join, the emperor flees, the whole system is collapsing, the war is over. In this confusion Kurt Eisner proclaims in Munich the People’s State of Bavaria, a socialist Republic, supported by the leftist Independent Socialists (USPD), and the anarchists, who are traditionally very strong in the Bavarian capital. (The Communists refuse to join the revolution!) Eisner is elected Prime Minister, Toller is his right-hand man.

What follows in the next few weeks, is one of the most turbulent episodes of German history of the 20th century. While the government led by Social Democrats in Berlin enters into a pact with right-wing Freikorps to forcefully overthrow the Bavarian government in Munich, the writers, bohemians and anarchists (including the Freigeld theorist Silvio Gesell) prove to be largely ineffective to form an orderly cabinet. One example: the first action of one of the newly appointed ministers is to send telegrams to the Pope and Lenin, in which he complains that his predecessor has taken the toilet key! The good man is later transferred from his office to the care of a psychiatric clinic.

In the meantime, the Communists are also trying to come to power by overthrowing the Eisner government. In this confusion Kurt Eisner is assassinated by a far-right extremist and anti-Semite, Graf Arco. Toller becomes Head of State of the People’s State of Bavaria for a few days. He is 25 years old by now. The Communists, led by the Russian Eugen Leviné, seize power after a coup d’état and proclaim the Bavarian Soviet Republic. In the meantime, the Freikorps units – some of them already using the Swastika – march towards Munich. Toller tries everything to prevent a bloodbath on a large scale, which would be the result if it would come to battles between the Bavarian Red Army and the Freikorps.

It is known from history books that the revolutionary Munich episode was crushed with extreme brutality. Hundreds, if not thousands, of unarmed supporters of the left parties were shot on the streets of Muncih or simply beaten to death when the Freikorps marched in. Even today, 100 years later, it is hardly bearable to read Toller’s account of the murder of the pacifist Jewish writer Gustav Landauer, who was in police custody; In other cases, prisoners were “shot while fleeing”; a Munich publisher later boasted how he “shot down captive revolutionaries like rabbits”. Many of those who excel in murders later reappear under the banner of the Nazis.

Toller is able to hide for a while during these days with the help of friends. He is wanted for “high treason”. For a while he finds shelter with the actress Tilla Durieux (in the book her name is not mentioned; Toller only calls her “my friend” to protect her from persecution and slanderous allegations); Rilke also offers his help. In the apartment of a couple that hid him at great risk for themselves, he is finally caught. The Freikorps soldiers decide to murder him on the street together with several other prisoners, but in the last moment an “official” policeman prevents the worst.

The last part of Toller’s autobiographical book describes his time in various Bavarian prisons. He rejects a personal amnesty from the Bavarian government in 1920, as long as even one of his fellow revolutionaries was exempt from the amnesty. A defining characteristic of the Weimar Republic’s judiciary was that it often allowed violent offenders from the right-wing milieu to go unpunished, even for murders, whereas socialists or communists often received the most severe punishments for minor offenses. A fact that the statistician Emil Josef Gumbel has also clearly proven in his publications. The anarchist Erich Mühsam for example received a ten-year prison sentence, although, according to today’s legal understanding, he had not committed any criminal offense, while the putschist Hitler, on the other hand, received a minimal sentence, which he had quickly served in privileged conditions. It is no coincidence that Toller’s first depressive relapses fall into this period. He committed suicide in a New York hotel in 1940.

I was a German is still an astonishingly fresh confession of a man who became a fighter against war and for social justice as a result of personal experiences and inspiring meetings with some remarkable personalities. An important book, worth reading!


Ernst Toller: I was a German, Paragon (Tr. Edward Crankshank); Eine Jugend in Deutschland, Rowohlt

© Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki, 2014-9. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and Mytwostotinki with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Ostende. 1936, Summer of friendship

glm_iv1   This review is part of the German Literature Month, hosted by Lizzie (Lizzies Literary Life) and Caroline (Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) The Belgian kings Leopold I and Leopold II liked to spend their summer holidays in the seaside town of Ostende, a place which was famous then and now for its long sandy beaches. What followed in the late 19th and early 20th century was a construction boom: the small harbor town developed into an opulent summer holiday location for the wealthy bourgeoisie and the upper echelons of society. Those who visit Ostende today will realize that a lot of the splendour of those days has gone and many of the gorgeous buildings of that time were destroyed either by the bombings of WWII or by the similarly devastating “modernization” frenzy in the 1950s and 1960s. But in 1936, the old Ostende was still very much alive. Those who could afford it were packing their things and spending a few weeks here. Among them were also a group of German-language writers. They enjoy the sun, the swimming, the drinks, the company, and their talks about literature. But all of them either lost their homes, or had to prepare for losing it in the near future. They had mostly also lost their by far biggest publication market, Germany, and with it also the biggest part of their income. The small new book by Volker Weidermann, Ostende. 1936 – Sommer der Freundschaft (published this year and not yet translated) describes this summer, the strange atmosphere between holiday mood and depression that most of the writers felt. And it shows also the difficulties to be a writer in exile, and what happened to the friends that met in Ostende during that summer. I was amazed to read who was in Ostende at exactly the same time – it reads like a part of the Who is who of German literature of that period: Stefan Zweig (with his secretary and lover Lotte Altmann); Joseph Roth; Irmgard Keun; Ernst Toller with his wife, the actress Christiane Grautoff; Egon Erwin Kisch, the famous “Raging Reporter from Prague” with his wife; Hermann Kesten; Arthur Koestler; also Willi Münzenberg, the “Red Press Czar” and founder of one of the biggest media empires of the world was there with his wife and some aides, among them the shady Otto Katz, one of the most notorious GPU agents, also known as Andre Simone. Weidermann focuses the book mainly on the friendship between Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth. Zweig, one of the few German-language writers that was not dependent from the German market because his books were popular almost all over the world, was in a similarly privileged position like Thomas Mann, Lion Feuchtwanger, or Erich Maria Remarque: they lived in very comfortable conditions even in exile, but all of them used their wealth and contacts to support the big number of poor colleagues financially or with contacts with publishers. In later years their assistance in getting affidavits and visas was crucial to get many writers out of Europa after the outbreak of the war (Anna Seghers’ Transit gives a haunting description of the emigrants in Marseille). Joseph Roth was on the other side of the social pyramid of writers: the once well-paid journalist and author had not been very lucky. He was not the kind of person to save money for bad times to come and spent what he earned with full hands, living a life in the most expensive European hotels in the late 1920s and early 1930s. A mental illness of his wife who had to be admitted to an asylum (she was later killed by the Nazis in the framework of the infamous T4 program), his growing problems with alcohol – the book describes Zweig’s caring efforts to feed his friend at least one time or another – and his complete loss of the German and Austrian book market; there was hardly a disaster that didn’t strike Roth in those years. Stefan Zweig proved to be a loyal friend who helped Roth not only financially; he tried to make Roth quit or at least reduce his booze addiction; he discussed manuscripts with him and reminded him to work more slowly and diligently; and he introduced him to his other friends and colleagues in Ostende. Among them was a young and attractive “Aryan” female writer from Germany: Irmgard Keun. Keun, already an accomplished writer in the early 30s, was caught in an unhappy marriage in Germany from which she ran away, and she had also difficulties to publish in Germany. Her books were banned and the works she wrote during her time in Belgium (for example After Midnight, her probably best book) and on travels would be published in German exile publishing houses. When she met Roth, it was obviously a coup de foudre from both sides. They started a relationship almost immediately after their first meeting, much to the surprise of the other emigrants who couldn’t understand what this attractive woman drew to the hopeless drunkard in tattered clothes. Weidermann describes how they got “to work”: they used to go to the same small bar every day, sit on separate tables with their small typewriters (Keun loved the sun, Roth couldn’t stand it) and ordered some liquor. Or more correctly: a lot of liquor. Yes, also Keun was an alcoholic. But for both of them, it seemed to have been an extremely productive time and both wrote excellent works during their time together. Also for Zweig the times were not easy. But his were more his private problems and sorrows, not so much the political situation. His marriage with Friederike had failed, his home in Austria was soon to be sold to settle the financial issues following the divorce, and he had also sold his extraordinary collection of autographs. But his relationship with a young woman, Lotte Altmann, whom he hired as an assistant and secretary and who later became his mistress and after the divorce his second wife, also set new energies free in Zweig. He wanted to use the fresh energy he felt to do some serious work on some of his book projects in Ostende and also to think about where to settle in the future. It was also a good opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues, especially with Joseph Roth with whom he entertained a close friendship. For Zweig it was not the first time he came to Ostende. He had spent the summer 1914, the days before the outbreak of WWI in Ostende to meet his idol Emile Verhaeren. So overwhelmed was the young Zweig by the meeting with his master in 1914 that he didn’t realize at all that the world was preparing for war and that the world he loved would be doomed. (Verhaeren turned soon after the outbreak of the war into one of the most radical chauvinists, a major disappointment for Zweig) What drew Zweig to Roth, and vice versa? For Zweig, Roth represented the Ostjudentum, the world of the Jews from the periphery of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a world about which Zweig knew very little but to which he felt in a strange way attracted. And that Roth, despite his insane alcoholism and his financial dependency from Zweig, was so loyal and honest was for Zweig also very attractive. Roth knew no friendship, no superficial friendliness when it came to questions of literature. When he smelled one wrong expression, one superficial adjective, a weak plot, or something else that his unfailing instinct discovered, he would not hide it and let his friend know. Also vice versa, Roth accepted the professional advice of Zweig on many occasions. Due to the extreme difference in their living conditions one could have expected Roth to be a sycophant at least at times, but it seems that this was never the case. Theirs is a dialogue eye to eye when it came to matters of importance, i.e. to literature. Weidermann’s book is excellently written. Not only writes he almost like an experienced novelist who arranges his material in an interesting way. He also succeeds in making the motives of his heroes understandable to the reader. And he adds interesting details that you can hardly read in any other book about the German exile – such as the unintentional act of disloyalty Zweig commits when he writes to his American publisher that Roth is suffering from being over-productive (writing too much in a short time) with the result that his exile books are much weaker than the previous one’s (I would disagree with Zweig here). As a result, the American publisher writes Roth that he is cancelling his author’s contract, a financial catastrophe for Roth who lives his last years mainly from Stefan Zweig’s financial support. Although the other authors are not so much in the centre of the book, they play an important role too and Weidermann shows a great talent to integrate their fates almost effortlessly in his small masterpiece. Ernst Toller, the expressionist poet and dramatist, and his beautiful actress wife add a lot of flair to the weeks in Ostende – but Toller has always a rope with a noose in his suitcase; he suffers from extreme bouts of depression and the reader knows that he will sooner or later use the rope to hang himself. (When it finally happened a few years later, Roth collapsed when he heard the news and died shortly thereafter) Also the Münzenberg/Katz story made me shiver, knowing what later happened; and of course the end of the two main protagonists, so sad and unnecessary, victims of a time that was so opposed to the human values they represented in everything they did and wrote. I hope for a swift translation of this wonderful book of Volker Weidermann. (The translation rights for the English-speaking edition are already sold to Pantheon/Knopf.) It will be a must for all Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth aficionados, and for all friends of literature in general. And if you visit Ostende, take this book with you. And don’t miss the house of the painter James Ensor. It plays a small but important role in this book too and is different from any other house you will ever visit. Ostende Volker Weidermann: Ostende. 1936, Sommer der Freundschaft, Kiepenheuer & Witsch, Köln 2014
© Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without expressed and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Thomas Hübner and mytwostotinki.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.