Rahel Varnhagen: The Life of a Jewess Hannah Arendt
Born in 1771, the daughter of a Jewish merchant, Rahel Varnhagen would come to host one of the most prominent salons of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Hannah Arendt discovered her writings some time in the mid-1920s, and soon began to re-imagine Rachel's inner life and write her biography. 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 hew work on the manuscript in Paris and New York, but would not publish the book until 1958. The book became not only a study of a historical Jewish figure, but also a 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 complete critical edition, Liliane Weissberg reconstructs the notes Arendt planned for the book 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 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 the book to claim for herself a university position and reparation payments from the post-war German state.