Now that’s what you call political rhetoric!

Just read a play called Transformations written between 1917 and 1918
by Ernst Toller while he served in the German trenches of WWI.

Toller was a contemporary and collaborator of Bertolt Brecht and Erwin Piscator during the Weimar Republic. A German Jew, he escaped the Nazis by fleeing into exile and in the mid 1930’s gave all his money away to Spanish War refugees in London. A veteran of WWI he plunged into severe depression as WWII broke out and committed suicide in New York in 1939 shortly after he learnt his brother and sister had been arrested and sent to a concentration camp.

The play is an expressionist political work that fiercely challenges the religious, civil and political powers of the time and ends with this amazing speech (see below).

And if you think this is simply the overblown rhetoric of a bygone era, just imagine how a Bangladeshi garment worker or a mother in a Brazilian favelas might respond to the piece.

FRIEDRICH: My brothers and sisters: I don’t know, any
single one of you and yet I know you all.

You, child, you go to school and fear grips you on the
way. The schoolroom looks like a rainy day with the sun
shining in. The teacher sits at his desk like the evil spirit
in one of those fairy tales you read in secret. He eyes
you angrily and scolds you because you can't remember
the lesson. And still your heart is so full of strange
experiences. You'd like to ask him about them so much,
but he snaps at you and claims you have not learned
your Religious History and are not a good Christian.

And I know you, young maiden, delicately boned and
Tender as March... A few weeks ago you left school full
Of joy because you believed youth and freedom called
With heavenly bells... But you work in the factory now.
Day in and day out pulling a lever back and forth over
over again. Over and over again the very same
lever. And you gasp for breath in the stifling air and
your eyes brim with tears as you divine through
dust-covered windows the daylight, and freedom and
flowers and youth.

And I know you, wife, careworn and worked to the bone.
You live in a cramped room with your starving and
freezing children and every evening you open the door
for your husband husband with a gloomy soul and tired hands.

And I know about you too, husband. How you dread to
go home to that room .with its foul smell and wretched
poverty and festering disease. I know about your hate for
those who can eat their fill and laugh at you for going to
the bar and drinking yourself senseless, senseless so you
don't have to think any more and see any more.

And I know about you, young maiden, and your nights
of hot desire.

And I know about you, young man, and your search
for God.

And about you, rich man, and how you amass your
money and despise everyone, all the others and yourself.

I know you, woman, fruit-bearing tree whom no one
helps to support, and how you then break and whither
away because of your own abundance.

And you, soldier, trussed up in an artificial uniform, who
make all joy of life sterile…

All of you are distorted images of true humanity
You are immured, entombed, choked and gasping for
breath, joyless and embittered
Because you have buried the spirit alive...

Mighty machines are thundering day and night,
And thousands of spades are eternally in motion
to shovel more and more muck on the spirit.

Your own hearts are stretched on the cobbler's last.
The hearts of your fellow men are bell-pulls on which
you can tug as you choose. You throw glittering pieces of
gold at one another and convince yourselves that they
are birds of spring flying jubilantly through the air.

You pave your way with pieces of gold and convince
yourselves that you are passing across meadows
overgrown with wild flowers.

Your lips babble out sterile laws, rust-eaten prisons of iron.
Your hands build up walls around you and you say there
are savages on the other side.

You plant hate in your children because you no longer
know love.

You carved Jesus Christ in wood and nailed Him to a
wooden cross, because you yourselves would not go the
way of the cross which led to His redemption…

You build fortresses and enthrone tyrants who serve
neither God nor mankind, but rather a phantom, an evil

And what do you know of the temples divined in dreams?
For those who bear children and the children themselves
you build ingenious pillories, - because you understand
the mechanics of torture.

You women who bear children and from indifference or
from false pride and vain lies sacrifice them to fake
images - You are no longer mothers.

All of you are no longer human, you are distorted
images of your true selves.

And yet you could be human, if only you had belief in
yourselves and in humanity, if only you were full with
spirit. -

You could stride upright through the streets yet today
you creep along all bent. -

Your eyes could be alight with joy yet today they are

You could fly on winged feet yet today you drag your
ball and chain behind. -

O if only you were humanity, - unlimited, free humanity.

Now, brothers, I call on you to march! March
in the light of day! Now go to your rulers and proclaim
in booming organ tones that their power is only illusion.

Go to the soldiers and bid them beat their swords into
Plough shares. Go to the rich and show them their hearts
which have become muckheaps. Yet be kind to them,
because they too are poor and misguided. But smash
the castles; laughing, smash the false castles, built out
of nothing but slag, sterile slag. March - march in the
light of day.

Brothers, raise on high your tortured hand,
Sound a joyous end to persecution!
Let revolution stride through our free land,
Revolution! Revolution!

(They all stand upright, hands raised high.
Then they join hands and stride off.)

Brothers, raise on high your tortured hand,
Sound a joyous end to persecution!
Let revolution stride through our free land,
Revolution! Revolution!

From the play Transformation by Ernst Toller

About I Am Not A Number

I Am Not A Number is written by Chris Jury. For 30 years Chris Jury was a TV actor, director and writer best known for playing Eric Catchpole in over 60 episodes of the BBC’s antique classic, Lovejoy, and for directing over 50 episodes of Eastenders. In 2008 he was appointed as the Senior Lecturer in Recorded Media in the School Of Music & Performing Arts at Bath Spa University. He currently presents, Agitpop, a pop & politics radio discussion programme on North Cotswold Community Radio He is currently the Communications Officer for UCU at Bath Spa University and a UCU SW Regional Rep at SWTUC.
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