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16 January 2019

When writers revolt

The events behind the short-lived writers’ revolution in Germany in 1918.

By Lucy Hughes-Hallett

In the winter of 1918-19, as the First World War ended, there were people across Europe determined that the status quo ante should not be restored. In Russia the Bolsheviks fought grimly to maintain their power against the Whites. In Hungary the communist Béla Kun set up a short-lived Soviet-backed regime. In Italy the nationalist poet Gabriele d’Annunzio plotted to overthrow the elected government. In Germany Spartacists and Freikorps struggled for dominance while hereditary rulers, from the Kaiser downwards, were ousted as a rash of revolutions broke out.

Volker Weidermann’s Dreamers tells the story of one of those uprisings, and the subsequent brief rule of the idealists who started it. It’s a tragicomic story, and Weidermann’s witty, ingeniously-structured narrative does it full justice.

On 7 November, 1918, Bavaria was still nominally ruled, as it had been for 900 years, by a Wittelsbach king. That day, though, tens of thousands of soldiers, sailors and workers – disturbed by rumours of the imminent German surrender – gathered in the open space of Munich’s Theresienwiese.

Agitators and orators of every political persuasion were there, trying to harness the crowd. The one who succeeded was Kurt Eisner, a pacifist with a long beard and a big hat. Eisner’s voice was high and scratchy, but he had the proper revolutionary credentials: he had recently served a nine-month prison sentence for instigating a strike in a munitions factory. Besides, he was a drama critic and, however little experience he might have of the work of government, he understood the theatre of politics. He took the arm of a popular peasant leader, a hulking great man, blind, named Ludwig Gandorfer. Together the wild-haired intellectual and the toiler on the land marched through the streets, and the noisy, volatile crowd fell in behind them.

They went to the barracks. Repeatedly they halted while a negotiating party went in. Each time, after a brief wait, an upper window opened and a red flag waved from it. “The men are for the revolution!” would go up the shout. “They’ve all come over. March on!” Soldiers ripped off their epaulettes and tied scraps of red cloth to their uniforms instead. The opened the military prison: prisoners emerged sobbing. They overran the railway station and the ministries. They stopped in a beer hall, and consumed sausages and pork-knuckle as they agreed on a government of workers’ councils. While the royal family slunk out of the city under cover of darkness (the king tucking a box of his favourite cigars under his arm) Eisner led the crowd to the state parliament, the Landtag. He seated himself in the prime minister’s chair and announced “The Bavarian revolution has triumphed!”

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Weidermann’s narrative has many viewpoints and voices. He draws on the letters and journals of the famous. Thomas Mann, vacillating and self-absorbed, stays out of harm’s way in his pleasant villa, tyrannising over his children. Meanwhile Rainer Maria Rilke – so socially evasive, so easily moved to tears – is just too sensitive for such brutish public affairs. Ricarda Huch presciently notes the ubiquity of cameras, as though in this new world all the demonstrations and riots are simply “self-display”.

Even more interesting though, are Weidermann’s less celebrated sources, the people like Oskar Maria Graf, a baker, a poet and (most successfully) a black marketeer who enjoyed drinking champagne with the Dutch industrialist whom he kept supplied with butter, wine and ox tongues. The venial Graf runs, excited, into every melee, but repeatedly has to ask “Who are we fighting? What’s going on?” There’s Marietta, courtesan and cabaret artiste, whose signature song goes, “I am a bright bouncing ball/Rich boys roll me across silken rugs.” There are the “winter sandal-wearers” – eccentrics, or visionaries, or just nutcases. There were numerous utopian dreamers in Munich that winter.

Herman Hesse wasn’t present, but we meet the scrounger who refuses to wear buttons, and who would soon become world-famous as the prophet-hero of Hesse’s best-selling Demian (1919, much admired decades later by hippies). There were also those – bystanders for the time being – who would eventually make an impression on the world, such as the lance corporal, “pale, with an unusual moustache”, who would claim later in Mein Kampf that it was the Munich revolution that politicised him.

For all the waving of red flags, the communists, who deplored Eisner’s non-violence, declined to join him. His regime was supposedly a government of the people by the people, but when he called an election only 2 per cent of the electorate voted for him. He was on his way to the Landtag to tender his resignation when he was shot dead by a nationalist aristocrat.

His funeral initiated a new phase of the revolution, angrier and more anarchic. Ernst Toller, a 25-year-old poet, “with eyes like those of an ancient owl”, took over as premier. He had been described by one of the many psychiatrists he consulted as having “a pathological addiction to making himself interesting”. He set up his cabinet in the queen’s former bathroom (grander rooms in the palace, he thought, would antagonise the proletariat). His finance minister was experimenting with ways of undermining capitalism by making money evanescent. His minister for education, another poet, strode through the palace shouting out his own name – “Here comes Landauer!” – as a way of galvanising everyone into action.

Everything had to be done now, this instant, because, as all the revolutionaries were aware, the right wing Freikorps militias were ready to descend on them. The ousted conservatives were regrouping only a few miles away. In the wake of the long war, the city was full of weapons. Any of them might, at any moment, be killed.

Many of them were. On 1 May 1919 the Freikorps marched into Munich. They and the Whites began rounding people up, or shooting them on sight. Gustave Regler, yet another young poet, was arrested because his hair was too long. Shoved along by rifle butts, he stood among a herd of captives on the edge of the Englischer Garten. A car ploughed into the group, scattering the guards. Regler escaped and wandered, dazed, into a shrubbery. A man asked him “amiably”, to move along, saying, “This is where they are being shot.”

The story descends into horror, into hundreds of corpses, their bones broken to make them more packable, crammed into crates. Thomas Mann welcomed the arrival of the “good-looking” troops of the reaction. He had wavered, but now he was relieved that Munich had been saved from “mass migration from below”. The lance corporal with a funny moustache, who had noted how many of Eisner’s comrades were Jewish, was pleased too.

Weidermann’s account of those hectic few months in Munich is written with sparkling elan and translated by Ruth Martin with such ingenuity it reads as if it were an original text. Author and translator alike are inventive in their use of colloquialisms and rhetorical flourishes. Staccato sentences without a verb. Exclamations: “Wham!”

Weidermann’s revolutionaries are high-minded and absurd at once. His fence-sitters are craven, but wouldn’t we all, in such dangerous days, have tried to keep our heads down? Vivid, full of sardonic humour, moral nuance and personal drama, this book takes the reader into the heart of the revolutionary crowd, and shows how exhilarating and terrifying it is to be there. 

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio” (Fourth Estate)

Dreamers: When the Writers Took Power, Germany 1918 
Volker Weidermann Translated by Ruth Martin
Pushkin Press, 253pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 16 Jan 2019 issue of the New Statesman, How Brexit trapped Britain