top of page
  • David Biale

Heinrich Heine: A Life of Contradictions

David Biale on George Prochnik

Heinrich Heine was the first Jew to become a cultural icon in Germany. While Moses Mendelssohn achieved fame as a philosopher in the German Enlightenment, Heine’s poetry was beloved by a much wider circle of the culture. His “Lorelei,” an ode to the personified siren of the Rhine was so iconic that the Nazis, who burned his books, had no choice but to preserve the poem but to label its author “unknown.” While Heine converted to Christianity in 1825 (part of a wave of such conversions by the first generation of German Jews to attend university or otherwise partake in German society), he never abandoned his identity as a Jew, even as he gave it a most idiosyncratic definition.

Just as his Jewish identity cannot be easily categorized, Heine defied other categories as well. He lived during the Romantic age and his poetry sometimes appears at first blush to follow that age’s conventions, yet a closer look reveals an ironic spirit and mordant wit that flies in the face of Romanticism. Heine was a kind of materialist avant la lettre, preferring the body over ethereal spirit or, better, believing that there is no spirit independent of the body. He reveled in the earthy life of the folk (whole books have been written on Heine’s references to food). Heine’s love for the folk found personal expression in his marriage to an illiterate Parisian shop girl, as well as in his boyhood love for Red Sefchen, the granddaughter of an executioner, a taboo trade in Germany. Indeed, if the word hadn’t been sullied by recent politics, we might label Heine a “populist.”

Heine championed the democratic ideals of the French Revolution but also embraced Napoleon, who was anything but the epitome of democracy. He rejected the conservative states of Germany, but found inspiration in German folklore and medieval myth. He found commonalities between German peasants and ordinary Jews, both of them poor and downtrodden, but such commonalities were belied by popular antisemitism. He was a revolutionary in spirit, yet he rejected the ideology of his third cousin, Karl Marx, as well as other revolutionary ideologies of his age.

Heine’s allergy to German nationalism has been justly seen as prophetic. More than a century before the Nazis, he famously commented that “wherever they burn books, in the end they will burn people.” He regarded “Teutomania” as perhaps the greatest threat to a civilized Europe, even though he died before German unification and the rise of German expansionism. Banned by German censors, he spent the second half of his life in exile in Paris, yet continued writing only in German. In this and in so much else, Heine foreshadowed the German Jews who escaped the Nazis, but believed that they carried the true culture of Germany (including Heine’s own works) in their luggage.

George Prochnik has done a splendid job of capturing the many contradictions and complexities in Heine’s biography and oeuvre. As with his earlier, well-received biographies of Stefan Zweig and Gershom Scholem (two later German Jewish literati), Prochnik possesses an uncanny knack for inhabiting the mind of his subject. This is not biography at an ivory-tower remove, but rather an attempt to discover, using his subject’s own writing, what made him tick. Because Prochnik does not provide footnotes (preferring, instead, a copious bibliographical essay), it is not always entirely clear where he is ventriloquizing Heine and where he is speaking in his own voice. Either way, the result is a high-octane account of Heine’s life in what seems convincingly the way he himself experienced it.

Prochnik offers a hilarious account of Heine’s pilgrimage to the great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Weimar. If Heine had thought that Goethe would crown him the next German poet laureate, he was in for quite a disappointment. But Goethe had it wrong, as Prochnik demonstrates with a brilliant analysis of the “Lorelei” poem. Heine was able to take a theme from German mythology and give it an entirely original rendition. He convincingly argues that the boatman in the poem might be seen as the allegorical personification of the German Jew whose enchantment by the golden-haired siren leads to his downfall.

Prochnik is particularly good at unpacking Heine’s earliest love affair. He fell for his cousin, Amalie, the daughter of the wealthy uncle who supported him as well as his father. Amalie was cold to the young poet’s advances. Prochnik shrewdly comments:

A few years after the end of his nonaffair with Amalie, Heine found a way of merging the voice he’d developed in resistance to her—the sophisticated, perplexed, and omniscient interrogatory tone in which he presented the state of unrequited love—with his neofolklore style. In that idiom, he wrote the verses that made him a famous poet. And when he found a way of applying this hybrid, urbane form to the nightmare farce of contemporary politics, he produced the work that won him not only honor among champions of liberty, but also an arrest warrant from the Prussian government.

In other words, it was out of the failure of his romantic aspirations that Heine fashioned the ironic tone that set his poetry apart from Romanticism.

As a student in Berlin, Heine came into close association with a number of important Jewish luminaries of the day. Most important was Rachel Varnhagen, whose salon, like those of a number of other Jewish women, attracted intellectuals and artists. Varnhagen, whose biography was written a century later by Hannah Arendt, became Heine’s patron. While in Berlin, Heine also became connected to a nascent society (or Verein) for the study of Judaism and Jewish history, an effort by young Jewish intellectuals to breathe new life into the Jews by connecting them to the vital traditions of their past. The society was led by Eduard Gans, a windbag disciple of the German philosopher G.W.F Hegel. Although the Verein fell apart in short order, the later field of Jewish Studies often sees it as its earliest pioneer. But unable to win an academic post, Gans converted to Christianity in 1825 at about the same time that Heine, for a similar reason also converted (another of Heine’s bons mots was that his conversion was only as an “entry ticket” to German society, not for any theological reason). In fact, there is no reason to believe that Heine saw himself as anything but a Jew, even after his conversion. Indeed, as Prochnik shows, immediately after converting, Heine set about criticizing the church and facetiously turning Goethe into a Muslim.

George Prochnik. Heinrich Heine: Writing the Revolution. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2020. pp. 336. $26.00 (Hardcover)

The question of Heine’s relationship to Jews and Judaism is central to his biography, both because he wrote so much about it and because later Jews, especially secular Jews, were quick to adopt him. Prochnik hardly ignores this question. But since his book appears in Yale’s “Jewish Lives” series, it is worth thinking further about how we should view Heine as a Jew. The “Jewish Lives” series includes a wide array of subjects who fall on different parts of the spectrum, from Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (the chief rabbi of Palestine from 1921-1935) and Gershom Scholem (the historian of Jewish mysticism) on one end, to Walter Rathenau (the German Jewish industrialist and statesman who hectored the Jews for their clannish behavior) and Leon Trotsky (who seemed to care not a whit for the fact that he had been born a Jew) on the other. Clearly, the series has a “catholic” view of who counts as having a “Jewish” life.

But where to situate Heine on this spectrum? Prochnik plausibly argues that Heine had no real Jewish education and, yet, he clearly read deeply in the Bible and in Jewish history. He revised the rabbinic title for the biblical lawgiver from “Moses Our Rabbi” to “Moses Our Revolutionary.” He wrote (but didn’t finish) a poignant novel, The Rabbi of Bacharach, that sympathetically portrays medieval Jews in the face of the blood libel.

Heine was particularly fond of the seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, whom he endearingly labeled “le petit juif d’Amsterdam.” It was Spinoza’s pantheism that inspired him, at least until he abandoned pantheism in the last years of his life. Together with the German-Jewish writer, Berthold Auerbach, Heine contributed toward the cult of Spinoza, a figure who had been largely forgotten by German Jews after his excommunication. Sigmund Freud shrewdly included Spinoza and Heine in his “congregation of unbelievers.” Indeed, Heine can mostly accurately be seen as among those who may have abandoned Judaism, the religion, while never abandoning the Jews. His rightful place on the above spectrum is therefore together with other secular Jews, that is, those who found the roots of their secularism in Jewish history itself.

Two poems demonstrate how Heine deployed the Jews in lampooning European high culture. The first draws upon Heine’s love of food as the synecdoche for culture. It is an ode to cholent, the soporific meat, bean and potato cassoulet that Jews eat on the Sabbath. In his dialect, it is called “schalet:”

“Schalet, beauteous spark immortal, “Daughter of Elysium !” Thus would Schiller’s song have sung it, Had he ever tasted Schalet.
Schalet is the food of heaven, Which the Lord Himself taught Moses How to cook, when on that visit To the summit of Mount Sinai

Heine succeeds here in satirizing Schiller’s famous “Ode to Joy” by turning it into an ode to Jewish cuisine, but he also makes fun of the dish itself. God may have given the Jews the law on Sinai, but his real revelation was this earthy stew.

This was also his strategy in a poem about the Greek god Phoebus Apollo, exiled from Greece to wander in Europe. A nun in a cloister on the Rhine has fallen in love with him and escapes the nunnery to search for him:

Have you seen the god Apollo? It’s a scarlet cloak he wears; Sweetly sings and plays the lyre And he is my darling idol

A disheveled traveler, marked by his beard and his gestures as a Jew, replies:

If I’ve seen him? Sure, I’ve seen him! Not just once, but many times; Back home up in Amsterdam At the German synagogue.
For he was the cantor there, And his name was Rabbi Faibisch In High-German that means Apollo [i.e. Phoebus Apollo] But my idol he is not.

Punning on Phoebus Apollo, Heine turns the Greek god into an Ashkenazi Jew, Rabbi Faibisch. His mother “sells sour pickles in the market and decrepit trousers, too.” Moreover, this Rabbi Faibisch has not even remained an orthodox Jew:

He is even a free-thinker, Eats swine and has lost his job; Now he roams about the country With a troupe of painted actors.

On one level, this poem takes the form of a hoary Jewish joke, which deflates the ethereal culture of classical Greece by comparing it to the mundane reality of the Ashkenazi Jews. But the poem is also a kind of allegory in which the marriage of classical Greece and European Christianity somehow goes awry as a result of the intervention of the Jews: the god Apollo becomes first a disreputable rabbi and then a dissolute free-thinker, a secular Jew. It is the Jews, representing secular modernity, who disrupt this marriage: their story becomes the culmination of the history of the West.

And, so, even if Heine often lost his patience with his fellow Jews and regarded Jewish fate as one of suffering and exclusion, it seems likely that he would have agreed with the deathbed confession of his friend and muse, Rachel Varnhagen, who is reputed to have said: “The thing which all my life seemed to me the greatest shame, which was the misery and misfortune of my life – having been born a Jewess – this I should on no account now wish to have missed.”


David Biale is Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis. He is the author, most recently, of Gershom Scholem: Master of the Kabbalah, which appeared in Yale’s Jewish Lives series.


Commenting has been turned off.

Current Issue

bottom of page