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Ernst Toller

Ernst Toller

The German playwright Ernst Toller (1893-1939) was one of the best-known of the dramatists of the expressionist school.

Ernst Toller was born on Dec. 1, 1893, at Samotschin near Bromberg, the son of a businessman. He studied at the universities of Heidelberg, Munich, and Grenoble. In 1914 he volunteered for war service, but the experience of the trenches changed his life. Released from the army after a breakdown, Toller then gravitated toward the left in Bavaria and in 1917 was sentenced to imprisonment for pacifist views and activities. During this incarceration he composed his first play, Die Wandlung (1919; Transfiguration).

Transfiguration is an exemplary work of the expressionist theater. The title points to that transformation of heart and soul which is the theme of many expressionist plays. The drama proceeds in a series of stages (Stationen) and depicts a man's "way." It intermingles scenes portraying external events with others displaying the activity of the subconscious mind. The horrors of war transform the hero from a patriotic volunteer to a revolutionary fighter for humanity.

In 1918 Toller became a member of the Central Committee of the Workers', Peasants', and Soldiers' Councils in Bavaria. In 1919 he was jailed for 5 years for his part in the abortive Eisner coup. During this imprisonment Toller composed his two other best-known plays, Masse Mensch (1920; Mass and Man) and Die Maschinenstürmer (1922; The Machine-wreckers). These works express the disillusionment of the frustrated revolutionary. The former is cast in the abstract expressionist mold, the characters being representative types, the Woman, the Husband, and so on.

The Woman represents the humane idealist who longs for change but abhors violence; and her antagonist, the Nameless One, regards violence as necessary and subordinates the individual ruthlessly to the supposed welfare of the masses. The Machine-wreckers is a more realistic play based on the Luddite disturbances in England in 1815; here again the hero is a social idealist destroyed by the hate of those he wishes to save.

Of Toller's further plays the most notable is Hinkemann (1922), an interesting treatment of the returning soldier motif. Toller moves away from avant-garde technique and abstract characters both here and in Hoppla, wir leben! (1927; Such Is Life), a sarcastic depiction of the Roaring Twenties. Of his prose works, all essays, Briefe aus dem Gefängnis (1936) deserves mention. His later dramas Feuer aus den Kesseln (1930) and Die blonde Göttin (1932) are of less interest.

The tragedy of Toller's themes reflects the disillusionment of his life. He left Germany in 1933 and committed suicide in New York on May 22, 1939.

Further Reading

Toller's autobiography is I Was a German (1933; trans. 1934). A full-length treatment of Toller in English is William A. Willebrand, Ernst Toller and His Ideology (1945). John M. Spalek, Ernst Toller and His Critics (1968), gives a comprehensive bibliography. A useful short account can be found in Hugh F. Garten, Modern German Drama (1959), which also provides background material, as does Richard Samuel and R. Hinton Thomas, Expressionism in German Life, Literature and the Theatre, 1910-24 (1939).

Additional Sources

Dove, Richard, He was a German: a biography of Ernst Toller, London: Libris, 1990.

Toller, Ernst, I was a German: the autobiography of a revolutionary, New York: Paragon House, 1991. □

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Toller, Ernst

Ernst Toller (ĕrnst tôl´ər), 1893–1939, German dramatist and poet of the expressionist school. He was imprisoned (1919–24) for participating in the Communist Bavarian revolution. In 1932 he left Germany, and in 1936 he went to New York City, where he later committed suicide. His plays of social protest include Die Wandlung (1919, tr. Transfiguration, 1935); Masse Mensch (1920, tr. Man and the Masses, 1924); Die Maschinen-stürmer (1922, tr. The Machine-Wreckers, 1923), based on the Luddite riots in England; Hinkeman (1924, tr. Brokenbow, 1926); and Pastor Hall (tr. 1939), about Martin Niemoeller. Schwalbenbuch [swallow book] (1923), a collection of lyric verse, and Briefe aus dem Gefängnis [letters from prison] (1935), an account of his imprisonment, appeared together in English translation as Look Through the Bars (1937).

See his autobiography, Eine Jugend in Deutschland (1933, tr. I Was a German, 1934); study by J. M. Spalek (1968).

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Toller, Ernst

TOLLER, ERNST

TOLLER, ERNST (1893–1939), German playwright and revolutionary. Born in Samotschin, Prussia, Toller was raised in an assimilated Jewish family which prided itself on being representative of German culture in a region heavily populated by Poles. He volunteered for the army at the outbreak of World War i and after 13 months in the trenches at Verdun, was released as unfit for service. Toller's war experiences converted him from ultranationalism to pacifistic socialism. In Berlin he met Kurt *Eisner, and joined him in Munich as a member of the Independent Socialist Party (uspd), participating in strikes and anti-war agitation, as a result of which he was briefly imprisoned. Toller was a leader of the short-lived Bavarian Soviet Republic of 1919 and he succeeded Eisner after the latter's murder. Later he headed the Red Guard, but opposed needless violence. In June 1919, when the revolution collapsed, he was hounded by the authorities and spent five years in prison. It was while he was in jail that Toller wrote his celebrated expressionistic dramas: Masse-Mensch (1921; Masses and Man, 1923), Die Maschinenstuermer (1922; The Machine-Wreckers, 1923), Hinkemann (1924; Brokenbrow, 1926), and Der entfesselte Wotan (1923), which called for a new and more humane society and for man's liberation from the tyranny of the machine. The verse collection, Das Schwalbenbuch (1923; The Swallow-Book, 1924), contains some of the best poetry written during his imprisonment. After his release, Toller visited the U.S.S.R. (1926) and the U.S. (1929), shedding some of his utopian ideas. His later plays, such as Hoppla wir leben! (1927; Hoppla, 1928), and Feuer aus den Kesseln (1930; Draw the Fires, 1935), were less successful. Another drama, Wunder in Amerika (1931), was written in collaboration with Hermann *Kesten. Hitler's rise to power drove Toller into exile. His autobiography, Eine Jugend in Deutschland (1933; I Was a German, 1934), vividly depicted the hopes and frustrations of his generation. Toller continued the struggle against the Nazis, who regarded him with special hatred, throughout his years of exile, first in Switzerland, then in France, England, and finally, from 1936, in the U.S. He was engaged in unremitting efforts to help the cause of Spanish democracy but the fall of Republican Madrid to Franco's troops brought him a feeling of increased isolation and despair which led him to commit suicide in New York. Toller's last works include No More Peace (1937) and Pastor Hall (in English only, 1939).

bibliography:

W.A. Willibrand, Ernst Toller and his Ideology (1945); S. Liptzin, Germany's Stepchildren (1961), 195–201; Exil Literatur 19331945 (19673), 248–50.

[Sol Liptzin]

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