Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess
By the end of the nineteenth century Rahel Varnhagen, the daughter of Markus Levin, seemed in retrospect the first completely assimilated Jew in modern German history. A century before, in the “garret” of her parents’ house on the Jaegerstrasse in Berlin, she ran the best-known German literary salon of the nineteenth century. She was only about twenty years old when she started inviting people to come to see her around 1791, and her salon was almost immediately frequented by leading Romantic poets, foreign diplomats, and fashionable young Prussian aristocrats. She was widely seen as having inaugurated the Goethe cult in Germany. Though she herself felt highly uncomfortable as a Jew, she helped launch what later came to be called the German-Jewish “dialogue” or “symbiosis”—a highly charged and contentious subject of debate.
Heine was the first symbioticist. He said that Germans and Jews were Europe’s “two ethical peoples” and that they would together make Germany “a citadel of spirituality.” Ancient Palestine, according to Heine, had been the “Germany of the Orient.” More recently, such writers as the German-born Israeli historian Gershom Scholem have claimed that such “symbiosis” was an illusion: it had never existed. The very term (derived from botany) was outrageously pretentious. The “dialogue” had nearly always been entirely one-sided.
The quarrel over whether or not nineteenth-century German Jews had been able to become fully integrated into German society has long divided Zionists and assimilationists. Untold thousands of Jews—we will never know just how many—quietly assimilated by conversion to Christianity and succeeded in merging with the Gentile population. The question whether Jews could ever be truly accepted, as Jews, overshadowed Rahel Varnhagen’s life and still does. Hannah Arendt wrote most of her intellectual biography of Varnhagen just before Hitler took power in 1933. In this book, published more than twenty years later, she made an eloquent plea for ethnic pluralism, articulating for the first time her notion of the Jew as a creative pariah. Arendt’s biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, claims that in her book on Varnha-gen, Arendt “by way of Fichte, Schelling, and the German Romantics…disassimilated, in the direction of Zionism.”
Rahel never cut herself off from her Jewish friends and relatives, who attended her salon, but from an early age she bitterly hated her Jewish origins. Her love affairs with several Prussian aristocrats and with one flamboyant Spanish diplomat ended sadly when they refused (or were forced by their families to reject) a mésalliance. It is difficult today to know their motives; class snobbery and Judeophobia both probably had a part. Marriages between Prussian aristocrats and rich Jewish brides were not uncommon at the time, but Rahel was neither rich nor good-looking. She attributed her inability to marry the first man “qui a voulu que je l’aime” (the “brick blond” young Prussian count Karl Finck von Finckenstein) to her “erroneous” or “infamous birth.” She considered it a curse,
a slow bleeding to death. By keeping still I can delay it. Every movement in an attempt to staunch it [is…
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