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  • Ernst Toller and German Society: Intellectuals as Leaders and Critics, 1914–1939 by Robert Ellis
  • Lisa Marie Anderson
Ernst Toller and German Society: Intellectuals as Leaders and Critics, 1914–1939. By Robert Ellis. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2013. Pp. ix + 239. Cloth $80.00. ISBN 978-1611476354.

The appearance of a new monograph in English on Ernst Toller is a very welcome thing. Its author is the historian Robert Ellis. As the first part of its title indicates, the book is an intellectual biography that examines Toller’s role within his society, as both a writer and an activist. In this respect it profits greatly from both the historian’s attention to detail and a wide-ranging concern for the broader European context in which Toller operated. Moreover, as the book’s subtitle signals, it is not focused on Toller alone (in fact Toller barely appears in the second chapter on “The Intellectual as Critic,” which devotes as much attention to French and Russian thinkers as to those of the Young German and Young Hegelian movements), but rather considers him alongside a host of contemporaries who also acted as leaders and/or critics during World War I, the Weimar Republic, and the early Hitler years. Readers benefit from Ellis’s treatment, however brief, of the careers of (among others) Kurt Eisner, George Grosz, Kurt Hiller, Gustav Landauer, Heinrich Mann, Erich Mühsam, Carl von Ossietzky, René Schickele and Kurt Tucholsky, on his way to the conclusion that Toller was unique among his generation: a “politician, General, and writer” who “demonstrated, in extreme form, the choice, ethically, morally, historically, that confronts each of us” if we want to practice “idealism without illusions” (213). Ellis even compares Toller—admittedly a powerful public speaker both before and after his five-year imprisonment for his role in the November Revolution—to “a rock star, a modern-day Mick Jagger or Bono” (2).

While Ellis writes in some detail about the dramas that made Toller famous, he is more interested in Toller as a leader and social critic. Alongside his analysis of Toller’s debut Die Wandlung (1919), then, Ellis performs a broader examination of the various responses of German expressionism to societal problems: a retreat into “aesthetic contemplation” (the path chosen by the journal Der Sturm, for example); a rebuff of society itself, like that of Carl Sternheim; or the attempt made by activists like Toller “to integrate the intellectual into society and through this to alter social relations,” to combat “decaying and corrupt social values and enthusiastically prepare the way for a new and better world” (65). Then, when the vaguely ecstatic emotionalism of Toller’s expressionism transitions into direct political activism and, despite his avowed pacifism, even military leadership during the revolution of 1918–1919, [End Page 184] Ellis considers the conflict between the individual and the masses that motivates the play Masse Mensch together with the broader question of “what the intellectual must overcome when he goes from the realm of ideas into that of political affairs” (85); he contextualizes to good effect the speeches that Toller gave during those turbulent months in the hopes that Russia and then Bavaria would lead to world revolution. When those hopes were dashed, Toller “found himself politically homeless, unable to endure either the dogmatism of the communists or the politics of the Majority Socialists” (140), and Ellis reads the nonpartisan criticisms Toller offered of the new republic (including while its political prisoner) within the tradition of German Idealism, a reading that in turn informs his interpretation of New Objectivist plays like Die Maschinenstürmer, Hinkemann, Hoppla, wir leben!, Feuer aus den Kesseln and Der entfesselte Wotan. Finally, Toller becomes for Ellis a representative of the many intellectuals exiled from Nazi Germany, one whose efforts were far less literary in nature and whose critique in speeches and essays brought international attention to the grave dangers of Hitlerism as it emerged, and to the suffering of civilians during the Spanish Civil War. Throughout, Ellis maintains an admirable honesty about his subject, praising Toller’s unique talent, passion, and commitment while also allowing for the limited impact that intellectuals like Toller were able...


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pp. 184-186
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