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Culture

"He Was Not Respectful of Other Nations"

While changing tastes in poetry led to a waning interest in Heine in Germany, the writer has been inappropriately chosen as a cosmopolitan poster child, says US Heine expert Jeffrey L. Sammons.

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"Heine was an outstanding example of a counter-figure within German culture"

DW-WORLD: Why should people read Hei n e today?

Jeffrey L. Sammons: He's one of the great poets and writers of world literature. He is an exceptionally resourceful, original writer, motivated by incompatible imperatives that lead to an enormous tension within his writing. Because they remain so unresolved, they make him a witness to the anxieties and difficulties of his own time and perhaps even of ours.

Why do you thi n k that he is more popular i n some cou n tries tha n i n Germa n y ?

You can hardly say that this neglect has carried into the presence, but the difficulties began during the period of modernism. Many German writers and intellectuals felt they had to distance themselves from Heine and his pattern of poetry that's associated with the "Buch der Lieder" (Book of Songs). There was a feeling in the age of (Stefan) George, (Rainer Maria) Rilke and (Hugo von) Hofmannsthal that he could no longer be taken seriously, leading to a strong decline in his reputation among the definers of the culture. That, I believe, carried over in the period after (World War II). In West Germany, it was a little harder to recover his importance, whereas East Germans took the initiative in propagating Heine.

Hei n e is ofte n described as a cosmopolita n a n d a Europea n . Is this appropriate?

I think Heine was an outstanding example of a counter-figure within German culture. I feel that in many ways, Heine has been rewritten to serve certain contemporary German needs -- to find a writer who can counter the patterns and clichés that were associated with German nationalism in the past. I think that Goethe is also a poet for this purpose. If you sat and read what he had to write about other nations and people, it was almost universally unfriendly. He was not respectful of other nations. He saw Europe as a German-French condominium, in which other nations would be insignificant or disappear.

What would Hei n e thi n k of Europe today?

He might actually have been somewhat happier in the Adenauer/de Gaulle days, when there really was a kind of feeling of rescuing Europe by a French-German alliance -- a bond of German philosophy and French revolutionary élan emancipating and freeing Europe. This is what drove his commentary on public affairs.

Jeffrey L. Sammo n s is professor emeritus of Germa n ic la n guage a n d literature at Yale U n iversity . He is author of ma n y books, i n cludi n g four o n Hei n e. "Hei n rich Hei n e: Alter n ative Perspectives," a collectio n of his Germa n a n d E n glish essays o n Hei n e will be published i n Germa n y this year.

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