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An excerpt from my undergraduate honors thesis, on Ernst Toller and the collapse of Expressionist idealism in the early Weimar period. In retrospect, my analysis is Spenglerian, or at least the syntax is. -DL

There is a circularity in the national German self-image over the span of its history.  This circularity makes the analysis of individual eras difficult when they are evaluated separately from their historical context, if not altogether impossible.  Paradoxical and confused ideologies were foundational in the formation of the modern German state, and their inseparable nature would eventually produce the internal political and social strife Germany experienced in the early twentieth century.  Examination of the German self-image reveals an intricate interplay between two warring impulses: the nationalistic unity of the state and the rebirth of the individual.  These impulses are fundamentally responsible for the deep schisms running through German society, both politically and artistically.  The theatrical expressionism of the Revolutionary post-World War I period would become a forum for the ongoing effort to synthesize these pervasive cultural myths.  Expressionism’s failure to foment a successful revolution in the German populace is reflective of its larger failure to strike an ideological balance between the two opposing definitions of the self in German society.

From world war to revolution and back again, the period between 1914 and 1939 represents a complete cycle of accumulation and decline.  Over the course of this era, the German state vacillated wildly in its political, social, and military spheres.  The patriotic unification of the Empire during World War I deteriorated in defeat into the cynicism and disunity marking the comparatively fallow Weimar period, and the cycle was completed by the rebound to an even stronger show of mass solidarity as enforced by the rising Nazi social order.  Two fundamental shifts in the German society occur during this period: the apotheosis and culmination of the nationalist myth in fascism and genocide, and the destruction of the aesthetic ideal of individual rebirth in the failure of artistic movements which sought to revolutionize society.  The flawed ideological constructs which were put to destructive use by Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich and which facilitated the creative death of the expressionist movement arise from this inextricable, conflicting set of distinctly German ideologies.  Lofty rhetoric and ideals in art led to disillusionment, while the same ambition in politics led to apocalypse.

In seeking the complete unification of a society through the evocation of a vaguely defined national self, German artists and politicians took an inevitable and destructive turn towards zealotry, a development which would, paradoxically, succeed in uniting the country and contribute to its ultimate dissolution.  As the Nazi party eliminated so-called dissident elements of the German populace, the country swung wildly towards the right.  Contributing to this increase in conservative values was a deep-seated fear of Bolshevism and the revolutionary wave sweeping Europe at the time.  The Russian Revolution of 1917 paved the way for German’s own 1918 November Revolution, and Germany had the largest mobilized proletarian population in all of Europe.  A split developed between the activist, socialist revolutionary class and the conservative, moneyed middle-class, who favored a return to the ideology of strength and solidarity popularized in the days of the Empire.

Revolutionary artists and activists, however, relied on preexisting philosophical ideals of Wilhelminism to appeal to the rural workers’ and soldiers’ councils with which they were sympathetic.  This created a contradictory agreement in tone between the nationalistic reactionary class and the equally nationalist, revolutionary class.  Both groups sought to restore the glory of German culture, through completely opposite methodologies.  David Kunis, discussing the young wave of expressionist artists who appeared contemporaneously with activist opposition to the First World War, characterizes this phenomenon among the younger generation’s artists.  “(W)hile Germany’s sons rebelled against the Wilhelmine ideology and culture of father and Fatherland, their program of social renewal also reflected the optimism of that culture and ideology.”  Expressionist artists were unable to preach a policy of rebirth without utilizing an impossible and romantic network of German social ideals, one that had been culturally reinforced by previous generations of nationalist thinkers.

These two classes, supposedly in conflict, were brought together by a confluence of historical and societal events.  Hitler appealed to these romantic notions of the German national self in order to seize power of the increasingly unpopular Weimar government, secure control of the German army, and militarize the sizable German proletariat and middle class in a single cause.  This would not have been an easily accomplished task for the amateur politician and experienced demagogue had these exploited ideologies not been prevalent in German society for decades, indeed, from the beginning of its formation as a state.  From the beginning, diverse provinces and regions of Germany were united uneasily under a blanket lie of nationalistic unity.

Understanding this willful creation of the self is the central step towards understanding the ideological firestorm of German history in the early twentieth century and its explosion in the expressionist theater movement of the revolutionary period.

One of the key figures in the German expressionist movement, as both an artist and an historical figure, was Ernst Toller.  Born on the Polish border in 1893, Toller, a German Jew, served in the First World War enthusiastically, swept up in the “August Spirit” of hysterical patriotism which seized the majority of Germans.  Toller’s account of this time in his autobiography, I was a German (Eine Jugend in Deutscheland), bears evidence as to how thoroughly a nationalist ideology of optimism and unification pervaded German culture at the outbreak of the war.  “The Kaiser recognized no parties; there it was in black and white; all factions were to be united; everybody spoke one language; everybody defended one mother: Germany.”  In Wilhelm’s rhetoric of inclusiveness (known as Burgfrieden), parties and ethnicities were disbanded in favor of an all-encompassing German solidarity.  This policy appealed to the insecurities of all the different constituents of German society.   Despite Germany’s loss in the First World War, both conservatives and activists in the Weimar years would hearken to this ideal of togetherness nostalgically.  As a result, the centrist Weimar Republic was doomed from the start, constricted on both sides by extremist factions which sought completely opposing social ends through identical means. 

Quickly disillusioned by the horrors of war, Toller found an angry and polemical poetic voice, one which echoed other Expressionist writers of the time, a “passionate, ecstatic, often contorted school of playwriting . . . associated with the Activist opposition to the war,” according to John Willett.  These playwrights and authors are unique in theatrical history because of their close connection to an activist ideology, and to the actual, pragmatic role they played in the November Revolution of 1918.  Nowhere is this more evident than in the life of Ernst Toller, who straddled the line between political activism and polemical playwriting so completely that he is often regarded as a compromised artist, one whose work never matured because of his political concerns.  The connection between Toller’s biography and literary achievements reflects the era, one in which the personal and artistic achievements of German life proved inseparable from the political sphere.  Toller, at once the most personal and autobiographical of Weimar-era German playwrights, was also Germany’s foremost political writer at a time of great uncertainty and upheaval.

Despite, or perhaps because of, this duality, Toller wrote the vast majority of his plays either in jail or exile.  Discharged from the German army for medical reasons, Toller had now become an adamant pacifist and socialist, when he was arrested on June 6, 1919, shortly after the establishment of the Weimar Republic and the failure of various commune revolutions – socialist uprisings which occurred in the politically unstable two-year period following the November Revolution of 1918, before the elections ushering in the political body of the Weimar Republic took place in late 1919.  Toller himself had played a personal role in some of these uprisings, including a Munich workers’ strike in January 1918 and the short-lived Bavarian Revolution, which lasted until May of 1919.  As a repercussion, Toller was sentenced to five years of imprisonment on a charge of treason.  When he was released in 1924, the Weimar Republic had experienced five years of extreme political instability and uprising, including Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of November 1923 and the occupation of the Ruhr area in that same year by French troops seeking reparations.  Toller’s plays Transfiguration (Die Wandlung), Man and the Masses (MasseMensch), The Machine Wreckers (Die Machinensturmer), and Hinkemann, were all composed and performed during this period spent in jail, the most politically unsettled period of the postwar Weimar Republic.  These early plays comprise the bulk of Toller’s expressionist oeuvre, and form the backbone of his career as a major dramatist.

Toller, an avowed pacifist, quickly developed a sense for the complex dialectical nature of German ideology in his plays.  His themes gradually shifted away from the idealism evidenced in the man-against-society conflict of Transfiguration, towards the dialectical conflict portrayed in Man and the Masses and The Machine Wreckers.  The pacifism of the individual is contrasted with the violent group psychology of the mass or the crowd.  In these plays, Toller wrestles with the contradictory underpinnings of the German metaphorical self.  The need for individual expression is gained, by an impossible leap of logic, through mass solidarity.  Peace and happiness is achieved through militarization and war.  Most significantly, the German national state is unified by the polarization and removal of ideological enemies.  Toller’s heroes in Man and the Masses and The Machine Wreckers are members of an intellectual aristocracy who paradoxically seek to become a member of the proletariat by leading it, and are ultimately martyred for their convictions by the masses themselves, incited into a violent frenzy.  Toller’s protagonists are, in this instance, perhaps an autobiographical reflection of his struggle with two opposing conceptions of revolutionary societal change.

Over the span of his career as a dramatist, Toller replaced the image of a violent mass uprising with a vision of peaceful social harmony.  In the face of typically ruthless methods used by the militarized wing of the German right – the national army (Reichswehr) and various independently armed militias granted jurisdiction by the provisional Weimar government (freikrorps) – in putting down activist revolts after the revolution of 1918, violence became irreconcilable in a pragmatic sense with the social harmony sought in the socialist revolution’s humanitarian ideal.  Toller’s protagonists struggle with this dialectical conflict between the violent seizure of power and the implementation of a socially pacifist code of conduct, and they are ultimately unable to stem the destructive tide of violence.  This impotence is both anticipatory of the revolution’s ensuing failure and suggestive of its ultimate social impossibility in Weimar Germany.  Furthermore, this logical resolution to the central dialectical conflict in Toller’s plays foreshadows German expressionism’s larger ideological devolution into a philosophy of pessimistic fatalism.

The individual’s spiritual awakening or quest for inspiration is a central concept of the expressionist theater, and its sole differentiating characteristic from the values of unification and mass identity preached by Hitler and Wilhelm.  Ironically, Hitler was exactly the type of galvanizing individual leader upon whom expressionism was dependent, and Toller’s protagonists invariably suffer a self-defeating crisis of confidence which prevents them from assuming the mantle of leadership.  The expressionist protagonist found its ultimate expression in the fascist leadership of Hitler, and the socialist ideal of community culminated in the militarized, faceless social sphere of Nazi Germany.  By using essentially fascist images and devices, expressionism evoked and foreshadowed the rise of a nationalist Nazi ideology.

Unfortunately for Ernst Toller, he lived in a period where society was in a state of flux and ideologies were often geared towards the base impulses of the crowd.  His attempts to explore issues of individual identity and humanitarianism were often too nuanced or esoteric to appeal to a mass audience.  The Nazis, under Hitler, made use of ideological principles and strategies not drastically different from that of their supposed polar opposites, the revolutionaries of 1918, but reduced to their visceral and brutal essence.  In dramatizing the struggles of their revolutionary compatriots, and in Toller’s case, actual peers, the expressionists made use of typically German rhetorical strategies.  Spiritual awakening, social and political rebirth, and the reunification of humanity in a singular cause were all common themes shared by the Nazis and the Expressionists.  In the creation of a national self, Expressionist ideals rapidly spun out of the realm of possibility, while Nazi ideals spun out of control.  The November Revolution of 1918 produced an anti-chaos reflex in a terrified German middle class, making bureaucratic centralization and political centrism a necessity and thus preventing true social revolution, while Hitler’s policies of Anschluss and ethnic purification resulted in a World War of cataclysmic proportions and the end of German national image in a maelstrom of hatred.  Expressionism and Nazism used similar rhetorical strategies to appeal to a wide audience with, in turn, ineffective and disastrous results.

Toller, along with a legion of German intellectuals and artists, was forced to flee Germany with the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich.  He continued to write political plays and poems, and his personal correspondence speaks to his stature as a leading voice of activist humanitarian causes.  Despite estrangement from his beloved home country and disenchantment with political demagogues of hatred, his ideals remained steadfast.  In an open letter to Joseph Goebbels, Toller spoke to the patriotism he still held for the forgotten values of his country.  “(Y)our deeds are the contradiction of the ideas of Goethe and Lessing . . . and all those men who have fought for the purest values of Germany and borne them into the world.”  At the writing of this letter, the patriotic ideal remained an attainable and unsullied one for Toller, despite Hitler’s skillful manipulations of foundational values into an extremist ideology of hatred.

This steadfast patriotism, shown by an expatriate revolutionary, points towards a persistently troubling tendency in German history: the tenacious and unshakable faith in a national ideal.  Instead of seeking to understand and deal realistically with the problem presented by the Nazi party, Toller rationalizes their, admittedly unforgivable, shortcomings as being antithetical to an ephemeral conception of Germany’s “purest values.”  In seeking to discredit Nazism, he freely interprets archaic philosophies, in a purposefully cursory manner, and outside of their intended societal context.  With the propagation of this internal conflict between schools of thought professing to represent the true ideals of German society, the only recourse for the loser of the philosophical battle was a loss of personal and national identity.  It is perhaps of little surprise, then, that Toller’s ideological wakening to a reality of pessimism and disillusionment was followed quickly by a personal one.  As the Nazi party continued to consolidate power in his native country, Ernst Toller hung himself in his New York City hotel room on May 22, 1939, shortly after the announcement of Germany’s invasion of Austria and the beginning of World War II.


David Kunis, Expressionist Theater.  p. 37

Ernst Toller.  I was a German.  p. 62

John Willett.  The Theatre of the Weimar Republic.  pp.55-56.

Ernst Toller.  Hitler’s Exiles: Personal Stories of the flight from Nazi Germany to America.  p. 36