Dreamers by Volker Weidermann review – Munich 1919, a moment of anarchy

Dreamers by Volker Weidermann review – Munich 1919, a moment of anarchy
Visions of independence … journalist and critic Kurt Eisner became prime minister of the Bavarian Republic. Photograph: ullstein bild/Getty Images

On 7 November 1918, a critic and journalist called Kurt Eisner, with long grey hair, a wild beard and pince-nez, led a victory parade through the streets of Munich, calling for revolution. Crowds flocked, among them the many disbanded soldiers returning from the war. Eisner dreamed of a free and independent Bavaria, run by councils of writers and workers in which artists would elevate and educate the masses and there would never again be war. He would be prime minister. It could not, indeed did not, last. But for three chaotic weeks, ungoverned Munich was in perpetual carnival mood, with women sitting outside on their porches in the sunshine and prophets, “hypnotists, and those who had been hypnotised” preaching anarchy and happiness. Thomas Mann’s son Klaus, 13 at the time, saw himself as “an animal feeling the approach of an earthquake”.

In his extremely enjoyable Summer Before the Dark, published in 2016, Volker Weidermann took a moment, a group of people and a place – Ostend in 1936 with Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth – and used it to paint a portrait of Europe as it was drawn inexorably towards war. He uses the same highly effective method in Dreamers, putting together a picture of the chaotic aftermath of the first world war when it was just possible to believe that everything could be different. Once again, he builds his narrative around a cast of remarkable characters, some familiar, others known only to scholars of German history.

Three weeks after his march through Munich, Eisner’s dream unravelled. Opposition, much of it raucous and agitated, built up from both the right and the left. On his way to deliver his resignation speech to parliament, he was shot dead by an assassin who later explained that he acted to save the Fatherland from a Jew, a Bolshevik and a traitor. The weeks that followed were marked by street fights, recriminations and revenge killings, but they brought to the fore another dreamer – the pacifist, Marxist playwright and poet Ernst Toller.

Having moved as president into the palace hastily vacated by the Bavarian royal family, and insisting on taking only a bathroom as his office, Toller called on Bavaria’s workers to struggle, but without violence, against capitalism. The new world as he saw it was to be a sheet of white paper on which everything was newly imagined. There would be schools but no desks, so that children could move around freely, journalists would be unshackled from their profiteering newspaper proprietors and artists would set up their own councils. But, as Weidermann writes, the sheet of paper was all too soon “covered with scrawls of hate and panic, accusations, mockery, violence”. A putsch bringing the communists to power was quickly followed by the arrival of the anti-communist White army. The revolutionary state collapsed. The red flags, sashes and banners that had filled the streets disappeared. People were rounded up and quickly shot, without being given a chance to defend themselves. Toller, astonishingly, survived, having been president for just six days, but many of his fellow dreamers did not. In 1939, after learning that his brother and sister had been sent to concentration camps, he killed himself.

Thomas Mann, who expressed relief at the crushing of Bolshevism. Photograph: Ullstein Bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Thomas Mann, at work on The Magic Mountain, was one of the writers present in Munich in this revolutionary autumn of 1918. A little uncertain about his own feelings towards the rebels, by the time the “good looking” south German soldiers marched in, wearing their steel helmets, he professed relief at the crushing of Bolshevism and “this incendiary mix of Jewish intellectual radicalism and Slavic fanatical Christianity”.

Other observers quoted by Weidermann include Claus von Stauffenberg, then a small boy and later to be one of the plotters executed after the attempt on Hitler’s life, and Rainer Maria Rilke, who confessed to feeling “a certain ... joyous confidence” at the thought of the new republic. Ben Hecht, the American screenwriter and novelists, and the diarist Viktor Klemperer were also in the city, taking notes on what was happening; Hecht cabled home to Chicago: “The people were free. The sun of liberty was shining on them.” And in Munich at the time was Hitler himself, then a lance corporal, “an unobtrusive subordinate” guarding a camp of Russian prisoners of war. These heady days, the German historian Thomas Weber has suggested, may have been the moment in which Hitler became a “leader in the making”. Rudolph Hess, later his deputy, was nearby but reassured his parents: “Munich is celebrating and going for walks ... Otherwise, nothing is happening”.

Like the shortlived similar experiment in Hungary, where the foreign minister Béla Kun oversaw a 133-day Republic of Councils, Munich’s rebellion barely had a present, let alone any sort of future. It was doomed from the start, as Weidermann notes, by a combination of German military might and a general spirit of subservience. “Love,” he writes, “was the dream, hate was the result.” He is a subtle storyteller, and one of his great skills is the way in which he pins down celebrated people at specific moments and then demonstrates how their reactions shaped their subsequent lives. He brings to life long forgotten and seemingly insignificant and quirky episodes in history, and in so doing shows how unpredictably and randomly it unfolds, and how it is full of unlikely heroes who occupy the stage for a few moments, only to leave it for ever.

Source: The Guardian