Josh Glancy

Heinrich Heine’s life shows how lucky we are

The great poet loved Germany—but it did not love him or his fellow Jews back, writes Josh Glancy


XKH149505 Portrait of Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) 1831 (oil on paper on canvas) by Oppenheim, Moritz Daniel (1800-82); 43x34 cm; Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany; German, out of copyright

February 12, 2021 09:55

Like many 19th century Jews, Heinrich Heine lived inside a prison. This jail did not have walls or bars or guards, but Heine was permanently trapped inside it nonetheless. No matter how much the German poet maligned his faith — even converting to Christianity — in German eyes, he would always be a Jew.

I’ve been haunted by Heine lately, having just finished George Prochnik’s gorgeous biography, the latest instalment in the excellent Yale Jewish Lives series. I find myself drawn to this restless, angry genius, moved by his poetry and startled by his eerie prophecies. But most of all, I find myself fixated with Heine’s prison, the way the world defined and proscribed him because he was a Jew.

Born in Dusseldorf in 1797, Heine came of age in the late 1810s amid the backlash to Napoleonic emancipation. Civil rights were rolled back, laws banning Jews from large swathes of public life were reinstated and the “Hep-Hep” pogroms broke out in Bavaria.

Heine’s Germany was censorious and unapologetically antisemitic. And yet for all his many frustrations, he cared for it deeply, traversing its byways and burrowing deep into its folklore. “Germany — is ourselves,” he wrote to his friend, Rahel Varnhagen.

Heine was fixated by Germany and he captured its splendour as well as any of the great gentile laureates, Goethe, Schiller or Wagner. His poems about forests and water sirens, set to music by Schubert and Schumann, became such quintessential German lieder that even the Nazis couldn’t bear to ban them, merely taking Heine’s name off instead and registering their author as “Unknown”.

But Germany never loved Heine back. His Jewishness made him a pariah, even after he renounced it. Though his work was acclaimed, success was always conditional and transient. Prestigious academic jobs were out of reach. Smart gentile friends distanced themselves and Prussian authorities sought to prosecute him for literary transgressions.

Yearning for acceptance, Heine converted to Protestantism in 1825. He wrote odes to Martin Luther and took the first name “Christian”. It didn’t work. Nothing really changed except that Heine opened up a new avenue of self-loathing, cursing himself as a submissive converso as well as an alienated Jew. Eventually,, in 1831, Heine gave up on Germany altogether and moved to Paris, attracted by its Jacobin fervour and the promise of a new society.

Yet for all his revolutionary sentiments, Heine prayed that such social ferment would never reach Germany. Because what he understood better than Goethe or Wagner ever could was the darkness that lurked in the shadows of those luscious Teutonic forests, predicting with chilling prescience that one day “a play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll”.

It was after watching a group of nationalist students burning books at a festival in Wartburg that Heine wrote his immortal words: “That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people too.” This phrase is now inscribed on the ground of Berlin’s Opernplatz, on the spot where Nazis paid tribute to his foresight by tossing Heine’s own works into a bonfire.

There’s been something of a vogue for Heine in the US of late. The half-forgotten poet has been exhumed not just by Prochnik’s book but also by anxious American thinkers, who detect something of their own predicament in Heine’s prophecies about the barbarism that lies just beneath society’s surface.

Yet for me the Heine mini-revival brings hope as well as fear. Reading about Heine’s Jewish agony made me reflect on my own emancipation. How growing up in late 20th century Britain and living in 21st century America meant being liberated from the leeches of prejudice that sapped Heine’s soul.

It’s not that our world today is free of antisemitism or Jewish anxiety (surely both are eternal), but our identity is no longer a cage. We all make our compromises, but we no longer feel forced to genuflect before the crucifix and beg for mercy. We are free.

I thought of Heine again this week, when David Schoen, the lawyer representing Donald Trump in his impeachment trial, asked for a special Shabbat trial recess from the Senate. And they said yes! The mighty US Congress agreeing to pause proceedings just so a Jew could go to shul on Shabbos. What would Heine have made of that?

“Our descendants,” Heine once wrote, “will shudder when they come to read what a ghostly life we led, how our humanity was cleft in two and only one half had a real life.” Correct yet again. The words of this prophet will continue to haunt me, but with them comes gratitude: that the liberation he longed for is ours by right.

February 12, 2021 09:55

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