A biography of a Jewish woman, a writer who hosted a literary and political salon in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Germany, written by one of the twentieth century's most prominent intellectuals, Hannah Arendt.
Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewish Woman was Hannah Arendt’s first book, largely completed when she went into exile from Germany in 1933, though it would not be published until the 1950s.
It is the biography of a remarkable, complicated, troubled, passionate woman, an important figure in German romanticism, the person who in a sense founded the Goethe cult that would become central to German cultural life in the nineteenth century, as well as someone who confronted with unusual determination and bore the burden of being both a woman in a man’s world and an assimilated Jew in Germany.
Rahel Levin Varnhagen was, Arendt writes, “neither beautiful nor attractive. . . and possessed no talents with which to employ her extraordinary intelligence and passionate originality.” Arendt sets out to tell the story of Rahel’s life as Rahel might have told it and, in doing so, to reveal the way in which intellectual and social assimilation works out in one person’s destiny.
On her deathbed Rahel is reported to have said, “The thing which all my life seemed to me the greatest shame, which was the misery and misfortune of my life—having been born a Jewess—this I should on no account now wish to have missed.” Only because she had remained both a Jew and a pariah, Arendt observes, “did she find a place in the history of European humanity.”