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 a] new death; and immobility is possible for me only in death itself…. I can, if you will, derive every evil, every misfortune, every vexation from that.
Rahel was obsessed by love and friendship throughout her life. Her long search for a suitable German husband reflected a desperate desire to be part of the cultivated German world. She was over forty when she finally converted to Christianity and married the Prussian diplomat August Varnhagen; she thus won a measure of social acceptance in elegant political and intellectual Berlin society. August Varnhagen was fourteen years younger than his wife, and of considerably lower intellectual ability. He adored her. In early nineteenth-century Germany, only “exceptional” Jews were socially acceptable, and they had to prove that they were “exceptional,” whether by their wealth or brilliance or beauty. “How wretched it is always to have to legitimize myself!” Rahel wrote. “That is why it is so disgusting to be a Jew.” Arendt’s main point in her fascinating biography of a sensitive, often deeply unhappy woman was that even as Varnhagen’s converted wife Rahel could not escape her Jewishness. On her deathbed, Arendt suggested, Rahel in effect acknowledged that no one could.
Arendt’s Zionist mentor at the time she wrote the book was the idiosyncratic Kurt Blumenfeld, the inventor of “post-assimilationist Zionism,” who claimed that Zionism, as a noble ideal of an enlightened national destiny, derived in part from German culture; it was “Germany’s gift to the Jews.” He used to say, “I’m a Zionist by the grace of Goethe.” Blumenfeld and Arendt used to spend hours reciting Greek poetry to each other. Arendt’s own “Zion- ism” was as complicated as Blumenfeld’s and far from simple-minded. Any position on the Jewish question that isn’t equivocal, “whether that of the Zionists, the assimilationists or the anti-semites, only covers up the true problematics of the situation,” she wrote Karl Jaspers three weeks before Hitler came to power. Twenty years later she would assure Jaspers: “I won’t stop being a German. I will forge for myself neither a humbug Jewish past nor a humbug American past.”
In 1933, however, when she found that she was only a Jew to the Nazis, she decided that she had to be only a Jew to herself as well. She tried to apply a “Zionist” analysis to the problems that had plagued Rahel Varnhagen in Berlin 130 years earlier. When one is attacked as a Jew, Arendt believed, one must defend oneself as a Jew. After the war, in an essay on Lessing, recapitulating her own feelings in 1933, she wrote that to have tried then to defend oneself as a German patriot or as a world citizen upholding the rights of men would have been a “dangerous evasion of reality.”
The book had a difficult publishing history. The original German manuscript (“Life of a German Jewess of the Time of Romanticism”) was almost finished in 1933, with only the last two chapters (some twenty-six pages) still unwritten. It was one of the few things Arendt packed in her suitcase when, after a brief spell in a Gestapo prison, she managed to cross the Czech frontier without documents and reach the safety of Prague. The manuscript was thought to be lost after Arendt’s second narrow escape in 1940 from Paris on the eve of the German occupation.
After the war, a copy of the manuscript, which Arendt had entrusted to a relative, was found in Jerusalem. Publication was delayed for years. Long after she had become the well-known author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, a German publisher insisted that the word “Jewess” be deleted from the title. The first English translation was published only in the late 1950s, and it was neither effectively distributed nor widely reviewed.
Among the few who read it at the time and wrote her an enthusiastic fan letter was Gershom Scholem, who soon afterward clashed with her bitterly over her book on Eichmann. Fifteen years passed before her book on Varnhagen first gained the attention of a wider American public in a 1974 reprint. Thanks to the diligent researches of Liliane Weissberg, the editor of the new edition under review, we now finally have the first complete text, including the annotations that Arendt herself had been unable to supply because of her abrupt departure from Germany in 1933. For the first time we can find our way through the book’s thick forest of quotations and other literary and historical allusions, many of them obscure, that Arendt was forced to leave unattributed because Varnhagen’s papers had disappeared during the war. After Arendt’s death they were rediscovered in the library of the Jagellonian University of Cracow.
Arendt’s biography of Rahel is probably the most self-consciously personal of all her books. It reflects her own somber mood between 1933 and 1938 as a stateless, hounded refugee, facing the rise of Nazi power in Europe and the doom of German Jewry. Its language will strike some readers as Heideggerian; it breathes with a very distinctive cult of authenticity.
The history of any given personality is far older than the individual as product of nature, begins long before the individual’s life, and can foster or destroy the elements of nature in his heritage. Whoever wants aid and protection from History, in which our insignificant birth is almost lost, must be able to know and understand it.
The book is dedicated to Anne Mendelssohn Weil, Arendt’s close friend from her Berlin days. Young-Bruehl records a chance meeting between the two young women on a Berlin street in 1932 when Arendt expressed for the first time a desire to emigrate. Anne was surprised. She herself, she said, was not at all affected by anti-Semitism. Looking at her in amazement, Arendt said, “You’re crazy,” and walked away.
Young-Bruehl and others have tended to read Arendt’s book on Rahel Varnhagen in conjunction with Arendt’s own personal difficulties at the time she was writing—the painful breakup of her affair with Heidegger and of her first marriage to the writer Günter Anders. Arendt is said to have identified with the similarly painful setbacks in her subject’s stormy love life. Among Arendt’s own “highly cultivated aristocratic friends,” Young-Bruehl writes, she was herself “a modern version of Rahel Varnhagen.”
Arendt recognized in Rahel a vulnerability very much like her own. “Rahel was my dearest friend though she has been dead for a hundred years,” she wrote Heinrich Blücher, her second husband, in 1936. In her biography she calls Rahel a “Mädchen aus der Fremde,” “a girl from far away,” the title of a popular poem by Schiller; that is, she was an outsider, charming but at the same time mystifying to her German contemporaries. In her first letter to Heidegger after the war Arendt said the same of herself.
Rahel Varnhagen wanted to live life “as if it were a work of art”; she also wanted to marry and assimilate into Gentile society. The key to integration was Bildung, the cultivation of self, as proclaimed in Goethe’s famous Bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Apprenticeship. Bildung would make her one hundred percent German. To believe that by Bildung one can make a work of art of one’s life, Arendt writes, was the great error Rahel shared with her contemporaries.
Varnhagen left no literary works, but she was one of the most prolific letter-writers in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Germany. Her correspondents often had her letters copied to enjoy them and pass them around, for it was not easy to decipher her handwriting. More than six thousand letters of an estimated ten thousand are still extant, and they established her after her death as a major literary figure. Intensely introspective, they reveal what Schiller called the “physiognomy of a soul” and Heine “one’s heart’s blood inside an envelope.” They also contain local news and opinions, aphorisms, notes on philosophical and social problems, short essays on poetry and theater, painting and music, but—except during the last decade of her life—hardly a word on politics or the historical events of her time, from the French Revolution to the Restoration after the fall of Napoleon. The concerns of the Romantic cult of Innerlichkeit (the cultivation of the inner self) predominate. In Germany today, the study of Varnhagen’s complex character has become an academic cottage industry. Several popular biographies of her have recently been published, along with her rediscovered papers, which have been closely annotated. They suggest that, more than being the organizer of a famous salon and an interesting case in the history of assimilation, she was the most accomplished German woman of letters of the nineteenth century.