Heinrich Heine

(History of the World: The 19th Century)
0111201553-Heine.jpg Heinrich Heine (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Through his literary and journalistic works, Heine exposed the hypocrisy and oppressiveness of feudal society as it existed in many parts of Europe during the first half of the nineteenth century.

Early Life

Chaim Harry Heine was born in Düsseldorf, the economic and cultural capital of the German Rhineland, into a respected Jewish family. His father, Samson, was a moderately successful textile merchant, who had little influence on Heinrich’s upbringing. Indeed, the boy was reared almost exclusively by his well-educated, rationalist mother, Betty, who instilled in him—as well as in his siblings Charlotte, Gustav, and Maximilian—a deep sense of justice and morality, on the one hand, and an aversion for anything deemed impractical (such as art, literature, and theater), on the other.

Despite his mother’s efforts, Heine was eventually introduced to the arts and humanities—and also to Christian ideology—when he, at age ten, enrolled in the Jesuit school near his home. There, encouraged by his teachers, he began to develop his innate talent for writing, a talent upon which he hoped to build one day a viable literary career. His parents envisioned an entirely different future for him, however, and sent him to Hamburg in 1817 to begin an apprenticeship in business with his uncle Salomon Heine, a wealthy and influential banker, who was to become his longtime benefactor. Salomon attempted to transform his rather reluctant nephew into a true entrepreneur and even established a textile trading firm in the boy’s name, but Salomon finally succumbed to the youth’s wish to study law at the University of Bonn.

Once in Bonn, Heine did not pursue jurisprudence as he had originally planned, but instead took his course work in literature and history. Most noteworthy among his courses was a metrics seminar taught by the famed German Romanticist August Wilhelm von Schlegel, from whom he received valuable advice concerning the style and form of his early poetic attempts. After a year in Bonn, Heine transferred to the University of Göttingen to begin his legal studies in earnest, but involvement in a duel—strictly prohibited by university code—soon forced him to transfer again.

In 1821, he settled in Berlin, where he continued his education by electing courses in law and by visiting a series of lectures held by the renowned philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, a major proponent of the historical dialectic, of the history of ideas, and of personal and intellectual freedom. While in Berlin, Heine was befriended by Karl and Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, a liberal aristocrat and his outspoken Jewish wife, who were the focal points of a literary salon frequented by Hegel and other intellectual luminaries of the day. At the age of twenty-seven, Heine returned to Göttingen to complete his legal studies, earning his doctorate in 1825, a year significant in that it also marks his conversion to Christianity and thus to a way of life which could, in his estimation, promote him from a Jewish outsider to an active participant in European culture.

Life’s Work

Heine’s career as a writer—inspired by the events of his youth, which culminated in a series of travels to Poland, England, northern Germany, and the Harz Mountains during the 1820’s—formally began in 1827, when he published his immensely popular Buch der Lieder (Book of Songs, 1856), which pairs such traditionally Romantic elements as idealism, melancholy, and sentimentality with a unique brand of satire and irony. This collection, containing poems written as early as 1819, has love or, more specifically, unrequited love as its central theme. It no doubt was influenced by Heine’s unsuccessful attempt at wooing his cousin Amalie during his apprenticeship in Hamburg.

The year 1827 proved to be an eventful year for Heine. In addition to his Book of Songs, he published two volumes of Reisebilder (Pictures of Travel, 1855), describing his aforementioned trips and containing detailed commentaries on social and political ills, especially the oppression of Jews, blacks, and other minorities in many parts of Europe. Pictures of Travel brought Heine instant fame and notoriety—so much so, in fact, that Johann Friedrich von Cotta, the liberal-minded publisher of the great German masters Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Friedrich Schiller, invited him to Munich early in 1827 to become coeditor of a new journal, Politische Annalen (political annals). Not particularly overjoyed by this offer because he had set his sights on a university appointment, Heine allowed himself a considerable amount of time to complete the journey to Munich from the north German city of Lüneburg, his home since 1825. Indeed, he made lengthy stops while en route, visiting the famous folklorists the Brothers Grimm in Kassel and Ludwig Börne, one of Germany’s most controversial political writers, in Frankfurt. When he finally did arrive in Munich, he was only willing to commit himself to the Politische Annalen for a scant six months.


(The entire section is 2111 words.)