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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).


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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