Book Review from the June 1936 issue of the Socialist Standard
Letter from Prison by Ernst Toller (Bodley Head 12s. 6d.)
Bodley Head has just issued a translation of Toller's "Letters from Prison.” The price (12s. 6d.) puts it outside private working-class reading, but it is well worth a determined effort to get it placed in the Public Library.
Anyone who saw Hinkemann produced at a theatre, unhampered by the personal prejudices of a Censor, who gaily approves the giggles of the highbrow sweet maiden at the adventures of Homer in “The Country Wife,” but severely frowns on the topic of actual castration resulting from the Great War, will recognise the merit of the writer as a dramatic artist and, what is more, one acutely sensitive to the tragedy inevitably attaching to Poverty. Drinking to its bitterest dregs the cup of humiliation, rope in hand, the curtain falls on one of the very few great tragic working-class figures in dramatic art.
Toller served five years in prison for the part he played in the abortive Kurt Eisner rising in Bavaria in 1919. Property, scared at even a remote possibility of challenge to its privileges, revealed as usual the imminent Beast concealed beneath the gaudy robes of Church and State. For a taste: A sergeant-major, ordered by his lieutenant to shoot 32 sailors then in gaol,' replied (on his own evidence, p. 341): “With the greatest pleasure.” A bishop exclaims (p. 69): “Hosannah! I welcome you, blessed flogging, rod of Love.” Lest there should be misunderstanding, it was not the Bishop who was flogged. Incidentally, our Soapy Sams manage these things better. The Hungarian bishop should sit at the feet of the Rev. J. R. C. Forrest, who suavely wraps up the same sentiment in “The exercise of force and punishment is a divinely given authority, without which the Church could not carry on” (Oxford Evangelical Conference, April 16th).
Interesting sidelights are thrown on current politics. "A member of the Communist Party was not allowed to talk with us of the Independent S.D. Party” (p. 160). He had received orders to be "very proud and stiff” to fellow "Reds” in gaol. An amusing account is given of the way in which he failed to live up to the rôle decreed for him. Who said "United Front”?
Five years of hell offers an explanation for sentimental passages whose excision would have strengthened the book. For instance, Toller puts on a pedestal the little woman (doing time for killing her child) who appeared at a window in a neighbouring block in the prison, “in order to make men happy for a few seconds” in the extreme limit of undress uniform. Motives are sometimes obscure in the sex line.
The worst part of the volume is a footling preface by the translator, Ellis Roberts, who introduces Toller as a “good left-wing Socialist.”
“Letters from Prison” is but one more justification of the policy of the S.P.G.B. expressed tersely in Clause 6 of our Declaration of Principles : "The working class must organise consciously for the conquest of the powers of Government.” We can only regret the awful waste, the pitiable suffering, the subsequent disheartening of the working class resulting from sporadic outbursts, doomed to failure.