Dachau 1919 and Dachau 1933
Updated: Jun 15
The world knows the town of Dachau because of the horrors of the Nazi death camp there.
Created in 1933, Dachau was the first of these concentration camps – and it was the model for the many such sites of infamy that were established in subsequent years.
Fourteen years earlier, however, Dachau was also the site of another moment in German history. Indeed, the two events have a significant linkage, as I discovered when I was researching my new play, Three Suitcases.
One hundred years ago today, on April 16, 1919, troops from the Red Army of Bavarian Worker’s Republic defeated reactionary forces trying to crush the nascent revolution in the town of Dachau, just north of Munich.
The Red Army was led by playwright and poet Ernst Toller (below). His victory in Dachau became one of the foundations of his fame in subsequent years. The artist who bloodied the nose of the counter-revolutionaries.
As he grew in stature as a political prisoner and a writer, Toller’s role in the events of 1919 were significant in forging his career and public persona.
The Bavarian Worker’s Republic was the final eruption in a wave of revolts that began to spread through Germany just before the Armistice ending World War I was signed on November 111, 1918.
The event that triggered tumult – and eventually the installation of a short-lived revolutionary government -- in Munich and elsewhere in Bavaria was the assassination of Independent Social Democrat leader Kurt Eisner on February 21, 1919.
Eisner (below, right) had led the Munich revolutions in 1918 that overthrew the Wittelsbach Monarchy in Bavaria, and expelled King Ludwig III from power. The irony of Eisner’s assassination by a young aristocrat, Anton Graf von Arco auf Valley, was that Eisner and his party had just lost badly in elections, and Eisner was going to resign that day.
The assassination of Eisner rocked Bavaria to its core. So badly, in fact, that no stable government could truly take hold for almost six weeks. On April 6, a group of left-wing politicians and anarchists coalesced in the confusion and declared a Workers’ Republic.
Toller became the Republic’s chairman/president almost by accident. Like Eisner, his political mentor, Toller was an Independent Social Democrat. His party was divided on the wisdom of declaring a republic. Toller himself had serious doubts.
But when the head of the Central Council of the new government resigned on the spot, Toller was elected to be its new head -- and, thus, the head of the Workers’ Republic.
The first Workers’ Republic lasted about a week. It was a fiasco. Amidst an attempted putsch on April 13, 1919, the Communists in Bavaria – who had boycotted the new government – stepped in and seized power.
Toller was out as president, but he did not abandon the republic. Exigent circumstances led to his assumption of command of Bavaria's Red Army, and Toller led the troops who defeated White troops marching on Munich in Dachau on April 16, 1919. Toller’s soldiers were aided by workers in a munitions factory, who also joined the battle and swung the tide.
Toller gave a speech to the victorious troops that night in front of the Kochwirt restaurant on the town square. The restaurant (left) is still there.
The victory at Dachau was the last good news for the ill-fated Munich uprising. A stronger and better-organized force organized by German’s central government invaded Munich and brutally suppressed the Communist government in early May.
Toller managed to escape and hide for a month. (Initially, he was aided by reports that he was dead.) That month saved his life. By the time Toller was arrested, the blood lust had abated, and an international campaign was created to support him. He was put on trial, defended ably, and sentenced to prison for five years.
As a political prisoner, Toller became a world-renowned figure. He wrote poems and plays in his cell: Masse-Mensch; Hinkemann; The Machine Wreckers; The Swallow Book. And his legend grew. When he was released in 1924, he was one of the most famous German writers of his time. Three of his plays had received premieres as he sat in prison.
Toller's role in the fight for the Workers’ Republic – and especially the battle at Dachau – also made him one of the most prominent opponents of the burgeoning fascist movements in Germany and elsewhere.
Modesty was never Toller’s strongest suit, particularly when it came to making demands that politicians, artists, and all citizens fight for social justice and liberty. In his mind, he had acted on his principles. Other should so so as well.
Toller had suffered imprisonment for his role in the Munich revolt. He wrote works that helped strengthen and embolden left-wing resistance in prison. He also had the moral authority of refusing amnesties offered to him individually and serving his full term. (Unlike Adolf Hitler, who was released after only eight months for his tole in the Beer Hall Putsch in 1924.)
When it came to Dachau, however, this is what Toller wrote in his classic memoir, I Was a German:
Was I “the victor of Dachau?” No, it was the workers and the soldiers of the Soviet who had achieved the victory, not their leader. Dropping all party differences, they had rushed to defend the republic. They had not waited to be told what to do; they had found unity in action.
The victory of Dachau was an important touchstone in the memory of the failed Worker’s Republic. It was a small victory with a large influence on the public imagination. And its ripples extended to the founding of the first internment camp there by the Nazis in 1933, shortly after they assumed power.
In “’We’ll Meet Again in Dachau’: The Early Dachau SS and the Narrative of Civil War,” (Journal of Contemporary History, 2010), Christopher Dillon traces the connections between the battle and the camp.
Dillon notes that “[t]here is nothing to suggest that Dachau’s place in Left mythology had any role in the decision to site Munich’s concentration camp there; the decisive factor was the vacant factory premises.” Yet he adds that “its symbolism appealed to the Nazi spirit.”
One particular incident that Dillon points to is a February 1933 speech made by Hans Beimler, the communist leader in South Bavaria, in Munich’s Circus Krone. Beimler ended his fiery speech by warning the Nazis that ‘We’ll meet again in Dachau!”
Dachau was opened by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler in March, 1933. Dillon mentions that Dachau’s right wing newspaper, Dachauer Zeitung, was making connections already between these events by March 23. “After reminding readers that Dachau was “the well-known base of the Red Guards in the disastrous year of 1919, it gloated:
[Beimler] was right – but in a completely different way …Dachau was once again to become the base for every Red cell bent on transforming our German Fatherland into a communist ‘paradise.’ Now these gentlemen are indeed together again in scenic Dachau – in the concentration camp at the German Works site. But instead of ruling, they are to perform honest work.
‘We’ll meet again in Dachau’ … proving that world’s history is God’s court!
By April, Beimler was arrested at last and headed for Dachau. Dillon observes that “[i]n the police headquarters on the Ettstrasse, triumphant SA and SS Hilfspolizei grasped the irony, whooping ‘We’ve got Beimler. We’ll meet again in Dachau!’”
History has its way of frustrating any neat and easy justice – divine or otherwise. Beimler
escaped from Dachau a month after his arrest. He strangled an SA guard, took his uniform, and made his way out.
By August, 1933, Beimler had published the first account of what it was like inside Dachau in the Soviet Union. It was translated almost immediately into a number of languages, including English as Four Weeks in the Hands of Hitlers Hell-Hounds: The Nazi Murder Camp of Dachau. (Beimler died in 1936 in the battle for Madrid in the Spanish Civil War.)
In August 2018, I had a chance to go to Dachau and see the place where Toller gave a speech to the victorious troops after the battle. There is a plaque that marks the site where he spoke, in front of the Kochwirt restaurant on the town square.
Looking up to the restaurant from the square that afternoon, I could almost imagine the street, in darkness, on the night of April 16, 1919, filled with triumphant soldiers and workers who had just repulsed the forces of reaction. Victors who had no idea what the next few weeks would hold for them. Makers of a revolution that could not be sustained.