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Heinrich Heine and His Cousin, Karl Marx

Marty Roth
January 7, 2018

by Marty Roth

I have since then learned to value them [Jews] better, and, if every kind of pride of birth were not a foolish contradiction in a champion of revolution and democratic principles, the writer of these pages might be proud that his ancestors belonged to the noble House of Israel, that he is a descendant of those martyrs who have given to the world one God and a moral law, and have fought and suffered in all the battle-fields of thought. --Heinrich Heine

THE COUSINS Heinrich Heine and Karl Marx are prominent entries in Isaac Deutscher’s list of “non-Jewish Jews.” Heine was perhaps the first notable secular Jew, identifying with the people and their culture but not with the religion. At the age of 25, he joined fifty other prominent Jewish intellectuals to create an Association for Jewish Culture and Knowledge, with a twofold purpose: to introduce Jews to the treasures of European culture, and to validate Jewish culture. As part of this effort, they attempted to introduce “Jewish Studies” into the German university curriculum. Heine’s inclination to harsh mockery led him to make statements like “Judaism is not a religion; it is a misfortune.” Nevertheless, he returned to the abandoned religion --“Yes, like the prodigal son, I have come back to God after a long time spent in feeding the swine among the Hegelians” -- toward the end of his life.

Marx, a baptized descendant of a long line of rabbis, was an atheist from a predominantly Catholic city, in a country whose official religion was evangelical Protestantism. He is usually considered to be famously antisemitic; his 1843 treatise, “On the Jewish Question,” called for an end to the emancipation of the Jews because they were enslaved by a harsher taskmaster than the German state — their own religion.

We must emancipate ourselves before we can emancipate others.

The most rigid form of the opposition between the Jew and the Christian is the religious opposition. How is an opposition resolved? By making it impossible. How is religious opposition made impossible? By abolishing religion.

Books on Heinrich Heine rarely mention Karl Marx; books on Marx almost never mention Heine. As might be expected, political division in Germany until 1990 kept the two writers in separate camps. Most commentary ignored the argument of the great Hungarian Marxist cultural critic György Lukács that Heine is the crucial intellectual link between Hegel and Marx and a major contributor to the ideological preparation for a hypothetical German revolution. Heine was a 19th-century German who had “outgrown bourgeois democracy” and recognized the significance of the proletariat, even though he was never to become a proletarian revolutionary himself, writing

I fought to hold positions that were lost

In Freedom’s War for thirty faithful years:

Without a hope to win, despite the cost

I battled on, expecting only tears.

Yet Heinrich and Karl were third cousins once removed (on the side of Marx’s mother, Henrietta Pressburg), and quite friendly. They were both secular Jews from the border region of the Rhineland who saw French revolutionary politics as Germany’s salvation: “when all inner requisities are fulfilled,” Heine wrote, “the day of German resurrection will be proclaimed by the ringing call of the Gallic cock.” The cousins met in 1843 in Paris, and, according to Marx’s daughter Eleanor, Marx visited the older poet daily before his expulsion from France. The two worked together on the single issue of the German-French Annual, in which “On the Jewish Question” was published along with Heine’s three ironic “Songs of Praise to King Ludwig.”

When he was expelled at the request of the Prussian government for “shocking insults directed at his majesty, the king,” Frederick William IV of Prussia, Marx wrote, “Of all the people I am leaving behind here, those I leave with most regret are the Heines. I would gladly include you in my luggage!” Heine ended one of his last letters to Marx when he was going blind as a result of syphilis: “Live well, my faithful friend, and apologies for my unclear scribbling; I can not reread everything I have written, but we do not need many characters to understand each other!”

After Marx was deported to Belgium, however, the relationship dwindled to a sporadic correspondence. Engels continued to visit Heine whenever he  came to Paris, and credited him with being the first German to understand the implications of Hegel for the left.


MARX HAD READ HEINE extensively. Heine’s influence, as one might expect of a poet, was largely a matter of imagery, of the traumgeschichte [dream history] metaphor which plays throughout Marx’s writings, or  “wolves, pigs and common dogs of the old society” in his writing about the defeat of the Paris Commune and the “opium of the people” in The Communist Manifesto. Traumgeschichte as the state of German reality is common to both writers, found particularly in Heine’s conceit that “German philosophy is nothing other than the dream of the French Revolution” -- a dream in which Kant played the part of Robespierre, his Critique of Pure Reason being the guillotine that executed Deism (“With the death of their God, the death of kings will follow”), Fichte played Napoleon, Schelling the Restoration, and Hegel the July Revolution. The Germans had accomplished in dreams what the French had achieved in practice, and had, thereby, killed not a king but a god. As Heine wrote in his “Germany: A Winter’s Tale”:

The land is held by the Russians and French

The sea’s by the British invested,

But in the airy realm of dreams

Our sway is uncontested.

Ultimately Heine’s ideas of revolution through sensual emancipation, and Marx’s “scientific” socialism, became incompatible. Heine believed that socialism/communism would destroy much of the culture that he loved:

Indeed, with fear and terror I imagine the time, when those dark iconoclasts come to power: with their raw fists they will batter all marble images of my beloved world of art, they will ruin all those fantastic anecdotes that the poets loved so much, they will chop down my Laurel forests and plant potatoes and, oh!, the herbs chandler will use my Book of Songs to make bags for coffee and snuff for the old women of the

future--oh!, I can foresee all this and I feel deeply sorry thinking of this decline threatening my poetry and the old world order--And yet, I freely confess, the same thoughts have a magical appeal upon my soul which I cannot resist . . . In my chest there are two voices in their favor which cannot be silenced . . . because the first one is that of logic . . . and I cannot object to the premise “that all people have the right to eat.”

“Out of hatred for the nationalists,” he continues, “I could almost love the Communists. At least they are not hypocrites who always keep religion and Christianity in their mouths; the Communists, it is true, have no religion . . . but in their highest principles they pay homage to a . . . universal love of the peoples . . . so that they are much more Christian in nature and truth than our German Maulchristen [false Christians] who preach and practice the opposite.”

But in his social dreaming Heine always remain closer to Saint-Simon than to Marx, and was thus unable to intervene in the events of his time as an activist or to resolve his fear of the future victory of communism “against all” his “interest and inclination.”


IN 2007, one of the most admired theater pieces in New York was “The Germans in Paris,” by Jonathan Leaf, in which Marx and Richard Wagner encounter Heine, and Heine ends up rethinking his commitment to socialism. Heine asks, “So the revolution will mean a great deal of bloodshed?” Marx replies: “We can hope.”

Heine was one of the few Jews that Wagner cautiously accepted (but he praised him for “castigating the illusions of self-deception” among his fellow Jews). The poet serve as inspiration for Wagner’s Flying Dutchman opera, which tells the story of the Wandering Jew, a man condemned to travel the seas until a woman sacrifices herself for him, and for the hero of the opera Tannheuser.


Marty Roth is an expatriate American who left the U.S. with the installation of George W. Bush (which seems like relatively small potatoes now). For ten years he was part of the editorial collective of Outlook: Canada’s Progressive Jewish Magazine. He recently appeared here with an essay about the Hollywood Ten.