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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Book review: 'Dreamers' by Volker Weidermann tells a compelling tale

Volker Weidermann relays the events that lead to the Bavarian republic in 1918, headed by playwright Ernst Toller. And it could have changed the 20th century

Scenes of revolution in Bavaria, November 1918. Alamy Stock Photo
Scenes of revolution in Bavaria, November 1918. Alamy Stock Photo

The English-language debut of German author and journalist Volker Weidermann was published in 2016. Summer Before the Dark was an illuminating portrait of two brilliant writers, Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, who in 1936 found themselves in limbo in the Belgian beach resort of Ostend after fleeing the Third Reich. The book skilfully examined their forged friendship and individual hardships, and created a memorable image of “two men, both failing, but holding each other up for a time”.

Weidermann’s second book to appear in English, translated by Ruth Martin, also revolves around writers within a narrow time frame, in this case November 1918 to April 1919. Dreamers: When the Writers Took Power tells the story of a German revolution that rocked the country, divided its people, and could well have changed the course of the 20th century. Where the events of Weidermann’s previous book played out in the looming shadow of the Second World War, his new one kicks off during the final death throes of the First World War. On the sunny afternoon of November 7, 1918, theatre critic Kurt Eisner takes his chance to transform the Kingdom of Bavaria into a people’s republic

He and his red-armband-wearing supporters march through the streets of Munich. They stop at army barracks, open military prisons, descend on beer halls and occupy ministries. A ragtag crowd snowballs into a huge procession. Night falls and the king, whose family has reigned uninterrupted for 900 years, slips out of the city under the cover of darkness. Eisner enters the parliament building and proclaims himself provisional prime minister, and Bavaria a free state.

In the middle of the night, before snatching an hour of sleep, he is reminded of his achievement by a gushing comrade: “Is this not miraculous? We have staged a revolution without spilling a drop of blood! There has never been such a thing in history.”

Weidermann excels with his thrilling description of this bloodless uprising. He maintains the momentum in his account of the honeymoon period which followed. “Munich debated,” he writes, “Munich exhaled.” Munich was also desperate after four years of calamitous war. “Something bright and new has to – has to – come out of the darkness.”

For a while, it seems as if Eisner can deliver. He gives a rapturously received speech in which he outlines the three fundamental principles of his rule: permanent democracy, lasting peace, and reconciliation with Germany’s enemies. But the tide quickly turns. Eisner’s leadership proves weak and when he calls an election to endorse the revolution he garners a mere 2.5 per cent of the vote. His detractors step up their attacks, mocking and scorning him in public and in print – until in February 1919 one nationalist has the last word by shooting him dead.

This assassination and the bloody reprisals that ensued bring us to the end of Weidermann’s first chapter and the halfway point of his book. His second half is devoted to the resultant power vacuum and power struggles. “In these days,” he informs us, “power floats through the city, unmoored. Someone seizes it; another lets it slip through his fingers. Many grasp at thin air.”

Both halves of the book chronicle political convulsions and the attempts to restore law and order by small groups of flawed, inexperienced yet charismatic and idealistic writers and artists. Much chaos was unleashed within that short period and Weidermann covers a lot of ground, packing in every putsch, incorporating all warring factions, and charting the astonishing rise and inglorious fall of men who would be king.

However, despite Weidermann’s best efforts, elements of his second section fail to enthral. He expertly conveys the ungoverned, perhaps ungovernable, city and state that emerged, and the confusion and frustration that arose from a succession of “Split-second governments, pseudo-governments, sudden parallel governments”. But the eventual focal point of this half – the short-lived Bavarian Council Republic, headed by the playwright Ernst Toller and a number of Communist and anarchist writers – lacks clarity and vigour.

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Fortunately, as with Weidermann’s previous book, Dreamers is an ensemble piece. Dotted around Toller and Eisner are a host of luminaries from German cultural life. Some of them comment on the current upheavals, others are busy with their own private concerns.

Poet and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke reflects on Eisner’s uprising and feels that a new era has begun: “one cannot help but concede that this is the time for trying to take great strides.” Thomas Mann works away at his novel The Magic Mountain, scoffs at the “ersatz Carnival” in full swing on the streets outside, then tries to square his old world view with the radically new state of affairs. And poet Ricarda Huch expresses shock at Eisner’s murder and disgust at those who cash in on it by selling portraits of him and postcards of the crime scene.

There’s also a cameo from a lance corporal and dispatch-runner called Adolf Hitler, along with a colourful stream of lesser known poets, politicians and poet-politicians. But it’s Eisner who carries the proceedings: a wild-haired dreamer who set out to establish a utopia in which art was to be the dominant force for educating and elevating the masses. We follow his dreams and almost come to believe in them.

This compelling book shows how Eisner’s vision became an all-too brief reality after he and other “cloud-people” took charge. “They wanted the best,” Weidermann concludes, “and created horrors.”