Cover image for Rahel Varnhagen : the life of a Jewess
Rahel Varnhagen : the life of a Jewess
Arendt, Hannah, 1906-1975.
Personal Author:
First complete edition.
Publication Information:
Baltimore : Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.
Physical Description:
xii, 388 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
General Note:
"Published in cooperation with the Leo Baeck Institute"--T.p. verso.
Personal Subject:
Added Author:
Format :


Call Number
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DS135.G5 V474 1997 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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She was, Hannah Arendt wrote, "my closest friend, though she has been dead for some hundred years." Born in Berlin in 1771 as the daughter of a Jewish merchant, Rahel Varnhagen would come to host one of the most prominent salons of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Arendt discovered her writings some time in the mid-1920s, and soon began to reimagine Rahel's inner life and write her biography. Long unavailable and never before published as Arendt intended, Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess returns to print in an extraordinary new edition. Arendt draws a lively and complex portrait of a woman during the period of the Napoleonic wars and the early emancipation of the Jews, a figure who met and corresponded with some of the most celebrated authors, artists, and politicians of her time. She documents Rahel's attempts to earn legitimacy as a writer and gain access to the highest aristocratic circles, to assert for herself a position in German culture in spite of her gender and religion. Arendt had almost completed a first draft of her book on Rahel by 1933 when she was forced into exile by the National Socialists. She continued her work on the manuscript in Paris and New York, but would not publish the book until 1958. Rahel Varnhagen became not just a study of a historical Jewish figure, but a poignant reflection on Arendt's own life and times, her first exploration of German-Jewish identity and the possibility of Jewish life in the face of unimaginable adversity. For this first complete critical edition of the book in any language, Liliane Weissberg reconstructs the notes Arendt planned for Rahel Varnhagen but never fully executed. She reveals the extent to which Arendt wove the biography largely from the words of Rahel and her contemporaries. In her extended introduction, Weissberg reflects on Rahel's writings and on the importance of this text in the development of Arendt's political theory. Weissberg also reveals the hidden story of how Arendt manipulated documents relating to Rahel Varnhagen to claim for herself a university position and reparation payments from the postwar German state.

Author Notes

Born in Hanover, Germany, Hannah Arendt received her doctorate from Heidelberg University in 1928. A victim of naziism, she fled Germany in 1933 for France, where she helped with the resettlement of Jewish children in Palestine. In 1941, she emigrated to the United States. Ten years later she became an American citizen.

Arendt held numerous positions in her new country---research director of the Conference on Jewish Relations, chief editor of Schocken Books, and executive director of Jewish Cultural Reconstruction in New York City. A visiting professor at several universities, including the University of California, Columbia, and the University of Chicago, and university professor on the graduate faculty of the New School for Social Research, in 1959 she became the first woman appointed to a full professorship at Princeton. She also won a number of grants and fellowships. In 1967 she received the Sigmund Freud Prize of the German Akademie fur Sprache und Dichtung for her fine scholarly writing.

Arendt was well equipped to write her superb The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) which David Riesman called "an achievement in historiography." In his view, "such an experience in understanding our times as this book provides is itself a social force not to be underestimated." Arendt's study of Adolf Eichmann at his trial---Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963)---part of which appeared originally in The New Yorker, was a painfully searching investigation into what made the Nazi persecutor tick. In it, she states that the trial of this Nazi illustrates the "banality of evil." In 1968, she published Men in Dark Times, which includes essays on Hermann Broch, Walter Benjamin, and Bertolt Brecht (see Vol. 2), as well as an interesting characterization of Pope John XXIII.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 1

Choice Review

The life of an intelligent German Jewish woman of the late 18th to the early 19th century had obvious personal relevance for Hannah Arendt, an intelligent German Jew living through the "dark times" of the 20th century. Arendt published her biography of Varnhagen in 1958, 30 years after she began this probing, often lyrical, impressionistic attempt to recreate a sensibility. Varnhagen presided over the most influential Berlin salon, where intellect, taste, and talent ruled in place of class, ethnicity, or gender. Particularly in her letters, she wrestled with her Jewish identity, and it was Varnhagan's Jewishness that Arendt felt was important enough to rescue from various conscious attempts to obscure it. The present version of the biography, the "first complete edition," includes suggestions and thoughts Arendt was never able to include, an attempt to identify sources that she handled rather messily, and nearly 85 pages of commentary and explanatory notes. Much of this information is useful and much is simply intrusive; the same can be said of the too-long introductory essay (69 pages, 200 endnotes) by the editor. All levels. R. S. Levy University of Illinois at Chicago