You’d think the people of Düsseldorf would always have been proud that their city was the birthplace of a major nineteenth century author, Heinrich Heine (1797-1856).
But no, until quite recently a lot of people in Düsseldorf wished he had gone off and been born somewhere else. Why?
- Generations of anti-Semites disliked Heine because he was Jewish (by birth, not religion).
- During the Cold War he was considered a Communist, since he always spoke out for social justice and was personally acquainted with Karl Marx when they both lived in Paris.
- Religious people of all denominations were bothered by his anti-religious convictions. He once wrote: “Religion and hypocrisy are twin sisters who look so much alike that at times it is impossible to tell them apart.”
- And he didn’t always take his fellow Germans as seriously as they took themselves: “Dangerous Germans! They suddenly pull a poem out of their pocket or start a conversation about philosophy.”
So Düsseldorf had a problem with Heine just as Augsburg had with Bertolt Brecht. The Augsburg city council debated for decades before finally naming an unimportant street after Brecht, and it took about twenty years of controversy before the Düsseldorf University was officially named the Heinrich-Heine-University in 1989. Even then it only happened because the older generation of professors had died off or retired, and the younger generation thought it was a good idea.
This is where Heinrich Heine was born in 1797 — not in this house but at this address, Bolkerstraße 53 in Düsseldorf (GPS 51°13’34.40″ North; 6°46’29.85″).
In one of his early books, before he was famous, Heine imagined that someday “elegant English women with green veils” would generously tip the maid in his birth house so she would show them “the room where I first saw the light of day and the corner of the henhouse where my father used to lock me up when he caught me eating grapes, and also the brown door upon which my mother taught me to write the letters of the alphabet with chalk — oh God, Madame, if I become a famous writer it will certainly have cost my poor mother enough toil.”
He addressed this entire book, Das Buch Le Grand (1827), to this mysterious “Madame”.
Speaking of Düsseldorf, he wrote: “Yes, Madame, I was born there, and I note this explicitly just in case it should happen, by any chance, that after my death seven cities — Schilda, Krähwinkel, Polkwitz, Bokum, Dülken, Göttingen and Schöppenstädt — all vie for the honor of being my birthplace.”
This is a funny list because three of the towns are imaginary, three sound comical for various reasons and one is a famous university city:
- Schilda is a fictitious town where all the people (the Schildbürger) are totally incompetent. In German newspapers, a time-honored way to criticize a disastrous political decision is to call it a Schildbürgerstreich.
- Krähwinkel is a fictitious town where all the people are narrow-minded philistines.
- Polkwitz is a real town in Poland, but Heine thought the name sounded funny. (The word Witz in German means ‘joke’.)
- Bokum is an imaginary town whose name is derived from a Turkish word for excrement, and also a deliberate misspelling of the city of Bochum. (But it is not a play on the word Hokum, which apparently did not exist in the 19th century.)
- Dülken is a real town near Mönchengladbach, but again Heine thought the name sounded funny.
- Göttingen is included in the list because Heine studied law there and didn’t like it, so he wanted to equate it with all the silly towns on the list.
- Schöppenstädt is a real town whose inhabitants were traditionally joked about because they were thought to be simple-minded.
If Heinrich Heine were alive today he would no doubt be a blogger, which is essentially what he was during his lifetime, except that the internet had not yet been invented so he had to make do with newspapers, magazines and books. But like a true blogger he tended to be several things at once. He was a poet, an essayist, a travel writer, a novelist, a social critic and a humorist, usually all at the same time. His most famous travel book, about a long hiking trip in the Harz Mountains, is not only a description of his hike but also includes some poems and social criticism and several funny dreams about how awful it was to be a law student in Göttingen.
As I have mentioned elsewhere (I hope you’ll excuse a bit of repetition here), a short funny passage in one of Heine’s books even inspired a major opera, a deadly serious opera by Richard Wagner (1813-1883) called The Flying Dutchman, about a ship’s captain who has to sail the seas for all eternity until he is redeemed, if ever, by the fidelity of a loving woman.
In Heine’s version a destitute young Polish aristocrat called Schabelewopski goes to the theater in Amsterdam to see a play called The Flying Dutchman, but he only sees part of it because he meets a lovely blonde blue-eyed Dutch girl who starts flirting with him by dropping orange peels on his head from the upper balcony. In the intermission he finds her and whispers: “Maiden! I want to kiss you on the mouth.” To which she whispers back: “By God, my dear Sir, that is a good idea.” So when everyone else goes back in to see the rest of the play, Schabelewopski and the Dutch girl stay behind and kiss wildly on a black sofa in the lobby. Plus other things that he only hints at through a long —–.
When he finally goes back to his seat the play is nearly over and the wife of the Flying Dutchman, whom Schabelewopski comically refers to as “Mrs. Flying Dutchwoman” (Frau fliegende Holländerin), proves her fidelity and redeems the Flying Dutchman by throwing herself into the sea and drowning herself.
The moral of the story, according to Schabelewopski, is that women should take care not to marry any Flying Dutchmen, but the author Heinrich Heine must have been astounded when Richard Wagner contacted him in Paris and asked if he could use the story for an opera.
Of course Wagner left out the part about Schabelewopski and the Dutch girl on the black sofa. Still, I can recommend The Flying Dutchman as one of Wagner’s shortest and most accessible operas. I have seen it in Frankfurt, Mainz, Wiesbaden, Dortmund and Augsburg, but not in Düsseldorf.
My photos in this post are from 2009. I revised the text in 2018.