Christian Johann Heinrich Heine (December 13, 1797 – February 17, 1856) was a journalist, essayist, and one of the most significant German romantic poets. He is remembered chiefly for selections of his lyric poetry, many of which were set to music in the form of lieder (art songs) by German composers.
Heine was born into a family of assimilated German Jews in Düsseldorf, Germany, which was then occupied by France (becoming part of Prussia in 1815). He was called "Harry" as a child, but after his baptism in 1825 he became "Heinrich".
His father was a merchant, and his mother, the daughter of a physician, was a refined and educated woman. When his father's business failed, Heine was sent to Hamburg. His wealthy banker uncle, Salomon, encouraged him to go into commerce, but his ventures in this sphere were not successful. Instead, he took up law, studying at the universities of Göttingen, Bonn and Berlin, where he heard Hegel's lectures on the philosophy of history (he later wrote a short satirical poem about Hegel's philosophy "Doctrine"). During his student years he participated in the "Verein für Kultur und Wissenschaft des Judentumes" ("Society for the Culture and Scientific Study of Judaism"). Heine only stayed in the society for three years and left the group before earning a degree in law in 1825. The same year, he converted to Lutheranism.
Jews were subject to severe restrictions in many of the German states at that time. They were forbidden from entering certain professions, including an academic career in the universities, a particular ambition for Heine. As Heine said in self-justification, his conversion was "the ticket of admission into European culture". He wrote, "As Henry IV said, 'Paris is worth a mass'; I say, 'Berlin is worth the sermon.'" For much of the rest of his life Heine wrestled over the incompatible elements of his German and his Jewish identities.
As a poet, Heine made his debut with Gedichte (Poems) in 1821. Heine's one-sided infatuation with his cousins Amalie and Therese later inspired him to write some of his loveliest lyrics; Buch der Lieder (Book of Songs, 1827) was Heine's first comprehensive collection of verse.
For example the poem "Allnächtlich im Traume" of the Buch der Lieder was set to music by Robert Schumann as well as Felix Mendelssohn. It contains the specific ironical disillusionment which is indeed typical of Heine:
(non-literal translation in verse by Hal Draper:)
Heine left Germany for France in 1831. After arriving in Paris, he associated with utopian socialists. These included the followers of Count Saint-Simon, who preached an egalitarian paradise based on meritocracy.
In 1832, Heine published, in French, Toward a history of philosophy and religion in Germany. "Never has a more extraordinary book sailed into the world under a more ordinary and discouraging title; yet for sheer literary panache, for bizarre anecdotes, historical snap–judgements, and sheer intellectual wit and vigour, the book has few equals.
German authorities banned his works and those of others who were considered to be associated with the 'Young Germany' movement in 1835. Heine continued, however, to comment on German politics and society from a distance. He remained in Paris, with the exception of a visit in 1843 to Germany, for the rest of his life. Heine wrote Deutschland. Ein Wintermärchen (Germany. A Winter's Tale), an account of his visit to Germany and the political climate there, in 1844; his friend, Karl Marx, published it in his newspaper Vorwärts (Forward) in 1844. Heine also satirized the utopian politics of those opponents of the regime still in Germany in Atta Troll: Ein Sommernachtstraum (Atta Troll: A Midsummer Night's Dream) in 1847. In the preface to Atta Troll he comments on the risk of arrest that he faced during his clandestine return visit to Germany.
Heine wrote movingly of the experience of exile in his poem In der Fremde ("Abroad"):
Among the thousands of books burned on Berlin's Opernplatz in 1933, following the Nazi raid on the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, were works by Heinrich Heine. To commemorate the terrible event, one of the most famous lines of Heine's 1821 play Almansor was engraved in the ground at the site: "Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen." ("Where they burn books, they will ultimately also burn people.") In the original text, Heine had been referring to the burning of the Quran during the Spanish Inquisition.
In the 1890s, amidst a flowering of affection for Heine leading up to the centennial of his birth, a plan was enacted in Düsseldorf to honor Heine with a memorial statue. While at first the plan met with enthusiasm, the concept was gradually bogged down in anti-Semitic, nationalist, and religious criticism; by the time the memorial was finished, there was no place to put it. Through the intervention of German American activists, the memorial was ultimately transplanted into The Bronx. Known in English as the Lorelei Fountain, Germans refer to it as the Heinrich Heine Memorial.
In Israel, the attitude to Heine has long been the subject of debate between secularists, who number him among the most prominent figures of Jewish history, and the religious who consider his conversion to Christianity to be an unforgivable act of betrayal. Due to such debates, the city of Tel-Aviv was very late in naming a street for Heine, and the street finally chosen to bear his name is located in a rather desolate industrial zone rather than in the vicinity of Tel-Aviv University, suggested by some public figures as the appropriate location.
Ha'ir (a left-leaning Tel-Aviv magazine) sarcastically suggested that "The Exiling of Heine Street" symbolically re-enacted the course of Heine's own life. Since then, a street in the Yemin Moshe neighborhood of Jerusalem and a community center in Haifa have been named after Heine. A Heine Appreciation Society is active in Israel, led by prominent political figures from both the left and right camps. His quote about burning books is prominently displayed in the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. (It is also diplayed in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum).