Rahel Antonie Friederike Varnhagen (German: [ˈʁaːɛl ˈfaʁnhaːɡən]), née Levin, later Robert (19 May 1771 – 7 March 1833), was a German writer who hosted one of the most prominent salons in Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She is the subject of a celebrated biography, Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess (1958), written by Hannah Arendt. Arendt cherished Varnhagen as her "closest friend, though she ha[d] been dead for some hundred years". The asteroid 100029 Varnhagen is named in her honour.
Life and works
Rahel Levin was born in Berlin to a Jewish family. Her father, a wealthy jeweler, was a strong-willed man who ruled his family despotically. She became very intimate with Dorothea and Henriette, the daughters of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Together with them she knew Henriette Herz, with whom she later became most intimately associated, moving in the same intellectual sphere. Her home became the meeting-place of men like Schlegel, Schelling, Steffens, Schack, Schleiermacher, Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, Motte Fouqué, Baron Brückmann, Ludwig Tieck, Jean Paul, and Friedrich Gentz. During a visit to Carlsbad in 1795 she was introduced to Goethe, whom she again saw in 1815, at Frankfurt am Main.
After the death of her father in 1806 she lived in Paris, Frankfurt am Main, Hamburg, Prague, and Dresden. This period was one of misfortune for Germany; Prussia was reduced to a small kingdom and his king was in exile. Secret societies were formed in every part of the country with the object of throwing off the tyranny of Napoleon. Levin herself belonged to one of these societies.
In 1814 she married, in Berlin, the biographer Karl August Varnhagen von Ense, after converting to Christianity—this also made her sister-in-law to the poet Rosa Maria Assing. At the time of their marriage, her husband, who had fought in the Austrian army against the French, belonged to the Prussian diplomatic corps, and their house at Vienna became the meeting-place of the Prussian delegates to the Congress of Vienna. She accompanied her husband in 1815 to Vienna, and in 1816 to Karlsruhe, where he was Prussian representative. After 1819 she again lived in Berlin, where Varnhagen had taken up his residence after having been retired from his diplomatic position.
Though never the author of a major book, Rahel Varnhagen is remembered both for the intensity and variety of her correspondence. Six thousand letters have survived, out of an estimated ten thousand letters written by her in the course of her lifetime. A few of her essays were published in Das Morgenblatt, Das Schweizerische Museum, and Der Gesellschafter; in 1830, her Denkblätter einer Berlinerin was published in Berlin. Her husband, Karl August, edited and published her correspondence in the twenty years following her death. Her correspondence with David Veit and with Karl August was published in Leipzig, in 1861 and 1874–1875 respectively.
Rahel Varnhagen died in Berlin in 1833. Her grave is located on Trinity Cemetery (Dreifaltigkeitsfriedhof I) in Berlin-Kreuzberg. Her husband published two memorial volumes after her death containing selections from her work: Rahel, ein Buch des Andenkens für ihre Freunde (Rahel, a memorial book for her friends; 3 vols., 1834; new ed., 1903) and Galerie von Bildnissen aus Rahels Umgang (Gallery of portraits from Rahel's circle; 2 vols., 1836).
Relations with Judaism
According to the Jewish Encyclopedia (1906), "Rahel always showed the greatest interest in her former coreligionists, endeavoring by word and deed to better their position, especially during the anti-Semitic outburst in Germany in 1819. On the day of her funeral Varnhagen sent a considerable sum of money to the Jewish poor of Berlin."
Amos Elon wrote about Rahel Varnhagen in his 2002 book, The Pity of It All: A History of the Jews in Germany, 1743-1933:
She hated her Jewish background and was convinced it had poisoned her life. For much of her adult life she was what would later be called self-hating. Her overriding desire was to free herself from the shackles of her birth; since, as she thought, she had been "pushed out of the world" by her origins, she was determined to escape them. She never really succeeded. In 1810, she changed her family name to Robert... And in 1814, after her mother died, she converted. But her origins continued to haunt her even on her deathbed. ... She considered her origins "a curse, a slow bleeding to death." ... The idea that as a Jew she was always required to be exceptional—and go on proving it all the time—was repugnant to her. "How wretched it is always to have legitimize myself! That is why it is so disgusting to be a Jew."
Rahel's husband published an account of her deathbed scene, which Amos Elon described as "stylized and possibly overdramatised", including her alleged last words:
What a history! A fugitive from Egypt and Palestine, here I am and find help, love, fostering in you people. With real rapture I think of those origins of mine and this whole nexus of destiny, through which the oldest memories of the human race stand side by side with the latest developments...The thing which all my life seemed to me the greatest shame, which was the misery and misfortune of my life—having been born a Jewess—this I should on no account now wish to have missed.
- Heidi Thomann Tewarson, Rahel Varnhagen (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1988)
- Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Varnhagen von Ense, Karl August". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press
- Hannah Arendt (1958): Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess
- Elon, 2003, The Pity Of It All, pp. 78–79.
- Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Varnhagen von Ense, Rahel". Encyclopedia Americana.
- Elon, 2003, The Pity Of It All, p. 81.
- Elon, 2003, The Pity of It All, pp. 89–90.
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Isidore Singer and Frederick T. Haneman (1901–1906). "Rahel Levin". Jewish Encyclopedia.
- Elon, Amos (2003). The Pity of It All: A Portrait of Jews in Germany 1743-1933. Allen lane. ISBN 0-7139-9341-3.
- Hertz, Deborah (1988). Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300037759.
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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Rahel Varnhagen.|
- Official website of the Varnhagen Society, Cologne (in German)
- Annotated bibliographic entry for Hannah Arendt's Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess from the Center for Cultural Judaism
- Website of the Centro Studi Rahel Levin, Turin (in Italian and German)
- Rahel Varnhagen: The Salon Life, Video Lecture by Dr. Henry Abramson