BERLIN – The Bavarian Soviet Republic, a short-lived intellectual revolution that unfolded between 1918-1919, is one of those evocative moments in history that have awoken much interest as Volker Weidermann’s latest book attests.
“Dreamers: When the writers took power, Germany 1918,” tells the true story of how Munich witnessed an extraordinary political revolution.
In November 1918, as World War I was coming to an end, intellectuals and revolutionaries overthrew the monarchy and occupied government buildings to usher in the Free State of Bavaria.
Weidermann, head of culture of Der Spiegel magazine and author of several essays, is a man who lives among books and his office in Berlin is a testament to this obsession.
“This is my book room and this is my office,” the author told Efe at the beginning of the interview.
“I am, above all, a book reader and a critic but I am also interested in the question of how literature becomes reality,” he said when asked about what led him to write about the Munich revolution.
The book has moments when the Munich revolt seems to mirror more recent events.
The first is when Weidermann quotes Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke saying something reminiscent of what Mikhail Gorbachev, the eighth and last leader of the Soviet Union, would utter decades later.
“Those who are late are punished by life,” Gorbachev said in 1989 of the lack of reforms within the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).
It was a sentence that soon came to represent the dramatic events that followed: the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of the communist regime.
“They were similar moments, moments in which everything seemed possible and in which authorities who had determined everything for decades (as in the GDR) or centuries (as in Bavaria with the Wittelsbach dynasty) end up losing their power,” the author added.
Rilke was not a direct protagonist of the movement but rather a witness who excitedly looked on, hopeful that literature and reality could join forces to create a better world.
“For Rilke, the Munich revolution represented a short-lived moment of hope and subsequent years of despair for the rest of his life,” Weidermann said.
Led by Kurt Eisner, the revolution was peaceful at first until he was assassinated by a member of the far-right.
Playwright Ernst Toller took over from Eisner to form a fleeting government which was brought down by the Communist Party.
When the communists seized power, with Eugen Levine at the helm, violent clashes ensued.
Sociologist Max Weber, another witness of the revolution, had predicted the movement’s demise.
“Maybe Toller should have listened more carefully to Weber who had been his teacher at Heidelberg,” says Weidermann.
Toller is one of the heroes of the book.
“He had a political heart, I’m not sure he also had a political head,” Weidermann continued.
Thomas Mann, who had an ambivalent position towards the revolution at first, also makes an appearance in the novel.
According to Weidermann, Mann’s attitude during those initial weeks contrasts hugely with his strong opposition to National Socialism.
The German novelist had just published “Reflections of a non-political man,” an anti-democratic and warmongering book.
At times, in his diaries, he expressed excitement about the revolution – it was still a way of rejecting liberalism – but at others, he radically rejected it, even hoping for the execution of its leaders.
Mann would be among those who would later intercede to prevent Toller from being executed.
“That shows that he had some humanity left,” Weidermann mused.
Mann is defined by Weidermann as an “immediate conservative.”
In the 1920s he would become a staunch defender of the Weimar Republic.
But with the rise of National Socialism that would soon change, Mann could no longer defend the status quo.