This month 100 years ago, in February 1920, Ernst Toller and Ernst Niekisch became cell neighbours in the Bavarian prison fortress of Niederschönfeld. Both had occupied leading posts in the government of the ill-fated Bavarian Soviet Republic, a short-lived Munich-based experiment fuelled by news of the Hungarian revolution. In May 1919, the republic had been crushed by Freikorps units authorised by the Social-Democratic minister of defence Gustav Noske in a horrendous bloodbath that eclipsed even the suppression of the ‘Spartacist uprising’. Toller and Niekisch got off lightly: the former was to serve a five-year minimum sentence for high treason, while the latter was condemned to two years for complicity.
Founded on 12 April 1919, the Bavarian Soviet Republic was one of numerous improvised local council governments that had sprung up across Europe in the turmoil of the post-war years. Ernst Toller, a youthful left-wing playwright, served as president of the cabinet, which also comprised the maverick economist Silvio Gesell and anarchists such as Erich Mühsam and Gustav Landauer. Six days into the republic’s existence, power was usurped by members the Communist Party of Germany – allegedly with Lenin’s blessing – and Toller became commander-in-chief of the makeshift Red Army. The lifespan of the revolutionary city-state was thus extended by another three weeks before its blood-soaked demise.
Toller, then 26 years old, came from lower middle-class Jewish origins. Originally from Samotschin, a small town in the Prussian Province of Posen, his adopted home was the Schwabing quarter of Munich, which boasted an abundance of coffee-houses and a sizeable artistic bohemia. A poet rather than political activist by nature, his traumatic experiences as a World War 1 volunteer had nonetheless turned him into a committed pacifist. Later, impressed with the Independent Social Democrat Kurt Eisner’s public speeches in Munich, influenced by private letters from the anarchist Gustav Landauer, and swept along by the mass workers’ movement that heralded the end of the German Empire, Toller became a socialist and joined the Independent Social-Democrats (USPD).
An anti-war play that he rewrote a number of times mirrored his own political evolution: in its final version, Transformation (1922) culminated in a call for socialism as the sole means to obtain enduring peace. Toller used his time as a prisoner in Niederschönfeld to conceive some of his most important plays, including The Machine Wreckers (1922), which was set in 1815 during the Luddite rebellion in Nottingham, and the early anti-Nazi comedy, Wotan Unbound (1923).
Toller’s cell neighbour in the Niederschönfeld fortress, Ernst Niekisch, was cut from rather different cloth. The son of a poor artisan from a Bavarian village, Niekisch was something of a Lassallean Social Democrat, although he would undergo a number of remarkable political transformations in his lifetime. A member of the Majority SPD when he became chair of Bavaria’s central executive of worker’s and soldiers’ councils, Niekisch tried in vain to exert a moderating influence upon the Bavarian Soviet Republic, and in the aftermath, he joined the USPD out of protest against Noske’s bloody reprisals rather than political conviction. Although he would later claim that The Eighteenth Brumaire of Bonaparte had led him to the socialist movement, mention of Marx remained sparse throughout his writing – and it is worth noting that he cited Hegel, Nietzsche, Machiavelli, Kant, and the nineteenth-century official Prussian state historiographer, Leopold von Ranke, as his main intellectual influences.
No doubt he also dabbled in the writings of the so-called ‘conservative revolution’ from early on. Although he would tear into Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West (1920) with relish when reinventing himself as a Marxist after 1945, the much-discussed tome made a strong impression on him at the time of publication. He had, likewise, familiarised himself with Arthur Moeller van den Bruck’s visions of a ‘German socialism’. These literary encounters certainly eased his gradual journey to the far right, which would commence after the French occupation of the Ruhr in 1923 and lead him via empathetically anti-liberal and nationalist offshoots of Social Democracy all the way to ‘National Bolshevism’ by the late 1920s.
The text presented here is a translation from Niekisch’s German-language memoir, Gewagtes Leben. Begegnungen und Begebnisse (1958) and concerns Niekisch’s time with Ernst Toller in Niederschönfeld prison. Overall, the fortress appears surprisingly cushy and easy-going – there are “rooms” rather than cells, and inmates are free to visit each other. Toller has a very different memory of the same institution in his own memoir, I Was a German (1934), in which it is depicted as an inhumane place where arbitrary harassment and solitary confinement are ripe.
Although Niekisch’s memories of those days are of little political consequence, they nonetheless make for an intriguing slice of dissident Weimar life. Moreover, they help to paint a fuller picture of an artist whose Machine Wreckers was a favourite piece for the British Workers’ Theatre movement of the 1920s-30s, but who is somewhat under-appreciated in the Anglophone countries nowadays. The fact that Toller is depicted here by someone of such a different temperament to his own only adds to the interest.
Toller’s autobiography, I Was a German, provides valuable insight into his time spent in Niederschönfeld, but it does not mention Niekisch, let alone their ‘bromance’. Was it a one-sided friendship, gladly forgotten the moment circumstance no longer compelled Toller to be in Niekisch’s presence? Indeed, Niekisch himself points to this possibility when writing about their relationship after prison, “when Toller started renting an apartment of his own, we only met rarely”.
The explanation for his omission is probably found elsewhere, though: when Toller was writing his book in American exile, Niekisch was still a German citizen living in Berlin and probably already under Gestapo observation. Goebbels, desperate for able intellectuals to provide the Nazi regime with some sophisticated theoretical window-dressing, unsuccessfully tried to co-opt Niekisch and other ‘national-minded thinkers’ for a while. It was not until 1937 that Niekisch was finally arrested for involvement in an anti-Nazi resistance network – the accusation was accurate – and the National-Socialist police apparatus began rooting out National Bolsheviks just as relentlessly as it had crushed the Communists. In the meantime, the situation was volatile, and any mention of Niekisch in Toller’s book would have almost certainly jeopardised him.
On 7 November 1918, Ernst Toller joined Kurt Eisner’s march from Therese’s Green to the Bavarian state parliament – a procession that ended with the Wittelsbach royal family being chased out of Munich. Thus, he was immediately coopted as a member of the newly founded Munich Workers’ Council, and not long after, he was elected chairman of the Munich branch of the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany. With zeal he plunged into politics. He was filled with the belief that a new and better era had dawned, that the sentiment of noble pacifism, which he had so captivatingly proclaimed in his play, Transformation, would now instantly win the hearts and minds of all men. Transformation had made him famous in one fell swoop, the luck of early fame elated him, and the sense of a higher calling infused his whole existence. He wanted to be an apostle of humaneness, and tirelessly he wanted to do his part in ethicising politics. In such endeavour he met both Eisner and the morally unrelenting Professor [Friedrich Wilhelm] Förster, and also the admirable Gustav Landauer.
When I became the president of the Bavarian workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ councils, I often came into contact with Ernst Toller. Initially, he thought of me as a trade union functionary and regarded me with the kind of distrust that the artistically inclined tend to harbour for the managerial old hand. However, when he had read one of my essays in Arbeit und Zukunft, the journal of the central council, his prejudice waned.
Ernst Toller was a slim, beautiful man of medium height. His movements were full of grace. A pair of dark, almond-shaped eyes glowed in his well-sculpted face. His black hair had a steel blue sheen, and together with the yellowy colour of his skin, his noble forehead and chiselled nose, it lent his face a potent exotic appeal. He had a dark melodic voice that resonated fully when he, like an adorable apollo, stood on the speaker’s platform. In conversation, he could bewitch with his charisma. He had acting talent, loved grand actor’s heroics – and he was inclined, although in a perfectly tasteful way, to put himself at the centre of attention at all times. Human need and human misery touched him deeply wherever he encountered them; his heart was easy to stir, and he willingly helped wherever he could do good. He believed in the good in people. Inevitably, his kind generosity was often shamefully abused. He was extremely susceptible to the effects of the moment and the environment, and he was easily subject to changes of mood. There was something feminine in his unpredictability. But he was always of that winning nature that women love so much in men, and indeed, he was loved by women in abundant measure.
In the revolutionary excitement of those days, Toller had entered on the risky terrain of politics, for which he by no means had any real talent. He was a man of feelings, not cool calculation; he had imagination rather than a placid sense of reality. Instead of calmly mastering situations, he tended to get carried away with them. Toller’s political actions were impulsive outbursts of emotion, improvisations and spectacular ideas rather than goal-driven tactical and strategic measures. Toller’s entry into politics was one of those surprising adventures that we permit the poet to embark on, and which we forgive him for, all the more because they become material from which he coins the gold of his poetry.
Toller was not one of the driving forces behind the Munich Soviet Republic proclaimed in April 1919, although, owing to the circumstances of the time, he did become enamoured with the soviet idea [Räteidee]. Even though he had many misgivings about the second, Communist-led Soviet Republic that was established eight days later, he felt too much responsibility towards the working class not to become involved. His chivalry forbade him to leave a sinking ship. Together with Gustav Klingelhöfer, he went to battle in Dachau as commander-in-chief of the small ‘Red Army’. He did not earn any military laurels to add to his poetic ones. Even so, the fact that he was prepared to hold out and fight a losing battle until the end dignified him.
When the Munich Soviet Republic was defeated, tempers of the Bavarian populace reached boiling point, incensed by clerical tribunes and publicists. ‘Aliens’ to Bavaria’s soil had disturbed her peace and order with their imported ideas. Ernst Toller from Krotoschin was an alien too. Was he not, moreover, a Jew like Landauer and Mühsam? If Toller had fallen into the hands of the white guards, he too would inevitably have become a victim of their unleashed thirst for blood. Alongside Landauer and Mühsam, Toller was the most hated man in Munich. His fame as a poet would not protect him; the pacifist leanings of Transformation and its author irritated the Bavarian lion irreconcilably. Toller had not fled, but hid in Munich. The great actress Tilla Durieux protected him for several weeks. Then the police got hold of him. Triumphantly, the press reported that they had found him behind a hidden door in the wall; supposedly, he had dyed his hair red. The purpose of this news was to make him look ridiculous. In the meantime, the situation had calmed down somewhat; it was no longer possible to simply kill prisoners. Yet Toller would not get away completely unscathed. They handcuffed and chained him in his cell in order to torment and humiliate him.
Then something happened that utterly confused Bavarian tempers. Protests against Toller’s treatment came raining in from all sides. Writers, artists and politicians expressed their indignation at the Bavarian barbarians. True, the objections from Berlin had had little effect in Munich – on the contrary, the noises of outrage broadcast from the banks of the Spree to the Isar were a source of amusement. However, when protests from Britain and France followed – the latter were taken particularly seriously in Munich – the authorities began to wonder. Toller had become a problem. Suddenly, Bavarian prestige was at stake, and they were not inclined to overstep the mark and lose it. Toller was tried in a civilised fashion and given a minimum sentence of five years imprisonment for high treason. Considering the facts of the case, nobody could possibly take offence to the verdict: the Bavarian authorities had remained humane and nonetheless had the satisfaction of teaching Toller a lesson. Toller had stood trial with dignity; not even the malicious could fault him.
Toller’s room in the Niederschönfeld fortress was right next to mine. Soon enough, he made me his confidante and advisor. Every day we visited each other in our rooms. In the yard, which was open for use six hours a day, we passed the time with thorough debate.
Toller had furnished his room tastefully. His many friends everywhere had the laudable ambition to ease his burden and contributed to the furnishing of his living quarters with donations. Understandably, he valued book donations above all others. Determined to take advantage of his forced leisure, he pursued his studies with devotion: they ranged from literary history and philosophy to questions of theoretical socialism. When I organised a series of lectures on Kant’s epistemology for a few friends, he was one of the most tireless listeners, and he would return to the epistemological question in many other debates. Oswald Spengler’s Decline of the West put him in a state of inner unrest, and he was fascinated by Freud’s psychoanalysis. Of course, he pursued his creative-poetic work with particular dedication. It was good for his mental and spiritual health that he never lost the belief of having a task in prison. The days do not go by without meaning or purpose, as the sense of fruitful activity gave him morale and inner strength. Essentially, he could immerse himself in the idea of being more of a monk living in rewarding seclusion in a monastery than a prisoner serving a punishment. It sometimes happened that after a visit, to which he as a prisoner was entitled for up to six hours without direct supervision each week, he tiredly returned to his room, deploring the loss of inner balance as an unfortunate disturbance to which he did not wish to be exposed too often.
During the time I lived with him, he wrote The Revenge of the Lover Scorned, The Machine Wreckers and The Swallow Book; he drafted Hinkemann [aka The Red Laugh aka Red Laughter aka Der Deutsche Hinkemann aka Brokenbrow – Translator) and conceived the idea for Wotan Unbound. He had taken the idea for The Revenge of the Lover Scorned from a novella by [Matteo] Bandello. His work gave him immense pleasure. He was planning to write a comedy full of sublime cheerfulness, audacious exuberance, enchanting grace, sparkling light-heartedness and mature sophistication. He was pleased that he found a publisher for it, and it made him truly happy when the comedy finally came out illustrated with Hans Meid’s jaunty drawings.
Toller went about the creation of The Machine Wreckers with the greatest care. He had numerous works mailed to him that depicted the tumultuous outbursts of the British proletariat against the triumphant march of machines. Often he came to my room to discuss the subject matter, the structure and the individual situations, but also the meaning of the events. He was aware that wrecking machines was objectively an attempt to stop technological progress. Yet indisputably, the rebellion also contained a subjective, honest revolutionary dynamic – that was what had attracted him. Was it not the case that the machines were initially perceived as symbols of capitalist power and of servitude? The destruction of machines could thus be interpreted as a real revolutionary act against capitalism’s degradation and destruction of all human values. I did not hold back my criticism; he passionately defended his ideas, but he reassessed them just as conscientiously. Back then, he said that at times he needed me and my inclination for merciless analysis, but then there were moments when he could simply not bear it.
The source of inspiration to which the charming Swallow Book owes its existence is well-known. One day Toller told me that swallows were entering his room through the open window. He was delighted by these visitors. He was even more delighted when he noticed that they had begun to nest in a corner below the ceiling, and he made every effort not to disturb them in their business. He was anxious to hide from the prison management what was occurring in his room. In the end, the chief sergeant found out about it anyway. He thought that the new lodgers violated the rules, if only because they polluted the room, and he implied that he might have the nest forcefully removed. The mere thought of such a brutal act of violence horrified Toller; he protested vigorously and made a huge impression. The nest remained untouched. From then on, he observed the life of swallows with loving attention. Their parental care, their procuring food for the offspring, and the chicks’ first flight attempts moved him. The swallows got used to him, which made him downright proud. Everything that he observed about the birds now captured his heart and his imagination, and he put his impressions into verses.
Toller’s pacifist-humanist ethos was the spiritual ground that gave birth to the Eugen Hinkemann character from Red Laughter. A mournful cry lamenting the inevitable consequence of every war, the destruction of everything humane, reverberates through the play. It aims to provoke disgust of war by depicting an intensely suffering creature such as its main character. In our conversations, I wondered whether Hinkemann was really a dramatic figure. He is not a rebel against the world, but merely dogged by misfortune. Besides, he is a special case rather than typical. Toller admitted to this, but he was so captured by the material that he held on to it. It is beyond dispute that the play held up well in performance, not least thanks to the good actors.
I was very critical of Wotan Unbound, on the other hand. It was aimed against the nascent National Socialist movement, but it did not capture its eerie menace. Wotan Unbound was more of a spoof than a sign of looming disaster or a potentially nightmarish fate.
Toller had the closest relations with prisoners from working class backgrounds. He made them tell about life in the factory, using much of what he heard for The Machine Wreckers. He also discussed their domestic circumstances with them, and where needy families needed assistance, he was prepared to help.
After his release, Toller lived as a guest at my apartment in Berlin-Charlottenburg for several weeks. He was thirsty for sparkling life, as if yearning to catch up quickly with everything he had to eschew for so long. Admirers both male and female pulled him close, allowing him to taste long-missed experiences and pleasures to the fullest. It goes without saying that he particularly sought the company of writers, and sometimes he would push me to join him. I remember a very cheerful night we spent with [Berlin novel writer] Joachim Ringelnatz, as well as a wonderful party at Gustav Kiepenhauer’s publishing house in Potsdam.
Toller got on quite well with children and loved being friends with them. He quickly won the affection of my then ten-year-old son. To bring him joy was something that made Toller happy.
When Toller started renting an apartment of his own, we only met rarely. In 1932, I met him at a reception at the Soviet embassy in Berlin. He had become very and old and grey, and he made a tired impression.
In early February 1933, after Hitler’s seizure of power, Toller called me asking what he should do. “Dear,” I advised him, “leave Germany immediately. The Nazis will never forget the dictum you coined in the Berliner Tagblatt, ‘The heroic ideal is the most stupid ideal of all.’ They will take revenge when they get their hands on you.” Toller agreed and decided to emigrate.
He never stopped missing Germany. I was shocked when I learned in 1943 in the loneliness of my prison cell in Brandenburg, where Hitler’s judiciary had banned me, that he had taken his own life.
Original source: Gewagtes Leben. Begegnungen und Begebnisse by Ernst Niekisch (1958).
Translation by Maciej Zurowski.
 Niekisch is mistaken: Toller was not from Krotoschin, but from Samotschin (today: Szamocin).
 Toller – impoverished, depressed, and in the knowledge that his two siblings had been arrested and brought to
Nazi concentration camps – committed suicide in American exile in May 1939. He had laid out pictures of
Spanish children killed by fascist bombs on his hotel room desk before hanging himself. Niekisch was held in a
Gestapo prison in Brandenburg from 1937 until 1945, where he was severely maltreated. By the time the Red
Army liberated him, he was almost blind.