US News Ernst Toller: In the turmoil of history, writing directly on life

18:40  12 october  2020
18:40  12 october  2020 Source:   rfi.fr

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Ernst Toller, prison de Niederschönfeld, 1924. © National Library of Israel, Schwadron collection. © Wikicommon Ernst Toller, Niederschönfeld prison, 1924.

"It is not only my youth that I am relating here, but that of a generation at the same time as a fragment of history" affirms Ernst Toller in Coup d eye 1933, “writes on the day when books were burned in Germany. The following story comes to an end ten years earlier. It is about the collapse of a world.

We remember Hinkemann, the hero of the eponymous drama, who returns emasculated from the front lines of the Great War and ends up as a freak decapitating rats with his teeth. In Ernst Toller, whom some perceive as a minor figure of German expressionism intended to show that the giant Brecht was not alone in his time, violence is everywhere, and always hateful.

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Reading it today is a stunning experience. With him, writing is a plunge into the absolute sincerity of memory and it is an understatement to say that neither the author nor the reader comes out of any page unscathed: we discover him ungrateful daddy's son squandering the family pension game and the alcohol of his student years in Grenoble, then banal go-to-war in the sudden bellicose unreason of the summer of 1914. We follow him in his blindness to the mud of the trenches he never ceases to cry out: "I want to see the enemy against whom I am fighting," he begs as he serves in the artillery.

Live to fight

From childhood, he remembers that the Prussians hate Polish Catholics and that the Jews see them as "the descendants of Cain". He still remembers being deprived of a playmate, "Don't stand there, he's a Jew! "And that he cries without understanding the meaning of a word which for the first time will be used to exclude him. He also remembers the small lead cartridge inadvertently used to slaughter a deer, the sight of the dying animal hours later, and the distaste for the hunt that follows. He finally remembers his mother explaining that a comrade is poor, because "it is the will of the good Lord".

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His description of the time between the assassination of Jaurès and the general mobilization , where many pass almost instantly from anxious incredulity to deadly enthusiasm, is reminiscent of the testimony of the Austrian Stefan Zweig, in Le Monde yesterday, from France, too. This series of images, flash memories, which he uses to trace the thread of his human and political education, has something to do with the work undertaken a few years later by the Soviet writer Mikhail Zochtchenko in Before the sunrise. sun, another veteran who seeks to understand the origin of his melancholy.

But Ernst Toller does not allow himself any weakness, he is a tireless fighter who, on his return from the front, turns his back on his class and on patriotic ideas to engage in revolutionary combat. The crushing of the Spartacist uprising, seen as the distant origin of the rise of Nazism, once silenced those who could have best stood in the way of it, was historically described by Sebastian Haffner in Germany 1918: A Revolution Betrayed. Both left Germany in 1933, but Sebastian Haffner was much younger and still a student, and it was only later that he understood the weight of these massacres in the failure of the Weimar Republic and the rise of Nazism.

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The Revolution Betrayed

Ernst Toller was one of the leaders of the Munich Council Republic and he tells this tragedy from within , with its share of horrors and political dissension - the murky game of the Communists, ready to turn against their allies, or that of the right-wing socialists, who negotiate and ally themselves with the reaction. He goes through this time like everything he has witnessed so far, an extreme experience, where one who no longer has the strength to fight is no longer really alive.

The possibility of suicide is present from the dedication to his nephew Harry, who committed suicide at the age of 18. She reappears over the pages, from the trenches to the cell where he writes his plays, during his five years of imprisonment. She will return for the last time in 1939, when this exile of 45 years will no longer have the strength to face at the same time material misery, the abandonment of his companion, the collapse of the Republicans in Spain and the arrival now imminent World War II.

Published in German in Amsterdam in 1933, in French in 1974 under its original title Une jeunesse en Allemagne, the book is republished today as Le Livre des hirondelles, in reference to a collection of poems published by the author in the years 1920. The end of the book evokes as a tragic metaphor of his generation the fight of the swallows to rebuild the nests that the prison guards are determined to destroy. Each destruction leads to the building of new nests, ever larger and more numerous, until the sudden day when the couple give up on surviving each other. The female died a few days later, having lost her raison d'être.

Ernst Toller, Le Livre des hirondelles , Éditions Séguier, 2020. Translated from the German by Pierre Galissaires. € 21.

By the same author: Ernst Toller, Hinkemann followed by L’homme et la Masse (adaptation by Christine Letailleur) L’Avant-scène Théâtre 1371-1372, 2014.

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