Heinrich Heine: German Lyric Poet and Jewish Political Agitator

A hundred years before Adolf Hitler assumed power an event occurred in Germany that was a harbinger of worse things to come in the relations between Germans and Jews. It was the German reaction to the “Young Germany” movement led by several young Jews whose aim it was to introduce certain liberal social reforms, including greater opportunities for Jews in all aspects of German society. In the course of their campaign, the participants said and did things that German authorities and large segments of the population found insulting and offensive. At the center of the movement and considered by many the personification of the Jewish mentality and nature was world-famous poet Heinrich Heine.

Heine was a sorely conflicted man. While still young he quickly rose to be recognized as Germany’s greatest Romantic poet after Goethe. Because of the beauty and subject matter of his poetry, he was thought to be a man who loved his homeland, especially the Rheinland region, but by middle age he had morphed into a bitter, sarcastic critic,  hostile to almost everything and everyone he had previously loved or admired. In the absence of any other known cause, his life and personality, even his health, seem to have been wrecked by a psychological clash between his genetic makeup, essentially his core Jewish nature, and the culture of the world in which he lived. In his Faust, Goethe had the appropriate line to describe the condition: “Two souls dwell in my breast, alas, forever warring with each other.”

Born in 1797 to ethnically Jewish parents who lived comfortably but modestly in Duesseldorf, young Harry Heine, as he was so named, entered life in an essentially Roman Catholic city whose Jewish residents, but only a minority of the German majority, had welcomed the liberal reforms introduced by Napoleon. Harry’s parents put the poet-to-be in a German kindergarten at age four while concurrently instructing him in Jewish traditions at home and making available additional instruction in the Jewish religion in a private school. Harry attended the local Lyceum in a Franciscan cloister run and taught by Catholic priests, often Jesuits. Discipline was strict— designed to provide useful subjects of Napoleon.

In the Lyceum Harry became fluent in French, not as a second language but on an almost equal footing with his native German. It was to the good fortune of the young Jewish boy that the school Rector Schallmayer, a Jesuit who shared his student’s love for everything French became a special friend and mentor. Schallmayer even tried to persuade Harry to enter the priesthood. Although the poetic side of Catholicism appealed strongly to young Harry, he chose the secular life. In his later years Heine was to immortalize these priests and their peculiarities in the Buch Le Grand (1827) and his Memoiren (posthumous 1884). As if prompted, even compelled, by an innate instinct he also wrote mocking, even blasphemous passages in the Reisebilder (1826) and other poems about his early experiences and schooling.

By virtue of his personality, political leanings, and literary talents Harry Heine was to become an important force during the reactionary period the Germans refer to as the Vormärz, i.e., from 1815, the time of Napoleon’s defeat and the death of his liberal reforms, to the March revolution of 1848 and the resurgence of liberalism.

Previous to the Napoleonic reforms, Jews in Germany had been subjected to certain restrictions on their ambitions and activities. Of the professions only medicine was open to them. But in the new liberal climate Jews, including Jews who had previously been “court-Jews” to the various  princes and traditional moneylenders in the business sector, soon parlayed their skills into modern banking operations. The most successful of the early Jewish banking concerns was the House of Rothschild, whose founder Meyer Amschel Rothschild, made his fortune during the Coalition Wars, following the French Revolution of 1789. As business allies of the ruling class, the Jewish bankers often were baronized, although still denied citizenship. To Harry’s good fortune, his Uncle Solomon had quickly risen in society to become one such successful banker in Hamburg. He volunteered to pay all Harry’s university expenses, providing only that be become a Doctor of Law.

Thus, Harry Heine entered the university with a sound foundation in the Torah, the Psalms, Hebrew and German folklore, French classics, Napoleonic fervor, ghost tales of the Romanticists, Rector Schallmayer’s rationalism, and Jonathan Swift’s brutal satires. These influences would stay with him through out his life.

At Bonn University, Heine enjoyed the special attention of August Wilhelm von Schlegel, a critic and interpreter of foreign literatures, as well as that of Ernst Moritz Arndt, who had been a staunch opponent of Napoleon’s “aggressions.” Heine went along with his fellow students by pretending to welcome Germany’s liberation from Napoleon. While still at Bonn Heine wrote an appreciative sonnet about his days at the university, but in later years in his Romantische Schule (1836) in a vile passage, he repudiated with bitter ingratitude the sentiments he had earlier expressed.

It being the custom in those days for students to move from university to university to seek out the curriculum and professors they felt most comfortable with, Heine nevertheless chose Göttingen in the Hanover region where he found the inhabitants of the region as well as the students at the university to be rather arrogant and standoffish to Jews. Members of the nobility, for example, had separate benches in the classrooms and ate their meals at a reserved table in the Mensa (student cafeteria). In both Bonn and Göttingen, Heine chose mostly courses in literature and history, completely disregarding his uncle’s wishes for him to study law.

For his next and final university Harry Heine chose Berlin. It was a total success. There he was able to make contact with some of the most important people of the day. Nightlife offered operas, theaters, restaurants, wine rooms, and the opportunity to socialize with celebrities in the literary salons of wealthy Jewish ladies. Heine became a regular at Frau Rahel’s salon where he socialized with such worthies of the day as Baronin Elisa von Hohenhausen, the translator of Byron, the world famous philologist Franz Bopp, as well as E.T. A. Hoffmann, the jeweler Fouqué, the German poet and botanist Chamisso, and many others.

In August 1822 Heine joined the Verein für Kultur und Wissenschaft für Juden, a society established to bring Jews into harmony with European culture. Not only had many Germans viewed Heine and Jews in general as outsiders, but some rabbis as well, fearing the possible loss of their influence and power in the event Jews were to assimilate, encouraged all Jews to remain with their own people. Although Heine rejected all religious dogma, his core nature, his racial instinct, as it were, compelled him to support the Verein. The friendships he made in the Verein with fellow Jews were to last a lifetime. Even when he confessed to friends that he had lost his faith in rabbinical dogma and all dogmatic religions, he nonetheless continued to support the Verein and all such agencies established to aid Jews.

At the university Heine took an immediate interest in Hegelian philosophy, attending many of Hegel’s lectures. Later in life he confessed to Ferdinand Lassalle, a German Jewish socialist and political agitator, that he never really understood Hegel but was dazzled by the excitement of it. Heine was to use Hegelian terminology later in his Buch Le Grand merely to make fun of it. With the philologist Franz Bopp he studied Sanskrit and Hindu mythology, to which von Schlegel had earlier introduced him in Bonn. He also studied romantic theories of religion under Schleiermacher and Homer under Friedrich August Wolff. All the while young Harry Heine neglected to study law as his uncle had wished.

After completion of his studies in Berlin, it was Heine’s intention to visit Paris, but he had not reckoned on Uncle Solomon who insisted on his finally obtaining a law degree. Solomon felt that if poetry failed to earn his nephew a decent income, he would be able to fall back on his law degree. Harry therefore returned to Göttingen, where he pursued his study of the Corpus Juris. In June 1824 in preparation for his entry into the real world, Harry Heine decided to be baptized in the Lutheran Church, where he was duly named Christian Johann Heinrich Heine, the name by which he would be known henceforth. He explained to his Jewish friends, “ It is the ticket of admission into European culture”. Of his conversion to Christianity, which he was to regret for the rest of his life, Heine is quoted as saying, “It is extremely difficult for a Jew to be converted, for how can he bring himself to believe in the divinity of another Jew?

In July 1824 he successfully defended his theses in Latin and was awarded a Doctor Juris. Heine was flattered when Professor Hugo, the dean of the law faculty, congratulated him and compared him, in his combination of poet and jurist, with Goethe.

Heine’s continued publishing sweet lyrics and bitter prose. The Book of Songs (1827), inspired by his unrequited love for his uncle’s daughter Amalie, was his most famous collection of lyrics, some of which like Die Lorelei (1822) are known the world over; others served as texts for some of Germany’s song composers (Schubert, Schumann, Mendelsohn). The Romanzero collection (1853) is considered Heine’s most artistically mature poems. Heine’s major prose works (Die Harzreise (1826), The Romantic School, Atta Troll (1847), Germany: A Winter’s Fairy Tale (1844)) are masterpieces of wit, irony, sarcasm, cynicism, and satire. Of Heine’s lyrics, Nietzsche said:

The highest conception of the lyric poet was given to me by Heinrich Heine. I seek in vain in all the realms of millennia for an equally sweet and passionate music. He possessed that divine malice without which I cannot imagine perfection…and how he employs German! It will one day be said that Heine and I have been by far the first artists of the German language.

In 1841, after a second instance of unrequited love, Heine married an illiterate 19-year-old Paris shop girl whom he nicknamed “Mathilde”. Mathilde knew no German and had no interest in cultural or intellectual matters. Though they stayed together for many years, it was not a happy affair. Of marriage Heine is quoted as having said, “Music played at a wedding always reminds me of the music played for soldiers before they go into battle”.

In the period from 1830 to 1850 Heine with Ludwig Börne (another youthful Jewish political agitator) became the intellectual leaders of the “Young Germany” movement, a literary clique really, that attempted to catalyze the artists and writers of Germany and convince them that it was their duty to help bring about political and social change, including especially full equality in German society for all Jews. Writers who did not accept this premise were to be considered sterile aesthetes or antisocial reactionaries. To achieve this goal, they used their highly developed weapons of wit, irony and satire to debunk the arguments used against them and to defame those thought to be blocking their path. However, too many literary and political critics rejected their cold intellectualism, materialism and their feigned melancholy “Byronism”.

Heinrich von Treitschke (1834-1903), a prominent and very influential German historian of the time criticized the arrogance, the unjust allegations, and unbridled ambition of the proponents of the movement. Treitschke described the negative effects Jewry was having on German society in trying to create a hybrid German-Jewish country. In a pamphlet called A Word about Our Jews he wrote, “year after year, out of the inexhaustible Polish cradle there streams over our eastern border a host of hustling, pants-peddling youths, whose children and children’s children will someday command Germany’s stock exchanges and newspapers.” Treitschke also popularized the phrase The Jews are our misfortune, which took such hold that it carried right through the National Socialist period.

Von Treitschke’s views on German Jewry were countered by Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903), an equally prominent German historian, issued his Declaration of 75 Notables against Anti-Semitism in which he rejected Treitschke’s polemic, saying

In an unexpected and deeply shameful manner, the racial hatred and fanaticism of the Middle Ages is being rekindled in various places and directed against our fellow Jewish citizens. What is being forgotten here is that many of them have bestowed benefit and honor upon the fatherland through their industry and talent in commerce and trade, in the arts and sciences.

The scales were again temporarily balanced between those that saw only bad in the Jewish presence and those who saw considerable good. Heinrich Heine was to demonstrate an abundance of both qualities — good and bad — in his life. Increasingly, however, his bitter satirical and polemical writing gradually took precedence over his lyrics. Though Heine continued to produce poetic works of the first order, he gradually lost the close touch with folk poetry and folklore that he displayed in earlier years. Politically, Heine’s writings were sometimes referred to as radical liberal and at other times as blatantly revolutionary. He met and remained on friendly terms with Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Harry Heine, the German lyricist, had finally become the internationalist Heinrich Heine, political poet and literary critic. Heine is quoted as saying: “I had once a beautiful Fatherland; the oak tree grew so high there; violets nodded softly. It was a dream”. The transition was complete.

In effect Heine abandoned the angels of his New Testament youth for the demons of his Old Testament inheritance. Baudelaire saw something of that in Heine, praising him as a writer who “would be a genius if only he turned himself more often to the divine.” At times, Heine would even lash out and criticize his own people for the commercialism and other unattractive traits. He would then apologize and reaffirm his allegiance to his Jewish origins.

When in 1830 the revolution in Paris swept the last Bourbon from his throne and made France a constitutional monarchy, Heine decided to resettle there, spending the last 25 years of his life in Paris. In 1848 Heine suddenly suffered paralysis and was confined to bed until his death in 1856. Before dying he declared himself a Deist and not an atheist, but rejected all organized religions. As for any mischief and transgressions he might have committed, Heine is quoted as saying: “Of course God will forgive me; that’s His job”.

Most critics saw Heinrich Heine as an indisputably great poet, satirist, and polemicist. Writing in 1933, Prof. Robert Herndon Fife of Columbia University gave a positive portrayal: “The infusion of a keenly dialectical spirit into the passions of romanticism; and intermingling of Jewish-Oriental with Germanic characteristics wrought results which were new in the history of literature.”

But it was precisely that intermingling of Oriental and Occidental traits that others found offensive. Adolph Bartels (1862-1945), for example, a significant German poet and journalist in his own right, spoke for others when he said of Heine that he was “No creative genius, simply a constructive talent, merely a virtuoso.” Bartels himself was a strong proponent of völkisch literary works long before the National Socialists even appeared on the scene. When they did, Heine soon became persona non grata and Bartels’ school of prose and poetry achieved quasi-official status. Hitler personally awarded Bartels the Adlerschild medal, Nazi Germany’s highest civilian honor in 1937.

Heine, therefore, was a conflicted personality in the sense that his core nature, his Jewish heritage, often clashed with his Germanic and Christian environment. Heine was endowed by his parents and heritage with certain advantageous Jewish attributes such as a natural affinity for his own people (racial solidarity), verbal facility, aggressiveness, exclusivism, sharpness in intellect and wit, a divine (or demonic) discontent with things as they are, as well as a feeling of superiority living in a strange and hostile world in need of enlightenment. His environment nurtured and formed his second nature as it were, providing him with the best education possible, recognition and reward for his talents, and a changing and contentious political climate in which to use his natural gifts to the full. Heine, the lyric poet, was and remains particularly beloved and admired in the Germanic world, just as Heine, the prose satirist, is especially appreciated in the Jewish diaspora.

For most, it is easier to think of Heine as a Jewish poet and polemicist who became a virtuoso in German lyric poetry just as Heifetz, Stern and others became virtuosi in German music than it is to think of him as a German poet who earnestly wanted and fought for a more liberal Germany.

Because of his sarcastic, snide, and downright insulting remarks about individuals, institutions, and places that had nurtured and informed his youth, Heinrich Heine – the political agitator – understandably angered the German people who saw him clearly as an ingrate and traitor for denigrating the culture and values of Germany and for trying to replace them with those of his own. In effect, he was violating a basic rule of civilized behavior, which he should have learned somewhere along the course of his troubled life, namely, the Hebrew Proverb, “Cast no mud into the well from which thou hast drunk.”

More importantly, however, is the fact that those particular attributes, good and bad, that Heine inherited from his forefathers and that served him so well were also present in greater or lesser measure in many of his fellow Jews as they advanced to ever greater power in German society. Jewish ethnocentrism, their critical attitude toward the Germany combined with a relentless drive to power became very evident as Jews came to dominate the German legal and medical professions, the banks, and the mass media. Concurrently, they also became dominant in political revolutionary movements, especially communism. The accumulated resentment of the German people against the participation of so many members of the Jewish community in subversive (Communism) and decadent (Weimar) activities eventually came to a head with the rise of National Socialism.


1) Kurt F. Reinhardt (1896-1983). Germany: 2000 Years. Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., New York, Vols. 1 and 2, 1950. Reinhardt was Professor of Germanic Languages, Stanford University

2) Robert Herndon Fife (1871-1958). Die Harzreise. Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1933, Introduction pp. ix-lxxxv. Fife was Professor of German at Columbia University

3) Wikipedia items dealing with aspects of his life, a listing of his works, quotations attributed to him, etc.



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