Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman by Hannah Arendt

Almost half a century after her death, in 1975, interest in Hannah Arendt continues to grow—and not just in academia, where countless monographs have been written about her political thought. Arendt was the rare thinker whose personal story makes her equally compelling to a wider public—including her two narrow escapes from Nazism, her love affair with the great philosopher Martin Heidegger, and her controversial reporting on the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel.

The German director Margarethe von Trotta dramatized her life in the 2012 film Hannah Arendt, and last year Samantha Rose Hill published a new biography of Arendt. So it’s surprising that the first book Arendt wrote has been out of print in English until now.

This month, New York Review Books is publishing a new edition of Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman, a literary biography of the late-18th- and early-19th-century German Jewish writer whose choppy publication history reflects the disruptions of its author’s life.

When the Nazis came to power in Germany, in 1933, Arendt was 26 years old and had already written much of the biography. Heavily involved in left-wing and Zionist activism, she was a target for the new regime and was soon arrested by the Gestapo.

Arendt was released after roughly a week in jail and quickly fled the country for Czechoslovakia and then France, pausing only to have her manuscript typed out and sent to acquaintances abroad for safekeeping. She continued to work on it in Paris, but when the Germans conquered France in 1940 she had to flee again, and the typescript of Rahel Varnhagen went by mail to a friend in Jerusalem. She didn’t see it again until 1945, by which time she was living in New York, her home for the rest of her life.

By then Arendt was at work on a very different book: The Origins of Totalitarianism, a study of the roots of Nazism and Communism that appeared in 1951 and immediately made her famous as a political theorist. She didn’t publish Rahel Varnhagen until 1955, almost a quarter-century after she started it.

Don’t Judge a Book by Its Subject

At first, readers found the book baffling. Why was a political philosopher writing a literary biography, and such an unusual biography at that, one that had little interest in storytelling or even providing names and dates?

It didn’t help that Rahel Varnhagen was published in an English translation before it came out in the original German, and most English and American readers had never heard of its subject. The book got mixed reviews and made little impact, in contrast to Arendt’s writing on politics and current events.

Today, most people who read Rahel Varnhagen aren’t drawn by its subject—a Jewish woman who, around the year 1800, hosted one of Berlin’s most distinguished salons and exchanged thousands of letters with Germany’s leading writers and politicians. Her letters and her husband’s memoirs give Rahel—as Arendt refers to her in the biography—a significant place in German literary history.

But the fascination of Arendt’s book has to do with Arendt herself. She once called Rahel Varnhagen “my closest friend, though she has been dead for some hundred years,” and in writing about her Arendt was plainly writing about questions that defined her own life too. How does an intellectually gifted woman make her mark in a culture where men have all the power? How can Jews avoid self-hatred in a society where anti-Semitism is pervasive?

These challenges were just as real for Arendt, born in 1906, as they were for Rahel Levin, born in 1771. But the two women responded in very different ways. For most of her life, Rahel was what Arendt calls a “parvenu.” She achieved the high social status she desperately wanted, but only at the price of erasing her identity, converting to Christianity, and changing her name. Even then, Arendt argues, Rahel remained fundamentally lost and powerless—not simply because she assimilated, but because she thought of herself as an isolated individual, with no sense of her place in society or history.

Arendt embraced the opposite path, becoming what she calls, admiringly, a “pariah.” Instead of trying to fit into a corrupt society, pariahs devote themselves to critiquing and changing it. Thus, while Arendt had no more religious belief than Rahel, she always insisted on her Jewish identity. She also allied herself politically with the cause of the working class, in which Rahel had no interest whatsoever.

In retrospect, Rahel Varnhagen is best understood as a laboratory in which Arendt experimented with the ideas that would later form the core of her political philosophy. That makes it a book worth reading even today, when the German-Jewish world that produced both Rahel Varnhagen and Hannah Arendt survives only in the pages of books.

Adam Kirsch is the author of The Blessing & The Curse: The Jewish People and Their Books in the Twentieth Century and an editor for The Wall Street Journal’s Weekend Review section