Friday is the 150th year of the death of Heinrich Heine. Perhaps the greatest German poet after Goethe, he died in exile in Paris. It was an inauspicious beginning to German nationalism’s relationship with his legacy. Few were willing to embrace him as a poet of national import. He was seen as an outsider, who wrote beautifully in the Germany language (especially as the poet behind Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe), but no German. Even his hometown, Dusseldorf, took a long time before it embraced his legacy, and then with some embarrassment. [I’ve updates with some new links below.]

Heine (along with Rahel Varnhagen and Fanny Lewald) seemed to represent the ability of German Jews to cast off the burden of the Ancien Regime and move freely through civil society (whereas the truth was probably closer to Heine’s friend Karl Marx.) Although he converted to Protestantism, Heine’s literature reveals an ongoing affinity for Jewish traditions. Indeed, he contributed to the translation of Jewish narratives into European literary conventions. Some would see his conversion (like so many others) as more of a ticket to social and political freedom rather than an expression of conviction.

Heine was also a German nationalist–at least the idealist type that abounded during “Springtime of Peoples.” The striving of the people for liberty, not the hegemony of states, would bring about Germany. Because of his political idealism, he was forced into exile in France, wherefrom he continued his literary career. The poetic cycle, Deutschland, was a return trip to Hamburg, and along the way he witnesses the stifling of German creativity and universal rights under Prussian authority.

His vision of Germany conflicted with those who saw unification as a valorization of ethnicity and power. When he was censored by the federal council of the German Confederation, he wrote a short extract positioning Junge Deutschland (Young Germany) against the hegemony of the state:

“Allow me to point out to you, that you either know what Junge Deutschland is, or you know what the Hegelian school is.”

In the same work he wrote something curious. Addressing a charge made by critics, he said,

He claims that we are all Jews, even if no one from Junge Deutschland is acquainted with the Cult of Moses and also no one, with the exception of your obedient servant, carries a drop of this glorious blood … .

Without shame for his heritage, Heine acknowledged the problem of ethnicity and nationality as nationalism evolved. (Quotes are translated, poorly, by me.) But what he said boldly turned into an apology for his participation in discussion about German nationalism. After the unification of Germany in the kleindeutsch model and the National Liberals conversion to Bismarckian notions of statecraft, Heine (and people who thought like him) became decidely un-German. As Jost Hermand has put it,

The post-1871 German nationalists saw in Heine only an immoral wag, a spineless scribbler without any sense of German nationalist virtues, virtues easily summed up in terms such as homeland, the German temperment, depth of soul, inwardness, a sense of community, comradeship, solidarity. For them, Heine was mrerely an exponent of Western liberalism, a doctine that in their eyes was based on vices of egoism, sensualism, and gossip mongering.

It’s not surprising that after WWII, Germans would graps at Heine as they searched for democratic roots on which to rebuild their society. But the tension between ethnicity and nationality still exists. It is difficult for Turks, for instance, to speak about social and cultural problems without referencing their exteriority. The expression of identity can still be an acknowledgement of having an uncertain position in society.

Blog posts on Heine


Updates (February 17, 2006)