Authors: Ernst Toller

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

German playwright

Identity: Jewish

Author Works


Die Wandlung, pr., pb. 1919 (Transfiguration, 1935)

Masse-Mensch, pr. 1920 (Masses and Man, 1924)

Die Maschinenstürmer, pr., pb. 1922 (The Machine-Wreckers, 1923)

Hinkemann, pr., pb. 1923 (English translation, 1926)

Der entfesselte Wotan, pb. 1923

Die Rache des verhöhnten Liebhabers, pr. 1923 (The Scorned Lover’s Revenge, 1936)

Hoppla, wir leben!, pr., pb. 1927 (Hoppla! Such Is Life!, 1928)

Feuer aus den Kesseln, pr., pb. 1930 (Draw the Fires!, 1935)

Wunder in Amerika, pr., pb. 1931 (with Hermann Kesten; Miracle in America, 1934)

Die blinde Göttin, pr. 1932 (The Blind Goddess, 1934)

Seven Plays, pb. 1935

Blind Man’s Buff, pr. 1936 (with Denis Johnston, based in part on Toller’s play Die blinde Göttin) Nie wieder Friede!, wr. 1936, pb. 1978 (No More Peace!, 1936)

Pastor Hall, wr. 1938-1939, pb. 1946 (English translation, 1939)


Gedichte der Gefangenen, 1921

Das Schwalbenbuch, 1924 (The Swallow-Book, 1924)

Vormorgen, 1924


Justiz: Erlebnisse, 1927

Quer durch: Reisebilder und Reden, 1930 (Which World–Which Way? Travel Pictures from America and Russia, 1931)

Eine Jugend in Deutschland, 1933 (I Was a German, 1934)

Briefe aus dem Gefängnis, 1935 (Letters from Prison, 1936)


Ernst Toller (TAWL-ur) was one of the most popular playwrights in Germany and abroad in the 1920’s, with translations in twenty-seven languages, although his fame quickly faded during the 1930’s. Toller’s creativity showed both in his activism and in his writings.{$I[A]Toller, Ernst}{$I[geo]GERMANY;Toller, Ernst}{$I[geo]JEWISH;Toller, Ernst}{$I[tim]1983;Toller, Ernst}

Toller’s first play, for example, was the antiwar drama Transfiguration, which made him famous. While its rhetoric may today seem stale and sermonizing, the play proved a public success. Also, as early as 1917, Toller very effectively used excerpts from it, both in public readings and in leaflets, to encourage people to become politically active. As Toller evolved toward skeptical realism, his work continued to be inseparable from his life, which provided him with three major themes: the outsider, pacifism, and the socialist revolution with its paradoxes.

Born into the Jewish minority of the German-speaking population of a Polish part of Prussia, Toller witnessed, on one hand, the anti-Semitism of the Germans, and on the other, German feelings of superiority toward the Poles. His youth was otherwise uneventful, but the conflict of establishing his individuality led Toller away from Judaism. He later had his name removed from the register of his hometown’s Jewish community.

World War I was the first major influence on Toller that converted him to pacifism. When the war started in 1914, he was swept up in the patriotism and volunteered for duty. Posted, upon his own request, to a machine-gun unit, Toller began to see all soldiers, even the enemy, as his brothers. After a nervous breakdown in May, 1916, he never returned to active duty and began his activism to win people over to his newly found nonviolent ideals, which would lead to the second major influence on Toller: the Munich revolution.

After leaving the front, Toller attended university and slowly turned to revolutionary socialism, but his ethical ideas were strongly influenced by Gustav Landauer, a contemporary who defined his brand of socialism in terms of pacifism and anti-Marxism. As a student in Heidelberg, Toller began to agitate against the ongoing war, barely evaded arrest, and left for Berlin in January, 1918. There he met the antiwar politician Kurt Eisner at a January, 1918, meeting of the Independent Social Democratic Party. Toller followed him to Munich and helped to organize a workers’ strike in support of a peace without annexations. The strike collapsed on February 4, and Toller was arrested for attempted treason but was released.

The failed January strike was the precursor to Toller’s involvement in the revolution in Bavaria, which lasted only six months. It began under Eisner’s leadership as an unbloody coup on November 8, 1918. After Eisner’s assassination on February 21, 1919, confusion ensued, and eventually Bavaria was declared a Soviet republic on April 7. Toller served as president for six days and later as field commander of the Red Army for ten days. He resigned when it became clear that he, the pacifist, refused to follow orders to have prisoners executed and that the Communist leadership would not follow his urging to negotiate with the advancing troops. These events created the legend of Toller as the writer-revolutionary.

On May 3, 1919, the revolution ended in bloodshed, but Toller was able to hide until June 4, 1919. He was sentenced to five years in prison. During these years he finished Transfiguration and wrote four other plays. Toller still considered himself a socialist but stayed away from party politics. He also wrote other works in prison; his last book of poetry, The Swallow-Book, was inspired by the swallows that nested in his cell.

Toller served his full sentence, refusing to be pardoned just on account of his literary fame. When he was released in 1924, Germany had shifted toward the political right. At the same time, Toller was at the height of his fame during the remaining 1920’s and used his energy for both literary endeavors and political activism. While from 1924 to 1933 his residence was in Berlin, he traveled through the United States and much of Europe, including the Soviet Union. He supported human rights and was also an early campaigner against Nazism; modifying his pacifism, he believed that Western democracy had to resist Nazi barbarism.

Many works of this period were written in collaboration with others. Toller also explored other media. Draw the Fires!, considered his finest play, had first been planned as a film. In 1933 the Nazis seized power, and later that year Toller traveled to Switzerland for radio broadcasts; he never returned to Germany, because his life was in danger. His books were among those publicly burned.

Also in 1933, Toller published his autobiography, as part of his ongoing political activities that then included the cause of political refugees. He eventually settled in London in February, 1934. With much of his work published in English translation and amid wide publicity, Toller was again a celebrity. In 1935 he married Christiane Grautoff, a young actress whom he had met in 1932. The years the couple lived in London were among Toller’s happiest times. However, his belief that the Nazis ought to be opposed militarily, as espoused in his play No More Peace!, met little interest in the England of the appeasement era.

From October, 1936, to February, 1937, Toller visited the United States, again on a lecture tour, and returned later in 1937 to work in Hollywood for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. None of his scripts, however, had a chance of being filmed, and in February, 1938, he left, disappointed and depressed, for New York, while his wife stayed in Hollywood. His work became more difficult because he was not comfortable writing in English, so he had to rely on a translator. His last play, Pastor Hall, loosely based on Martin Niemöller’s resistance to Nazism, was performed posthumously.

Toller’s last political ambition, providing humanitarian food aid to Republican Spain, was about ready to be realized when it was rendered obsolete by the defeat of Republican Spain by Francisco Franco’s fascists. Deeply disappointed, faced with declining popularity, and isolated in part because of his separation from his wife, Toller committed suicide in his room at the Mayflower Hotel in New York on May 22, 1939.

BibliographyBenson, Renate. German Expressionist Drama: Ernst Toller and George Kaiser. New York: Grove Press, 1984. A study of expressionism in German drama, focusing on Toller and Kaiser. Bibliography and index.Chen, Huimin. Inversion of Revolutionary Ideals: A Study of the Tragic Essence of Georg Büchner’s “Dantons Tod,” Ernst Toller’s “Masse Mensch,” and Bertolt Brecht’s “Die Massnahme.” New York: Peter Lang, 1998. Chen compares and contrasts Büchner’s Danton’s Death, Toller’s Masses and Man, and Brecht’s The Measures Taken, examining the revolutionary ideals expressed by each writer. Bibliography.Davies, Cecil. The Plays of Ernst Toller: A Revaluation. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996. A critical reexamination of the plays of Toller. Bibliography and indexes.Dove, Richard. He Was a German: A Biography of Ernst Toller. London: Libris, 1990. Detailed and evenhanded account of Toller’s life, including a discussion of his works and the main intellectual influences on him.Jordan, James. “One of Our War Poets Is Missing: The Case of Ernst Toller.” Oxford German Studies 25 (1996): 24-25. Shows how Toller developed the theme of war into antiwar poetry of the highest quality.Lamb, Stephen. “Intellectuals and the Challenge of Power: The Case of the Munich ‘Räterepublik.’” In The Weimar Dilemma: Intellectuals in the Weimar Republic, edited by Anthony Phelan. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1985. Discusses Toller’s youthful activism in the light of revolutionary reality as well as different versions of ethical socialism espoused by Kurt Eisner and Gustav Landauer.Pittock, Malcolm. Ernst Toller. Boston: Twayne, 1979. Focuses on the interpretation of Toller’s literary work. Contains a chronology and brief survey of Toller’s life.
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