Varnhagen, Rahel (1771–1833)

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Varnhagen, Rahel (1771–1833)

Jewish-German salonnière and letter writer whose Berlin salons (1789–1806 and 1819–33) attracted many well-known personages—men and women—of various social classes, religions, and occupations. Name variations: Rahel Levin changed to Rahel Robert in 1810, baptized Antonie Friederike in 1814, married name Rahel Varnhagen or Rahel Varnhagen von Ense. Pronunciation: RA-hell VARN-ha-gen. Born Rahel Levin on May 19, 1771, in Berlin, Germany; died in Berlin in 1833; daughter of Chaie Levin and Markus Levin (a Jewish Berlin banker); converted from Judaism to Christianity in 1814; married Karl August Varnhagen von Ense, in 1814; no children.

Published some of her letters anonymously in Cotta's "Morgenblatt für die gebildete Stände" (1812) and in various journals until her death; best known for her salons and extensive correspondence, which continued until her death (1833).


anonymous publications of selected letters in "Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände" (1812); Schweizerisches Museum (1816); Die Wage (1821); Der Gesellschafter oder Blätter für Geist und Herz (1821); Eos (1826); Berlinische Blätter für Deutsche Frauen (1829); posthumous collection of her letters, edited by Karl Varnhagen von Ense, Rahel: Ein Buch des Andenkens für ihre Freunde (1833); posthumous collections of her letters with various people, including David Veit (1861), Karl Varnhagen von Ense (1874–75), Karoline von Humboldt (1896), Alexander von der Marwitz (1925), Pauline Wiesel (1982), and Rebecca Friedländer (1988).

To read the correspondence of Rahel Varnhagen is to experience life, with all its joys and sorrows, its contemplations and whims, its questions and complexities. Likewise, to have visited her salon in the Jägerstrasse in Berlin at its apex in the 1790s would have been to see life in its widest diversity, with aristocrats and intellectuals, actresses and professors, Jews and Christians gathering out of pure delight for stimulating conversation and company. Indeed, to follow Rahel Varnhagen's life and writings is an exercise in social and intellectual history that very few other writers provide us to any comparable extent.

In many ways, Rahel's life epitomizes that of other Jewish women living in Berlin at the turn of the 19th century—Dorothea Mendelssohn and Henriette Herz , to name two famous contemporaries. All seized the opportunities that opened up to them as Jews following the reforms of Moses Mendelssohn and Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in that all three women became centers of an intellectual life that seemed ready to break barriers of religion and gender. All, however, were also caught within the contradictions that the enlightened despotism of Frederick II the Great brought. While Frederick the Great eased certain laws that restricted the Jews' freedom of movement and expression, mostly to help build the militaristic Prussian state, Jews still faced long-standing anti-Semitism and legal inequalities. For all three women, conversion to Christianity became a part of the process of assimilation, although certainly not a foolproof solution. And as Jewish women, they were hindered doubly by the contradictions that promoted education for both sexes while refusing to establish institutional policies to enact such measures.

Rahel, the name by which her friends and then scholars called her, was born to Chaie Levin and the banker Markus Levin on May 19, 1771. The exact date is one that biographers have had to ascertain from Rahel's own assertions that all she knew about her birthday was that she was born on Whitsunday in 1771, for her father would allow no birthdays to be kept in the family. That family rule was among many that the domineering, strict father established in the household of five children, of which Rahel was the eldest. Frail and sickly as a child, Rahel received no formal education. In spite of these disadvantages, she soon amazed guests to the Levin home with her brilliance and wit.

With her father's death in 1789, Rahel acquired more freedom, and she began her earliest salon, at first an informal gathering of intellectuals in the garret of her home, where she served weak tea. To the evenings of the first salon came such writers and philosophers as August Wilhelm Schlegel, Friedrich Schlegel, Alexander von Humboldt, Wilhelm von Humboldt, Ludwig Tieck, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Johann G. Fichte, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué, and Heinrich von Kleist; such aristocrats as Prince Louis Ferdinand and Prince de Ligne; and women who would become close friends, such as Pauline Wiesel and Rebecca Friedländer . Comments from those who frequented the salon attest to Rahel's talent of elevating conversation to a true art form. She was an "explorer of souls" whose profound expressions of thought and feeling "illuminated far wider expanses than sheets of dissertations," as Johann Wolfgang Goethe described her. To visit her salon must have been as stimulating and entertaining as an evening at the best theater in the city. Gustav von Brinckmann describes how her wit and frankness succeeded "in gradually collecting about her a numerous social circle, which was beyond comparison the most delightful and gifted in the whole of Berlin."

Salon guests began arriving at five o'clock to the modest garret in Jägerstrasse. There were no special invitations; everyone felt welcome. Rahel made no formal speeches, but rather continually interjected comments that tied together the threads of conversation or that energized reaction. If there were a lull in the conversation, there was music on the piano, with either Rahel, who was an accomplished pianist, or another guest performing a well-practiced piece or improvising. There also could be a spontaneous performance of a theater piece or a reading of a letter or literary work out loud. The group began to break up about nine o'clock, when the conversation and performances had reached their height.

Besides turning conversation into art, the first salon years also inspired the art of letter-writing. Rahel had always written letters to her childhood friends. Most of these early friends belonged to economically privileged Jewish families living in the neighborhood. Notes about theater performances and literary readings were commonplace in these early epistles. The full extent of these early relationships are still being explored by Barbara Hahn , who is working on a new edition of Rahel's letters, which will include previously unpublished childhood letters, many of them written in Hebrew script. Rahel's most famous letters have come down from the posthumous collection of letters that her husband Karl Varnhagen von Ense edited and published just after her death. In that collection one finds lively correspondence with her siblings, including her younger sister Rose , with the Jewish doctor David Veit, and with friends Friedrich von Gentz, Karl Gustav von Brinckmann, Alexander von der Marwitz, and August Karl von Finckenstein, in which Rahel lays out the philosophies of her life, speaking on the value of truth, friendship, nature, and letter writing. Rahel's success at corresponding lay in her ability to bring art to life and life to art. "Everything is thus, as it is—and only trivialities, small moments of eternity exist for me," she writes to Rebecca Friedländer. To Brinckmann, she conveys her appreciation of his letters: "At least believe me, dear friend, that no word in your four heavenly letters became lost; fun, seriousness, sorrow, everything to its place in my soul." Rahel elevated the reading and writing of letters to a literary sensation; she writes to Brinckmann: "even in a literary sense no one can appreciate, judge, and enjoy your letters better than I." Very few topics escaped Rahel's pen, including gender equality. At one point, she advises her sister to travel and visit new places, stressing: "We women need this doubly…. It's ignorance of human nature when people imagine our intellect to be different, constituted for other needs, and that we could live, for example, totally off the lives of our husbands or sons. This demand arises solely from the supposition that a woman's soul knows nothing higher than the demands and expectations of her husband, or the talents and desires of her children."

It was in the first salon that Rahel befriended Pauline Wiesel as well, who would become her lifelong correspondent. In the correspondence with Wiesel, which spanned over 25 years, the women formed a bond outside of a society that they felt excluded them. Wiesel's extramarital love affair with Prince Louis Ferdinand and her eventual divorce ostracized her from Berlin society. In Rahel's salon, Pauline Wiesel found the comfort of a neutral meeting ground for people of diverse backgrounds and opinions. Rahel and Pauline quickly established a friendship in which one complemented the other: "Such people as you should have had my musings, my circumspection, my rationality!" Rahel wrote, "Such people as I your courage, and your beauty. Otherwise we have completely what makes a talented human nature. Sense, senses, intellect, humor, sensitive heart, sense for art and nature—that means in our language, 'we love greenness.'" With Pauline, she refused to submit to the binding norms of society that force one to be untrue, opting instead to live on the margins: "The daggers in my poor, tender heart I want to bear: the lie I cannot bear: it must always come out again, as often as the course of life washes it ashore."

The later years of the first salon also inspired the correspondence between Rahel and another Jewish woman, Rebecca Friedländer (1783–1850), lasting from the years 1805 to 1810. Friedländer was a writer of romantic novels, turning to the profession after she had divorced. Like Pauline Wiesel, she felt isolated from society and her family due to her stormy personal history, and thus she found in Rahel and her salon a comforting tolerance. Considering that Rebecca asked for her letters back after Rahel's death, indicating that she wanted to burn them, readers only have Rahel's letters to Rebecca. Like those to Pauline Wiesel, they are rich in philosophy, literary comment, and social history. The relationship came to an end, however, after Rebecca published her novel Schmerz der Liebe in 1810, in which Rahel appeared as a character portrayed not in a totally favorable light. In letters, Rahel seems less concerned about the nature of the portrayal than about Rebecca's decision to reify her life and thoughts in a published form: "What should I really say after you have cited my own words to me 'that only a cook and an equipage stir me!' with what trust can I speak when you interpret me in such a way, not out of malice, but in seriousness." Despite the eventual falling out between the women, which also brought the end of the correspondence, in Rahel's letters to Rebecca, with all their unusual punctuation, orthography, and vocabulary, with their streams of thoughts and aphorisms, mixed with stories from the day and reports on the weather, readers can imagine how much the lively salon conversations must have resembled the letters and vice versa.

The first salon ended in 1806, after Napoleon's defeat of Prussia in Jena and the burgeoning anti-Semitism that Prussia's nationalism incurred. The French occupation of Berlin brought also financial hardship to Rahel's family. Rahel closed her salon but continued to remain in contact with other intellectuals by attending lectures such as those by the philosopher Ludwig Fichte. In 1809, her mother died; Rahel had cared for until her death. She also met Karl Varnhagen von Ense, her future husband, in 1808, who visited her daily in Charlottenburg. Karl was 23, Rahel 37, when the two first met.

Rahel had had two stormy love affairs, the first from 1796 to 1800 with the Count August Karl von Finckenstein, who had severed the relationship due to his family's unwillingness to accept the class differences between him and Rahel, and the second from 1802 to 1804 with the Spanish diplomat Raphael d'Urquijo, whose extreme jealousy and volatility became incompatible with Rahel's nature. Rahel was frank with Karl about these affairs and tolerant of Karl's own on-going affair with Fanny Herz in Hamburg. Rahel shared her letters with her previous lovers with Karl, who showed great interest in collecting and preserving them. The two shared many passions, including conversation, reading, theater, and letter writing.

Everything is thus, as it is—and only trivialities, small moments of eternity exist for me.

—Rahel Varnhagen

In fact, in 1812, Karl published Rahel's correspondence, anonymously, but with her consent, in Cotta's "Morgenblatt für gebildete Stände." These letters reveal Rahel's passion for Goethe, one that continued throughout her life. With their publication began the first outward signs that Rahel did indeed perceive her letters as literature that deserved a wider audience. Several publications of her correspondence would follow, often anonymously or under a pseudonym. Both Karl and Rahel also gathered one of the most extensive collections of 19th-century private documents and manuscripts of German cultural figures that exists. The Varnhagen Collection, housed in the Jagiellonska University Library in Krakow, Poland, contains Rahel's extensive correspondence, and is a particular storehouse of wealth for letters and manuscripts by and about other women of the time.

In 1813, Prussia declared war on France and thus began the anti-Napoleon "Befreiungs-kriege," or "Liberation Wars." Karl Varnhagen von Ense began diplomatic services with Russia. Out of fear for the warlike conditions, Rahel and her family fled in May from Berlin to Breslau. On May 30, she met up with her brother Ludwig Robert in Prague and began staying there with the actress August Brede . Distraught by the many wounded soldiers in the city, Rahel began to act energetically on their behalf. She wrote to friends in Berlin and garnered funds from them to support the efforts to help the wounded. She helped cook meals and gather clothing and supplies for the several hospitals and cloisters that were housing the sick. Her room in Prague became a kind of charity office where she organized funds and continued to meet with friends and intellectuals of the day. The war with France ended on May 30, 1814, and Rahel returned to Berlin.

On September 23, 1814, Rahel converted to Christianity at her bother Moritz's house in Berlin. Four days later, she married Karl Varnhagen von Ense. Conversion to Christianity was not uncommon, especially for Jewish women who married men not raised in Jewish households. Still, the motives behind such an act and the depth to which women such as Rahel were conscious of their Jewish heritage remain topics of scholarly inquiry. Clearly, several of Rahel's close friendships and her most profound correspondences were with Jewish men and women. If one looks closely at Rahel's letters, one finds scattered comments about her Jewishness, both pride and resentment. She writes to David Veit, "I have such a fantasy; as if an extraterrestrial being, as I am forced into this world, had stabbed me with these words like a dagger into the heart at the moment of my entrance: 'Yes, have feelings, see the world, as few see it, be great and noble, I cannot even take away your eternal thoughts, one thing has been forgotten, however; be a Jew!" In contrast to this seeming regret to have been born Jewish, on her deathbed, she remarked: "What for such a long time of my life was the greatest disgrace, the harshest sorrow and misfortune, to have been born a Jew, I would not like to forego it now at any price."

Between 1815 and 1819, Rahel lived in Vienna, Frankfurt am Main, and Karlsruhe, following the diplomatic career of her husband, who was involved in peace talks following Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo and then was appointed business correspondent for Prussia in Baden. Due to his democratic beliefs, however, Karl Varnhagen von Ense was asked to resign his post in 1819. Along with anti-democratic sentiments throughout Germany came also anti-Semitic outbreaks, such as the so-called "Hephep Stürme." Rahel and Karl returned to Berlin in 1819, when Rahel also began her second salon there.

Rahel's second salon was frequented by intellectuals such as Leopold Ranke, Georg Hegel, Alexander von Humboldt, and Fürst Pückler, and then later Heinrich Heine and Bettina von Arnim . It did not have the same dynamic, unconventional qualities of the first salon, although Rahel's wit and intellect did attract visitors until her death in 1833. Salon visitors showed enthusiastic support for the July Revolution in 1830 in France. They also lived through the devastation of the cholera epidemic in Berlin in summer 1831 as well as Goethe's death in March 1832.

Following Rahel's death, Karl Varnhagen von Ense's collection of her letters appeared in 1834. The edition met with great success and is still widely read. Scholars have in the meantime found shortcomings with Karl Varnhagen von Ense's editing methods and thus have issued new and more complete editions of Rahel's individual correspondences. With each new publication of her letters, readers stand in awe at the philosophical insights and at the breadth of human emotion, knowledge, and perception they hold. A letter from her, as Rahel herself wrote to Karl, "gives the past life, and the present shape," revealing her as "a marvel of nature, a comer-person in nature's concept of humanity."


Arendt, Hannah . Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman. Rev. ed. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1974.

Hahn, Barbara. "Antworten Sie mir!" Rahel Levin Varnhagens Briefwechsel ("Answer me!" Rahel Levin Varnhagen's Correspondence). Basel, Frankfurt am. Main: Stroemfeld/Roter Stern, 1990.

Key, Ellen . Rahel Varnhagen: A Portrait. Translated by Arthur G. Chater, with an introduction by Havelock Ellis. NY: Putnam, 1913.

Rahel Varnhagen: Eine jüdische Frau in der Berliner Romantik: 1771–1833. Ausstellung zum 160. Todestag (Rahel Varnhagen: A Jewish Woman in Berlin Romanticism: 1771–1833. Exhibition for the 160th Anniversary of Her Death). Berlin: Beratungsstelle für Frauen und Familien Berlin, 1993.

Rahel Varnhagen. Jeder Wunsch wird Frivolität genannt. Briefe und Tagebücher. Ed. by Marlis Gerhardt. Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1983.

"Rahel Varnhagen: Translation of Selected Letters," in Bitter Healing: German Women Writers 1700–1830. Introduction, bibliography, and translation by Katherine R. Goodman. Ed. by Jeannine Blackwell and Susanne Zantop. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1990, pp. 401–416.

Rebecca Friedländer: Briefe an eine Freundin. Rahel Varnhagen an Rebecca Friedländer. Ed. by Deborah Hertz. Cologne: Kiepenheuer & Witsch, 1988.

Scurla, Herbert. Rahel Varnhagen. Die grosse Frauengestalt der deutschen Romantik. Berlin: Verlag der Nation, 1962.

Stern, Carola. Der Text meines Herzens: Das Leben der Rahel Varnhagen (The Text of My Heart: The Life of Rahel Varnhagen). Reinbek bei Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1994.

Tewarson, Heidi Thomann. Rahel Levin Varnhagen. Mit Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten (Rahel Levin Varnhagen. With Personal Testimonials and Pictorial Documents). Reinbek: Rowohlt Taschenbuch, 1988.

Varnhagen, Rahel. Gesammelte Werke. Ed. by Konrad Feilchenfeldt, Uwe Schweikert, and Rahel E. Steiner. Munich: Matthes & Seitz, 1983 (contains a reprint of the original correspondence that Karl Varnhagen von Ense published posthumously in 1834, entitled Rahel: Ein Buch des Andenkens für ihre Freunde).

suggested reading:

Goodman, Katherine R. "The Cases of Varnhagen and Arnim," in Dis/Closures: Women's Autobiography in Germany between 1790–1914. NY: Peter Lang, 1986, pp. 73–120.

——. "The Impact of Rahel Varnhagen on Women in the Nineteenth Century," in Gestaltet und gestaltend: Frauen in der deutschen Literatur. Ed. by Marianne Burkhard. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1981, pp. 125–153.

——. "Poesis and Praxis in Rahel Varnhagen's Letters," in New German Critique. Vol. 27, Fall 1982, pp. 123–139.

Hertz, Deborah. "Inside Assimilation: Rebecca Friedländer's Rahel Varnhagen," in German Women in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries: A Social and Literary History. Edited by Ruth-Ellen B. Joeres and Mary Jo Maynes. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1986, pp. 271–288.

——. Jewish High Society in Old Regime Berlin. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1988.

Tewarson, Heidi Thomann. Rachel Levin Varnhagen: The Life and Work of a German Jewish Intellectual. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Weissberg, Liliane. "Turns of Emancipation: On Rahel Varnhagen's Letters," in In the Shadow of Olympus: German Women Writers Around 1800. Edited by Katherine R. Goodman and Edith Waldstein. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1992, pp. 53–70.

——. "Writing on the Wall: The Letters of Rahel Varnhagen," in New German Critique. Vol. 36. Fall 1985, pp. 157–173.


Most of Rahel's original correspondence and manuscripts are in the Varnhagen Collection in the Jagiellonska University Library in Krakow, Poland.

Lorely French , Professor of German and Chair of the Humanities Division at Pacific University, Forest Grove, Oregon