Ernst Toller

A short biography by Dr. Dieter Distl


Ernst Toller was born on 1st December 1893 - into a Jewish familiy in Samotschin in what at that time was the Prussian province of Posen. A typical child of his age, he joined the First World War as a enthusiastic patriot and returned from the trenches a pacifist. In the Bavarian Revolution, the 25-year-old was a member of the 'braintrust' of Kurt Eisner, who he had met in Berlin in 1917. In the course of the complexe events in Bavaria, he was drawn into the phalanx of the revolutionaries.

Following the failure of the Räterepublik (a form of republic governed by commissars that existed in Bavaria in 1919), he was sentenced to five years imprisonment, which he spent in the prisons of Stadelheim, Eichstätt, Neuburg on the Danube and above all in Niederschönenfeld. It was here that he wrote his most significant works and gained his reputation as a dramatist. His plays were translated into 27 different languages and performed on the most important stages in the world.

After his release from prison, Toller invested all his energy into his humanitarian and socialist ideals. The political questions with which he concerned himself until his death are worryingly topical today: the problem of the pacificsm, which for him arose from the fact that under certain circumstances violence can be as inevitable as it is morally unacceptable; the protection of human rights, the rise of the radical right.

As early as the end of the twenties, Toller was already prophecying that Hitler would come to power, never to relinquish it. His comment in London on Hitler's Olympic statement in 1936: "The dictator who praises the peace today, does so to prepare the war of tomorrow."

In exile from 1933 onwards, Ernst Toller tried to reverse the splintering of political forces. In the USA he became the most-listened-to and celebrated representative of a different Germany. He used his popularity to serve gigantic aid projects for the suffering civilian population in Spain. Inevitably, Toller experienced the defeat of the Spanish Republic as one more betrayed revolution. He warned that for Hitler, the civil war in Spain was a dress rehearsal for a European war. His appeals for the western democracies to intervene went unheard. The recognition of Franco's fascist dictatorship by the western powers shook Toller to be core because he himself was never willing to exclude ethical considerations from the political actions. The lack of conscience in politics drove Toller to despair. Everything that he had fought for in his literary and political life was lost.

On 22nd May 1939, three days after Franco's victory parade in Madrid, Ernst Toller took his own life in New York. Wolfgang Frühwald expressed the opinion that this ultimate demonstration of liberty illustrated - to a repressed world - to what act its freedom of action had meanwhile been reduced.

Ernst Toller with his wife Christiane Grautoff

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