Karl August Varnhagen von Ense

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Karl August Varnhagen von Ense.

Karl August Varnhagen von Ense (21 February 1785 in Düsseldorf – 10 October 1858 in Berlin) was a German biographer, diplomat and soldier.

Life and career[edit]

He was born at Düsseldorf, with siblings including Rosa Maria Varnhagen. He studied medicine in Berlin, but spent more time on philosophy and literature, which he later studied more thoroughly at Halle and Tübingen. He began his literary career in 1804 as editor with Adelbert von Chamisso of the latter's Musenalmanach.

In 1809, he joined the main Austrian army under Archduke Charles, serving in IR20 Reuss-Plauen at the Battle of Wagram, where he was wounded. After the peace, he was made adjutant to Prince Bentheim who he accompanied to Paris where he continued his studies. In 1812, he entered the Prussian civil service in Berlin, but he soon left to enter the Russian service as captain. He served in Tettenborn's corps as adjutant to Tettenborn on trips to Hamburg and Paris. He recorded his experiences in Geschichte der Hamburger Ereignisse (History of the events in Hamburg; London, 1813) and Geschichte der Kriegszüge Tettenborns (History of Tettenborn's Campaigns, 1814). He worked as a tutor and butler in the homes of several families of the wealthy Jewish bourgeoisie. This allowed him to learn from an early age young characters in his time, some already famous, such as: Adelbert von Chamisso, Justinus Kerner, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, Ludwig Uhland and many other poets of romanticism.

He accompanied Prince Hardenburg to the Congress of Vienna (1814), and in 1815-19 was Prussian Minister-Resident at Carlsruhe. After 1819, he resided chiefly in Berlin with the title of “Geheimer Legationsrat.” He had no fixed official appointment, but was often employed in important political business


Although he developed a reputation as an imaginative and critical writer, he is famous chiefly as a biographer. He possessed a remarkable power of grouping facts so as to bring out their essential significance, and his style is distinguished for its strength, grace and purity. Among his principal works are:

His Denkwürdigkeiten und vermischte Schriften appeared in 9 volumes in 1843-59, the two last volumes appearing after his death. His niece, Ludmilla Assing, between 1860 and 1867, edited several volumes of his correspondence with eminent men, and his Tagebücher (14 vols., 1861–70). Blätter aus der preussischen Geschichte appeared in 5 vols. (1868–69); his correspondence with his wife, Rahel, appeared in 6 vols. in 1874–75; and that with Carlyle in 1892.

His selected writings appeared in 19 volumes in 1871-76.


In 1814, he married the saloniste Rahel Levin after she converted from Judaism to Christianity. Varnhagen was devotedly attached to her, and found in her sympathy and encouragement one of the chief sources of his inspiration as a writer. After her death in 1833, from the shock of which he never fully recovered, he published memorial volumes containing selections from her papers: Rahel, ein Buch des Andenkens für ihre Freunde (Rahel, a memorial book for her friends, 3 vols., 1834) and Galerie von Bildnissen aus Rahels Umgang (A gallery of portraits from Rahel's circle, 2 vols., 1836).