Symposium über den Zustand der Demokratie in Europa und die Lage der jüdischen Diaspora
225. Geburtstag des Düsseldorfer Dichters, Denkers und Journalisten Heinrich Heine
Die Hauptrede lieferte dabei auf Einladung des Landesbüros Christian Liedtke vom Heinrich Heine Institut in Düsseldorf. Später moderierte Prof. Gisela Dachs vom Europäischen Forum der Hebräischen Universität vor zahlreichen Zuhörern eine spannende Diskussion mit Herrn Liedtke, Prof. Dov Maimon vom Jewish People Policy Institute, Dr. Toby Greene von der Bar Ilan Universität und Prof. Manuela Consoni von der Hebräischen Universität.
Die Eröffnungsrede des Büroleiters Dr. Gil Yaron zur Veranstaltung
When Harry Heine was born in Düsseldorf on December 13, 1797, it was a time of radical change.
The French revolution had brought new ideals to Europe. In Dusseldorf, it had brought about a new age of tolerance and openness. As Heine would later say: In my youth, Dusseldorf was not only dominated by the French, but also by the French spirit.
All over Europe, Jews left the Ghettos after Napoleon tore down their walls. Thus, young Harry became one of the first Jewish pupils at the local Lyzeum.
Harry enjoyed a modern upbringing. His mother could dream of Harry becoming a conqueror one day, or the Pope, a millionaire, and finally a lawyer.
But Napoleon’s ultimate defeat would change this boundless optimism.
Slowly, the ideas of egalite and fratenite were pushed back by the Austrian reactionary Metternich. Patriotism was replaced by jingoism, openness by censorship, tolerance by Anti-Semitism. Borders were re-erected. The tide of what once seemed an invincible, liberating revolutionary wave ebbed into a long dry spell for liberal ideas all over the continent.
This affected Jews first of course, who again became second class citizens as emancipatory laws were rescinded and war and pogroms raged on Europe’s soil.
For Heine, who encountered anti-Semitism again and again, conversion to Christianity seemed the only way to attain equality and recognition – but even though he was now called Christian Heinrich Heine, both would never be granted to him during his lifetime.
One of Germany’s greatest writers, who introduced Germany to Europe and Europe to Germany, remained hated in turn for being Jewish, or German.
He was a controversial, a contradictory figure. He was an Atheist who recognized the great power of religion when he foresaw the Nazi menace decades before it materialized:
“Christianity – and that is its greatest merit – has somewhat mitigated that brutal Germanic love of war, but it could not destroy it. Should that subduing talisman, the cross, be shattered, the frenzied madness of the ancient warriors, that insane Berserk rage of which Nordic bards have spoken and sung so often, will once more burst into flame. This talisman is fragile, and the day will come when it will collapse miserably. … the German thunder will come and when you hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world's history, then you know that the German thunderbolt has fallen at last. At that uproar the eagles of the air will drop dead, and lions in the remotest deserts of Africa will hide in their royal dens. A play will be performed in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like an innocent idyll.”
Looking at Heine’s biography on his 225th birthday, the question poses itself whether history is about to repeat itself.
After the Second World War, Europe had seemingly learned its historical lesson. While the OSCE helped maintain peace and security, Europeans embarked on a unique historical endeavor: erasing their borders to create prosperity and stability together.
The European Union became a symbol of the success of liberal democracy, human rights, tolerance and reconciliation and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. It served in many ways as a template for advancing Globalization which erased borders, lifting more people out of poverty than ever before.
But just like in Heine’s days, also today it seems that the course of history is never linear, but takes a much more circuitous route.
Globalization, once hailed as a panacea, is being rejected by ever more people who bemoan the perceived loss of national identity and sovereignty. Populists, some with fascist leanings, are enjoying a surge in popularity all over the world. Hyped nationalism has brought war back to Europe’s soil. And as always in history, all this is accompanied by a worrying surge in Anti-Semitism.
In the US, the year 2021 saw 2717 anti-Semitic incidents – an all-time high, three times the number of 2015.
In Germany, in 2021 the number of anti-Semitic incidents increased by 29%, in the UK by 34%, in Canada – 54%, and in France by a shocking 74%, according to research published by Tel Aviv University.
But are these really parallels?
Which consequences can we draw from the fate of Heine and his contemporaries for today?
How can we understand the current developments, and what do they mean for Jewish communities in Europe, the US, and also in Israel?
For me as the representative of North Rhine-Westphalia in Israel, Heine’s birthplace and Germany’s most populous and industrialized federal state, these questions are more pressing than ever. They directly affect vibrant and liberal democratic societies like North Rhine-Westphalia and Israel, which is why I am so happy that we could engage such an illustrious panel of experts to debate these issues today.
Like in the other numerous projects of our office in Israel, this panel demonstrates that by working together, our states are much better equipped to identify and face common challenges.
I thank Dr. Gisela Dachs and the Hebrew University for cosponsoring this event, and am looking forward to the riveting discussion which awaits us
von Christian Liedtke (Heinrich Heine Institut Düsseldorf)
Dear Dean Drori, dear Professor Dachs, dear Dr. Yaron, dear guests!
Thank you and the Office of the State of North Rhine Westphalia for Economy, Science, Education, Youth and Culture in Israel for your kind invitation and for this wonderful opportunity to share my thoughts on “Heinrich Heine – a vanguard of liberal democracy?” with you.
As a young man, Heinrich Heine once imagined his own afterlife in heaven:
I dreamed a dream: I’m God himself,
All Heaven kneels to me,
The angels sit around my throne,
And praise my poetry.
Of course, the actual reception of Heine’s works was rather more controversial, so, in the light of this little poem, a gathering in his name in Jerusalem surely would have pleased him.
Would he approve of the title of our conference, “Heinrich Heine – a vanguard of liberal democracy?” I think he would like the fact that this title is a question. The question mark is Heine’s favorite punctuation mark. Questioning things was what he saw as his task as a writer, rather than coining axioms or posing as an all-knowing ‘expert’.
The term “liberal democracy” though would have sounded a little different to Heine’s ears than it does to ours. He did not use the word democracy in terms of a political system of representative government where everybody can vote. He used “democracy” primarily as the opposite of “aristocracy”. To him it meant equality. Of course, he was a fierce advocate of that. As far as the term “liberal” is concerned, he had some issues with the liberals of his time, especially with the German ones. I will get to that a little later.
I am sure, Heine would approve of being called a “vanguard”. He was a vanguard in many ways: aesthetically, politically and especially in respect to his role as a writer: as the first prominent German Jewish author and lyrical poet, he had no predecessor. He knew what that meant. On the eve of his first publication, he wrote to a friend: “Christian love will not react kindly to the love poems of a Jew”. Right from the beginning of his career, he was aware of the struggles that lay ahead of him, and he lived up to the challenge. Heine called himself the “son of the revolution” with good cause. He grew up during the Napoleonic wars in the aftermath of the Great Revolution. His hometown Düsseldorf was under French rule, then not, then again, and later he joked, that he was never good at geography because when he went to school, the countries on the map kept changing their colors all the time. The school he went to was run by catholic priests, it was open for Jewish pupils and Heine later wrote in his “Memoirs”, that here
[…] the philosophical systems of all the free-thinkers were expunded to me, and this was done by a venerable clergyman who did not neglect the duties of his priestly office in the slightest. Thus I saw at an early age how religion and doubt can go side by side without any hypocrisy.
But in his “Memoirs” he also remembers how he was bullied by his classmates because of a remark he once made about his Jewish ancestors and how he went home and told his mother about it, and she did not comfort him, but only encouraged him to study hard, so that no one could ever call him stupid. With this little episode, he demonstrates the dilemma that was forced upon the German Jews at that time. The price for a chance at success, at climbing the social ladder – as his mother had in mind for him – was assimilation.
The price Heine himself paid was the baptism he submitted to in 1825, to become, as he put it, “a protesting Protestant”. To a Jewish friend he wrote that he would not have taken that step, “if the law allowed stealing silver spoons”.
In his “Memoirs” Heine describes that his mother had high ambitions for him and that she said that the worst she could imagine was that her son might become a poet: He depicts his becoming a writer as an act of rebellion, right from the beginning.
He tells the story of his career as a story of emancipation, and he made his work about emancipation. He was a journalist, a political satirist and a poet at the same time, in his mind all these aspects belonged together, and he stated: “The party of flowers and nightingales is closely connected with the revolution.” Emancipation was the standard he measured everything by, ideas, books, religions, people. He always asked, do they stand for emancipation or not. In 1828, in his “Pictures of Travel” he asked:
What is the great question of our age? It is that of emancipation. Not simply the emancipation of the Irish, Greeks, Frankfurt Jews, West Indian negroes, and other oppressed people, but the emancipation of the whole world, and especially that of Europe, which now tears itself loose from the iron leading-strings of a privileged aristocracy.
On the one hand, his concept of emancipation was universal. On the other hand, Heine was an advocate of the particular. He took issue with the teleological view of history as the vehicle for progress, the idea that the world was to pivot over time toward freedom and that the suffering of individuals was a necessary means to this end. In his “Pictures of Travel”, he wrote:
Every inch which humanity advances costs streams of blood; and is not that paying rather dear? Is not the life of the individual worth as much as that of the entire race? For every single man is a world which is born with him and which dies with him; beneath every gravestone lies a world’s history.
This objection aimed at Hegel whose lectures about the Philosophy of History Heine had been listening to when he was student in Berlin. He always opposed the idea that progress in the spirit of freedom takes priority over the individual. Later in life, he discussed this during his debates with the so-called “Young Hegelians” like his short-time friend Karl Marx, but he already took that stand in Berlin against his Hegelian Friends in the Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews like, Leopold Zunz, Moses Moser, Eduard Gans and some of their ideas on Judaism and other topic which thought of as too abstract, too out of touch with real life.
In Heine’s student years, the loudest voice demanding emancipation was that of the student associations, the “Burschenschaft”. The so-called liberation war against the French occupation had given rise to a new patriotism, and while this patriotism had been quite useful for the various German kingdoms and principalities during the war, afterwards it turned into a threat to them because it aimed at a unified nation with a constitution. The old powers fought this movement (the “demagogues”, as they were called by the police) fiercely. There were similar movements all over Europe, and in 1823 in a letter to his brother-in-law, Heine stated:
Although I am a radical in England and a Carbonari in Italy, I don’t side with the Demagogues in Germany, for the purely accidental and insignificant reason that in case the latter should be victorious, a few thousand Jewish throats – and just the best – would be cut.
There was a significant anti-Semitic undercurrent within this movement, which offered a rather erratic mixture of democratic, egalitarian ideas on the one hand, and nationalist, xenophobic tendencies on the other. Heinrich Heine kept a keen, critical eye on this mixture, and he considered it a somewhat tragic German “specialty” that the movement for emancipation was, in parts, also nationalist and reactionary.
This nexus was the main reason for Heine’s skepticism of the German liberalism, which became a strong movement after the French July Revolution. When in 1832 thousands gathered at the Hambach festival, the first mass demonstration in German history, and demanded freedom of the press, a unified Germany with a democratic constitution and individual civil rights, Ludwig Börne for instance, the popular liberal Jewish journalist was enthusiastic. But other than Börne – who later became Heine’s antagonist in Paris, exile to both of them – Heine only saw that the fanatic nationalists of the former unification movement still played a role in the new one, now “disguised in the colors and phrases of liberalism”, and he wrote:
[…] in the army of the German men of revolution erstwhile Germanomaniacs […] have available powerful formulas for bewitching the mob, the words “fatherland, Germany, faith of our fathers, etc.” still electrify the muddled masses much more reliably than the words “humanity, cosmopolitism, rationality of the sons, truth!” I want to suggest with this that representatives of nationhood were much more deeply rooted in the German ground than the representatives of cosmopolitism, and that the latter will probably get the short end of the fight with the former.
The “fight” he predicted in this text from 1840, later turned out to be one of the reasons for the defeat of the German Revolution of 1848/49.
In Heine’s mind, nationhood was the problem, not the solution. Liberal democracy as he understood it, had to be cosmopolitan – a concept which he considered to be “the most magnificent and venerable conviction that Germany has produced, the cosmopolitanism which our great minds, Lessing, Herder, Schiller, Goethe, which all educated Germans have always believed in.” This was the basis for Heine’s hopeful observation of what he poetically called
[…] a deep elective affinity between the two peoples of morality, the Jews and the Germanic people […], the two being so much alike that one might regard primeval Palestine as an Oriental Germany, just as one might regard today’s Germany as the home of the Holy Word […].
But it is not Germany alone which bears the physiognomy of Palestine; all Europe raises itself to the Jews. I say raises itself, because from the beginning the Jews had the modern principle in themselves which only now is evolving among the European people.
Greeks and Romans held to their native soil, to the Fatherland. The later Northern immigrants to the Greek and Roman world attached themselves to the persons of their chiefs […]. But the Jews always held on to the law, an abstract concept, like our new cosmopolite republicans [...]. Yes, cosmopolitanism originally sprung from the land of Judea.
This vision of a modern cosmopolitanism as a German-Jewish synthesis was rather poetic that realistic, as Heine knew, and he sometimes pictured himself as reverse Don Quixote. While the Spaniard’s foolishness was the fixed idea to bring a long distant past back into the present, his (Heine’s) foolishness was the fixed idea to bring a too distant future into the present.
The metaphor of the “vanguard”, as it used in the title of this conference, implies that there are regular troops that follow in his path. In that sense, Heine was not a vanguard – or he was one without any followers. He was much criticized by other democratic writers and liberal activists. Some said, he was too radical, some said, he wasn’t radical enough, some said, he wasn’t German, because he was “too French”, some said, he wasn’t German, because he was “too Jewish”, some said, he should stop writing poetry and completely dedicate himself to a political cause, and almost all of them blamed him for his unwillingness to commit to any particular party – which he always refused, because, as he put it, he already was his own party.
The criticism by liberal Jews was especially harsh. Exemplary in this respect was Gabriel Riesser, an eminent representative of Reform Judaism and a leading advocate of Jewish emancipation in Germany in the 1830s and 1840s. In response to anti-Semitic attacks against Heine, he did not refute those, but distanced himself from Heine instead, as he remarked:
The Jews have always repudiated Heine, like he repudiated them, when someone tried to burden them with him. Never has a Jew, who was speaking about Heine in the name and on behalf of his brothers in faith, done so other than disapprovingly, openly and seriously denying any commonality with him.
But Heine did not repudiate the Jews. He once asked, “How could I ever step out of my own skin which is being flayed by Christians since eighteen-hundred years?” To a friend from the Berlin Society for the Culture and Science of the Jews he confessed that he might not be an enthusiast for the Jewish religion, but that he would always be an enthusiast for the equal rights of the Jews. And with his typical mixture of irony and seriousness he added: Maybe he would do something for this cause merely by existing. The fact that we are here today to honor the 225th anniversary of the day he started existing might prove his point.