A ”Salon Jewess” Revisited

Hannah Arendt’s Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess
(First Complete Edition)
edited by Liliane Weissberg
Johns Hopkins University Press, $29.95

Rahel Levin Varnhagen: The Life and World of a German Jewish Intellectual
by Heidi Thomann Tewarson
University of Nebraska Press, $45, $20 paper

I can remember the look of the book, the quiet library all around me, my agitation while I sat reading. The year was 1970. The place was the Judaica reading room of the Hebrew University Library in Jerusalem, on the Givat Ram campus. It was my Junior Year Abroad and I was writing a paper on Hannah Arendt. On the shelves next to the Leo Baeck Institute Year Books lay Arendt’s biography of Rahel Levin Varnhagen, “salon Jewess” of 19th-century Berlin. Almost every time I came to the reading room I would take the book off the shelf, reading randomly. I must have been seduced by the voice of one smart Jewish woman of our century telling the story of another smart Jewish woman from the 19th Century. That slender blue book sent me to Poland in 1979 to find the original Rahel Varnhagen letters that Arendt had thought lost when she published the 1958 biography. Indeed, her book sent me on a whole series of intellectual journeys.

Luckily for all of us, other scholars have been pondering the mysteries of Rahel Varnhagen and Hannah Arendt. In fact both women have become infinitely more chic and famous than either was in the rainy winter of 1970. A dedicated cadre of feminist literal scholars from Berlin to Turin to Philadelphia have been at work at the Jagiellonian Library in Poland, preparing several volumes of hitherto unpublished letters by Rahel Varnhagen. There is also a great deal of new criticism and interpretive work on Rahel and her circle.

Moreover, thanks to a parallel industry in Hannah Arendt studies we now know much more about Arendt’s state of mind when she first began to write the biography, in 1931, in Berlin. At the time, Arendt was seeking a post-assimilationist role model. She was becoming a Zionist then and this biography was in many ways more about the new political self she was creating than about Rahel Varnhagen. Still, the larger point is that Arendt’s decision to explore Rahel Varnhagen’s Jewish identity was immensely innovative. Arendt thought she had captured a Rahel Varnhagen who was less successful in her assimilation than anyone had before suggested.

Rahel Levin Varnhagen was born of a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin in 1773. When she was in her 20s, she hosted a socially avant-garde salon. At 43, she became a Lutheran and married Karl August Varnhagen von Ense, a sometime diplomat and liberal journalist. Through the 1820s, and until her death in 1833, the couple hosted an important salon in Berlin. As a saucy intellect and an indefatigable letter writer, Rahel was famous in the Berlin of her day. But she may well have passed into history had it not been for the posthumous publication of a collection of her letters and aphorisms, which remained popular throughout the 19th Century.

Liliane Weissberg’s new edition of the Arendt biography teaches us much about both Arendt and Varnhagen. Scholars will rejoice in Weissberg’s meticulous scholarly notes, a task that Arendt had neglected. In her illuminating introduction, Weissberg tells the full story of the book manuscript’s history. When Arendt left Germany in 1933, she had not finished writing the biography. In 1938, in Paris, she wrote the final two chapters. It was first published in English in 1958, and then in German two years later. (Weissberg’s extensive research in Arendt’s unpublished letters shows how important the book’s publication was for Arendt’s financial claims against the German government. The Varnhagen biography constituted proof that had she not been driven from her homeland, she would have become a full professor, and thus deserved her back salary, which she was indeed awarded in 1971.)

Weissberg is well-versed in the lore about the salon era and also in the byways of Arendt’s intellectual history. She does not, however, try to settle any of the disputed issues in the Rahel Varnhagen scholarship. For instance, Weissberg does not evaluate Arendt’s claim that Varnhagen did not quite succeed in her assimilation quest and did not really hate her Jewish origins.

But one wonderful result of Weissberg’s labors is that many readers of her new edition will be hungry for more Rahel Varnhagen. Heidi Thomann Tewarson has not written a standard biography. She uses the letters to depict particular stages of Rahel’s life. Tewarson in no way neglects the complexity of Rahel’s Jewish identity, but she does provide much more attention to her views about women and her plight as a woman than did Arendt. Tewarson quotes generously from Rahel’s letters, and her own narrative is a pleasant and stimulating read.

One of the letters that Tewarson cites helps us grasp why Varnhagen was so admired for her bracing honesty. The subject of this 1808 letter to her mother is the question of Varnhagen’s single status. Two romances with noblemen had failed to become marriages when she was in her late 20s and early 30s. By 1808, she was 35. Her stipend from her inheritance was reduced because of the family’s economic losses during the Napoleonic occupation of Berlin. Then her mother, who had always been lukewarm about Rahel’s unusual friendships, moved out, leaving Rahel more emotionally and financially burdened than before.

Listen to the letter she sent her mother that summer, in which she presents “my situation one last time. My age you know; my great inner distress will forever remain a mystery to you. Upon you I depend: therefore, only you could protect me and, through your loving treatment, guarantee a haven for my heart.” She complains about how little money her brothers are allotting to her. “Good; all right! If I cost more than the interest from the capital which I could receive upon marriage, then I reply that I want to calculate the same for the others…. That you granted me [my] freedom I cannot thank you for in spite of my greatest respect; if I had not had it I would have been outraged. And in return you cannot say that I used it to anyone’s disadvantage, except to my own; each individual is his own person.” She concluded the letter with the words: “grant me to depend on you directly, now and in the future, as long as I remain unmarried; this is the only favor I still dare ask! As these are the last words about my miserably pitiful story.” A letter like this shows us the inner pain with which she paid for her public success.

We will eventually become more clear about Varhagen’s status as a possible role model. Nonetheless, Arendt, Weissberg, and Tewarson all admired Rahel Varnhagen so much that none of the three found it easy to create much distance from her. In future work we must still decide if she was more of a self-hating Jew than any of her biographers have hitherto realized. Perhaps those who continue to write about the loves, the life, and the times of Rahel Varnhagen will be able to admire the risks she took and still discover how much of the rejection she experienced was an unhappy consequence of her own radical social ambitions.

Deborah Hertz is professor of history at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. She is the author of Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin (Yale University Press), as well as an edition of Rahel Levin Varnhagen’s letters in German.