Vol. 2 | Rahel Varnhagen | Editorial Introduction

Rahel Varnhagen. The Life of a Jewess / The Life of a Jewish Woman

It was rather reluctantly that Arendt embarked on producing her book on Rahel Levin Varnhagen in English: “In my opinion, this book has chances of being read by a larger public chiefly in Germany and, perhaps, in other German-speaking countries,” she wrote on March 14, 1957 to H. I. Miller of East and West Library in London. The publishing house had just received “the manuscript of your book RAHEL VARNHAGEN, which we are proceeding to set,”1 and was in return sending Arendt the contract. “We wish to acquire the right to publish the book in all languages,” Miller continued, but Arendt insisted on granting only the rights to the English edition: “This book was written in German not in English, and further translations, if any, should of course be made from the original,” she argued in her letter quoted above. “Please consider yourself quite free to negotiate regarding the German translation rights as I do not think we shall plan a German edition in the East and West Library,” Miller responded on May 10.

About six weeks later, the first set of galleys travelled across the Atlantic, and by mid-September, the book was ready to go to the printer. To Arendt’s regret without “illustrations,” as the quality of the nine photos she had sent to London was so poor that the publisher decided not to use them. Only Wilhelm Hensel’s drawing of young Rahel Levin Varnhagen was good enough to be chosen “as frontispiece,” as Miller wrote on September 13.

“You have become the innocent victim of a misunderstanding between the Institute and us,” Miller had to admit on February 27, 1958. Apparently, the publishing house had shipped copies of the book to the Leo Baeck Institute in New York but not to its author. With his apologies, Miller sent twenty more copies.

The book did not sell well, as Arendt had projected. On May 16, 1959, she received a statement for 578 copies sold. There are no further statements to be found in her archive, so it is safe to assume that it did not find too many more readers.

Compared to the difficult production of the English book, bringing out the book in the United States was a smooth ride. Responsible for stewarding the book through to publication was John Ferrone, a well experienced editor. On August 17, 1973, Hannah Arendt asked Lotte Köhler whether she was willing to help her with preparing the revised edition: “Ich komme heute mit einer Anfrage. Meinem Verlag ist es gelungen, die amerikanischen Paperback-Rechte der Rahel aus England loszueisen, und nun stellt sich das Problem der Revision – – d. h. nur Druckfehler und Uebersetzungsfehler-Bereinigung. Der Appendix wird ohnehin nicht mehr mitgedruckt. Ich will eventuell noch ein paar Seiten über Heine einfügen, die aber auch auf Englisch existieren. Also kein Problem. Hast Du Lust, die Korrekturen aus Deinem Exemplar noch einmal zu überprüfen und dann zu übertragen? Ich würde Dich dafür natürlich bezahlen. Aber hast Du Zeit (nicht viel nötig) und Lust? Ich bin nicht einmal sicher, ob ich Dir Dein Exemplar nicht zurückgegeben habe. Es hat natürlich alles Zeit, bis ich zurückkomme. Falls Du aber schon jetzt es machen willst, müsstest Du ev. versuchen es bei mir zu finden.” (DLA, A: Arendt, Hannah) Lotte Köhler did find the time to revise the book. On August 23, 1973, she replied: “Ich will mich gern um die ‘Rahel’ kümmern, d. h. alle Druck- und Übersetzungsfehler ausjäten, bin darum auch gleich in Deine Wohnung gegangen, wo ich aber leider mein Exemplar nicht gefunden habe. Es lag nicht auf dem großen Bibliothekstisch und war auch sonst nirgends zu erspähen.” (CG, Köhler)

In the end, Lotte Köhler suggested more than one hundred changes. They range from corrected typos to rewritten, shortened or extended sentences.2 As Arendt stated in her “Preface to the Revised Edition”, “additional changes” are based on the “published German version.” However, some corrections, suggested by the book’s German editor, were not included in the American edition.3 The anticipated “couple of pages on Heine” are also not to be found. While the German volume does not give any bibliographical references for Rahel Levin Varnhagen’s letters and entries in her diary, the footnotes in the English edition remained in the “revised edition.”

On May 31, 1974, Köhler wrote that she was about to send Arendt a package with material concerning the Rahel-Varnhagen-book: “Erstens das Vorwort zur neuen Rahel-Ausgabe. Ich bin also inzwischen mitten im Korrekturlesen, hatte gestern abend Leo, den Experten auf dem Gebiet, zum Abendessen da und holte mir Auskunft über einige orthographische Einzelheiten. Dabei las er auch das Vorwort und fand, daß die Publikationsgeschichte für einen Laien noch deutlicher herausgebracht werden könnte. Ich habe seinen Vorschlag, der mir sehr einleuchtet (inklusive der Streichung der Wiederholung der ersten Ausgabe im letzten Satz) unten drauf getippt. Am besten wär’s, wenn Du Deine Entscheidung gleich an den Verlag schicken würdest, dem ich die Korrekturen nächsten Freitag zurückgeben werde mit Bescheid, daß sie über das Vorwort noch hören würden.” (CG, Köhler) Apparently, Arendt had written a new sentence for the “Preface” that was never published. Her response to the publishing house came too late: “We waited as long as we could and then sent the book off to the printer’s assuming that you would be agreeable to Mrs. Kohler’s change in the Preface. But unfortunately we won’t be able to include that last sentence you have added regarding the chronological table and the bibliography. If you feel the omission is serious enough, we can take care of it in the next printing,” wrote John Ferrone on June 21, 1974 to Hannah Arendt.4

This time, Arendt did not have long to wait for the book’s arrival at her house: “I was very pleased with the Rahel Varnhagen and also pleased with the way you advertised it,” she wrote on December 6, 1974 to John Ferrone. Her correspondence with Ferrone shows how carefully they had worked on “advertising” the book. The text for the front flap went through three revisions: the first version, produced on April 11, was followed by a “slightly different version” a couple of days later. Arendt, too, had changes to suggest: she replaced “German Judaic history” with “German Jewish history” and “an individual’s destiny” with “an individual’s personal destiny.” In the end, William Jovanovich, one of the owners of the publishing house, polished the text for publication. The printed version reads: “Rahel Levin Varnhagen, the daughter of a merchant in precious stones, had a significant influence on the Romantic movement in Germany. Not rich, not cultivated, not beautiful, she was gifted with intelligence and with a capacity of living her life unprotected, intensely, and as though it were a work of art. Her modest attic room in Berlin became a gathering place for important intellectuals of the day. Almost single-handedly she started the Goethe cult. A phenomenon of German Jewish history, she was a woman who lived during the crucial period of assimilation, when the gates of the ghetto were opened and it seemed imperative for German Jews to escape Jewishness.

Hannah 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, Hannah Arendt observes, ‘did she find a place in the history of European humanity.’”

Barbara Hahn

Letter by H. I. Miller, written on February 17, 1957. CP, East and West Library.


See Köhler’s copy of the book, held by the Dobkin Family Collection of Feminism, New York City.


The German editor stumbled over a sentence where Arendt claimed that Goethe’s visit with Rahel Levin Varnhagen in 1815 was the last time she saw him; see commentary to the German Book. While the sentence was deleted for the German version, it is still included in the “revised edition;” see English Book.


This and the quotes to follow: CP, Harcourt.