Images from left to right: Rahel Varnhagen von Ense; Karl August Varnhagen von Ense with Alexander von Humboldt
‘Every creature endowed with reason can educate itself to criticize. Inspiration, swift combination, wit, etc. – these are gifts; at any rate, we do not remember the process, the striving for it, the activity; and enjoy them as such, like we enjoy spoils – the possession of which makes you eventually forget the war.’ (Rahel Varnhagen)
Who was Rahel Varnhagen von Ense, née Levin?
She was born in 1771 in Berlin to Chaje and Markus Levin and died in Berlin in 1833; she was married to Karl August Varnhagen von Ense (1785–1858). At a time when there were no institutions for educating girls, Rahel educated herself to become, according to many of her contemporaries, the wittiest woman in Europe – with an immense talent for socializing. Goethe, one of her personal acquaintances, wrote of her: ‘she is what I would call a beautiful soul.’ Rahel’s letters are unconventional, rhapsodic, full of inspiration and emotion – a philosophy without system nor the trappings of religious thought.
Rahel Varnhagen as salonnière and activist
Based on philosophical reasoning that yields challenging questions for the present day, Rahel’s salon turned into a free-spirited republic. In a time of political stagnation, people of different social standing and various professions, men and women alike, met in her salon to exchange views in a tolerant and unbiased way. The Humboldt brothers were among the many celebrities that visited her salon, Schlegel and Schleiermacher, the Prince of Lingne and Prince Louis Ferdinand. Eduard Gans, Ludwig Börne, Bettina von Arnim, the Prince of Pückler and Heinrich Heine frequented her second salon. The wars of liberation forced Rahel to flee Berlin. In Prague she founded and ran an organisation to take care of wounded soldiers. Throughout her life she was committed to helping socially disadvantaged people and to women’s liberation. She followed her husband to the Congress of Vienna and to Baden, where the diplomat Varnhagen was dismissed due to his democratic opinions.
Rahel Varnhagen’s legacy
Rahel Varnhagen passed an idea on to us: of a vast network of communication in which people of different origins and different religious creeds, political opinion and social origins are connected. The Varnhagen Society was founded 1998, when the Städtisches Abendgymnasium Hagen was named Rahel Varnhagen College. The society is dedicated to continuing this network, to initiate a discourse of tolerance and education, and to commemorate the initiators of the Varnhagen Collection as well as all those who contributed to it. Rahel’s legacy includes an extensive correspondence. As requested in her will, her husband collected and began to publish her letters. Their niece Ludmilla Assing (1821–1880) bequested the Varnhagen Collection – which by that time had grown to contain a number of manuscripts, paintings, pictures, books, and various letters (correspondence between about nine thousand people) to the Königliche Bibliothek in Berlin (today the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz).
The Varnhagen Society’s aims and activities
The Varnhagen Society intends to initiate dialogue between readers of this collection. A part of the Varnhagen Collection is still kept in the Berlin library. Many manuscripts were discovered in the Jagiellonian Library in Kraków. The Varnhagen Society has asked for assistance of these libraries in granting Ludmilla Assing’s request and make all parts of the Collection accessible to the public. Both libraries are institutional members of the Varnhagen Society. A 1000-page inventory with the names and biographical data of the letter writers and recipients, prepared by Ludwig Stern (Berlin, 1911), is distributed among our members for a nominal fee. At our meetings, discussions of these topics are accompanied by lectures and artistic performances. The exhibition we curated about the Collection’s history was opened in 2005 and has toured since then to university libraries, public colleges and galleries in Cologne, Hamburg, Berlin, Vienna, Offenbach am Main, Marburg, Siegen, and Mannheim.
The Varnhagen Society publishes a newsletter (subscription to the e-mail-version is free) and an almanac of which two volumes are in print: Wenn die Geschichte um eine Ecke geht (Berlin, 2000), Makkaroni und Geistesspeise (Berlin, 2002). Further publications followed with the exhibition catalogue Lebensbilder, die Zukunft zu bevölkern – Von Rahel Levins Salon zur ‘Sammlung Varnhagen’ (Cologne, 2006) and Paris, 1810 (Cologne, 2013), a journal-like newsletter Karl August Varnhagen wrote to a number of friends about his journey to and audience at Napoleon’s court, including nine letters by Henriette Mendelssohn. The archive of the Varnhagen Society includes the works of Rahel and Karl August Varnhagen, Ludmilla Assing and others, scientific literature, a vast collection of paper clippings from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century and some unpublished material. It is accessible to members of the Varnhagen Society and to students.
Contact details and website
Varnhagen Gesellschaft e.V.
Hausweilerstrasse 250968 Cologne/Köln
fon/fax ++49 (0) 221 16 81 27 18