Heine (Jewish Thinkers Series)
Ritchie Robertson, Arthur Hertzberg
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Author note: Arthur Hertzberg (Editor)
Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) is one of Germany’s greatest writers. His agile mind and brilliant wit expressed themselves in lyrical and satirical poetry, travel writing, fiction, and essays on literature, art, politics, philosophy and history. He was a biting satirist, and a perceptive commentator on the world around him. One of his admirers, Friedrich Nietzsche, said of him: ‘he possessed that divine malice without which perfection, for me, is unimaginable.’ Heine was conscious of living after two revolutions.
The French Revolution had changed the world forever. Heine experienced its effects when growing up in a Düsseldorf that formed part of the Napoleonic Empire, and when spending the latter half of his life in France. The other revolution was the transformation of German philosophy in the wake of Kant: Heine explained this revolution wittily and accessibly to the general public, emphasizing its hidden political significance.
One of the great ambivalences of Heine’s life was his attitude to being a German Jew in the age of partial emancipation. He converted to Protestantism, but bitterly regretted this decision. In compensation, he explored the Jewish past and present in an unfinished historical novel and in many of his poems.
unmixed with its opposite, sank into something poor and unsatisfying. A new synthesis was needed. It was Luther who reunited the senses with the spirit. Heine depicts him as a complete human being, both mystical and practical, devout and pleasure-loving. His Reformation legitimized the senses by allowing priests to marry. Heine even tries to link him with pantheism by saying that as Luther’s father was a miner, the boy might have felt the influence of the forces of nature in the depths of the
Paris is the new Jerusalem, and the Rhine is the frontier that separates the consecrated land of freedom from the land of the Philistines’ (2:601). Unlike Hegel, Heine was not dismayed by the execution of Louis XVI and the Reign of Terror. He admitted that the surgical operations performed by Danton and Robespierre on French society had required excessive use of the guillotine. But at least it was a quick death: ‘the patient was not tormented for long, not tortured or broken on the wheel, as many
symbols would be only mild doves and amoretti in comparison. The gods hide their faces in compassion for humankind, their charges for so long, and perhaps also in concern for their own fate. The future smells of Russian leather, blood, godlessness and many beatings. I advise our grandchildren to be born with extremely thick skin on their backs (5:406–7). Heine wrote this in 1842. Six years later, revolutions broke out all over Europe: in Vienna, Berlin, Budapest, Naples and Milan. The
the young men of Paris with his terrible scythe. At such hideous moments pantheism is not enough; you have to believe in a personal God, in an existence beyond the grave’ (W 2:155). But Heine’s route back to God was a more circuitous one than this account acknowledges, and it will be traced in the next chapter. Notes 1 French Revolutionary Documents, vol. 1, ed. J. M. Roberts (Oxford: Blackwell, 1966), p. 172. 2 Donald Greer, The Incidence of the Terror during the French Revolution: A statistical
the Greek religion of joy with the dismal religion introduced by Christ, ‘a pale, blood-stained Jew with a crown of thorns on his head’ (2:492). The Greek religion of joy was viable only when people were well and happy; but most people’s lives are full of illness and suffering. Unable to feel pain, the Greek gods could not sympathize with mankind; but Christ, by sharing in human suffering, has enabled countless people to find in Christianity a source of love and consolation. Besides pondering the