Ernst Toller was born in Samotschin, Province of Posen, Prussia in 1893 into a Jewish family. At the outbreak of World War I, he volunteered for military duty, spent thirteen months on the Western Front, and suffered a complete physical and psychological collapse. His first drama, Transformation (Die Wandlung), was to be inspired by his wartime experiences.
Toller was involved in the 1919 Bavarian Soviet Republic, along with other leading anarchists – such as B. Traven and Gustav Landauer – and communists. Toller served as President from April 6 to April 12. It has been said that as a playwright, he was not very good at dealing with politics, and his government did little to restore order in Munich. His government members were also not always well-chosen. For instance, the Foreign Affairs Deputy Dr. Franz Lipp (who had been admitted several times to psychiatric hospitals), declared war on Switzerland over the Swiss refusal to lend 60 locomotives to the Soviet Republic. He also informed Vladimir Lenin via cable that the ousted former Minister-President Hoffmann had fled to Bamberg and taken the key to the ministry toilet with him. On Palm Sunday, April 1919, the Communist Party seized power, with Eugen Leviné as their leader. The republic was short-lived and was defeated by right-wing forces. Toller was imprisoned for his part in the revolution.
While imprisoned, he completed work on Transformation, which premiered in Berlin under the direction of Karlheinz Martin in September 1919. At the time of Transformation's hundredth performance, the Bavarian government offered Toller a pardon, which the writer refused out of solidarity with other political prisoners. Toller would go on to write some of his most celebrated works in prison, including the dramas Masses Man (Masse Mensch), The Machine Breakers (Die Maschinenstürmer), Hinkemann, the German (Der deutsche Hinkemann), and many poems.
It would not be until after his release from prison in July 1925 that he would finally see a performance of one of his plays. In 1925, the most famous of his later dramas, Hoppla, We're Alive! (Hoppla, wir Leben!) directed by Erwin Piscator, premiered in Berlin. It tells the story of a revolutionary who is discharged from a mental hospital after eight years to discover that his once-revolutionary comrades have grown complacent and hopelessly compromised within the system they once opposed. In despair, he kills himself.
In 1933, after the Nazi rise to power, he was exiled from Germany. His citizenship was nullified by the Nazi government later that year. He traveled to London and participated as co-director in the Manchester production of his play Rake Out the Fires (Feuer aus den Kesseln) in 1935.
He went on a lecture tour of the United States and Canada in 1936 and 1937, before settling in California, where he worked on screenplays which remained unproduced. Toller moved to New York City in 1936, where he lived with a group of artists and writers in exile, including Klaus Mann, Erika Mann and Therese Giehse.
Suffering from deep depression (his sister and brother had been arrested and sent to concentration camps) and financial woes (he had given all his money to Spanish Civil War refugees), Toller committed suicide by hanging in his hotel room at the Mayflower Hotel on May 22, 1939.
The English author Robert Payne who knew Toller in Spain and in Paris writes at the end of the entry for May 23rd, 1942 in his Chungking diaries, "Forever China," that almost Toller's last words to him were: "If ever you read that I committed suicide, I beg you not to believe it." Payne continues: "He hanged himself with the silk cord of his nightgown in a hotel in New York two years ago. This is what the newspapers said at the time, but I continue to bel