Rahel Varnhagen Essay - Critical Essays

Varnhagen, Rahel


Rahel Varnhagen 1771-1833

(Born Rahel Levin; pseudonyms include Rahel Robert, Antonie Friederike, Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, and Rahel) German epistolary writer and diarist.

As the host of Berlin literary salons and a prolific writer of letters, Rahel Varnhagen is well known as an astute intellectual and a social commentator of her time. Varnhagen was considered a peer of such contemporaries as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Rebekka Friedländer, and Bettina von Arnim. Her salons provided neutral spaces for a heterogeneous community of intellectuals to engage in socio-political and artistic debates, while also offering opportunities to nurture powerful personal relationships. Varnhagen's writings, primarily her letters but also her diaries, demonstrate her sustained interest in issues associated with humanism and with women's emancipation.

Biographical Information

Varnhagen was born in Berlin on May 26, 1771, the daughter of Levin Markus Cohen, a jewelry merchant and financier, and Chaie, his wife. In later writings Varnhagen would describe her childhood as painful and neglected, but it was during her youth that Varnhagen learned the importance of social relationships. Her family, especially her father, enjoyed entertaining and the family household often had guests. Soon after her father's death in 1789 Varnhagen opened her first salon in the attic apartment of her parents' house. It welcomed a diverse mix of classes, genders and backgrounds—aristocrats, Jews, intellectuals, actors, and government officials all gathered to discuss current events, art, and social concerns. During the period in which she hosted this first salon, Varnhagen educated herself by hiring tutors and embracing the writings of Goethe and Jean Paul, among others. Varnhagen's was the most famous of the Berlin salons of the period and it operated from 1790 to 1806, eventually closing when French troops entered Berlin and its members dispersed. Varnhagen herself left Berlin in 1813 because of the war, residing in Prague in 1814 and working in hospitals to aid the injured.

In 1795 she met Karl Finckenstein, to whom she became engaged. Their relationship ended in 1800 because Varnhagen's Jewish heritage and Finckenstein's aristocratic background created difficulties. Between 1802 and 1804, Varnhagen was engaged to Don Raphael d'Urquijo, a Spanish diplomat. Though the relationship was passionate, their engagement ended in part because of d'Urquijo's disinterest in intellectual concerns and his jealous nature. Varnhagen's relationships with other men—Wilhelm Bokelmann, Alexander von der Marwitz, and Friedrich von Gentz—were characterized by heated intellectual discussions and tumultuousness, even when the relationships were platonic. In September 1814 Varnhagen married Karl August Varnhagen von Ense, a Prussian state official and historian, after converting to Protestantism to do so. By all accounts, theirs was a marriage of intellectual and social compatibility, with both expressing a liberalism at odds with the dominant conservative and restrictive culture. After moving to various diplomatic posting, the family returned to Berlin in 1819. Varnhagen's second salon, opened in 1819 and cohosted with her husband, lasted until 1832. Like the first, this salon was marked by its tolerance of dissenting opinions and the diversity of its members, who were some of the most prominent people in Berlin. The first substantial release of Varnhagen's writing occurred after her death in 1833 in her husband's collection, Rahel: Ein Buch des Andenkens für ihre Fruende: Als Handschrift gedrunkt (1833; Rahel: A Memorial Book for Her Friends).

Major Works

Varnhagen wrote thousands of letters that demonstrate her aptitude for the literary tradition of epistolary writing. Varnhagen expressed personal sentiments in her letters, of course, but she also incorporated diary entries, travel notes, literary criticism, reviews, essays on contemporary issues, treatises, and other forms of commentary. Her letters reveal an interest in humanism and individualism, and they emphasize self-knowledge, the constructed nature of identity, and the possibilities for individuals to transform themselves through experience and education. In keeping with these perspectives, the letters often center on the challenges encountered by those who are marginalized for various reasons. A common theme throughout is Varnhagen's identity as a Jewish woman who is constrained by both gender and ethnicity. The letters express the difficulties and limitations of being an outsider and also contemplate questions of assimilation while celebrating individuality. The letters also involve political and social issues, such as women's emancipation. They assert the existence of women's identity as individuals and support women's intellectual and physical emancipation. The letters call for a woman's right to education and vocational training, maternal rights, and a skepticism about the benefits of marriage for women. As a whole, Varnhagen's letters are concerned with the individual and the outsider, themes which reflect Varnhagen's reality as an individual with multiple identities: woman, Jew, converted Protestant, unmarried until her forties, intellectual and host of a famous salon.

Critical Reception

Varnhagen, as both a salonnière and an epistolary writer, is widely studied by those interested in nineteenth-century German culture, salons, and epistolary writing. Varnhagen's letters have been examined as a means for her to articulate, to construct, and to shift her identity, especially as a Jew and as a woman. Critics such as Liliane Weissberg and Dagmar Barnouw use Varnhagen's writings to analyze Jewish-German writing, the development of the German nation-state, and anti-Semitism. Kay Goodman and Doris Starr Guilloton are interested in Varnhagen's expression of women's identity and women's rights. Other scholars, including Lynne Tatlock, trace Vernhagen's letters as inspiration for subsequent generations of feminists, activists, and writers. Critics often cite her letters to demonstrate the influence of her salon and the force of her personality, as well as to highlight her self-aware writing. Generally, most scholars reinforce Edith Waldstein's assertion that Varnhagen's writings reveal her multiple subject positions and eschew a singular, cohesive identity.

Principal Works

Rahel: Ein Buch des Andenkens für ihre Freunde: Als Handschrift gedruckt [Rahel: A Memorial Book for her Friends] (letters and diaries) 1833; revised as Rahel: Ein Buch des Andenkens für ihre Fruende. 3 vols., 1834

Aus dem Nachlaß Varnhagen's von Ense: Briefwechsel zwischen Rahel und David Veit. 2 vols. (letters) 1861

Juden and Judentum in deutschen Briefen au drei Jahrhunderten (letters) 1935

Rahel Varnhagen in Umgan mit ihren Freuden (Briefe 1793-1833) (letters) 1967

Briefwechsel. 4 vols. (letters and diaries) 1979

Rahel-Bibliothek: Gesammelte Werke. 10 vols. (letters and diaries) 1983


Doris Starr Guilloton (essay 1978)

SOURCE: Guilloton, Doris Starr. “Toward a New Freedom: Rahel Varnhagen and the German Women Writers before 1848.” In Woman as Mediatrix: Essays on Nineteenth-Century European Women Writers, edited by Avriel H. Goldberger, pp. 133-43. New York: Greenwood Press, 1978.

[In the following essay, Guilloton contends that Varnhagen's letters and literary salon promoted women's rights and asserted women's equality.]

Given the restricted status of women in Germany until recently, it is all the more noteworthy that the cause of their emancipation was championed nearly two hundred years ago. Its major spokeswomen—first Rahel Varnhagen and then Luise Mühlbach, Countess...

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Kay Goodman (essay date fall 1982)

SOURCE: Goodman, Kay. “Poesis and Praxis in Rahel Varnhagen's Letters.” New German Critique: An Interdisciplinary Journal of German Studies 27 (fall 1982): 123-39.

[In the following essay, Goodman focuses on Varnhagen's letters, as well as those of her contemporary and friend Bettina von Arnim.]

When German feminists trace their literary and cultural roots, they usually begin with the romantic women living around 1800. It was the time of the great Berlin salons and the new romantic liaisons, and both of these phenomena challenged a strictly domestic image of women.1 The aura of sexual liberation in the lives of Caroline (Michaelis-Böhmer-Schlegel)...

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Lynne Tatlock (essay date April 1986)

SOURCE: Tatlock, Lynne. “The Young Germans in Praise of Famous Women: Ambivalent Advocates.” German Life and Letters 39, no. 3 (April 1986): 193-209.

[In the following essay, Tatlock analyzes how Young Germany—a collective of writers who advocated women's emancipation in the 1830s—celebrated Varnhagen and her contemporaries Bettina von Arnim and Charlotte Stieglitz.]

That in the 1830's the group of writers known as Young Germany admired Rahel Varnhagen, Bettina von Arnim, and Charlotte Stieglitz is well known and has long been seen as consonant with their alleged interest in the emancipation of women. Recently Wulf Wülfing has examined the tendency of Young...

(The entire section is 7975 words.)

Deborah Hertz (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Hertz, Deborah. “Inside Assimilation: Rebecca Friedländer's Rahel Varnhagen.” In German Women in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: A Social and Literary History, edited by Ruth-Ellen B. Joeres and Mary Jo Maynes, pp. 271-88. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Hertz considers the collection of Varnhagen's letters to Rebecca Friedländer as reflective of Varnhagen's desire for personal emancipation and her attempts to assimilate.]

Almost two centuries ago in Germany, Rahel Varnhagen was a much-admired, much-discussed phenomenon. During the last decade of the eighteenth century and again during the third decade of the...

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Edith Waldstein (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Waldstein, Edith. “Identity as Conflict and Conversation in Rahel Varnhagen (1771-1833).” In Out of Line/“Ausgefallen”: The Paradox of Marginality in the Writings of Nineteenth-Century German Women, edited by Ruth-Ellen Boetcher Joeres and Marianne Burkhard, pp. 95-113. Amsterdam: Rodopoi, 1989.

[In the following essay, Waldstein notes that Varnhagen's letters reflect a constant renegotiation and reconstruction of Varnhagen's identity. Waldstein claims that these shifting identities reveal Varnhagen's various identities—woman, German, Jew, writer—without depicting a unified, traditional sense of self.]

In German literary history Rahel Varnhagen has...

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Liliane Weissberg (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Weissberg, Liliane. “Stepping Out: The Writing of Difference in Rahel Varnhagen's Letters.” In Anti-Semitism in Times of Crisis edited by Sander L. Gilman and Steven T. Katz, pp. 140-53. New York: New York University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Weissberg analyzes Varnhagen's letters for their articulations about Judaism and nation in order to explore the connections between anti-Semitism and the concept of a German nation-state.]

Nation f. vor Ende des 14. Jh. entlehnt aus lat. natio(nem), das als Ableitung von natus “geboren” … die blutmässige Einheit des Volkskörpers bezeichnet.


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Liliane Weissberg (essay date spring 1992)

SOURCE: Weissberg, Liliane. “Turns of Emancipation: On Rahel Varnhagen's Letters.” Cultural Critique 21 (spring 1992): 219-38.

[In the following essay, Weissberg speculates that Varnhagen's letters offer a unique epistolary form that develops around ideas of emancipation and derives from Varnhagen's perspective as a Jewish female.]


Emancipation, the “deliverance from bondage or controlling influence,”1 is a term that has its origin in the Roman family and describes not just the liberation of slaves but also the freeing of children from paternal power. It developed into a political term associated with contracts and laws and...

(The entire section is 7137 words.)

Dagmar Barnouw (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Barnouw, Dagmar. “Enlightenment, Identity, Transformation: Salomon Maimon and Rahel Varnhagen.” In The German-Jewish Dialogue Reconsidered: A Symposium in Honor of George L. Mosse, edited by Klaus L. Berghahn, pp. 39-58. New York: Peter Lang, 1996.

[In the following essay, Barnouw claims that Varnhagen and Salomon Maiman, as German-Jewish writers, were influenced by both Enlightenment and Romantic concepts of identity and in particular the concepts of transformation, self-knowledge, and experience.]

In the Western world Jews as a group have been perceived as particularly talented for modernity. Socialized into a mixed secular-religious culture that has...

(The entire section is 10608 words.)

Jay Gellar (essay 1997)

SOURCE: Gellar, Jay. “Circumcision and Jewish Women's Identity: Rahel Levin Varnhagen's Failed Assimilation.” In Judaism Since Gender, edited by Miriam Peskowitz and Laura Levitt, pp. 174-87. New York: Routledge, 1997.

[In the following essay, Gellar asserts that Varnhagen's writings demonstrate the obstacles surrounding her identity as a Jewish woman.]


Rahel Levin Varnhagen was born in Berlin in 1771, the eldest daughter of the wealthy jewel dealer Levin Markus and his wife Chaie. Her father was among the select group of Jewish men who possessed the Generalprivileg, which allowed his entire family to...

(The entire section is 6601 words.)

Heidi Thomann Tewarson (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Tewarson, Heidi Thomann. “1833 Rahel Varnhagen, Salonnière and Epistolary Writer, Publishes Rahel: Ein Buch des Andenkens für ihre Freunde, a Collection of Letters and Diary Entries.” In Yale Companion to Jewish Writing and Thought in German Culture, 1096-1996, edited by Sander L. Gilman and Jack Zipes, pp. 136-42. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Tewarson introduces the epistolary tradition in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Germany, tracing its private and public manifestations and noting its contended status as literature. Tewarson uses this background to examine the style of Rahel's writings and to note her...

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Lilian R. Furst (essay date 1998)

Furst, Lilian R. “The Salons of Germain de Staël and Rahel Varnhagen.” In Cultural Interactions in the Romantic Age: Critical Essays in Comparative Literature, edited by Gregory Maertz, pp. 95-103. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1998.

[In the following essay, Furst discusses the literary salons of Varnhagen in Berlin and of Germain de Staël in Coppet to consider the salons' effects on cultural interaction in the Romantic Age.]

In any consideration of cultural interaction in the Romantic Age, one major social institution immediately springs to mind: the salon. The salon was instrumental in bringing together men and women...

(The entire section is 3765 words.)

Further Reading


Weissberg, Liliane. “Changing Weather: A Review Essay.” The Germanic Review 67, no. 2 (spring 1992): 77-86.

Reviews four books on Varnhagen. Weissberg also provides a brief biography and summarizes a conference devoted to the work of Varnhagen.


Arendt, Hannah. Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess. First Complete Edition. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. London: East and West Library, 1957. Reprint, with an introduction by Liliane Weissberg, Baltimore, Md.: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Offers a descriptive, rather than factual, biography of...

(The entire section is 495 words.)