ERNST TOLLER’S autobiography, “I Was a German,” is one of the most consistently interesting human documents I have read. It is the record of a human being who suffered and risked many varieties of human experience, and it is the record also of a generation, the generation that was young when the war broke out, but not too young to fight, the generation also that fought in the post-war revolutions and grew grey in jails.
Ernst Toller represents that generation of Germany, being one of its most intense and poetic manifestations, for he was not only fighter, but he was poet, dramatist and student. He fought in causes that he honestly believed were good, and at the present writing we must list him among the temporarily vanquished, for as one suffering from the double stigma of being Jew and Communist, he is a refugee whose books were burned and for whom the only possible fate, within Germany, would be, short of death, prison torture.
Herr Toller begins his story with his childhood in the little town of Samotschin, near the Polish border, in which Frederick the Great allowed his maternal great-grandfather to settle, and ends in 1923, with his release from the prison in which he was confined for his part in the post-war rebellion of Bavaria. When he was liberated he was but thirty, but he had by that time had more escapes from death, on the front, in the civil war, before the court martial and even in the prison yard, than fall to the lot of most adventurers. Remaining serenely objective for the most part, Herr Toller makes us keenly aware of the rare poetic quality at the root of his decisions, judgments and acts. He is, in essence, the dreamer in action.
There are only incidental glimpses at the business of Hitlerism in this record which, we hope, may be followed by a continuation up to the present day. One day the guards at the prison are strengthened; it is the day of the abortive Hitler-Ludendorff beer-cellar revolt, and spokesmen for those gentlemen had threatened to make mince-meat of the political prisoners. There is another glimpse of Hitler, through a non-commissioned officer in the Medical Corps, who told Toller’s informant that when Hitler returned from the front, shell shocked, he was quite blind, but then recovered his eyesight. Toller comments:
“That nervous blinding made me thoughtful. A man who can deliberately go blind in face of things he does not want to see, must possess extraordinary strength of mind.”
Although Ernst Toller is a Jew he has been a Jew only technically and incidentally. As a child he had little awareness of his Jewishness, until a servant called away an “Aryan” playmate because Ernst was a Jew. But in the war he was so intensely German that he actually wrote from the Front to have his name stricken from the Jewish community. He confesses that it gave him pleasure to be mistaken for a non-Jew. But of course all that is behind.