Steve Sem-Sandberg

All that is Transient is but a Likeness
Extract from All förgängligt är bara en bild (All that is Transient is but a Likeness) by Steve Sem-Sandberg Bonniers, Stockholm 1999. Translation by Anna Paterson
München, 13th April - 1st May, 1919

Proletarians! Soldiers! Companions at the Front!

Victory! Victory! Victory!

The railway station has been taken by storm! The City Council Building has also succumbed! The soldiers on guard have been disarmed.

Today the class-conscious proletariat in München fought its first great battle and won.

Soldiers and workers!

You have completed the march to victory in twenty-four hours. You have overthrown the citadel of reaction in the city of München and held high the red banner of freedom!

Your are victorious. But remember that this is not the final victory over every form of slavery invented by the capitalists.

Today the call goes out to each man to join up and prepare for the next battle!

The Action Committee of the Soldiers' and Workers' Council Werner

An appeal, 14th April 1919:



"So, Herr Toller - whose side are you on?"

Looking at the scattered fliers on the table, Toller hadn't noticed at first that Egelhofer was looming over him. The big face, exuding stale alcoholic fumes through every pore, was barely inches away. Toller rose and Egelhofer got up too. Both men kept staring at the revolver lying between them on the table. Toller didn't doubt for a moment that the new Commissar was perfectly capable of shooting him there and then, once his drunkenness moved on from the sentimental to the aggressive stage. He seemed to want to know about Toller's reaction to dying - specifically, had he ever faced death in the next twenty-four hours with nothing to sustain him but his own hard-earned convictions?

"Then you don't hesitate, you just know whose side you're on"

Toller was watching his own hand slowly descending towards the gun. Egelhofer's hand was following, as slowly.

"You're telling me that you couldn't create an operational army. My dear comrade Toller, everything and everybody has a price. Ten marks a day should do it."

He was right about that. When Toller left his cold lodgings the next morning, men were already lining up outside the City Council Building. Shivering in the icy, vaporous morning mist, they were waiting to get their ten marks and sign their weapons' receipts. Ten marks wouldn't buy a hypothetical bunch of half-rotten onions in the market, but this didn't stop them coming. For as long as this abyss between words and consequences didn't trouble the battle-hungry civilians filling Marienplatz, Leviné and the other Spartacists in the newly elected Action Committee didn't care either. The plans for the defence against internal and external enemies were more or less complete.

"We'll soon win the farmers over to our cause too," Leviné had promised at a meeting of the soldiers and workers councils at the Hofbräuhaus, which had been called to decide for or against proclaiming a general strike the following week. "When the farmers get positive proof that Munich's proletariat is united to the last man, they'll not hesitate for another moment to help us in every way!"

Naturally, Toller was far from alone in doubting this. Many of the assembled comrades realised that the farmers mightn?t understand what Leviné was talking about. Bavarian farmers wouldn?t take orders even under threat from armed men. Urging them to leave work while people were starving was just the kind of foolishness you'd expect from city folk, especially work-shy, godless Jews and Bolsheviks. Who'd milk the cows and tend the crops?

Toller would later spend time speculating about what had made him most depressed at the time - feeling that he was betraying his ideals or feeling that betrayal was his only option. Treachery was the order of the day and looking back at the political scene, it seemed farcical. One actor after the other would suddenly appear, declaiming loudly whatever muffled stage whispers were instructing him to say, only to withdraw into obscurity once more. First Erhard Auer had been dancing to Eisner's tune and then Schneppenhorst turned up on stage replacing Eisner. Fearing that he would lose control of the plot, he had pushed the independent socialists into introducing a fully-fledged council democracy, only to run away at the last minute pleading for protection from the very parliamentarians he had been struggling to outwit. Now that the council republic had collapsed, who would dare to take a stand and defend the cause that had been undermined by so many to such general acclamation?

Even so, workers directly involved had mobilised spontaneously in response to the messages that the outer defences had been broken through. From Theresienplatz thousands of them had been moving on to take the Post and Telegraph Office at Bahnhofplatz. It was as if they knew that the battle would be unending, because the representatives of local industrial councils faithfully turned up in the Hofbräuhaus, staying hour after hour for the meetings of the new Action Committee. They were dog-tired, emaciated men, whose stinking suits of clothing hadn?t been off their bodies for weeks. Leviné never made a public speech without first addressing them. He and his small aristocratic cadre of top revolutionaries knew that they must listen to their views.

The Communist leader realised perfectly well that he represented these workers not just in a political sense, but that he derived his symbolic power from them. The moment he lost their trust the entire revolutionary movement would implode, destroying him with it. This was popular democracy in its most fundamental form, as Toller argued at his trial. Unlike Landauer and Niekisch, he had collaborated with the new communist power structure for precisely this reason. Toller was insisting that his only wish had been to share the lot of these ordinary working men, who were risking more for their ideals than he ever had himself. They slept, resting their heads on their packs and holding their guns between their legs in readiness to defend their city at the first call, lying on the same hard wooden benches that they wore with their backsides all day. On the other hand Toller arguably didn?t have a choice.

Returning to the boarding house in Ludwigstrasse was clearly dangerous, especially after Mrs Wagner?s story of how she?d come to believe her lodger had been brutally murdered in front of her eyes. A group of White Guards had broken into Toller?s room and soon afterwards a car had drawn up outside the front door. She and other lodgers were certain that Toller was the man in the car and she had intended to dash out to warn him. Two of the soldiers got there first, one of them holding her while the other ran downstairs. They had ended up using bayonets and rifle-butts to force the car-door and dragged the terrified driver out onto the pavement. Then they beat him up, cheered on by a small crowd of thrilled onlookers.

'They stole all your ties,' Mrs Wagner had told him, sounding practically apologetic. 'They said they'd use them to hang you?'

Toller had stubbornly insisted on seeing his room afterwards. All that remained of his belongings were a few sturdy items of furniture and a shirt, spotted with blood. He assumed that one of the Whites must have used it wrapped round his hand when he broke the glass in the locked bookcases. The books and manuscripts had been reduced to a mass of torn pages and ripped cloth. His last vestige of respectability had vanished with his ties. The brutal destruction wrought by a couple of reactionaries, maddened by hatred, had completed the transformation initiated by the Spartacists? threats and blackmail.

So he borrowed clothes and went back to the Hofbräuhaus, preparing to sit endlessly on the wooden benches, one of the workers even though not of their kind. That was where the rumour of Schneppenhorst's advance reached him. Seven hundred infantry soldiers from the barracks in Ingolstadt, the story went, were now marching on Munich. Max Levien read out the brief telegram to the men who listened restlessly. About one hundred men were present and when everybody ran for the doors, a sense of panic and disorder filled the room. Outside Toller again heard the shrill, harsh sound of many hundred storm-warning bells ringing out.

As usual the rumour had travelled faster than ordinary mortals could run. Within a few minutes, vehicles were rolling up and hand-to-hand lines passed on weapons and ammunition. Toller ended up sitting in the back of a lorry speeding out of town along Nymphenburgerstrasse. The young seaman Hans Dietrich was sitting next to him. Ever since Kindlkeller and the failed attempt of Bolsheviks to stage a coup, Dietrich had persisted in following himself and Klingelhöfer. The rest of the lorry was packed with sitting or crouching men, trying to keep their cigarettes going by bending down between their raised knees and rifles. Now and then they'd glance at him and bare blackened teeth in embarrassed grins. We know who you are, they seemed to say, you're that Toller! It was when he was hit hard by the awareness that he didn?t know them. That he never had and probably never would. The self-disgust that this insight brought made it harder to bear.

There and then, the evening and night of the 16th of April, the last battle of the Republic began. Toller was able to report that his unit had met no resistance, despite the rumoured massive advance of the government forces. On the other hand, they had met groups of confused soldiers from their own ranks, who had moved northwards on their own in response to the rumours and often without a proper leadership. Among them were three cavalry officers, who had been drinking in a beer café near the old staging post at Nymphenburg and arguing about where the enemy might be. One of them said that someone from the Communist Party headquarters in Sendling had let slip that the Whites were closing in on Allach. Toller asked humbly for the loan of a couple of horses, sending the lorry back to München with a message to tell Egelhofer to dispatch reinforcements. Then he set out northwards, accompanied by Hans Dietrich and a handful of the cavalry soldiers.

The sky was clear, filled with stars and moonlight. Rich smells of damp earth and coal fires were lingering in the night air. Toller, who had not been on horseback since before the war, was feeling overwhelmed by a strange mixture of intoxicating freedom and acute anxiety. As the night wore on, an almost insane desire to be stopped by someone or something came to preoccupy him. He was longing finally to run into the wall he knew surrounded them. Only then would it become real, this evasive war that he was both in the middle of and still watching from a distance.

The first shot was fired apparently out of nowhere on the morning of the sixteenth. They were already close to Dachau, when it tore Toller out of his dull, drowsy state of mind. He just had time to turn in the saddle to see the soldier on his left collapsing and beginning to slide off with the reins tangled round his thigh, as his horse was anxiously backing away. Someone behind them nervously shot into the air, but most of the soldiers were already turning their horses. Toller went to the aid of Hans Dietrich, who was trying to undo the reins. Together they hauled the injured man back into the saddle and then the group rode back to Karlsfeld.

In the morning they managed to rig up a field-telephone and soon received orders from Egelhofer to take Dachau at any cost. Their reinforcements arrived from Munich. Toller assumed that Leviné wanted to prevent the enemy from getting hold of the Dachau ammunition works, but learned of another explanation from Klingelhöfer and Thekla Egl, who had joined them that afternoon. With men streaming into the recruitment offices the money for their pay was running out. Egelhofer and Leviné persuaded the Finance Commissar Towia Axelrod to print more notes and they broke into the vaults under the National Bank that night, only to find that the two remaining printing presses were out of order. Before escaping, Hoffman cunningly had the rest of the note presses carted off to Bamberg. There were both machine shops and a paper factory in Dachau, which was why the town had to be taken and held. Even revolutionaries have to pay for their gunpowder, as Klingelhöfer put it.

The front based in Dachau became known as Sector 1. Toller set up a rough-and-ready command post in Karlsfeld, making Thekla Egl responsible for personnel co-ordination and Hens Dietrich for provisions.

Dachau fell into their hands the following day, but thanks neither to them nor Klingelhöfer. The two experienced cavalry officers had managed to instil discipline in their men, despite their injured comrade's death, but these soldiers had no hand in the occupation of Dachau either. It was the workers in the ammunition works who brought it about. When the Whites started building barricades at the fortress the workers had immediately left their barracks, attacking these unknown soldiers with spades and pickaxes.

Toller didn't even wanted to try taking the town by force. That day his first action was to dispatch a message to the enemy, insisting that the White units should withdraw to the opposite bank of the Danube. The idea was that they would all bide their time until proper negotiations about the future of München were initiated. Gustav Klingelhöfer stated in court that Toller was in a car ready to depart for München, when wild gunfire broke out in the neighbourhood. Without having any opportunity to give orders, Toller watched through the car window as his men moved off to the town, apparently under nobody's command. Had the workers of Dachau not started their revolt at the very moment, Toller's soldiers would have been slaughtered to a man.

In other words, history repeated itself in the collective will of the workers to fight. An almost supernatural ability to organise grew with eerie speed out of the spontaneous but powerful impulse to rebel. When the Red forces marched through the town towards the castle, the jubilant population, two or three deep, was lining the streets. In the castle the local factory council's leader handed over the thirty-seven White soldiers, who had not run away in time. Egelhofer fired off a brisk order via the field telephone: 'Shoot them all!'

Toller gave them free passage out of town, although Klingelhöfer urged him to at least find out who had provoked the fighting. The shots that triggered the attack were almost certainly not random, but fired by someone: Red or White? who had been determined to ruin the negotiations. Toller refused to start any hearings because he knew that all the Reds had gained was a little more time, whatever the Action Committee's proud proclamations said.

On the day of loosing Dachau to the Reds, the government agreed to Hoffman's desperate pleas for military assistance. Twenty thousand men would be sent to Bavaria, but Schneppenhorst's 'non-negotiable' demand for a Bavarian commander-in-chief was accepted only on paper. In fact, the officers of both the Reichswehr and the militia units were told to take orders only from a Prussian commander, General von Oven. The events at Dachau had made it abundantly clear that the battle of Munich was no longer an internal Bavarian problem.






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