Mendelssohn, Dorothea (1764–1839)

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Mendelssohn, Dorothea (1764–1839)

German-Jewish-born salonnière and writer who played an important role in the intellectual life of Berlin during a crucial stage in both European history and Jewish emancipation. Name variations: Brendel Mendelssohn; Beniken Mendelssohn; Caroline Veit or Madame Veit; Dorothea Schlegel; Dorothea von Schlegel; Dorothea von Schlegel von Gottleben; Dorothea Mendelssohn Veit Schlegel. Born Brendel Mendelssohn in Berlin on October 24, 1764 (some sources cite 1763 or 1765); died in Frankfurt am Main on August 3, 1839; daughter of Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786, a Jewish philosopher) and Fromet Gugenheim Mendelssohn; sister of Henriette Mendelssohn (1768–1831), Rebekah Mendelssohn (born Reikel, later called Recha), Sara Mendelssohn, Sisa Mendelssohn, Abraham Mendelssohn, Hayyim Mendelssohn, Joseph Mendelssohn, Mendel Abraham Mendelssohn, and Nathan Mendelssohn; married Simon Veit (separated 1797, divorced); married Friedrich von Schlegel (1772–1829, a Romantic theorist), in 1804; children: (first marriage) two daughters, both of whom died in infancy; sons, Johannes Veit; Philipp Veit.

Born in the final decades of the Aufklärung, Germany's version of the Enlightenment, Dorothea Mendelssohn would both witness and play an active role in the great transformations that forever changed the course of European history. She saw the eclipse of the Age of Reason; participated in the rapid emancipation and acculturation of Germany's Jewish elite; and, as the host of one of Berlin's most brilliant salons, situated herself at the very center of the emerging Romantic movement. Along with many of her contemporaries, Mendelssohn was both inspired and shocked by the energies unleashed by the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte.

She was born Brendel Mendelssohn in 1764, the eldest daughter of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786). An intellectually gifted girl, she received an excellent education. Her father—whose odyssey had taken him from the ghetto of Dessau where he was born the son of a poor Torah scribe to a position of acclaim as one of the world's greatest philosophers of religion—eloquently argued that both as a people and as individuals Jews deserved the full rights and burdens of modern citizenship. Dorothea's mother Fromet Gugenheim Mendelssohn had illustrious forebears including Jewish financiers of both the Prussian and Viennese courts; one of Fromet's ancestors was Glückel of Hameln . The Mendelssohn family reflected this desire to participate in all aspects of a confidently advancing civilization. As citizens of Berlin whose people had barely emerged from the restrictions imposed on Jews in medieval ghettoes, the Mendelssohn children became active players in the transformation of Prussian, and indeed all of German, intellectual and cultural life.

In 1784, Brendel Mendelssohn entered into an approved union by marrying the banker Simon Veit. Refusing to fall into a role of passive domesticity, Dorothea, as she now called herself, soon tired of her daily routine and began to search for ways to expand her intellectual horizons. Upper-class Berlin in the early 1790s was in the grip of an Aufbruchstimmung—an expectant, even electrical mood of change. New ideas were the order of the day in politics, the arts, and literature. It was not in the homes of the old aristocracy or higher bureaucracy that these currents were discussed and debated. Rather, it was the salons of Berlin, the elegant drawing rooms of the city's newly emancipated Jewish bourgeoisie, that provided the locations for encounters between Jews and gentiles, mostly young men and women who sought to better understand the complex times in which they lived.

In the intellectually and socially free atmosphere of these salons, presided over by Jewish women such as Henriette Herz and Rahel Varnhagen , Dorothea quickly discovered that she was more than able to hold her own with some of the best minds of the day. In the absence of physical beauty, her intelligence, passionate nature, and educational background made an attractive figure. She initially founded a reading society, and this soon evolved into a full-scale literary salon where restless young Prussian nobles met equally restless daughters of wealthy Berlin Jewish families. In this common meeting ground, intellectual, cultural and erotic energies fused to create a powerful new spirit of inquiry and innovation. The suffocating class and caste system of the Prussian monarchy seemed to melt away in what historian Deborah Hertz has characterized as an atmosphere of "relaxed sensuality." Young Jewish women saw in these salons "a new social universe," separate from an often restricted bourgeois world, where they could discuss the important issues of the day with interesting young males, mostly Christian, who worked as civil servants, writers, tutors, professors, and preachers, among other professions. Romantic attachments often resulted, and a significant number of Jewish women, including Dorothea, divorced their Jewish husbands. What followed in most of these cases was marriage to a gentile spouse and, eventually, conversion to Christianity.

In 1798, Dorothea, then mistress of one of the most popular of Berlin's 14 salons, met and quickly fell in love with Friedrich von Schlegel (1772–1829), a man almost a decade her junior who was rapidly emerging as one of the leading theorists of the revolutionary new Weltanschauung of Romanticism. Ignoring the scandal her action provoked, in 1797 Dorothea left her husband and began living with her lover. In 1799, now divorced, she accompanied Friedrich to the city of Jena, where he and other writers (Johann Gottfried Fichte, F.W.J. Schelling, and the mystical poet Novalis) were feverishly creating a Romantic philosophy of art and life. From 1801 to 1804, the couple lived in Paris, a metropolis that remained the political and intellectual heart of Western civilization. They were notorious throughout Europe for their affair which had begun as Dorothea's adultery. Friedrich wrote about it at length in his autobiographical erotic novel Lucinde (1799), which presents a case for the necessity of fusing sacred and profane varieties of love. Dorothea shared his beliefs, disdaining marriage as an absurd bourgeois impediment to human freedom. In addition to collaborating with Schlegel on a number of his literary projects during these years, in 1801 Dorothea published a novel of her own, Florentin, which although modeled after Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Wilhelm Meister was nevertheless regarded by contemporary critics and readers as a work of considerable artistic substance. She was also strongly influenced by the literary developments of the day in France and in 1807 published her translation of Germaine de Staël 's Corinne.

In 1804, Dorothea and Friedrich married. At this time, she converted to Lutheranism, remarking to her friend the religious philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher that unlike Judaism (which she had come to abhor and regard as backward and permeated with superstitions), Protestantism not only represented the religion of Jesus Christ but also embodied the spirit of the highest possible Kultur, that of contemporary Prussia and Germany. Soon, however, Dorothea and her husband found themselves among the many Romantic writers who were increasingly attracted to Roman Catholicism, and they became convinced that the only true faith was that centered in Rome. By now, Romanticism had evolved from a radical early phase, which enthusiastically supported the liberating spirit of the French Revolution, to the point where many former radicals, now aging and disillusioned by the events in France and elsewhere, felt that the only antidote to the illnesses of their day was to be found in venerable traditions, both secular and religious. In 1808 both Dorothea and Friedrich converted to Roman Catholicism, which they regarded as the only faith able to provide a safe harbor against the raging storms of modernity. Her conversion was deeply upsetting to her family. Dorothea was strongly rebuked by her sister Henriette and, for a time, was treated as a virtual pariah within the extended Mendelssohn family. Ironically, four years later, in 1812, Henriette too would convert to Catholicism, and in time brothers Abraham and Nathan would also leave Judaism for Christianity.

In 1809, Dorothea and Friedrich moved to Vienna, the nerve center of conservative Romanticism. While Schlegel worked at the court of Austria's emperor and edited the journalsDeutsches Museum and Concordia, Dorothea resumed her role as a salonnière, presiding over a brilliant assemblage of writers, artists, and politicians which included such luminaries of the day as Karoline Pichler and Joseph von Eichendorff. In 1815, after earning the approbation of the conservative Habsburg court for his work at the Congress of Vienna, Friedrich von Schlegel was raised to the Austrian nobility as Friedrich von Schlegel von Gottleben, a title which also became part of his Jewish-born wife's name. He died in January 1829. Dorothea was rescued from a future of poverty by the intervention of her friend, Austrian chancellor Clemens von Metternich, who persuaded the emperor to authorize a lifelong pension for her. In 1830, she left Vienna for Frankfurt am Main to live with her son, the painter Philipp Veit. After a long life that both witnessed and influenced several epochs of European history, she died in Frankfurt am Main on August 3, 1839.

Berlin's salons flourished from around 1780 until 1806, when a new spirit emerged in Prussia as a result of its catastrophic military defeat by Napoleonic France. The disaster of 1806, which revealed not only the military weakness of the Prussian army and state but also the social backwardness of Prussia's semi-feudal society, ended the "frivolities" associated with the salons. Jewish salons now lost favor with the Berlin elite as a new spirit of German nationalism grew among the intellectual classes. In some cases, this nationalist concept of Deutschtum went so far as to call for exclusion of any further Jewish participation in the public life of the emerging German nation. Prussian-German patriotism was often defined in "Christian" terms, and for some this meant that private slurs and jokes directed against the Jewish bourgeoisie could be aired in public. Despite these disturbing trends, Prussia's Jews made great progress during this period. Among the most important innovations which made possible the integration of Jews into the dominant culture were the salons that had been presided over by women like Dorothea Mendelssohn.


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John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

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Mendelssohn, Dorothea (1764–1839)

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