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.
Some of the best letters are addressed to her lovers. They were nearly all younger than herself and often exceptionally handsome. Upon first reading a published collection of her letters on German literature, Goethe felt sure that they had been written by a man. She and Friedrich von Gentz, Metternich’s future right-hand man, seem to have experimented with exchanging gender roles, at least verbally. Gentz wrote her in 1803 that no woman on earth loved as well as she, and added:
Do you know, my love, why our relationship is so grand and so perfect? You are an infinitely productive, I am an infinitely receptive being; you are a great man; I am the first of all women who ever lived. I know this: that had I been physically a woman I should have brought the globe to my feet…. [Ours is] a physical relationship between people whose inner selves are reversed in each other.
Yet just after he wrote this, Gentz betrayed her and told a friend that “never has a Jewess—without a single exception—known true love.” Rahel was a willfully independent woman, an early feminist who set out to build her life for herself on her own terms. In her moving, introspective letters, Arendt seemed to have found something of herself—an unconventional woman in a male-dominated world. The title of the last chapter in Arendt’s book sums up its central uncompromising theme: “One Does Not Escape Jewishness.” Here Arendt seems to say that, for a Jew, full integration and assimilation in Gentile society was possible only if he or she were willing to assimilate Gentile anti-Semitism as well. Anti-Semitism, she believed, was too much an integral component of Christian society and its historical past. If one wishes to be a normal person like everyone else, Arendt claims, there is little alternative to exchanging old prejudices for new ones. The choice is between being a scoundrel, a parvenu, or a conscious pariah and rebel. “If one really assimilates, taking all the consequences of denial of one’s own origin and cutting oneself off from those who have not or have not yet done it, one becomes a scoundrel.”
Only the exceptional Jew could expect to be considered “normal” in Christian society. And the exceptional Jew is inevitably ridden with guilt, for there are always other Jews of whom he is ashamed; they, in turn, make him feel shame at his own betrayal. If he does not want to become a scoundrel, he becomes a rebel, an embattled pariah, conscious of being one.
Rahel was probably the first assimilated German Jew who articulated what it meant to be trapped in this painful circle. She called it the “text of my old offended heart.” After the breakup of her engagement to Count Karl von Finckenstein in 1799 she could no longer take the disgrace and fled briefly to Paris. In Paris she breathed more freely, as would Heine and Karl Marx after her; in Paris she was not considered Jewish but Prussian. In Paris, she wrote, “foreignness is good.” She fell in love again with an Italian, a decade younger, “handsome as a god.”
Rahel returned to Berlin in 1801. On the Jaegerstrasse, under a large portrait of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing—the first major German writer who suggested that Jews were human beings—Rahel kept open house several times a week. Hers was not the only literary salon in Berlin run by a Jewish woman but it was by far the most successful. Berlin was little more than a dull garrison town. There was still no university and only one serious literary magazine. What there was of a middle class was largely Jewish. As Arendt wrote, “The rich were not cultured and the cultured not rich.” Court society included many military officers; it was unbearably rigid, and notoriously dull. Under Frederick the Great, women were excluded.
Rahel’s father, a jeweler, died when she was in her teens, leaving her only a limited and shrinking income. She was of medium height, “with hands and feet too small, and a disproportion between the upper and the lower part of her face,” in Arendt’s description, and an overlong chin. Her companions were attracted by Rahel’s exotic looks, her pitch-black hair and fine translucent eyes. They were fascinated by her conversation, vivacity, tenderness, loyalty, and rare capacity for friendship.
As with most women of her time, her education had been unsystematic. She was almost entirely self-taught. Though she liked to think herself an “ignoramus,” her letters reflect a close familiarity with the works of Goethe, Schiller, Jean Paul, Lessing, Schelling, Heine, Schleiermacher, and Kleist. She read Shakespeare, Dante, Hobbes, Molière, Rousseau, and Racine in the original. In her salon, men and women, Jews and Gentiles, met for the first time in Berlin as equals. Liaisons took place that were erotic and intellectual at the same time. Moses Mendelssohn’s daughter Dorothea met the Romantic poet Friedrich Schlegel and left her Jewish husband to become Schlegel’s mistress and, after her conversion, his wife. This episode hardly caused a stir.
Writers, actors, poets, scientists, opera singers, historians, and philosophers came to Rahel’s salon: the early Romantic poets Heinrich von Kleist, Ludwig Tieck, August Schlegel (the famed translator of Shakespeare), and Clemens von Brentano as well as diplomats, members of the royal family, and the theologian of “feeling” Friedrich Schleiermacher. Later on, after her marriage to Varnhagen in 1814, the historian Leopold Ranke, the poet Heinrich Heine, and the philosophers Hegel and Fichte came to her evenings. Poetry was read aloud. Soulful friendship, sentimentality, and weak tea were offered in an intoxicating atmosphere of “ecstatic sociability.” Distinguished foreigners including Honoré Mirabeau and Mme. de Stäel sought her advice or at least her company. De Stäel observed that the Jewish salons of Berlin were the only places in Germany where aristocrats and bourgeois freely mixed and where one met not only beer-drinking males but also emancipated women.
Rahel’s most prominent admirer, socially speaking, was the dissolute Prince Louis Ferdinand of Prussia, Frederick the Great’s nephew, who hated his family and dabbled in the arts. According to his biographer, Louis Ferdinand was “handsome, spoiled, perpetually in debt, talented but confused, sad and in addition already drunk by early afternoon.” Friedrich von Gentz said of Rahel that she was a Romantic before that word was coined. Gentz’s arrival at one of Rahel’s soirées was described by an eyewitness:
Unexpectedly Gentz…rushed into the room and without…taking the least notice of us, threw himself upon the sofa and called out: I can’t bear it any longer…I can’t…I spent the entire night writing, worrying! At five o’clock the goddamned creditors; wherever I turn they are confronting me; they are hounding me to death, nowhere calm or rest.
Before her marriage and conversion, however, her guests hardly ever returned her invitations. The Humboldts and Finckensteins owned fine townhouses in Berlin and spacious villas in the nearby countryside. Whether because of social convention, or class snobbery, or race prejudice, or all three, they would not ask Rahel to visit them. Behind Rahel’s back, one of her most prominent guests, the liberal statesman Friedrich von Humboldt, referred to her as “the little Levy”; in addition to being condescending he also misspelled her name. “I like Jews only en masse; en détail I strictly avoid them,” he wrote.
Rahel’s father, Markus Levin, had been a Prussian Schutzjude, or Tolerated Jew. This meant that he was allowed to live in Berlin with his family as long as he periodically made special payments to the Crown. Only relatively rich Jews were given residence in Berlin. In addition to all other taxes, Levin had to pay special Jew-taxes to be granted “toleration” when he married or bought a house. Whenever they entered a city gate, he and his family had to pay, as Jews, a poll tax at the same rate as if they were oxen. Frederick the Great’s Edict of 1755, by which their lives were regulated down to the smallest detail, was defined by Mirabeau as “fit for a cannibal.” A few hundred such Schutzjuden with their families and retainers lived in Berlin. Their number was limited by law, their status revocable at any moment. When Moses Mendelssohn (soon known throughout Europe as the “German Socrates”) first came through the Rosenthaler Gate, the only city gate by which foreign Jews (and cattle) were usually allowed to enter, the customs officer noted in his watchbook: “Today there passed six oxen, seven swine, and a Jew.”
Sybille Bedford, one of the few reviewers of Rahel Varnhagen when it first came out, felt that it was a
tour de force…a relentlessly abstract book—slow, cluttered, static, curiously oppressive; reading it feels like sitting in a hothouse with no watch. One is made to feel the subject, the waiting, distraught woman; one is made aware, almost physically, of her intense femininity, her frustration.
The book consists of a series of disjointed essays and is not easy to read. Until the new edition under review appeared, one was often unsure whether one was in the eighteenth or twentieth century. The forest of quotes, unidentified in the text, made it difficult to know who is talking to whom and when, and in what context. All this is now changed thanks to Ms. Weissberg’s diligent search through the Varnhagen papers.
In her otherwise excellent introduction, Weissberg inexplicably seems to suggest that Arendt cheated after the war in her claim for monetary compensation from the West German government because, among other damage, she had suffered the loss of her potential academic career. Weissberg suggests that since Arendt’s book on Varnhagen had never been properly presented, accepted, and registered as a postdoctoral thesis, it therefore could not have enabled her to have an academic career. This seems preposterous. How could Arendt have submitted the thesis to a university after the Nazis rose to power and all Jews in the academy were sacked?
The legitimacy of Arendt’s claim was duly recognized after the war by the German appellate court. If it were not for Nazi rule, her postdoctoral thesis on Varnhagen, endorsed by both Heidegger and Jaspers, would surely have been accepted. On the strength of it she could have started an academic career in Germany instead of two decades later in America. And the 531,698.76 Deutschmarks she received—well over $100,000 at the then prevailing rate of exchange—were paltry compensation for her years as a penniless refugee in Paris, in a French concentration camp, and later, with her mother and jobless husband, in what Alfred Kazin described as a “shabby rooming house on West 95th Street.”
When Arendt sent the newly found German manuscript in 1947 to her friend Herman Broch, he wrote to her: “Unfortunately [your book] has les défauts de ses vertus.” It is an
“abstract biography” and displays an odd two-dimensional quality…. I want to know not only who slept with whom but also the address and date. What you do is abstract pornography…and this does not work in the long run.One doesn’t even know the age of the protagonists…since you consistently insist on not telling any dates.
Jaspers, to whom she sent the manuscript a few years later, in 1952, criticized it on more serious grounds. He realized, he said, that at the time of writing Arendt had used her study of Rahel’s life to help liberate herself and clarify her own thinking. The result, however, was that she had forced “everything under the rubric of [Rahel having been] a Jew.” That was unfair, Jaspers thought. Rahel as Rahel, as a human being in whose life the Jewish problem had a large part “but by no means the only one,…seems to have awakened neither your interest nor your love.” In a long-winded, slightly flustered reply Arendt confessed that the book had been “very remote to me for years now.” It was written
from the perspective of a Zionist critique of assimilation, which I had adopted as my own and which I still consider basically justified today. But that critique was as politically naive as what it was criticizing. Personally, the book is alien to me in many ways.
She had finished it in 1938 in Paris, she wrote, only because Blücher and Walter Benjamin had insisted that she do so. She now conceded that perhaps it ought not to be published. Whatever was in it that she still considered historically relevant, she told Jaspers, was contained, in shorter form, and devoid of all “psychology,” in the first part of her book on totalitarianism.
Arendt’s construction of Varnhagen’s “psychology” had grown out of a close reading of the Varnhagen papers, culminating in Rahel’s last words uttered on her deathbed, as reported by August Varnhagen. These famous last words prompted Arendt to claim that at the end of her life Rahel had realized the futility of being a parvenu, of trying to assimilate into a majority that refused to accept her. On her deathbed, Arendt felt, Rahel had finally accepted her cursed birth and become a rebel, a pariah. She had died as a proud Jew. Rahel’s last words form the dramatic opening of Arendt’s book:
WHAT A HISTORY!—A fugitive from Egypt and Palestine, here I am and find help, love, fostering in you people. With real rapture I think of these origins of mine and this whole nexus of destiny, through which the oldest memories of the human race stand side by side with the latest developments. The greatest distances in time and space are bridged. 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.
But Arendt did not quote Rahel’s deathbed statement in full. (Even the diligent Ms. Weissberg fails to mention this in her notes.) Addressing her husband, Rahel continued, tearfully,
Dear August, my heart is refreshed and delighted in its in-most depths. I have thought of Jesus and cried over his passion; I have felt—for the first time I felt it so—that he is my brother. And Mary, how she suffered! She saw the beloved son suffer but did not succumb; she stood at the cross. That I could not have done, I would not have been that strong. May God forgive me, I confess how weak I am.
The full text suggests that her conversion to Christianity fifteen years earlier could well have been sincere. From what we know, she had been genuinely converted to her friend Schleiermacher’s “religion of feeling.” One wonders if, as a woman and a liberal follower of Saint-Simon in her later years, Rahel would have felt any less marginal if she had been been born a Christian. Did she really feel a pariah on her deathbed and no sense of belonging, as Arendt thought? “Our history [as Jews] is nothing but the case history of our own illness,” she wrote Heine in 1830, three years before she died. Unlike Rahel, Heine had converted for opportunistic reasons. He dedicated a cycle of poems to her entitled Homecoming. After Rahel’s death Heine wrote August Varnhagen recalling her enigmatic character, their long intimacy, their “secret circle”:
Our very own secret we have never revealed…. We step into the grave with sealed lips. We understood each other by mere glances. We looked at each other and knew what was happening inside us. The language of the eyes will soon be lost. To those born later, our written testimonials (for example Rahel’s letters) will be undecipherable hieroglyphs.
February 18, 1999