Arts: Germany learns to love its bothersome poet

On Heinrich Heine's 200th birthday, Germany is at last learning to love her troublesome poet. Yet Imre Karacs finds that celebrating the life of the apostle of self-hating Germans still stirs controversy.

"Oh Germany! Land of oaks and stunted minds!" - Is it any wonder that the nation thus greeted by one of its greatest poets still does not see why it should feel flattered?

For two centuries Germans have been trying to come to terms with Heinrich Heine, the genius who loved his country so much he could not bear to live there. What is one to make of the Jew who embraced Luther, only to renounce the professional career lubricated by his conversion? Or the revolutionary who hated all dogma and was sickened by the smell of blood?

Heine drank from the cups of a wide range of philosophers, but discarded them all in his eternal quest for Utopia. He was a patriot who mocked nationalists, a romantic who denounced romanticism, a Francophile who held Frenchmen inferior to Germans - the "strongest and most intelligent nation". It was he who prophesied the destructive power of a fanatic people mesmerised by legends of the super-human.

Heine was, in the words of Germany's President, Roman Herzog, a "bothersome thinker". So bothersome, that for the entire history of united Germany, the country's relationship to the poet - dead or alive - has been a mirror image of its own state of health. He and his works suffered under tyranny; tyrants withered under the invective of his prose.

Mr Herzog spoke earlier this month at the climax of an orgy of Heine events marking the 200th anniversary of the poet's birth. The President was addressing a gathering of the great and the good in Heine's home town, Dusseldorf, at the university named after the poet.

This civic pride - if such exists - is a very recent phenomenon. The last time Germany tried to honour "Harry" 25 years ago, the professors of Dusseldorf's musty university took a vote on changing its name, and chose the reactionary path.

That was in 1972, four years after the great student revolts, and scholars baulked at the prospect of having a revolutionary's name on their pay cheques.

At last Dusseldorf has extended its arms to the spectre of its prodigal son. The German fashion capital's university now bears the name of the poet. There is a Heine Institute, a plaque depicting the stormy love affair between Heine and Germany was unveiled last week, and the city boasts a flourishing industry in Heine memorabilia.

Even practitioners of the physical sciences are unable to stay aloof from all the fuss. The hero of the hour is Dr Wolfgang Huckenbeck of the local Institute of Forensic Medicine who, upon analysing a lock of Heine's hair discovered elevated levels of lead.

So Heine's hair had 133 times the normal amount of lead, but no mercury, with which he was supposed to have been treated for syphilis. The implication is that Heine might have been murdered, possibly by his jealous wife, Mathilde, though Dr Huckenback admits that a list of possible suspects would run into millions: the offended German nation.

But away from trivia, and on to real controversy. For, in true reflection of Heine's enduring scandal value, a stamp issued in his honour did cause a furore. There was nothing wrong with the stamps, but at the edge of the blocks of them the designers had drawn little Germanic runes; the ancient symbols of birth and death. These, it turned out, had been greatly in fashion in the period between 1939 and 1945, and were used to adorn the commemorative issue marking the assassination in 1942 of SS General Reinhard Heydrich. The Post Office withdrew the Heine stamps in a hurry.

The incident was judged to have been in very bad taste, particularly in view of the tribulations suffered by Heine's golden words at the hands of the Nazis. In 1933, Heine books ended up on the same pyre as Marx for similar reasons: both had been bolshie Jews. Heine's conversion at the age of 27 cut no ice with Hitler.

But even the Nazis could not resist the poet's charms. Some of his work survived in school textbooks of the era. ``Loreley'', a haunting poem encapsulating the mythical magnetism of the Rhine, gave pleasure to millions of Hitler Jugend, who probably never guessed the true identity of "author unknown".

After the war, East Germany adopted Heine as the champion of the toiling masses, while West German schoolchildren were taught that he had been known for his biting criticism of all things German.

To which Heine might have replied, as he had written a century before: "Paris is the new Jerusalem, and the Rhine is the river Jordan which divides the land of freedom from the country of the Philistines.''

In his speech, President Herzog lauded Heine's "corrosive criticism" and invited contemporary intellectuals to learn from his example. Without such men, he said, "society will wither away". And a little wit and humour of the Heine variety would not go amiss, either, the President remarked in rather pointed fashion.

It seems that 200 years on, Germany could just about cope with Heine, though whether Heine would be able to suffer his armchair-bound compatriots today can never be answered.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Barn owls are among species that could be affected
charity appeal
Sarah Silverman (middle) with sister Reform Rabbi Susan Silverman (right) and sister actress Laura Silverman (left) at Jerusalem's Western Wall for feminist Hanuka candle-lighting ceremony
peopleControversial comedian stages pro-equality Hanukkah lighting during a protest at Jerusalem's Wailing Wall
Arts and Entertainment
The Bach Choir has been crowned the inaugural winner of Sky Arts’ show The Great Culture Quiz
arts + ents140-year-old choir declared winner of Sky Arts' 'The Great Culture Quiz'
After another poor series in Sri Lanka, Alastair Cook claimed all players go through a lean period
cricketEoin Morgan reportedly to take over ODI captaincy
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas