Arts: Germany learns to love its bothersome poet
Friday 19 December 1997
"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.
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