Ernst Toller


Ernst Toller during the stay in the prison at
Long before the book burnings of 1933,
Toller’s works suffered political repression.
The play “Die Wandlung” was forbidden in
German school libraries, as the Deutsche
Volkspartei thought its revolutionary message undermined morals, religious faith and social traditions.

Ernst Toller was a German intellectual Jew, who played a crucial role during the Spartakist revolt in the years 1918 - 1920.

As opposed to many other left-wing intellectuals, Toller engaged himself not only from the desk through the word: he volunteered in WWI, became a radical pacifist in 1916, and participated in the revolt and the following civil war as an active revolutionary (who in all his uncompromising ways wanted to remain humane in his acting, and also successed in this).

At the breakdown of the revolution he was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison. After having served his punishment, he emigrated to the USA, where his plays, in a way, reached appreaciation.

His will for changing of the society and help for the suffering people, which had caught flame after the disappointment of the patriotic enthusiasm of 1914, was paralised by the insight, that you certainly could change the world, but not make it any better. Not to mention that the rising to power of the National Socialists through democratic elections in his home country must have seemed highly desillusioning. Toller saw no other way out but to take his life.

As Walter Mehring wrote about him in 1952: “Der Riss der Zeit ging mitten durch sein Herz”, the rip of time went straight through his heart.

Lyric poetry was perhaps the way of expression that best matched Toller’s nature. Here, he could display his power of unstylised dramatising of experienced horrors to artworks of words - something he only poorly managed to do in his plays.

Here is an example from the poem Leichen im Priesterwald, “Corpses in the Bois-des-Prêtres”, from the collection Vormorgen.

Ein Düngerhaufen faulender Menschenleiber;
Verglaste Augen, blutgeronnen,
Zerspellte Hirne, ausgespeiene Eingeweide,
Die Luft verpestet vom Kadavergestank,
Ein einzig grauenvoller Wahnsinnsschrei!

(A dunghill of decaying human corpses;
Eyes of glass, bloodshot
Cleaved brains, vomited bowels,
The air infected by cadavre stench,
A single horrifying bellow of insanity!)