Ernst Toller, a young German Jewish playwright, anarchist, and veteran of WWI, abruptly became president of the short-lived Bavarian Council Republic during the German Revolution of 1918. His presidency lasted a few days before being replaced by a Communist government, but it produced some hilarious diplomatic correspondence. Things went bad and Toller was, after the defeat of the Bavarian Council Republic, put on trial for his life, which was saved in part by Max Weber, who knew him and testified in his favor despite disapproving of his political activity.
After his release, he wrote this Expressionist play, about a young revolutionary arrested after a failed revolution suspiciously like the one Toller himself participated in. Karl Thomas goes insane when he thinks one of his comrades will be executed while the others are pardoned. Released from the asylum several years later, he finds his comrade not only alive, but in a position of high power.
His other friends have remained true to the cause, and are organizing against the government, but they counsel patience rather than immediate action. Not having shared their experiences, Karl Thomas can’t understand their choices. After a hilarious and maddening night as a waiter in a hotel, he decides to assassinate the comrade who has become a government minister. But a right-wing group is also plotting against the life of the minister, and things get confused…
Spoilers: he decides not to kill the minister, showing in the playwright’s view his maturation. Unfortunately, he’s mixed up with the real killer, one of the right-wingers, and kills himself in jail, though not before a conversation with a psychiatrist that shows that the line between madness and sanity is not always clear in an oppressive society.
One thing I noticed is that when Karl Thomas is threatened by the police, there is a veiled reference to the deaths of Communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht during the revolution. The police first say Karl Thomas will be “shot trying to escape” if he resists–this was the official story of why Liebknecht was shot, later disproven–and then claim he should be grateful to them for protecting him from lynching–the official story of Luxemburg’s death, also disproven.
Toller isn’t a subtle writer most of the time, but his characterizations are clear and dramatic, his plot original, and his social commentary, though again not subtle, is powerful. I don’t agree with anarchism, but Toller’s anarchist beliefs enabled him to ruthlessly criticize his society in an illuminating way. He also drew on his own dramatic experiences as a young man during the revolution to show the types of characters found in such upheavals, from cynics to idealists, while also showing how long-term strategic thought can be mistaken for cynicism when really it is the best way to resist.