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  • From Pictures to Text:The Dance of Death in Ernst Toller's Masse Mensch
  • Alison Beringer

In June of 1919, Ernst Toller was a wanted man, accused of high treason for his participation in the revolutionary government of Bavaria. In the course of their manhunt, the police paid a visit to the painter Karli Sohn-Rethel, whom they suspected of harbouring the fugitive. Toller was not there, and in their frustration at not finding their man, the police struck and abused Sohn-Rethel (Toller, Eine Jugend in Deutschland 169).

Sohn-Rethel's nephew, Alfred Sohn-Rethel, was well known as an ideologue, a convinced Marxist whose later career would include important contributions to economic theory. As a sympathizer with the failed communist government, Alfred Sohn-Rethel surely shared significant political views with Toller. Furthermore, both had played important roles in the antiwar student rebellion in Heidelberg (Sohn-Rethel xii). But in his autobiography, Toller does not identify his protector by his relationship to Alfred; rather, he names him - tellingly - as the grandson of the German history painter Alfred Rethel (1816-59), whom Toller calls the "Totentanzzeichner" (Eine Jugend in Deutschland 169).

The standard English translation of Toller's autobiography omits the appellation (Crankshaw 206), but the labelling of the older Rethel as the "artist of the dance of death" is an important detail, one that not only offers a new approach to the interpretation of the dance in Toller's Masse Mensch but also provides a salutary reminder that that play, too often interpreted as a mere political statement, is also the result of aesthetic impulses on the part of its author.

Toller's interest in the visual arts was strong. As a student, he looked forward to attending lectures on Holbein and Dürer with as much eagerness as his courses in the law (Eine Jugend in Deutschland 74). Reading Masse Mensch in connection with another, hitherto unrecognized plausible artistic source - namely the danse macabre woodcuts of Alfred Rethel - lets us understand Toller's work more richly at the intersection of the political and the aesthetic.

The appellation "Totentanzzeichner" surprises the reader - why does Toller call Rethel, of all painters, the painter of the dance of death? The dance of death is a visual tradition with its roots in the Middle Ages; the motif attained its artistic high point with Holbein, one of the painters Toller singled out in the account of his student days. Toller's granting to Rethel the title of "dance-of-death artist" [End Page 146] accords him particular status among the artists who have treated this motif, some of them more well known than Rethel. In addition to Holbein, whose sixteenth-century woodcut series Bilder des Todes served generations of artists as a source (Gassen 22), one thinks of his great predecessor Bernt Notke, to whom the famous Lübeck Totentanz is attributed. Moving from one hiding place to the next, narrowly escaping thuggish posses, and living in constant fear after the failed Bavarian revolution, Toller in 1919 may well have felt that he was himself engaged in a dance of death. But his mention of the motif attains even greater significance in the context of his literary production in the years surrounding his political involvement with the Bavarian Republic.

Wolfgang Rothe has associated the idea of the Totentanz with Toller's first play, Die Wandlung (1919). He considers the play "a German Dance of Death" (44); he even gives his chapter on this play the title "Ein Totentanz" (43-50). In doing so, he echoes Herbert Ihering's critique of the premier, in which he describes the play as a "Totentanz der Zeit" - words that Toller would later use in Masse Mensch:

[Tollers] Drama ist nicht das philiströse, kleinbürgerliche Spiel von Schuld und Sühne. Es ist das Schauspiel tragischer Notwendigkeiten: der Totentanz der Zeit.

(qtd. in Rothe 50)

More recently, Cecil Davies mentions the motif with reference to Toller's Die Maschinenstürmer, written in 1920-21 and published the next year. But it is in Masse Mensch that the motif proves central.

Masse Mensch was written between Die Wandlung and Die Maschinenstürmer and published in 1921. Toller claims...


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