the british connection: aspects of the biography of ernst toller


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  • German Life and Letters 40:4 July 1987 0015-8777 $2.00



    Of all the stations of exile, England was the country in which Ernst Toller felt most at home, according to his friend and publisher Fritz Landshoff. In his introduction to Seven Plays, dated 17 October 1934, Toller calls Britain the scene of the authors involuntary yet voluntary exile, the land which has become a second home to him. The only collected edition of his plays to appear in his lifetime was published in English in London, his only marriage took place there and London was the destination of his last planned journey, forestalled by suicide. However, while Tollers years of exile in the U.S.A. have been exten- sively documented by John M. Spalek, his corresponding years in Britain have received little attention. The purpose of this article is therefore to document the British connection in his life, particularly during 1933-36, and to place it in the overall perspective of his life and work in exile. One difficulty is that, while Toller published impressions of various countries he visited, he wrote virtually nothing on Britain. Consequently the main sources for this article are contemporary press reports and Tollers own unpublished correspondence, some of which is only now coming to light.*

    Toller had enjoyed a considerable reputation in Britain in the 1920s, though his direct contacts were confined to three short visits - in 1925, 1928 and 1929. He first announced plans to visit Britain in September 1924, shortly after his release from prison, and even accepted an invitation to come in spring 1925, only to postpone the visit on account of his projected tour of the Middle East.3 He did not finally come until November 1925 - and very nearly did not come at all. He was invited by the PEN Club to give lectures and readings from his work, but despite the literary purpose of his visit, he had difilculty in gaining entry. He was finally given a visa only after the intervention of Paul Lobe, who testified to the British Passport Office that Toller was hervorragend geeignet . . . auf Grund seiner Werke und mit seiner Personlichkeit dem geistigen Zusammenschlud der Volker Europas zu dienen. Toller wrote thanking Lobe for his intercession:

    Ich habe jetzt wirklich ein Visum fur England - fur acht Tage - bekommen, sodaB ich rechtzeitig zu der Zusammenkunft des Pen-Clubs am 1. Dezember in London sein kann.+

    The validity of his visa was later extended to four weeks. At the time of this first visit, Tollers international reputation was already

    established, his work already known in London through the Stage Societys productions of The Machine Wreckers (1923) and Man and the Masses (1924). Some idea of his standing can be gauged from his engagements in Britain - he not only addressed the PEN Club, but lectured at Cambridge on Contemporary


    Trends in German Theatre and received an enthusiastic reception when he read from his lyric cycle D a s Schwalbenbuch to a large audience invited by the English Goethe Society in the Great Hall of Kings C01lege.~ Toller called his stay in London ungewohnlich reich . . , die Fiille der Eindrucke kaum bezwing- baJ; in fact, his impressions seem to have been somewhat superficial. He found the tempo quicker than in Berlin and men calmer (to me all your men seem calm); the slums of Whitechapel filled him with sadness and Cambridge was like a return to the Middle Ages.6

    Tollers visa difficulties re-occurred when he planned a second visit, again at the invitation of the PEN Club, in 1927:

    Ich sollte in einigen Tagen einen Vortrag in London uber literarische Probleme halten. Mir wurde der PaB anfangs verweigert wegen meiner Rede auf dem Briisseler KongreB und mir in Aussicht gestellt, dafi ich wiederum auf die Schwarze Liste komme. Nach groBten Schwierigkeiten habe ich diesmal die Einreiseerlaubnis bekommen.

    He was in fact obliged to postpone and finally cancel this visit, due to pressure of work on Hoppla, w i r Men!. When he finally returned to London in 1928, interest in his work seemed to have waned. Performances of his plays were in any case limited by prevailing taste and censorship. The prudish nature of English society and the prevalence of censorship are both illustrated in the critical reaction to Brokenbrow (Hinkemann) when it was produced at the experimental Gate Theatre in 1926:

    The central theme of the play, which in the existing circumstances would never be licensed for public performance by the censor is not one that I can more than hint at here. . , It was again the Gate Theatre which produced Hoppla in February 1929,

    providing the occasion of Tollers next visit to London, and it was censorship which dominated the visit. Toller also attended a production of the play at Terence Grays Festival Theatre in Cambridge the same month.g This pro- duction suffered severe cuts by the Lord Chamberlains office, a misfortune which the Gate Theatre had been able to avoid since it was organised on a membership basis. Terence Gray used the occasion to attack theatre censorship, both in the programme and in the actual production, the performance being punctuated by pauses, in which the actors froze on stage while a voice announced that the following passage had been censored. The blue pencil markings in the copy submitted to the Lord Chamberlains Office confirm that the cuts were extensive, relating to dialogue considered offensive or sexually explicit, and including an entire scene showing Lotte Kilman in bed with Count Lande.l0 Tollers own account states that the introductory film, showing the suppression of a workers revolution by the army, was also cut. Tollers article deserves mention as the first and almost the last he wrote about Britain, but his account of British censorship practices remains rather superficial - for a more incisive survey one must turn to a source such as Ivor Montagus pamphlet The political censorship of films, also published in 1929. It is quite


    possible that Toller discussed the question of censorship with Montagu, who had actually been his host during his visit to London in 1928.*

    Hopplu was the last play of Tollers to receive a London production for several years; he himself did not return until September 1933. His contacts with Britain during the 1920s were therefore brief and, the evidence suggests, somewhat superficial: Britain was apparently just one more destination in the restless itinerary which he pursued after his release from prison.

    When Toller finally returned to Britain in September 1933, it was in very different circumstances. He had already been forced into exile by the Nazis, his books banned and his German nationality revoked. He had spent the early months of exile in Switzerland, but in May 1933 had once more attracted attention with a speech denouncing the Nazi rCgime at the International PEN Congress in Dubrovnik, which was widely reported in the international press and which once more established him as an international figure.

    The purpose of his visit to London that September was to testify to the Legal Commission of Inquiry into the Burning of the Reichstag, an event organised by the publisher and propagandist Willi Munzenberg. The Commission was conceived as a counterpart to the official Reichstag Fire Trial, about to open in Leipzig, and formed part of a campaign to secure the release of Torgler, Dimitroff and the other principal defendants: as the DaiCy Worker wrote, it was the trial of a trial.13 The Commission was made up of eminent lawyers, drawn from eight different countries and chosen for their liberal reputation, under the chairmanship of the Labour barrister D. N. Pritt. The hearings took place in the court room of the Law Society, a small room which was packed throughout the proceedings by members of the press and public.

    Toller was one of a series of well-known witnesses who included Grzesinski, the former Police President of Berlin, Georg Bernhard, sometime editor of the Vossische Zeitung, and Reichstag deputies Rudolf Breitscheid, Paul Hertz and Wilhelm Koennen. Toller testified on the final day of the hearings, recounting the attempt to arrest him and other leading writers: I do not know what I was to be charged with. There are thousands of people in concentration camps today who do not know what they are charged with. He stated his belief that the Fire was part of a pre-arranged plan and closed his address rhetorically:

    I refuse to recognise the right of the present rulers in Germany to rule, for they do not represent the noble sentiments and aspirations of the German people.

    Isobel Brown, secretary of the Organising Committee, recalled that Toller also addressed many meetings organised around the Commission and spoke of his untiring efforts on behalf of Dimitroff and his fellow-prisoners.

    Sceptics like Tucholsky thought Toller was wasting his time:

    Schmeckt Ihnen der GegenprozeD in London?. . .Was sol1 das? Wen verhort man da? Was kann Toller aussagen? Das ist doch Blodsinn! Er weid doch gar nichts uber die Sache. (Es ist sehr tapfer von ihm - er riskiert sein Leben.)14


    Toller, however, recognised that the purpose of the Commission was to discredit the official trial and bring pressure to bear on its verdict. The findings of the Commission, which exonerated the principal defendants, were accordingly presented on September 20, ensuring that the news appeared the following morning to coincide with the opening of the actual trial in Leipzig. There were many on the Left who hailed the eventual acquittal of Dimitroff as a defeat for the Nazis and a triumph for the int


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