Was he the greatest German poet, the greatest poet of his century? I won’t argue, but I love him the most! Heinrich Heine died 150 years ago — February 17, 1856 — and is still as up-to-date, relevant and wonderful as ever!
I am admittedly prejudiced. Like him I’m a Jew, an apostate, and an exile — he fled reactionary Germany for revolutionary France, I fled a McCarthyite USA for a socialist German state. We both looked to a communist future.
Halt! Heinrich Heine a communist? We should not oversimplify a life so full of contradictions — but judge for yourself.
Born in 1797, Heine grew up when Düsseldorf and the Rhineland were ruled by Napoleon, who brought progressive elements from the French Revolution to much of Europe, including the emancipation of Jews from their forced ghettoes. For years Napoleon spelled progress to Heine, until he came to believe that despite what good he brought, Napoleon had meant tyrannical subjugation.
As poor nephew of a wealthy uncle, Heine suffered greatly. He failed at the commercial career his uncle planned for him but fell head over heels in love with the uncle’s daughter, his beautiful if vapid cousin. This unrequited love caused extreme agony but inspired early bittersweet poems that became the delight of intellectual women in all Germany.
He then studied law. The results were a stupid duel, most probably a venereal disease that agonized and shortened his life, a doctor’s degree and the decision not to practice law. This was the era of the Holy Alliance, a viciously reactionary reversal of revolutionary improvements. Seeing that being Jewish would block almost every career, he had himself baptized in 1825, which caused lifelong self-recrimination and contradictions about religion, especially when he found that proof of baptism was no safeguard against anti-Semitism.
In the years that followed, he vainly sought a job while increasingly colliding with the governments of his day, especially the mighty state of Prussia, which finally forbade all sales of his works. In 1830, hearing of the revolution in France, he migrated to Paris where he spent the rest of his life. He was strongly influenced by the socialist theories of St. Simon, but then became a close friend of young Karl Marx and his wife Jenny, also exiles in Paris, who loved his poetry and exerted a strong influence on him.
Heine was no working-class poet. He was uncomfortable with the pipe-smoking, beer-guzzling German workmen exiled in Paris who were the main carriers of the new communist ideas. He remained torn in many views; he could be aggressive, even spiteful, but he made it increasingly clear that he was committed to the downtrodden and to a future of genuine social justice. In the foreword to “Lutetia,” written a year before his death, he bowed to the censors by insisting he was not for communism, but then continued in his canny way:
“Nevertheless I freely admit that this very Communism, so inimical to all my leanings and all my interests, has an attraction for my soul which I cannot withstand. Two voices speak for it in my heart, two voices which cannot be silenced. They may indeed only be whisperings of the Devil, but whatever they are I am possessed by them and no power of exorcism can drive them out.
“For the first of these is the voice of logic. … if I cannot disprove the premise that ‘every man has the right to eat,’ I am forced to submit to all its consequences … and I cry out: This old society has long been judged and condemned. Let justice take its course! Let this old world collapse in which innocence has perished and egoism prospered, in which man was exploited by man. Let these whited sepulchres filled with lies and corruption be utterly destroyed …
“The second of these imperious voices which holds me enchained is even more compelling and more infernal, for it is the voice of hatred — the hatred which I feel for a party whose most terrible antagonist is Communism and which is therefore our common enemy. I mean the party … of those false patriots whose love for their country is nothing more than an idiotic aversion to foreigners and neighboring peoples, and who daily spew up their bitterness, especially against France … and now that the sword is slipping from their moribund hands I draw some comfort from the conviction that Communism, which will find this party its first obstacle, will deal it its death blow.”
Overly optimistic? Who knows? But it is clear, Heine was one of us — and one of the greatest. His own epitaph was:
“I have never laid great store by poetic glory, and whether my songs are praised or blamed matters little to me. But lay a sword on my bier, for I have been a good soldier in the wars of human liberation.”
Victor Grossman is a writer who has lived in (East) Berlin since the McCarthy years.