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New International, August 1939


Oscar Fischer

The Suicide of Ernst Toller


From New International, Vol.5 No.8, August 1939, pp.244-245.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


ERNST TOLLER’S SUICIDE, which created a sensation not only in the German emigration, cannot be explained merely as a “personal collapse”. The significance of this case extends much further and the private sides of the “sensation” recede into the background before the ideological and the political. Toller was a representative of a certain type of the German intelligentsia – and even by his death Toller represented precisely this type just as he did during his life-time. Toller’s fall symbolizes the fall of the democratic-pacifist ideology; his end coincides with the end of the illusions once concentrated in the slogan “Never again war!” But apart from this symbolical significance, Toller’s death raises at the same time the question of the real state of mind of those circles who consider themselves the spiritual elite of the German (and not only of the German) emigration and the representatives of the German future. Of characteristic importance in judging the personality and the work of Ernst Toller is the fact that the period of his widest public influence coincided with the flowering of the Weimar republic (in whose early years Toller was imprisoned and tormented in the most wretched way), with the period, that is, in which one was disposed to dream of the dawn of a “democratic-pacifist era”. Uplifted by the first sweep of the German revolution and especially by the Bavarian Soviet republic (for which he had to pay with harrowing years in prison), Toller later stagnated in a sentimental humanistic pathos. Pathos was the most widespread manifestation of German pacifism in its variegated species. Where revolutionary clarity of goal and resoluteness were the most burning questions of the day, only humanitarian-pacifist vagueness emerged. In those brief democratic-pacifist years of the republic, one could speak for a time in Germany of an Ernst Toller fashion, under whose influence stood the social-democratic pacifist youth in particular. The ideology of this youth was the pacific faith in humanity and its slogan read: “Never again war!” But of all the hopeless illusions, none was more gruesomely destroyed than this particular one.

Ernst Toller’s suicide is not the first of such cases in the German emigration. In December, 1935, three and a half years before Toller, Kurt Tucholsky voluntarily left a life which, to him also, was then only a chain of disillusionment, despair and revulsion. What is common to both cases, Tucholsky’s as well as Toller’s suicide (however different both were as characters and men of letters), is this: their death contains the public declaration of the helplessness and hopelessness that has befallen, by and large, the German so-called “emigration elite” and which is expressed in the most varied forms: primarily in the open, cynical admiration of the “democratic” imperialisms and their “holy wars”, in political mysticism, in passivity – and finally also in suicide. Tucholsky left behind sharp accusations in a letter of farewell against these “bigwigs” who, both in the Weimar republic and in emigration, had themselves celebrated, as they still do, as the spiritual elite of all Germany. And nothing, in turn, more accurately characterizes this “elite” than the fact that it feared to make known to the public Tucholsky’s letter of farewell in its complete form, a political document and a settlement of accounts of first-rate importance. They only dared to publish the document with the omission of all “painful” passages (a procedure which is, in part, only a gross falsification). The prima donnas of the emigration have sensitive nerves; they cling convulsively to the last shameful tatters of their whilom authority – and themselves even strangle the critical voice of the deceased.

It is not hard to define the present position of these emigrant bigwigs: pushed out by the newly-rising German imperialism which is striking out on all sides without restraint, they very soon found refuge under the roof of other imperialist states. Their most far-reaching perspective is the “rebirth of the German democracy” – but a democracy without new dangers and without the risk of losing a sinecure. Their dream is the old Weimar republic with guarantees for their own civil peace and security. The most typical figure of this sort is undoubtedly Herr Thomas Mann.

Yet it is impossible to speak of these “bigwigs” without special emphasis upon the most frequent type among them: those who are simply financially dependent, or in other words, those more or less openly tied up with the Stalinist bureaucracy. They have been least affected by the events and the defeats of recent years – for the very simple reason that they are already political corpses who pass off the cadaverous odor they exude as the “breath of the German future”. This position, based exclusively on vicious ignorance and mendacity, has its very particular advantages. Proceeding from it, one can commit himself on two sides: for the “democratic” imperialists and for the Stalin bureaucracy, for “social democracy” and for imperialist war. Ernst Toller undoubtedly represented an exception in this collection of emigrant bigwigs. He was more serious about his views; he took the collapse of his ideas more tragically than the others. And at last suicide appeared to him the lesser evil as against the permanent decomposition of his imperialistic and pro-Stalinist colleagues. As far as he could see, the swamp, gluttonous hypocrisy and corruption extended ever deeper around him. Toller could no longer raise himself above the crumpled walls of his ethical pathos and his pacifistic faith in humanity, and as far as his eye could see in the circles in which he moved, there was hopelessness and decay, helplessness and rot. Was it worth while living on?

The NY Times of May 23, 1939 reports on the causes of Toller’s suicide, in part:

Friends said he had undertaken no new writing but was casting about for further material. They attributed much of his depression to the gloomy view he had to take recently of events in Europe and the threat that he saw in the extension of totalitarianism to the American continent.

This testimony of his friends, however, only leads to half the truth. The successes of the totalitarian states, by themselves, could hardly have determined Toller’s step; evidently of decisive significance to him was rather his absolute doubt that a limit could be placed upon the totalitarian successes in the future. He had lost faith in the strength and the ability of those organizations under whose influence and in whose surroundings he lived and moved. Undoubtedly, Toller, before deciding upon his final step, first drew the political and ideological conclusions from the activity of the emigrant bigwigs. And it was this balance-sheet that was annihilating – nor could it be otherwise – for the Stalinized protagonists of the rebirth of the Weimar republic, annihilating for the whole ideology of the “German People’s Front”.

Toller’s suicide can only be understood as a consequence of the situation of the emigrated German intelligentsia. Kurt Tucholsky, who preceded Toller in death, left behind him, at once as settlement of accounts and as a final demonstration, an accusatory letter of farewell. Toller probably renounced even this last protest of the letter of farewell. He knew these bigwigs and their state of mind and that is why he deemed it no longer even worth the effort to leave them his last repugnance in writing. He departed silently – and yet even in that lies an accusing protest. With a farewell letter or without one, the meaning is the same in either case: they preferred a voluntary departure from life to slow decomposition in the swamp of the “official” German journalism of the emigration (there is such a thing, actually – made up of those who were and still are always on tap, who crawl from Ebert to Daladier, to Chamberlain and to Roosevelt, and extend their open and empty hands in all directions).

Up to now, surely, it has been the most honest and cleanest characters who preferred to draw the final personal conclusions for themselves from their ideological misery. Their mistake, or rather their misfortune, was that they did not find the road to the ranks of the social revolution. Unfortunately they were unable to free themselves of the perfidious and ruinous illusion of equating reformism, pacifism and Stalinism with socialism and revolutionary emancipation. And this illusion was the reason for their greatest, deadly disappointment – just as it is the tragedy of thousands who, at first in good faith and with blind confidence, followed reformism and the Stalin bureaucracy in their initial steps into the swamp of decline – and then, finally, could no longer see a way out. And one can predict with certainty that the inevitable and advancing disintegration of the ideology concocted by reformism and Stalinism, “democratic imperialism” and “Popular Front” will leave behind it additional “voluntary” victims.

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