Prof. Gad Yair's Blog

Heinrich Heine, On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany
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Many people assume that Heinrich Heine was prophetic when he wrote that "where they burn books, they will burn men" – as if seeing a hundred years into the German-Jewish future, the holocaust.  But Heine was no German prophet. Rather, he was a philosopher. Boorish as always, I stumbled upon Heine's On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany (2007), written in 1834, by chance. A student passed me a quote from the book – referring to the death of God – suggesting that Nietzsche was not the first to announce that. So I looked up the book and marveled with the reading. Heine is a unique philosopher, and his prophecy – which is much darker than the one above and quoted at length below – reflects his idealistic philosophy. Being a student of Hegel, he too believed in the whirling progress of ideas; he too thought that ideas are the prologue for the real thing. As he said to us all, "You are nothing but the unconscious servants of those men of thought, who, often in modest silence, have plotted out all of your doings in advance" (p. 77). This is why he laid so much weight on the development of religious and philosophical ideas in Germany – on the ideal plotters of the real doings. As the book attests, he assumed that the real outcome of ideas is slow in coming; but that come it will. And so it did.

Heine wrote the book for the French people. Like many German free thinkers of the time (e.g. Marx), he was living in exile. He was sitting in Paris, writing about Germany; he was writing for the French people, sending them a warning sign for the worst the world will see of the Germans. Throughout the book he makes a comparison between the two great European revolutions: The French and the German. Surprisingly – and this was the greatest lesson for me, an eye opener really – he argued that the greatest revolution was not the French but the German; and that the catastrophic emanations of the latter are still in the making. The French people killed the king and abolished the ancien regime, he said; the Germans, however, killed God and abolished the heavens. As Heine wrote, "You French are tame and moderate in comparison with us Germans. The most you did was to behead a king, but this king had already lost his head before you cut it off" (p. 78).

In contrast with the Materialist Marx – who was sure that the Germans will not advocate a revolution – Heine emphasized that the Germans are the greatest revolutionaries of all peoples. Martin Luther penned the death of the Catholic Church. This most German of the Germans, he said, set into the world the idea of freedom of thought; and he praised critique of tradition. These themes developed into German philosophy. Mendelssohn, the Jewish enlightened philosopher, went on to kill the Talmud. And in a developmental series of blows the Protestant revolution kept hitting tradition, including its own belief in God. After Luther came Immanuel Kant, the executioner of thought, the philosopher who blew God away. "Do you hear the bell ringing? Kneel down – Sacraments are being brought to a dying God" (p. 76).

Kant was the killer of God, said Heine. His Critique of Pure Reason was "the sword with which deism was executed in Germany" (p. 78). Kant "has stormed heaven, he has disposed of the whole crew, the ruler of the world swims, unprovable, in his own blood, there is now no mercy, no fatherly benevolence, no reward in the hereafter for abstinence now, the immortality of the soul lies in its final agonies" (p. 87). In proving that the existence of God cannot be substantiated by rational means; and by positioning rationality at the center of the world – Kant took Luther's logic to the hilt and negated the heavens. Heine believed that this Kantian imperative – an idea set lose in the world – is bound to lead the Germans back to their worst proclivities.

Rome and Christianity ruled the German heart for more than thousand years. But the inner, primordial ties to the German tribal pantheon was kept silently dormant, if yet alive. Christianity turned the ancient German mythological gods into devils and witches. It kept the inner violence of those warring gods under a moral control. But once Kant beheaded God – those devils and witches were set lose again. And for Heine, this idealistic return backwards to a "nature philosophy", to the land, is bound to lead the Germans and the world into an unprecedented catastrophe. The ideas were set, and their inner logic is bound to work in real life. They only await their carrier, but a carrier is inevitable. Heine's vision for the future of Germany and the world – written in 1834, be reminded – is worth expanding on.

"So the natur-philosoph will enter into terrible association with the original powers of nature. He will be able to conjure up the demonic forces of Old Germanic pantheism, and that lust for battle which we find among the old Germans will awaken in him, which does not battle to destroy, or to conquer, but solely for the sake of the battle itself. Christianity – and this is its greatest merit – has to some extent tamed that brutal Germanic lust for battle, but could not destroy it; and if ever that restraining talisman, the cross, breaks, the savagery of the old fighters will rattle forth again…The old stone gods will then emerge from their forgotten ruins and rub the dust of millennia from their eyes. Thor, with the giant hammer, will spring up at last, and destroy the Gothic domes…and when you hear crashing, as it has never crashed before in all of world history, you will know, German thunder has finally reached its goal. With this sound, eagles will fall dead from the sky, and lions in the most distant desert in Africa will pull their tails between their legs and crawl into their royal caves. A play will be enacted in Germany which will make the French Revolution look like a harmless idyll...And the hour will come. As on the rows of an amphitheater, nations will gather around Germany to see the great game of battle" (pp. 116-17).

So this is The History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany. It is the history of a future that was yet to come. Heine wrote it in 1834, and 99 years later Thor came to power. And his giant hammer banged so hard, that eagles fell down from the skies and lions shivered in their caves. And the world stood in the amphitheater and watched the burning of the book and the butchery of its people. So 99 years later Heine's words indeed became real. He knew that. He was no prophet, but a good philosopher. And he knew that ideas and deep cultural codes keep hammering reality. This is why ideas matter so much.

What a root to know.

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24-Mar-2019, 12:44
Have you ever thought about including a little bit more than just your articles? I mean, what you say is important and everything. However think about if you added some great graphics or videos to give your posts more, "pop"! Your content is excellent but with pics and video clips, this blog could certainly be one of the very best in its niche. Wonderful blog!

05-Dec-2010, 15:08
is the lust for battle something inherently German?

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