A Government of Fantasy and Fictions

Volker Weidermann’s history of the Bavarian revolution can be read like a novel. Events lead to further events with the seamlessness of great storytelling, and the personalities of the time stand out with a vivid spectral life. When the Writers Took Power begins at the end of a costly and unwinnable war. Soldiers abandoned their barracks, tore off their insignia and marched with professional activists and civilians caught in the rush of the moment. They took the Residence, the military prison, the army HQ, government ministries. A revolutionary council doled out ammunition and sent the mutineers to occupy public buildings. The royal family waited until dusk and fled the city.

The revolution coalesced around a diffident social democrat named Kurt Eisner – a theatre critic, of all things. The poet Oscar Maria Graf recalled that on the night of the takeover Eisner ‘was pale and his expression deadly serious; he didn’t speak a word. It almost looked as if the sudden turn of events had taken him by surprise. Now and then he would stare straight ahead, half fearful and half distracted.’ Eisner wanted a minimum wage, an end to the war, a welfare state and an eight-hour day and was prepared to fight for them.

But he resisted the ideologues far and away who wanted to turn the revolution into a more state-oriented affair along Soviet lines. The Bolsheviks in Weidermann’s account appear as remote and wary figures rather than brothers in solidarity. After Eisner was gone his successor Ernst Toller was in constant conflict with the KPD ideologue Eugen Leviné, who wanted a pure communist rule, complete with expropriations. When Toller raised concerns about the food supply, Leviné told him that ‘they will do what they did in Russia and force the peasants to provide corn and milk by sending troops out to punish those who refuse.’

Eisner was more of a diplomat. He announced to startled activists that he would leave the ministries operating as is, because ‘we do not want to make it harder than necessary for the civil servants, on whose joyful, perhaps relieved support we are relying’. As Weidermann says, the man who had overthrown the Bavarian state now apologised for the temporary inconvenience caused. ‘A prime minister for the people,’ he writes, ‘that’s [Eisner’s] vision, that’s his dream.’

Not to be. Eisner’s fledging programme of ‘permanent democracy’ began to unravel in a matter of weeks: the far left hated him, the far right (already working on its stab-in-the-back myth) hated him more, and the rural population simply did not care, no matter how many earnest delegations Eisner sent their way. (‘I’m sure you’ll do all manner of clever things… but out here no one gives a fig!’ a peasant shouted at Oscar Graf.) In the Landtag elections, Eisner’s party was bulldozed. He won three of a possible 180 seats. And then Eisner did something incredible. He resigned.

In the face of death threats, Eisner reassured a colleague: ‘You cannot avoid an assassination attempt for ever, and after all, I can only be shot dead once’. He refused guards on his journey to the Landtag, where he planned to give his resignation speech… and was shot twice, en route, by a madman named Count Arco. The assassin Count also killed the Prime Minister, and inside the Landtag, a devotee of Eisner shot the SPD’s Ernest Auer, believing him responsible for Eisner’s murder.

‘It is more pleasant not to govern,’ Weidermann writes. ‘These weeks see the arrival of dreamers, winter-sandal wearers, preachers, plant-whisperers, the liberated and the liberators, long-haired men, hypnotists and those who have been hypnotised, dreamers. Anyone coming to this luminous city is themselves illuminated.’ And what creatures emerged from the shadows in the wake of Eisner’s assassination!

As well as the historical celebrities you hope to meet in such accounts (Weidermann weaves into his narrative marvellous portraits of Rilke and Thomas Mann, and brilliant Third Reich diarist Victor Klemperer turns up to report on the revolution) there are more political characters I wasn’t previously aware of. The financial wizard Silvio Gesell, with his theory of ‘free money’, perhaps luxury and fully automated. The job of foreign secretary – People’s Delegate for Foreign Affairs – went to a Dr Lipp. Dr Lipp cut all the phone lines in his office due to a ‘phobia of bells’. He liked telegrams. He sent a lot of telegrams. At one point the telegraph office queried ‘another telegram for the Pope in which Dr Lipp complained that Hoffman, the head of government in exile, has taken the key to his ministry toilet with him to Bamberg, and that the republic is threatened by ‘Noske’s hairy gorilla hands.’ The telegram closes with the line: ‘We want peace for ever’.’

But the time for laughter was ending. Leviné overthrew Toller six days into his rule. ‘Enough of the ‘platitude-politics of the boy Toller’, as Leviné had intoned several days before. We are engaged in real struggles. We can no longer afford to have romantic, peace-loving aesthetes in charge.’ Perhaps to demonstrate such manliness, the new government shut down post and wire services, expropriated food from hotels and restaurants, and banned newspapers. It was not just the communists that wanted to rid Bavaria of its degeneracy. A man named Josef Karl crept into the old Wittelsbach palace during a Red Army parade and found it ‘A real Russian-Galician pigsty… there are a dozen Jews with their girl typists, the latter with their typical Russian hairstyles, cropped hair, voluptuous figures with low necklines and their ‘ankle-length’ skirts cut as short as possible, transparent silk stockings and ten-to fifteen-centimetre heels on their shoes… Yes, these are the people who are shamelessly selling off and sucking dry the poor state of Bavaria… Jewish foreigners with a real criminal aspect are the only ones at home here now.’

Karl’s sentiments – antisemitic, foul, perhaps envious – were not uncommon. Hitler appears in Dreamers, a pretentious young corporal left gas-blind by the war (Weidermann shares a creepy legend that Hitler’s blindness was actually psychosomatic and that he was cured by a psychiatrist who successfully hypnotised him… but forgot to wake him up, alas.) The count who killed Eisner was a member of the mystical far right Thule Society, a precursor to the NSDAP. ‘The Thule Society has no interest in re-establishing the monarchy,’ Weidermann writes. ‘Their goal is to create a German dictatorship and drive all the Jews out of Germany.’ Count Arco was kicked out of the Society when it was discovered he had a Jewish mother. The count wanted to ‘redeem himself’ by killing the Jew Eisner. He served a short sentence for the murder, then returned to a celebratory welcome in his home village: a newspaper reported that ‘Late at night, the young Arco was led into the castle amid cheering, flag-waving and music.’

‘They were entirely unprepared for it all,’ Weidermann writes, ‘after 900 years of the Wittelsbach dynasty, after losing an unloseable war. There were no historical precedents for them to draw on. Direct, permanent democracy; everyone having a say in everything. A government of fantasy and fictions. They wanted the best and created horrors.’ That last line could be the epitaph for so many revolutions: Soviet Russia, Mao’s China and the Venezuela currently imploding under Maduro. And yet… was the German revolution really so bad? For it led to the Weimar Republic, those years of liberty and brotherhood, before the Nazis smashed it (the squabbling German leftists could not even forget their differences to resist Hitler: Luxemburg’s murder cast a long shadow). It’s in human nature to strive for something better especially when you see the poverty and casual cruelty in capitalist societies these days. We are all dreamers, Weidermann says. But reading his book the lure of revolution is more visceral. Reading Weidermann you can smell the cordite and hear the night’s swift footsteps.

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