The Beserker Poet the Jew and the Young Lance CorporalThu 29 Nov
Dreamers: When the Writers Took Power, Germany 1918. Volker Wiedermann
Pushkin Press, 2018.
Kurt Eisner, leader of the Independent Socialist Party in Munich, studied philosophy and literature at the University of Marburg. He was an influential journalist and theatre critic before becoming the Prime Minister of Bavaria in November 1918.
On 9th November, the leader of the Social Democrats, Erhard Auer, had assured the interior minister that the rumour of imminent revolution was nothing to worry about and that everything would be ok. Not so. What was expected to be a night of demonstration and flag-waving for an assortment of soldiers’, workers’ and peasants’ councils, turned into a spontaneous coup, with Eisner its surprise leader. The king and his family, of the Wittelsbach monarchy, left the city amid fears of a bloody revolution.
“On this curious night, things seem to happen of their own accord. Power over the state simply falls to Kurt Eisner and his people.”
Eisner, a moderate by nature, and pleased the revolution transpired without bloodshed, appointed his rival, the seasoned politician, Auer, as his minister of the interior.
Volker Wiedermann’s Dreamers: When the Writers Took Power, Germany 1918, is, of course, a timely publication. It is one hundred years since the armistice was signed in a railway carriage, 50 miles to the east of Paris in a railway siding in Francport, near Compiègne. The document was signed at 05:00 on the eleventh day of the eleventh month and would come into force at 11:00, Paris time. Soldiers remained under fire and deaths were reckoned up for the six intervening hours. So stupid is death and killing without motive; so ugly the motive when there is one.
Wiedermann takes up the story just after the German capitulation in 1918. We are in Munich and we are amongst the gathering of revolutionaries, workers, peasants, soldiers, policemen writers, and intellectuals. Uniting these various ways of life was a tiredness of the war; and, of course, the hope that a new way of life might be sought, established and sustained.
The war was over. The monarchy fled Bavaria. Revolutionary euphoria filled the air; at least for a while. There were incessant public meetings and much shouting of slogans and many divisions within the new left.
Kurt Eisner had marched with his growing band of supporters into Munich’s Landtag, the state parliament in Prannerstraße. On 17th November, Eisner arranged a celebration of the revolution in the National Theatre. The Prime Minister took to the stage and addressed his audience,
“By democracy, we do not mean that every few years all citizens will exercise their right to vote and rule the world with new ministers and a new parliament. We have found a new form of revolution, and we are also trying to develop a new form of democracy. We want constant co-operation with everyone who works in the city and out on the land.”
Eisner wanted to govern by having a parliament working in concert with the councils. In this he met opposition: communists and anarchists wanted rule by councils only; conservative nationalists wanted power centralised in the Landtag.
The Jewish poet, Ernst Toller, met Thomas Mann, who later wrote to the young man with detailed comments on the poems Toller had left with him. Toller began the war as an enthusiastic patriot, but at its end he determined “Germany is still fighting a war, the people must rise up and form an alliance: the intellectuals and the people, the writers and the workers, the many and the few.”
Repeatedly, through the history of modern Europe, and certainly in the Bavaria of which Wiedermann writes, the few versus the few is a battle between those artists, writers, and intellectuals whose commitment is to democracy and those who regard ideas as dangerous and upsetting. Each of these two ‘fews’ fights for the hearts and souls of the workers and the weight of their number – the many.
The elections for the Landtag took place on 12th January 1919. Eisner did not want the election, It was too soon. Eisner lost it, taking only 2.5% of the vote. This resulted in Eisner remaining Prime Minister until the Landtag met on the 21st February.
On that day, just before Eisner was to give his resignation speech at the Landtag, a young German aristocrat, Anton, Count von Arco auf Valley, shot Eisner dead with a revolver.
Eisner suffered two shots to the back of the head. Count Arco-Valley had expected to die at the scene and was shot several times. He carried a note on him explaining his motivation, which read,
“My reason: I hate Bolshevism, I love my Bavarian people, I am a faithful royalist, a good Catholic. And above all I respect the honour of Bavaria. Eisner is a Bolshevist. He is a Jew. He is no German. He is betraying the Fatherland – and so…”
The situation was unstable. Political volatility derives from a lack of central power. Eisner had tried to bring together the fractious fragments – to no avail. What then?
For the moment the struggle was between factions of the left. The revolution and its political declarations were an ‘ersatz carnival’. The young poet, Toller, had been in Bern with Eisner but returned later, on the 21st February to hear the news.
The Social Democrat Party’s Ernst Niekisch finds himself governing ‘this ungoverned city, in this ungoverned state’. The city became a magnet for drifters, dreamers, dabblers and dilettantes. There was a power vacuum. And for all the internecine squabbles of the fractious left, there was also the right.
Oskar Maria Graf, the ‘beserker poet,’ was handed a piece of paper as he crossed the Stachus. On it was written, ‘The Jew is meddling in our affairs! Germans, bethink yourselves!’ The young lance corporal, Adolf Hitler was in Munich at this time and attended a mass rally for Marxism.
Thomas Mann was highly adaptive to the political circumstances, however they changed; but consistently he looked out for his own best prospects. Mann wrote, ‘We ate baked fish, goose schmaltz, oranges and sweetmeats. A pleasant evening, with the sword of Damocles of the Commune and dispossession hanging over us.’
Rainer Maria Rilke was a thoughtful advocate of the revolution. And Graf befriended ‘The Dutchman,’ fabulously wealthy, from a Rotterdam banking family, and Graf’s best black-market customer. The Dutchman held decadent drunken parties with sumptuous tables of food and glamorous women in his luxurious house on the outskirts of Munich in Nymphenburg. The married Graf falls in love with Rilke’s friend, “the black girl.”
Ernst Toller became head of the USDP in Munich on 9th March and was roundly criticized by the communists for his efforts at a non-violent revolution. The communists wanted civil war and, through it, a bloody revolution. “You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs,” ran the headline of the communist newspaper. Such are the slogans by which lives were to be led.
On 7th April 1919, The Bavarian Republic is proclaimed. “Ernst Niekisch stands down as president of the Central Council; later, Ernst Toller will be named as (…) the new head of government.”
The government in exile was now in Bamberg led by Prime Minister Hoffmann. Their volunteer militia, the Epp Freikorps controlled northern Bavaria. At the same time Toller’s government was under attack from the communists.
“Split-second governments, pseudo-governments, sudden parallel governments. In these days power floats through the city unmoored. Someone seizes upon it; another lets it slip through his fingers. Many grasp at thin air. Many laugh. Revel. Drink. Hope. Fear. To each his own council republic, like that party of merrymakers in the artists’ villa in Nymphenburg.”
On the morning of 13th April posters were put up in the central station proclaiming the return of Hoffmann’s government from exile. The posters were signed, ‘Munich Garrison’. Fighting broke out at the station, during which a new government was elected under the leadership of the communists. “This government is made up of professional revolutionaries, many of them from Russia.” The dream was over.
The communists did not last long. On May 1st Hoffmann’s ‘White Army’ entered the city.
The book is a tremendous read; and full of stunning images. At its end one feels disappointment that Eisner’s government did not last – that the experiment with artists, intellectuals and workers came to nothing; and so quickly. And throughout the book there is the nagging feeling that this will lead to Hitler’s experiment. Which, of course, it did.