Biography of Heine

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)


Chaim Heine, a.k.a. Heinrich Heine, was born in Düsseldorf, Germany in 1797.

Today the University at Düsseldorf is named Heinrich Heine University.

At his birth in the late 18th century, the German Jews were already the targets of a great deal of hatred and antagonism. Nevertheless, Heine was admitted to the study of law and received a law degree in Berlin after also studying at Bonn and Göttingen.

 Heine did not practice the law. Instead he became a poet and essayist and is today regarded as the most important lyric poet in the German language. Alone his poem “Die Lorelei,” which was set to music and is sung by Germans all the time, made him famous. Those lyrics and that song are recorded again and again and the song is played on the sight-seeing boats that travel the Rhine river every day.

Heine composed innumerable poems and wrote some fascinating essays about his travels in Germany and Europe. Heinrich was supported almost all of his life by an uncle who had become a wealthy businessman in Hamburg. This support made it possible for him to follow a literary career which yielded little income. He sought to become a professor of literature, but Jews were not allowed to lecture at any German university. Therefore, Heine converted to Protestant Christianity. Yet, that move did him no good, as he was nevertheless viewed as a Jew and rejected by the academic establishment, but also by those who normally supported poets and writers.

For some years Heine wrote poems and essays in a manner which literature experts call “post-Romantic.”

Despite Heine’s increasing fame as a writer, he was constantly humiliated as a Jew. He therefore moved to France in 1831. France at that time was somewhat more hospitable to Jews than was true of Germany. There Heine wrote more German language poetry, much of which is astonishingly beautiful and enjoyable (to those who can read German).

In 1841, Heine married a French woman. He then wrote some sarcastic essays and poetry about his homeland, Germany, until his books were banned in that country. Heine then wrote in French. In 1840, he was banned from Germany and never saw his homeland again.

After his uncle Solomon died in 1844, Heine had no more support and descended into poverty. He became blind and crippled, and yet wrote his most important poetry in that condition. He died in France in 1856 and is buried in Paris.

During the Nazi era, Heine’s works were prohibited as “degenerate.” Yet Germans not only read his poetry but sang “Die Lorelei” in every school. Therefore the Nazi government reprinted his work with the author listed as “anonymous” so that many schoolchildren never heard of him.  Heine is responsible for the dictum “those who burn books today will burn people tomorrow.” He evidently foresaw that the Nazis would burn both.

It would be useless to translate his poetry into English, as such a version would not only fail to rhyme, but could not replicate the impact his poetry has on the German reader.

The fact is that Heine is immortal, although only known in one language, German. His life is significant, alone because it demonstrates the long history of German depravity which  existed in that country long before 1933, long before the “Nazi takeover.”

Heine’s memory lives on, even as he was yet one more victim of causeless hatred.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Assassination, Anarchy, & Terrorism (2012).

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