“Jeder Reiche ist ein Judas Ischariot”: Heinrich Heine and the Emancipation of the Jews

George F. Peters


Heinrich Heine is credited with being the first to apply the word “emancipation” to the cause of freedom and equality for those groups still enslaved by the tyranny of religious and political oppression in the post-revolutionary world of the early 19th century. Though his cosmopolitan thinking embraced the subjugated from Ireland to America, Heine was closest to the fate of his fellow Jews in Europe, and the term emancipation quickly became associated with the political and social movement for Jewish equality. Heine was directly affected by the shifting policies of the Germans states toward legal emancipation of the Jews. In the 1820s he actively participated in the first attempt of Jews to establish a Wissenschaft der Juden. His tortured struggle to reconcile his Jewishness with his calling as a German poet is recorded in writings and letters surrounding his baptism in 1825. Nevertheless, Heine remained aloof from the emancipation movement and was skeptical about the status of Jews in France, who had been emancipated for nearly forty years when Heine arrived in Paris. The roots of Heine’s largely negative judgment lie in his observation that the forces of early capitalism were undermining religious faith and that Jewish assimilation into bourgeois society necessitated the abandonment of those fundamental human values that characterize the essence of Judaism. (GP)

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