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Ernst Toller and German Society

Intellectuals as Leaders and Critics, 1914–1939

Robert Ellis

During the years of Weimar and the Third Reich, Toller was one of the more active of the "other Germany's" left-wing intellectuals. A leader of the Bavarian Soviet of 1919, he had in addition won the Kleist prize and was recognized as one of Germany's best playwrights. Indeed, during the years of the Weimar Republic, the popularity of his works was unquestioned. His first play, Die Wandlung, was soon sold out and required a second edition; his dramatic works and poems were translated into twenty-seven languages. During the 1920’s it was said that he "dominated the German and Russian theatre" and that he was the "most spectacular personality in modern German literature." It was common for contemporaries to classify him as one of the foremost German writers of the Weimar era. During the 1930s, as an exile, he popularized to foreign audiences the idea of “the other Germany” and became a leading spokesman against Hitler.

However, it is Toller the social critic rather than Toller the dramatist with which thisbook is concerned, his ideas, his visions for Germany and Europe as transmitted in his works of fiction and prose. The book reflects on the responsibility an intellectual-critic has when writing about a democratic society (the Weimar Republic) that is unsuccessfully balancing between survival and annihilation. Toller was furthermore a Jewish intellectual. How did his religious traditions shape his views? He was also German and this raises a whole host of specifically Germanic patterns of looking at the world. He was also a left-wing intellectual and Toller is set in the broader context of left-wing intellectuals in Weimar and the Nazi era. A related reflection is to ask: so what? What difference did it make? How much of an influence do intellectuals have in the development of society? What is the relationship between intellectuals and their readers in a troubled society?
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University Press Copublishing Division / Fairleigh Dickinson University Press
Pages: 250Size: 6 x 9
978-1-61147-635-4 • Hardback • October 2013 • $84.00 • (£54.95)
978-1-68393-068-6 • Paperback • February 2017 • $44.99 • (£29.95)
978-1-61147-636-1 • eBook • October 2013 • $41.99 • (£27.95)
Robert Ellis is executive director at the Institute for Leadership Studies and History.
Chapter 1: Introduction
Chapter 2: The Intellectual as Critic
Chapter 3: “Wandering … ”: The Prewar Years, 1889–1914
Chapter 4: The Attractions of Ideology: Expressionism and Activism
Chapter 5: Revolution of Love: Bavaria 1918–1919
Chapter 6: “A Gentle Apostle …”: The Weimar Years
Chapter 7: The Critic as Exile
Chapter 8: Conclusion: What the Shadow Said
As this outstanding work shows, the life of Ernst Toller can be seen as a mirror of German history in the early 20th century. A disillusioned veteran of WW I, Toller played a major role in the short-lived Bavarian Socialist Republic of 1919. After its collapse, Toller, who managed to escape execution in the reaction that ensued, went on to become one of the Weimar Republic's most significant playwrights and social critics. He saw danger everywhere: in the obstructionism of the communists, in the myopia of the social democrats, and most of all in the growing strength of the reactionary Right. Brilliant though he may have been as an intellectual leader, Toller could not avail against Hitler and the Nazis, and his final years were spent in exile. Ellis (Institute for Leadership Studies and History) not only gives readers a richly documented and vividly written portrait of an idealist who deplored violence, but provides insights into a society in which intellectuals experienced alienation and isolation. Summing Up: Highly recommended.

Ellis' biography highlights the devastating impact World War I had on German society in general and Toller's life in particular. It also illuminates his tragic plight as a German exile author, showing how difficult it was for some to make the transition to the New World. . . .His fine biography allows us to see German and American society in the post-World War I era through the eyes of a social critic and exile author, with Toller's life story providing a prism through which the trials and tribulations of a tragic era come into sharp focus.
German Life

The story told is informed and compelling and will appeal to a general audience. . . .The study successfully embeds the narrative of its protagonist within the social and political conflicts of this time. . . .The book provides a useful introduction to Toller's work and thought. It has the virtue . . . of providing a broader cultural and intellectual context for Toller's work.

The appearance of a new monograph in English on Ernst Toller is a very welcome thing. . . .Throughout, Ellis maintains an admirable honesty about his subject. . . .The greatest strength of Ellis’s book is the thoroughness of the research behind it. . . .This is a thoroughly researched and often erudite intellectual biography whose subject is richly deserving of its interdisciplinary approach.
German Studies Review