Rahel Varnhagen

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Rahel Varnhagen
Rahel Varnhagen.jpg
Born(1771-05-17)17 May 1771
Berlin, Germany
Died7 March 1833(1833-03-07) (aged 61)
Berlin, Germany
Resting placeHoly Trinity Church, Berlin
PeriodAge of Enlightenment
SpouseKarl August Varnhagen von Ense

Rahel Antonie Friederike Varnhagen (German: [ˈʁaːɛl ˈfaʁnhaːɡən]) (née Levin, later Robert; 19 May 1771 – 7 March 1833)[1][2] 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 (1957), written by Hannah Arendt.[3] 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[edit]

Portrait of Rahel Varnhagen von Ense circa 1800, pastel by Moritz Michael Daffinge

Rahel Antonie Friederike Levin was born to a Jewish family in Berlin. Her father, a wealthy jeweller, was a strong-willed man who ruled his family despotically. She became close friends with Dorothea and Henriette, daughters of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Through them she got to know Henriette Herz, with whom she would become intimately associated throughout her life, moving in the same intellectual spheres. Together with Herz and her cousin, Sara Grotthuis née Meyer, she hosted one of the famous Berlin salons of the 1800s. Her home became the meeting place for artists, poets and intellectuals such as 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 met again in Frankfurt am Main in 1815.

After 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 its 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 the biographer Karl August Varnhagen von Ense in Berlin, after having converted 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 in Vienna became a meeting place for Prussian delegates to the Congress of Vienna. In 1815, she accompanied her husband to Vienna and then to Karlsruhe in 1816, where he became a Prussian representative. She returned to Berlin in 1819, when her husband retired from his diplomatic position.

Though never the author of a major book, Rahel Varnhagen is remembered for the intensity and variety of her correspondence. Six thousand letters have survived, out of an estimated ten thousand written by her in the course of her lifetime.[4] 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 20 years after her death. Her correspondence with David Veit and with Karl August was published in Leipzig, in 1861 and 1874–1875 respectively.

The grave of Rahel Varnhagen in Berlin

Rahel Varnhagen died in Berlin in 1833. Her grave is located in the Dreifaltigkeitsfriedhof I 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).[5]

Relations with Judaism[edit]

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia (1906), "Rahel always showed the greatest interest in her former co-religionists, endeavouring 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 to legitimize myself! That is why it is so disgusting to be a Jew."[6]

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.[7]

The poet Ludwig Robert was her brother and she corresponded extensively with him. Her sister Rosa was married to Karel Asser. Ludmilla Assing and Ottilie Assing were her nieces-in-law.


  1. ^ Heidi Thomann Tewarson, Rahel Varnhagen (Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1988)
  2. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Varnhagen von Ense, Karl August" . Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  3. ^ Hannah Arendt (1958): Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess Archived 2007-04-27 at the Wayback Machine
  4. ^ Elon, Amos (2003). The Pity of It All: A Portrait of Jews in Germany 1743-1933. Allen Lane. pp. 78–79. ISBN 0-7139-9341-3.
  5. ^ Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Varnhagen von Ense, Rahel" . Encyclopedia Americana.
  6. ^ Elon, Amos (2003). The Pity of It All: A Portrait of Jews in Germany 1743-1933. Allen Lane. p. 81. ISBN 0-7139-9341-3.
  7. ^ Elon, Amos (2003). The Pity of It All: A Portrait of Jews in Germany 1743-1933. Allen Lane. pp. 89–90. ISBN 0-7139-9341-3.


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