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Culture

"He Was Quite Cruel in Many Ways"

Germans might struggle with Heinrich Heine because of his merciless depiction of their homeland. But the German author's also simply a lot of fun to read, says an English expert.

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Nigel Reeves: "Heine could certainly be called a citizen of Europe"

DW-WORLD: Why should people read Heine today?

Nigel Reeves: Because he had such a keen eye for political pomposity, for posturing, for empty rhetoric. He is a very good corrective for understanding how politicians try to present themselves in this world as much as in his. As a satirist he serves a useful purpose, even though today the object -- the Germany -- of his satire no longer exists. He's also fun to read. Literature, which is entertaining, survives longer in many cases -- the best example in this country is the work of Charles Dickens. One further reason of course is that he is one of the few great German writers who really did bridge more than one culture. Thomas Mann arguably did as well, but many of the great German poets -- Schiller, Goethe -- are very rooted in their own world. Heine, through his engagement in France, is regarded as a French poet by some. That does really make him stand out.

Why do you think that he is more popular in some countries than in Germany?

I think that his satirical pictures of life in Germany have been uncomfortable. There aren't many poets or writers in Germany who have been quite so sharp in their appreciation and depiction of their homeland. He was quite cruel in many ways.

Heine is often described as a cosmopolitan and a European. Is this appropriate?

He was open to literatures of other countries. France was of course the great love, but he was very open to Italy, he was a great admirer of ancient Greece. I think in terms of his openness to other cultures, he truly was a cosmopolitan -- an intellectual cosmopolitan. He could certainly be called a citizen of Europe.

What would Heine think of Europe today?

He would see the funny side of it. If he had paid any attention to some of the things that happen in the European Parliament, he would have had quite a lot of fun with that. I think that he would have looked at the splits and divisions below the surface.

Nigel Reeves

Nigel Reeves

He would have made fun of the word "union." When you scratch the surface, every member state is looking at its own interests, in the final analysis. That's not to say that he wouldn't have approved of the idea. I think he would have approved of the idea to bring European countries together. He would have approved of the breakdown of narrow nationalism. He would have approved of the fact that we are a much more multi-lingual place and can travel freely. He would have seen the positive side. I'm sure of it.


Nigel Reeves is professor of Germa n at Asto n U n iversity i n Birmi n gham. He has do n e exte n sive research o n Hei n e a n d is the author of "Hei n rich Hei n e: Poetry a n d Politics."

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