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Felix Gilbert on the Legacies of the Revolution (Retrospective Account, 1988)

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The new Prussian government appointed a new head of the state theater, and thus, in one of Berlin’s loveliest neoclassical buildings, the plays of Germany’s classical authors were shown in startling revolutionary productions: Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell, usually shown before a backdrop of snowy Swiss mountains and blue lakes, was performed on a bare staircase, so that its political message would come out clearly. There was much emphasis on works by contemporary authors who were writing expressionist dramas with titles like Murderer of His Father or Not the Murderer, the Murdered Is Guilty. These were either political, depicting the injustice of society, the misery of the downtrodden, and the desperation of the masses, or they were psychological, effacing the boundaries between the unconscious and the real. I suppose I am one of the few people still alive who saw an early production of Bertolt Brecht’s first play, Drums in the Night. Brecht is the only playwright still well known among those whom we found exciting at that time. The others—Hasenclever, Bronnen, Toller—are almost forgotten. The one I liked most is probably even less known than the others: Fritz von Unruh. Son of a Prussian general, educated in a cadet corps, an officer who had become an opponent of war and violence, a friend of Walther Rathenau, he expressed perhaps better than anyone else the atmosphere of the time—its revolutionary hope and its entire lack of realism. I still know by heart the words with which he concludes one of his plays, and which proclaim his confidence in a “Kraft, die aus neuer Liebe neue Menschen schafft” (“force which, out of new love, creates new men”).

From A EUROPEAN PAST: MEMOIRS, 1905-1945 by Felix Gilbert (pp. 42-44). Copyright © 1988 by Felix Gilbert. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. This selection may not be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher. This book is available for purchase at

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