Reviewed by Harold Strauss
Strictly as a biography of Heinrich Heine, this book has little value. Heine’s life was dramatic and colorful in the extreme, and cries for objective treatment. The working of his mother’s will and his own nature at cross-purposes, his failure as a business man, bank clerk and lawyer, his crucifying dependence upon the charity of his uncle Salomonâ€”a man who could not tell a great poem from the muttering of an idiot, and who persisted in thinking of Heine as a ne’er-do-well until his deathâ€”his brilliant ascendancy into Berlin’s haut monde and his sudden departure from it, the sensual excesses to which his unhappy and torn conscience drove him, his political intrigues in Bavaria and France, his tragic struggle with an incurable diseaseâ€”all this should provide the material for a stirring biography. Perhaps the author’s justification in skimping the personal side of Heine’s career lies in the fact that all this has already been told, if not insurpassably, then at least adequately.
Nor is Antonina Vallentin interested in the account of Heine’s literary development. She quotes profusely, but neglects to provide a running account of his problems, his failures and his enormous successes as poet and journalist. For many years she has been a political commentator, and it is Heine’s ideas on politics, religion and economics which absorb her. Thus the fact that she has turned from a biography of Stresemann to a biography of Heine is not astonishing. Her mind works in terms of logical abstractions. If she can find evidence of an “-ism” in a poem it means more to her than that same poem’s human or emotional content.
So much for the defects. It must now be admitted, however, that certain of the propositions with which Heine concerned himself, and which the author has abstracted from his work, bear an intense interest for us in the light of contemporary social and political problems. Most notable is Heine’s liberal Europeanism, and its conflict with a German nationalism so furiously aroused after the Napoleonic Mars. Heine’s earliest memories dealt with scenes of the French Emperor’s troops marching through Dusseldorf, with proclamations of political freedom and religious equality for the Jews, and the breaking down of the chains of the “Jew-gates.” But after Leipzig all this was swept away. Reaction flourished. Metternich and his servile Bundestag were working for the restoration of the pre-Napoleonic society, which included disfranchisement for the Jews. A wave of pogroms arose. As usual, the Jews were blamed for the economic collapse which occurs inevitably after great wars. Heine, now a university student, felt the full brunt of prejudice. In Goettingen he was virtually ostracized. At this time there arose a jingoist, Vater Jahn, an illiterate peasant with a flair for oratory who reminds us strangely of Hitler. He founded an organization of “old Teutons” of whom Heine writes:
In a certain tavern in GÃ¶ttingen I had the opportunity of admiring the precision with which my friends “the ancient Teutons” prepared the lists of those who would be proscribed by them as soon as they arrived in power. Anyone who was descended, even seven generations back, from a Frenchman, a Jew, or a Slav was to be condemned to exile. Anybody who had ever written against Jahn or the absurdities of the old Germans themselves might expect the death penalty, carried out, of course, with the axe and not with that French invention, the guillotine.
Heine was no mere anti-nationalist; rather, he was one destined by racial and religious inheritance to demand that nationalism, to claim his allegiance, must be universal in intention. French nationalism stood for an advance in civilization. But what did German nationalism stand for? Goethe had already repudiated it, and Heine, exiled from Germany, followed passionately in his steps. He immediately found himself aligned with the radicals. The very accusations of Metternich’s spies drove him to revolutionary propaganda in which he himself did not believe. For it was characteristic of Heine that he always, through his persecution mania, did his best to live up to the blackest suspicions about him. But in his heart, despite his friendship with Karl Marx, he remained a liberal, who hoped that eventually, if not in his own lifetime, Europe would become a great republic of free hearts, free hands and free minds.
Heine always thought of himself as Jewish by race. But as far as religion was concerned, he had no more cares for gods than for kings. It was the racial question rather than the religious one which he had to fight out before turning Protestant for reasons of expediency. At that time he hoped for an appointment in a University, and he was doing no more than many of his contemporaries in receiving baptism. It was only later, during the six years in which he lay flat on his back contemplating death, that he acquired faith in a principle of immortality and in a concept of God.
Thus when Fichte, the great contemporary champion of immortality, came to visit him, he made the philosopher expound his theory from start to finish. There is something Job-like in Heine’s return to that God who had inflicted upon him every conceivable misery of the flesh.
Heine’s years in France were occupied largely with political intrigue. Like every liberal, he found himself attacked both by the right and the left. He definitely identified himself with the disinherited, the underprivileged of the world. He was driven to this attitude by his discovery that rich Jews would not support widely any pan-Jewish project. Class differences, rather than religious and racial ones, were paramount in their minds. But as a champion of the dispossessed, he came in conflict with his nature as an artist. He faced the same problem that many men off letters face today. In his own words.
I make this admission, that the future belongs to Communism, in an agony of fear which, alas, is not feigned. I think with horror of the time when these gloomy iconoclasts will arrive in power. . . . And yet I frankly admit that this same Communism offers a terrible syllogism that holds me in its grip.