Heinrich Heine: The revolution and the party of the nightingales

See also :

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

On the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his death, the year 2006 witnessed the celebration of Heinrich Heine as the great poet of German romanticism. Heine: wasn’t that the author of the Lorelei song, which sounds so popularly romantic that even the Nazis could not do without it? Romanticism: was that not a flight from reality into the past, into religion and the world of legends and myths? And this being the case, why should a contemporary marxist paper deal with Heine today?

Yes, Heine did write the Lorelei song. The Nazis sang it. They signed it “author unknown”.

Yes, Heine was the great poet of German romanticism. Yes, the mood of this period was reactionary, turned towards the past. It idolised the Middle Ages, the aristocracy and the Catholic Church. On the shores of the Rhine and elsewhere, ruined castles were restored. Derelict gothic cathedrals such as in Cologne were brought to completion. Old myths and popular fairy tales were rediscovered. But Heine was a revolutionary, in politics partly, in his art completely. To such an extent, that the revolutionary proletariat owes him much, and can still learn from him today. How does all of this fit together?

Heine and the French Revolution

It is not a mistake to consider romanticism, at least in Germany, as a feudal reaction to the great bourgeois revolution in France, and to the industrial revolution which began in England. Romanticism flourished in particular after the revolutionary armies of Napoleon had been defeated by a European aristocratic coalition funded with English money. But it wasn’t just the feudal world that was shaken by the invasion of capitalist modernisation. Many of the most upright and compassionate human beings and most profound thinkers of the epoch felt concerned and indignant – not because of economic progress, but in the face of the brutalisation of society which accompanied it. They were not opposed to the French Revolution, but disappointed by its results. This is why many of the artists of the time, although influenced by the dominant mood of the day, began to develop a revolutionary side to the romantic reaction to capitalism. More than any other poet of his day, Heine embodied this revolutionary side of romanticism.

Born in Düsseldorf, he was a typical representative of the Rhineland of his time. This was the part of Germany where serfdom and all the rubbish of the Middle Ages had most drastically been eradicated by the French Revolution. This to such an extent that the German aristocracy did not dare to restore it even when, in the wake of Napoleon’s defeat, the Rhineland became part of Prussia. As a result, Heine remained throughout his life a bitter opponent of feudalism and an ardent admirer of Napoleon. For this reason, he was mercilessly persecuted in Germany and driven into exile. The reaction not only outlawed all his existing writings, but also all those he might write in the future! On account of his Jewish origins, Heine was particularly open towards the consequences of the French Revolution in the Rhineland. It was the Revolution which established Jewish equality, whereas the feudal reaction did everything in its power, after the defeat of Napoleon, to revoke these reforms or make them socially ineffective.

The experience of witnessing the introduction of social progress from abroad made of Heine an internationalist. He is said to have been the first to have used the formulation “world revolution”. Like other great minds in Germany before him, he learnt from the French Revolution and from the study of foreign history that social progress transgresses frontiers. He thus took up the struggle against the “shabby, plump, unwashed opposition against an approach which is the most marvellous and holy thing which Germany has brought forth, in other words against the generalised fraternisation of humanity, against that cosmopolitanism which has always been defended by our greatest spirits, by Lessing, Herder, Schiller, Goethe, Jean Paul.[1]

Heine had understood that the progress of humanity depends to an important extent on the capacity to make a higher synthesis of the best acquisitions of the cultures of all peoples. He himself – as a political refugee in Paris – considered it to be one of the most important tasks of his life to contribute to such a synthesis of the thought and creativity of Germany and France. This achievement of Heine made of him a target of hatred – and not only during his own lifetime - in a twofold manner. For one thing, because France was to remain, for another whole century, the arch-enemy of the German bourgeoisie (today of course it is easier to “honour” Heine, since the German bourgeoisie seeks an alliance with France). For another thing, since here Heine spins a thread which was to lead to marxism. As for instance Lenin was later to point out in an article written on the eve of World War I, the most important “pre-proletarian” sources of marxism were already international. “The history of philosophy and the history of social science show clearly that Marxism contains nothing which has the least resemblance to ‘sectarianism’ in the sense of any kind of closed up, fossilised doctrine arising on the sidelines of the main road of the development of world civilisation. On the contrary: The whole genius of Marx consists in his giving answers to questions which the progressive thinking of humanity had already posed. His teaching arose as the direct and immediate continuation of the teaching of the greatest representatives of philosophy, political economy and of socialism.” [2]

Heine, popular art and contemporary discordance

Heine’s interest in popular tales and legends was far from being the result of any wish to hold up history or make it roll back. Instead, he took inspiration from these sources, in order to develop a new, unprecedented lyrical rhythm and a new language. Heine, as a great poet, was extremely sensitive towards the spiritual currents which were not only of his own day. As an artist with a philosophical education, who had trained himself with Hegelian dialectics, he was very much aware of the nature of the historical period he was living in. He thus recognised how the bourgeois epoch isolates the artist from society, so that art becomes increasingly incomprehensible to the people. The result of this development is, on the one hand, the appearance of capitalist mass culture as the expression of barbarism, which renders the working class ignorant. On the other hand art and culture are almost naturally considered to be the product of specialists, to which the working population make no contribution.

It would be wrong to consider the engagement with popular art in the period of romanticism to have been exclusively the expression of a reactionary nostalgia. As later on Tolstoy or the English marxist William Morris were to be, Heine was convinced that the creative heritage of humanity consists not only of the works of great architects, painters or writers, but also of popular songs, legends and sagas, or for instance the half-timbered houses or the wood carvings of the artisans of the Middle Ages. The period of romanticism was one of the last ones in which the most significant artists could still be inspired by the living art of the working population. The Grimm brothers wrote down the popular fairy tales of Germany for humanity; Beethoven, Dvorak and Liszt took up and further developed the melodies, dances and rhythms of popular music.

Indeed the whole of Heine’s work is inspired by this tradition. Not only his poems and stories, but even his philosophical, historical writings, or his reflections on the history of art, have something elementary, surprising and even fairytale-like about them. We have already seen how the “traditional” bourgeoisie, even when, all of a sudden, it pretends to honour Heine, has insurmountable problems with Heine’s works already because of his internationalism. But this is no less the case for the Stalinist bourgeoisie, even though these alleged marxists – knowing full well that Marx loved Heine and his poetry – always officially “celebrated” him. But Heine never fitted into the official canon of Stalinism, according to which only “realistic” art can be “progressive”. The “materialism” of the Stalinists is not unlike that of the bourgeois materialism of England after Bacon, about which Marx and Engels in The Holy Family wrote: “sensuality loses its blossoms” and “materialism becomes hostile to humanity”. [3]

Since the essence of Stalinism consists in the lie of presenting national, state totalitarian capitalism as socialism, it is impossible for it to understand the fantastic but truthful realism of Heine. This realism delves deeper than bourgeois vulgar materialism has ever dared to go. Heine was one of the first to bring the psychological truths of the unconscious to the surface. In doing so, he based himself on the wisdom of old tales. He thus opened up a path in the exploration of the human psyche, one which was to be taken up and further developed by the great realistic novelists like George Eliot in England, Dostoyevski and Tolstoy in Russia, but also by the “decadent” Kafka. And Freud recognised in Heine one of those who prepared the way for psychoanalysis. In this sense Heine was not only the poet of romanticism; he at the same time overcame it, through ironising the romantic pose.

But Heine employed romantic lyrics and acid humour above all as weapons in order to disarm us, so that he can take us by surprise with his truths. Heine was one of those spirits, rare enough in history to date, who wanted as much as possible to live without illusions. Already before Marx, Heine had the courage to face historical truth. One example of this is the way he presented the tragic fate of Münzer, who during the Reformation demanded earthly human happiness at a time when this was not yet feasible. “Such a proposition was admittedly untimely, and Master Himmling, who chopped off your head, poor Thomas Münzer, he was in a certain sense entitled to such a procedure. Then he had the sword in his hands, and his arms were strong.”[4]

Heine not only felt in himself the growing inner cleavage and the suffering of the artist in bourgeois society – he also analysed it. “Oh! Dear reader, when you feel like deploring this sense of being torn, you should instead deplore the fact that the world itself has been torn asunder at its heart. Since the heart of the poet is the central point of the world, in present times it must necessarily be woefully torn. Those who are able to boast that their hearts have remained whole are only admitting that they have a prosaic, narrow heart.[5]

This discord makes the artist unpredictable and often difficult to understand. Whereas the young marxist movement had its difficulties with Heine – Wilhelm Liebknecht and even the young Engels at first had problems with Heine, until Marx was able to convince them to the contrary – Marx understood this problem very well. Later on, Eleanor, one of the daughters of Marx, was to recall in the Neue Zeit. “Marx was a great admirer of Heine. He loved him just as much as he loved his works, and was as indulgent as can be towards his political weaknesses. Poets, he declared, are peculiar people. You have to let them go their way. You cannot measure them with the usual scale for normal people.

Heine and the society of the future

One of the most significant achievements of Heine was his contribution to the clarification of the nature of a future socialist society. Not that Heine had been a marxist! He belonged more to the generation before Marx, which, disappointed by the results and the terror of the bourgeois French Revolution, turned away from the class struggle. He was a glowing supporter of the utopian socialism of Saint-Simon. He hoped for the overcoming of class society through an enlightened philanthropist, a kind king or one of the Rothschilds, not through a mass insurrection. In the last years of his life, largely cut off from the world, suffering the tortures of a terrible illness amidst his “burial mattresses”, he no longer succeeded, despite his deep friendship with Marx, in understanding the modern workers’ movement and scientific socialism. He feared the intervention of the masses in history – which he himself had experienced more in the form of the anti-Semitic mob - more than he longed for it. Nevertheless he responded to the real movement of the proletariat when it appeared, for instance the insurrection of the weavers in Silesia in 1844.

From darkened eyes no tears are falling:

With gritted teeth we sit here calling:

“Germany, listen, ere we disperse,

We weave your shroud with a triple curse-

We weave! We are weaving!

“A curse to the false god that we prayed to,

And worshipped in spite of all, and obeyed, too.

We waited, and we hoped and suffered in vain;

He laughed at us, sneering, for all of our pain-

We weave! We are Weaving!

“A curse to the king, and a curse to his coffin,

The rich man's king whom our plight could not soften;

Who took our last penny in taxes and cheats'

And let us be shot like dogs in the streets-

We weave! We are Weaving!

“A curse to the Fatherland, whose face is

Covered with lies and foul disgraces;

Where the bud is crushed before it can seed'

And the worm grows fat on corruption and greed-

We weave! We are Weaving!

“The shuttle flies in the creaking loom;

And night and day we weave our doom.

Old Germany, ere we disperse,

We weave your shroud with a triple curse.

We weave! We are Weaving![6]

As far as the goal of a classless society is concerned, socialism before Marx was essentially utopian socialism. As such, Christianity was an important source of pre-marxist socialism. This socialism had not yet understood that only capitalism, through the enormous development of the productive forces, could create the preconditions for a classless society. The pre-marxist socialism of a Babeuf or Weitling was thus essentially hardly less hostile towards the body than the Christian sects of the time. They could only imagine a classless society in the form of a monastic sharing of poverty, in which there would hardly be any room for art and beauty, play and happiness, love and pleasure, seen as “bourgeois luxuries”. In other words, they would be societies in which proletarianisation and the lot of the proletariat would be idealised rather than overcome.

One might assume that the debates of the time about this question are at best of historical interest to us today. But we should not forget that today, once again, this idea about socialism has again become predominant – but no longer as an ideal, but as something to put us off! But with the difference that today this bourgeois monastery, or rather barracks, socialism, is no longer, as in those days, the expression of the immaturity of the movement, but the result of the Stalinist counter-revolution. As a result, the contribution of Heine to this question seems to us to be more relevant than ever!

Heine pleaded for a world in which humanity and nature, science and art, the spiritual and the sensual, would live in harmony, where the relations of the individuals to their own internal world and to the world outside would come together to form a real unity. In his poem “Germany: A Winter Tale” he wrote:

A new song, and a better song,

Oh friends, I'll sing for you.

Here on earth we mean to make

Our Paradise come true.

We mean to be happy here on earth-

Our days of want are done.

No more shall the lazy belly waste

What toiling hands have won.

Wheat enough for all mankind

Is planted here below;

Roses and myrtle, beauty and joy,

And green peas, row upon row.

Yes, green peas enough for every man,

As soon as they break their pods.

We gladly leave to the angels and birds

The dainties of the Gods.

And, after our death, if wings should sprout

We'll visit you up there,

And eat the holiest tarts and cakes

That angel-cooks prepare.[7]

Using a developed sensitivity and an historical method learnt from Hegel, which prepared the way for marxism, Heine recognised that one of the sources of the attractiveness of religion lay in the imaginary promise of a kind of socialism, and that not least for this reason it had become a fetter on historical progress.

The spiritualistic religion was until now helpful and necessary, as long as the greater part of humanity lived in misery and had to comfort itself with heavenly religion. But ever since the progress of industry and the economy have made it possible for people to overcome their material misery and be happy on earth, ever since – you understand what I mean. And the people will understand us, when we say to them, that from now on they will eat beef every day instead of potatoes, and will work less and dance more.”

For Heine, the critique of monastic socialism made a deeper critique of Christianity necessary.

Our descendants will shiver when they will read about our ghostly existence, how within us the human being was split down the middle and only one half was actually alive. Our times – and they began on the cross of Christ – will be looked on as one of the great periods of the illness of humanity.”[8]

Heine identified the hatred of the body of Christianity as the source of this cleavage. “Whereas the Jews only treated the body with disdain, the Christians went much further down this path, considering it to be something to be rejected, as something evil, as evil itself.[9]

In a very similar manner, Marx and Engels pointed out in their book, The Holy Family, how the punishment of blindness once became the epitome of Christianity, the “separation of human beings from the sensual world outside.”

Marxism, which was able to identify other, deeper lying causes of this cleavage, such as the contradiction between head and hand work, nevertheless confirmed its accentuated character within Christianity. “By taking up this widespread feeling that human beings were themselves responsible for their generalised ruin, expressing this in a sense of the guiltiness of each individual, it was able to preserve its capacity to become a world religion.[10]

Heine also identified the link between the development of the contradiction between mind and body and the growing alienation of man from nature.

Even the nightingale was slandered, and one made a sign of the cross when it sang. A true Christian walked around with fearfully closed up senses, like an abstract ghost, in the midst of blossoming nature.”

In this way the outlines of the future revolution became clearer. He demanded: “The well being of material existence, the material happiness of the peoples, not because we look down on the spirit as the materialists do, but because we know that the divinity of man also expresses itself in its bodily appearance.[11]

He thus also called for a radical transformation of the relation of man to nature.

In present day Germany conditions have changed, and the party of the flowers and the nightingales is closely connected with the revolution.” (ibid).

Or as Friedrich Engels put it:

Thus at every step we are reminded that we can in no way rule over nature the way a conqueror rules a foreign people, like somebody standing outside nature – but rather we belong to it with our flesh and blood and stand in its very midst, and that our whole rule over it consists in our advantage over all other beings of being able to learn her laws and how to properly apply them (…) But the more this is done, the more will humanity not only feel itself once again at one with nature, but also know this, and all the more impossible will be that nonsensical and unnatural idea of a contradiction between spirit and material, humanity and nature, soul and body, such as it developed since the decline of classical antiquity in Europe, achieving its highest expression in Christianity.” [12]

Heine and communism

The poet Heine feared communism as a mass movement, because he could not imagine it to be in any way different from the risings of the marauding peasants and artisans of the times of the Reformation, who destroyed works of art. This is why, in an article in Der Spiegel he was quoted by the former GDR dissident Wolf Biermann as a witness against communism. In this connection it is worthwhile consulting the introduction to the French edition of his “Lutetia”, which Heine wrote shortly before his death in 1856, where he refers to the “two principles” which in his eyes justify the victory of communism. The first of these principles is that all human beings have the right of nourishment. “Let it be destroyed, this old world, where innocence died, where greediness flourished, where human beings were starved by other human beings? Let them be destroyed from top to bottom, these limned tombstones, where lies and injustice were at home.”

The second principle is internationalism. “Out of hatred against the partisans of nationalism, I could almost love the communists. At least they are no hypocrites with religion and Christianity on their lips. Although the communists have no religion (nobody is perfect), the communists themselves being atheists (which is certainly a great sin), but as their main dogma they recognise an absolute cosmopolitanism, the general love of all peoples, the fraternal community of goods between all mankind as the free citizens of this planet.

October 2006, Elemer.



[1] Heine: The Romantic School, Book One.

[2] Lenin: Three Sources and Three Components of Marxism

[3] The Holy Family (Critical battle against French materialism).

[4] Heine; Ludwig Börne. Second Book.

[5] Heine: Travellers Impressions from Lucca

[6] This translation is taken from Louis Untermyer's Heinrich Heine: paradox and poet. Engel's said that “this song is in its German original one of the most powerful poems I know and he made a translation of this poem for the New Moral World, 3rd December 1844:

Without a tear in their grim eyes,

They sit at the loom, the rage of despair in their faces;

We have suffered and hungered long enough;

Old Germany, we are weaving a shroud for thee

And weaving it with a triple curse.

We are weaving, weaving!

The first curse to the God, the blind and deaf god,

Upon whom we relied, as children on their father;

In whom we hoped and trusted withal,

He has mocked us, he has cheated us nevertheless.

We are weaving, weaving!

The second curse for the King of the Rich,

Whom our distress could not soften nor touch;

The King, who extorts the last penny from us,

And sends his soldiers, to shoot us like dogs,

We are weaving, weaving!

A curse to the false fatherland,

That has nothing for us but distress and shame,

Where we suffered hunger and misery –

We are weaving they shroud, Old Germany

We are weaving, weaving!

However Engel's omits the last verse and translates the second last one in a somewhat summary manner, the endings also do not rhyme.

[7] The poetry and prose of Heinrich Heine, Frederick Ewen, The Citadel Press, 1948. page 182.

[8] From the Memoirs of Mister Von Schnabelewopski

[9] Heine: On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany

[10] Engels: Bruno Bauer and the Origins of Christianity.

[11] Heine: The History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany. This formulation expresses the pantheism of Heine which he adopted from Spinoza. Where Heine writes “materialists” here, we would have written “mechanical-” or “vulgar materialists”.

[12] Engels: Dialectics of Nature.