Born: Samotschin, Germany (now Szamocin, Poland), 1 December 1893. Education: Educated at the Realgymnasium, Bromberg, from 1906; studied law at the University of Grenoble, France, 1912-14; University of Munich, 1914-17; University of Heidelberg, 1917-18. Military Service: Served in the army during World War I; suffered a mental breakdown, invalided out, 1916. Family: Married the actress Christiane Grautoff in 1935 (separated 1938). Career: Co-organized a munitions workers’ strike, Munich, 1918, arrested and subsequently convicted of treason, spent three months in a military prison and pronounced unfit for military service; became active in anti-war politics, associated with the Communist government in Bavaria, 1918; candidate for the newly formed USPD (Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany), Bavaria, 1919, and chairman, USPD 1919; section commander of the Red army during the events of the Bavarian uprising, resigned because of political differences; after the collapse of the Bavarian revolution, arrested and sentenced to five years imprisonment, 1919-24, during which time he wrote most of his plays; lectured and lobbied widely, in Europe, the Soviet Union, and the United States in the 1920s and 1930s on anti-fascist causes; exiled from Germany in 1933, his works burnt and banned; fled to Switzerland, France, and then England, 1933-35; travelled to Portugal and Spain, 1936; moved to the United States in 1936; screenwriter, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1936-38; activist for pro-Republican intervention in the Spanish Civil War, lobbying in the United States, France, England, and Sweden, 1938. Died: (suicide) 22 May 1939.
Ausgewahlte Schriften. 1959.
Prosa, Briefe, Dramen, Gedichte. 1961.
Gesammelte Werke, edited by John M. Spalek and Wolfgang Fruhwald. 5 vols., 1978.
Die Wandlung: Das Ringen eines Menschen (produced 1919). 1919; as Transfiguration, translated by Edward Crankshaw, in Seven Plays, 1935.
Masse-Mensch (produced 1920). 1921; as Masses and Man, translated by Vera Mendel, 1923; as Man and the Masses, translated by Louis Untermeyer, 1924.
Die MaschinenstUrmer (produced 1922). 1922; as The Machine-Wreckers, translated by Ashley Dukes, 1923.
Der deutsche Hinkemann (produced 1923). 1923; as Hinkemann, 1924; as Brokenbrow, translated by Vera Mendel, 1926.
Der entfesselte Wotan (produced 1924). 1923.
Die Rache des verhohnten Liebhabers; odor, Frauenlist und Mannerlist (puppetshow). 1925.
Hoppla, wir leben! (produced 1927). 1927; as Hoppla!, translated by Herman Ould, 1928.
Feuer aus den Kesseln (produced 1930). 1930; as Draw the Fires!, translated by Edward Crankshaw, 1934, and in Seven Plays, 1935.
Wunder in Amerika, with Hermann Kesten (produced 1934). 1931; as Mary Baker Eddy; or, Miracle in America, translated by Edward Crankshaw, in Seven Plays, 1935.
Die blinde Gottin. 1933; as The Blind Goddess, translated by Edward Crankshaw, 1934.
Seven Plays, translated by Edward Crankshaw. 1935.
Nie wieder Friede!. 1936; as No More Peace! A Thoughtful Comedy, translated by Edward Crankshaw, 1937.
Pastor Hall. 1938; as Pastor Hall, translated by Stephen Spender and Hugh Hunt, 1939.
Berlin—letzte Ausgabe! (radio play). In Fruhe sozialistische Horspiele, edited by Stefan Bodo Wurffel, 1982.
Der Tag des Proletariats. 1920.
Gedichte der Gefangenen: Ein Sonettenkreis. 1921.
Weltliche Passion. 1934.
Das Schwalbenbuch. 1924; as The Swallow Book, translated by Ashley Dukes, 1924.
Deutsche Revolution. 1925.
Quer Durch: Reisebilder und Reden. 1930; translated in part as Which World Which Way? by Hermon Ould, 1931.
Nationalsozialismus (radio broadcast). 1930.
Eine Jugend in Deutschland (autobiography). 1933; as I Was a German, translated by Edward Crankshaw, 1934.
Briefe aus dem Gefangnis. 1935; as Letters from Prison (includes The Swallow Book), translated by R. Ellis Roberts, 1936; as Look Through the Bars, 1937.
Ernst Toller: Product of Two Revolutions, 1941, and Ernst Toller and His Ideology, 1945, both by W.A. Willibrand; Ernst Toller by Tankred Dorst, 1968; Ernst Toller by Malcolm Pittock, 1979; Anarchism in the Drama of Ernst Toller: The Realm of Necessity and the Realm of Freedom by Michael Ossar, 1980; Ernst Toller in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten by Wolfgang Rothe, 1983; German Expressionist Drama: Ernst Toller and Georg Kaiser by Renate Benson, 1984; Revolutionary Socialism in the Work of Ernst Toller, 1986, and He Was a German: A Biography of Ernst Toller, 1990, both by Richard Dove; Ernst Toller und die Weimarer Republik, 1918-1933 by Andreas Lixl, 1986; Weimar Germany and the Limits of Political Art: A Study of the Work of Georg Grosz and Ernst Toller by Martin Kane, 1987; The Plays of Ernst Toller: A Revaluation by Cecil Davies, 1996.
”Placing Toller’s fiasco as a revolutionary within the narrative of the failed German Revolution enhances the symbolism of his case, but also blurs the particularities of his concern as a writer and a public figure.” Trommler’s recent appraisal of the legendary Expressionist dramatist and left-wing leader of the Bavarian Raterepublik, Ernst Toller, focuses on the contradictions within his personality and of his reception since his suicide in a New York hotel in 1939, and mirrors these within his major works. From the biographical accounts of the Munich episode (given compelling but critical dramatic form in Tankred Dorst’s Toller in 1968) Ernst Toller appears as an idealist appeaser; however, the subtitle of his first play, Das Ringen eines Menschen [The Struggle of a Man], records better the underlying tone of Toller’s life and work. Dealing with Toller’s experiences in the war, it is revolutionary in its autobiographical and historical background. Toller’s personal nationalist fervour became pacifist commitment in a moment of vision celebrated in this play and is here developed into disillusionment in a chronicle of revolution. Friedrich’s passion in Die Wandlung (Transfiguration) represents the compelling sense of responsibility that Toller felt throughout his life as a writer.
On this discrepancy between fantasy and reality both he and his central characters came asunder. Yet, as he realized, dramatic form emphasizes such discrepancies to the detriment of the expression of the greater ideals of progress and the brotherhood of man. His attempts to reconcile ideal vision with self-destructive reality are the reason for the declamatory, rhetorical style of his early dramas. Transfiguration, finished in March 1918 and first performed in October 1919, is a typical ”O-Mensch” work in six tableaux, castigating and commiserating, a form of spiritual pamphleteering aiming at revolution to bring a form of utopia where man could be free from social misery caused above all by war. Despite scenes depicting soldiers and workers who have lost their dignity, it is a drama of hope rather than a politically thought-out programme.
Far more persuasive is Masse-Mensch (Masses and Man)—his most interesting drama. Set during wartime, it shows a workers’ committee deciding to strike to enforce peace and secure a fair society. Sonja Irene, wife of a disapproving bourgeois, has joined the committee and finds her strike call disputed by an anonymous opponent who insists that the utopia of lasting peace and social justice can only come through violent revolution. She is unable to prevent violence and the subsequent shooting of an enemy soldier. She is captured in the ensuing battle, refuses help from her husband and from her anonymous former opponent because she would have to kill a warden to escape, and is executed. This reveals, in Richard Dove’s words, ”the strong vein of determinism increasingly evident in Toller’s work.” The play is written as a vision containing ”real” and ”dream” scenes in which the banality of real-life situations is contrasted with the utopia of a new society to come. The problems of the political resolve needed for mass action are examined dialectically through the central character, who is portrayed both as a real-life person and as an abstract figure. All the central oppositions remain unresolved, with the reality of revolution in conflict with noble ideals expressed in abstract argument. Moral principle is set against revolutionary expediency, and expressed in a clash between ethical socialism and applied Marxism. The individual here has to show the way, the mass can only achieve ethical freedom through an act of limited violence. Despite many Expressionist features, the involvement with political argument lifts the play beyond propaganda and ideology. The central figure becomes a ”new woman” and combines a hard-headed understanding of her companions with a vision for the future.
Toller’s growing objectivization is seen in Die MaschinenstUrmer (The Machine-Wreckers) by his use of historical material (the Luddite movement in 1815) and rejection of Expressionist language and form. Early capitalism is shown as an exploitative system reducing weavers to starvation even before the new machines arrive that will put many of them out of work. Lord Byron’s sympathetic speech on behalf of the weavers in the House of Lords is met with derisive laughter, and the stage is set for a punitive strike to destroy the machines. Jimmy Cobbett tries to persuade the weavers to work for political change through a nascent trade union but is killed by the machine wreckers. In exhorting them to settle their differences and join a mass Labour movement Cobbett foreshadows 20th-century developments within an early 19th-century situation. His attack on inner and outer divisions make him both outcast and messiah, and his emotionalism overwhelms the underlying dramatic conflict with an oratorical style that no longer convinces because it is overdone.
The effusive lyricism of this play is effectively channelled in more muted tones in the lyrical cycle Das Schwalbenbuch (The Swallow Book), where Toller admires the naive innocence of two swallows nesting near his prison cell, in contrast with the complex so-called civilized yet brutal behaviour of man in society.
Der deutsche Hinkemann (Brokenbrow), written 1921-22 and first performed in September 1923, symbolizes the tragedy and cynical sense of betrayal in post-war Germany felt by a soldier returning home. He becomes a laughing-stock because his sexual organ has been shot away, and he is reduced to the macabre fairground act of biting the throats of rats and mice. He suffers the injustices of both meaningless war and forgetful man. His revolt is grotesque and time-bound, restricted and ineffective, but no less heartfelt than those of Toller’s earlier, less realistic figures.
Hoppla, wir leben! (Hoppla!), in five acts, is equally pessimistic in its portrayal of a former revolutionary who, having spent eight years in an asylum, discovers when he comes back into society the corruption of industrialists, bankers, and politicians. He is wrongly arrested for the murder of a minister and hangs himself, unable to cope with the madness of the world. This is a prime example of political theatre unmasking some of the worst injustices of the Weimar Republic. Karl Thomas’s early optimism is shattered by the ridicule of all he meets. In an earlier four-act version of the play he is kept in an asylum (to which he has voluntarily returned) but his psychiatrist as an enemy of the state. The expanded version staged by Erwin Piscator in 1927 using several simultaneous stages became a turning-point in theatre history.
Toller gave an early warning of the dangers of fascism in Der entfesselte Wotan [Wotan Unchained], a pessimistic comedy about a little man with delusions of grandeur published in 1923 and first performed in Moscow in 1924. The satiric tone enables Toller to provide a social and psychological analysis of a would-be saviour of Germany and Europe who on being arrested announces that he will write his memoirs in prison. Seen as a light-hearted attack on megalomania, the play however warns the public not to laugh too soon, and viewed with hindsight, with an explicit later version, was an open attack in Berlin in 1926 of Nazi methods and aims. Also often wrongly overlooked is Feuer aus den Kesseln (Draw the Fires!), dealing with the German naval mutiny in Kiel in 1917. First performed in 1930, it is a neglected example of early documentary drama, to be placed alongside works by Paquet, Pliever, Mehring, and Wolf. The central figure gives way here to a collective of five sailors as victims of class conflict at a court martial.
Toller’s later years were torn by spiritual suffering and frustration over the unwillingness of the democratic world to stop Hitler. He had been deeply indebted to Gustav Landauer’s ”Aufruf zum Sozialismus” [Call to Socialism] and to Kurt Eisner’s thinking. Their personal fate and that of their political ideals made him distrust party allegiances and remain an independent revolutionary socialist. It has been suggested that Toller’s commitment ceased and his talent dried up after 1924, yet his over 200 speeches, lectures, and broadcasts given in exile bear witness to growing, despairing involvement in the struggle against fascism. This is mirrored in his drama Pastor Hall, written in 1938 and based on the real-life figure of Martin Niemoller, his opposition to the Nazi regime as a Protestant pastor, and his trial and eventual imprisonment in a concentration camp. The combination of realist and symbolist features to depict the conquest of fear is unsuccessful mainly because Toller makes his central figure die of a heart attack, or in a second version preach a final sermon. Despite the relevance of Toller’s confessional works that move from early attempts to cope with the guilt of nationalist fervour, though social criticisms and political warnings, his works as an exiled politician after 1933 was perhaps best summed up by Christopher Isherwood in an ironic phrase: ”He was in the process of becoming a respectable institution.”