Ernst Toller

Photograph: Ernst Toller, writer
The writer Ernst Toller, photographed by Eric Schaal, New York 1938
Deutsches Exilarchiv 1933-1945 der Deutschen Nationalbibliothek, Nachlass Eric Schaal, EB 2003/051, © Weidle Verlag, Bonn

Ernst Toller

Toller besaß wie wenige andere die Gabe, Menschen hinzureißen. Er liebte die Menschen, die Menschen spürten das und sie spürten, daß die Worte, die er aus dem Munde ließ, ihm aus dem Herzen kamen. [...] Wenn einer, dann war er eine Kerze, die an beiden Enden angezündet, verbrannte.

[Toller possessed, as few others did, the gift of enrapturing people. He loved people, people felt this, and they felt that the words he let slip from his mouth came from his heart. […] If he were a candle, then it would be one that burned from both ends. (ed. trans.)]

Lion Feuchtwanger, to the late Ernst Toller, Obituary 1939

Bornon 1 December 1893 in Szamocin in the Duchy of Greater Poland, then part of Germany, today in Poland
Diedon 22 May 1939 in New York, USA
ExileSwitzerland, Great Britain (United Kingdom), United States of America
ProfessionWriter, Dramatist

In his speech from 1 April 1933 on the boycott of Jewish businesses, Joseph Goebbels pronounced Ernst Toller to be one of the main enemies of Nazi ideology. During the night of the Reichstag fire on 27 February, the SA stormed Toller’s residence in Berlin to arrest him. The fact that Toller was at this time on a lecture tour in Switzerland saved his life. Toller, who in 1919 as a member of the Bavarian Soviet Republic government was condemned to five years in prison, became, thanks to the success of his plays during his imprisonment, one of the most successful German dramatists of the 1920s. After his release in 1924, he engaged, next to his literary work, as an independent socialist in the League for Human Rights and the Group of Revolutionary Pacifists. Owing to his great popularity as a critic of censorship and class politics in the Weimar Republic, in particular as a speaker against the emergent Nazi movement, he was especially hated by the later governing powers.

In 1933 Ernst Toller remained at first in Switzerland. From 1934 he lived in London and in 1936 he settled in the USA. His years of exile were marked by tireless activities as a speaker, activist and political figure. Owing to his reputation, in particular in the English-speaking world, he gained access to foreign government circles. At the same time, his unceasing engagement took its toll on his literary work and private life. Political setbacks, the failure of exhausting efforts, such as his attempt to aid the Spanish civilian population during the civil war, as well as the steady expansion of Nazi power within Europe drove him more and more frequently during his exile to depression. On 22 May 1939 Ernst Toller took his life in a New York hotel room.

Selected works:
Die Wandlung. Das Ringen eines Menschen (Drama, 1919)
Masse – Mensch. Ein Stück aus der sozialen Revolution des 20. Jahrhunderts (Drama, 1921)
Der deutsche Hinkemann. Eine Tragödie in drei Akten (Drama, 1923)
Das Schwalbenbuch (Gedichte, 1924)
Hoppla, wir leben (Drama, 1927)
Eine Jugend in Deutschland (Autobiographie, 1933)

Further reading:
Dove, Richard: Ernst Toller. Ein Leben in Deutschland. Göttingen: Steidl Verlag 1993
Rothe, Wolfgang: Ernst Toller in Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten. Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Verlag 1983
Frühwald, Wolfgang / Spalek, John M. (Hrsg.): Der Fall Toller. Kommentar und Materialien. München: Hanser Verlag 1979
Fuld Werner / Ostermaier, Albert (Hrsg.): Die Göttin und ihr Sozialist. Christiane Grautoff – ihr Leben mit Ernst Toller. Mit Dokumenten zur Lebensgeschichte. Bonn: Weidle Verlag 1996