'On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany' by Heinrich Heine (1835)

  [Work in Progress]

Preface to the french edition:

When the Emperor Otho III. visited the tomb in which had reposed for many years the mortal remains of Charlemagne, he entered the vault accompanied by two bishops and by the Count de Laumel, the narrator of these details. The body was not lying stretched out like the other dead, but was seated erect on a bench like a living person. There was a crown of gold on the head and a sceptre was held between the hands, which were gloved; but the nails having grown, had pierced through the leather of the gloves. The vault had been solidly walled round with marble and limestone. In order to obtain access, it was necessary to make a breach in the wall. A very strong odour was perceptible at the moment of entering the tomb. Every one quickly bent the knee and testified his respect for the dead. Otho invested the body of the emperor with a white robe, cut the nails, and repaired whatever had become dilapidated. No portion of the body had suffered decomposition, with the exception of the nose, the point of which was broken off. Otho replaced it with a golden point: he then took from the mouth of the illustrious dead a tooth, caused the wall of the vault to be built up again, and departed. The following night Charlemagne, it is said, appeared to him in a dream, and announced that he, Otho, had not long to live, and that he should leave no heirs.
Such is the story told in the " German Traditions;" but it is not the only story of its kind. It was thus that your King Francis I. caused the tomb of the celebrated Roland to be opened, that he might judge for himself whether this hero had been as great as poets would have us believe. This took place shortly before the battle of Pavia. A like visit was paid by King Sebastian of Portugal to the tombs of his ancestors before embarking for that disastrous African campaign, in which the sands of Alcanzar-Kebir became his shroud. He caused each coffin to be opened, and examined minutely the features of the ancient kings.   

Strange and horrible curiosity that often urges men to gaze into the tombs of the past! This curiosity is excited at certain extraordinary periods, at the close of an epoch, or immediately before a catastrophe. We have in our time beheld a similar phenomenon: this was when a great sovereign, the French People, took a fancy, one fine morning, to open the tomb of the past, and to examine by the light of day ages long since dead and forgotten. Skilful gravediggers were not wanting, who set to work with shovel and mattock to remove the rubbish and to make a breach in the vaults. A strong odour was perceptible, a Gothic richness of savour that affected very agreeably noses satiated with classical perfumes. French authors knelt down respectfully before the exhumed Middle Ages. One covered the body with a new cloak, another dressed its nails, a third repaired the nose; after these came several poets, who extracted teeth, just as had been done by the Emperor Otho.

Did the ghost of the Middle Ages appear in a dream to these extractors of teeth and restorers of noses? Did it prophesy to them the speedy end of their romantic sovereignty? Of this I am ignorant. [...] a similar occurrence... took place in Germany. The German authors who sought to reanimate the Middle Ages had, as will be seen in these pages, another object in view; and the effect produced by them on the great body of the people served to compromise the liberty and the happiness of my country. But in all their efforts, French authors were concerned only about artistic interests, and the French public merely desired to gratify its curiosity. The great majority came to gaze into the sepulchre of the past with no more serious intention than of seeking for an interesting carnival costume. The Gothic mode was, in France, merely a mode that served but to heighten the delights of the present time. Its followers wore their hair flowing in long Middle Age curls; yet a passing remark of the hairdresser to the effect that the mode was unbecoming, was all that was necessary to cause them to cut off by the same snip of the scissors the curled locks of the Middle Ages and the ideas that were attached to them. Alas! it was quite another affair in Germany. The reason of this was, that there the Middle Ages were not utterly dead and decomposed as with you. The German Middle Age period does not lie in its tomb a mere rotten thing; it is often animated by a wicked phantom ; it appears amongst us in the full light of day, and sucks the reddest life-blood from our hearts.

During the Revolution the classical religion flourished in its most vigorous splendour.

This was no mere aping of the original after the manner of the Greek Alexandrians. Paris presented the aspect of a natural continuation of Athens and of Rome. Under the empire this antique spirit became insensibly extinguished; the gods of Greece no longer held sway except on the stage, and Roman virtue was in possession only of the battlefield. A new faith had sprung up, a faith summed up in the single name, Napoleon! This faith still rules the masses. It is an error, then, to say that the French people is irreligious because it no longer believes in Christ and his saints; say rather, the irreligion of the French consists, nowadays, in believing in a man, instead of believing in the immortal gods.

First part:

Voltaire could only wound the body of Christianity. All his sarcasms derived from ecclesiastical history; all his witticisms on dogma and worship, on the Bible, that most sacred book of humanity, on the Virgin Mary, that fairest flower of poetry; the whole dictionary of philosophical arrows which he discharged against the clergy and the priesthood, could only wound the mortal body of Christianity, but were powerless against its interior essence, its deeper spirit, its immortal soul.

For Christianity is an idea, and as such it is indestructible and eternal, as all ideas are. What then is this idea?

It is because this idea has not yet been clearly comprehended, because the external forms it has assumed have been taken for the reality, that we are still without a history of Christianity. Although Church history has been written by two opposing parties that are perpetually contradicting each other, yet these parties are so far of one mind, that neither the one nor the other will distinctly declare wherein, after all, consists this idea that is the central point of Christianity; this idea that strives to reveal itself in the symbolism, the dogma, and the worship of the Christian Church, and that has manifested itself in the actual life of Christian peoples. Neither Baronius, the Catholic cardinal, nor Schrockh, the Protestant aulic counsellor, approaches this idea. Though you were to run over the whole collection of the Acts of the Councils, the Code of the Liturgy, and the entire Ecclesiastical History of Sacarelli, you would gain no insight into what constitutes the idea of Christianity. [...] Rome always desired to rule; when her legions fell she sent dogmas into the provinces. Every discussion on matters of faith had reference to Roman usurpations; it was a question of consolidating the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome, who was always very tolerant regarding mere articles of faith, but fretted and fumed whenever the rights of the Church were assailed. He did not indulge in much disputation about the persons in Christ, but he was very eager about the consequences of the decretals of Isidore. He centralised his power by canonical law, by installation of bishops, by abasement of the authority of princes, by the establishing of monastic institutions, by celibacy of the priesthood, and so forth. But was this Christianity? Does the idea of Christianity reveal itself to us in reading this kind of history? And again I ask, what is this idea?

We may discover in what manner this idea had already taken historical form, and manifested itself in the world during the first centuries of the Christian era, by surveying, with minds free from prejudices, the history of the Manicheans and the Gnostics. Though the former were branded as heretics and the latter were decried, though both sects were equally condemned by the Church, their influence on dogma still remained; Christian art was developed from their symbolism, and their mode of thought permeated the whole life of Christian peoples. In the ultimate grounds of their beliefs Manicheans did not greatly differ from Gnostics. The doctrine of the two principles, good and evil, at conflict with one another, is common to both. The one sect, the Manicheans, borrowed this doctrine from the ancient Persian religion, in which Ormuzd, light, is opposed to Ahriman, darkness. The other sect, Gnostics properly so called, believed rather in the pre-existence of the principle of good, and explained the origin of the principle of evil by emanation, by generation of aeons, which deteriorate in proportion as they remove from their source. According to Cerinthus, the Creator of our world was by no means the Most High God, but only an emanation from Him, one of those aeons, the veritable Demiourgos, that has insensibly degenerated, and that now stands, as evil principle, in hostile opposition to the logos, the good principle, emanating directly from the Supreme God. This Gnostic cosmogony is of Indian origin, and embodies the doctrine of the incarnation of God, of the mortification of the flesh, of the contemplative life; it has given birth to asceticism, to monastic abnegation, the purest flower of the Christian idea. This idea manifested itself, very confusedly however, in dogma, and very vaguely in worship. Still we find everywhere appearing the doctrine of these two principles; the perverse Satan is opposed to the good Christ ; the spiritual world is represented by Christ, the material world by the devil; the soul belongs to the former, the body to the latter. The whole external world, Nature, is therefore by its origin wicked, and Satan, the prince of darkness, seeks by its means, to entice us to destruction ; and we must renounce all the pleasures of the senses, we must torture the body, the fief of Satan, in order that the soul may soar more majestically towards the heavenly light, towards the radiant kingdom of Christ.

This cosmogony, the veritable idea of Christianity, spread with incredible rapidity throughout the extent of the Roman empire. It raged like a disease; its sufferings, its fever, its extreme tension continued during the whole of the Middle Ages; and we moderns often feel even yet its spasms and its lassitude in all our members. If some one amongst us has meantime been cured, yet is it impossible for him to escape the all-pervading lazaretto atmosphere, and he feels himself unhappy as the only healthy being amidst the multitude of languishing mortals. One day, when humanity will have regained robust health, when peace will have been once more established between body and soul, and they again live together in primal harmony, it will scarce be possible for men to comprehend the unnatural enmity that Christianity has set between them. Happier and fairer generations, born of free unions, and nurtured in a religion of joy, will smile with pity when thinking of their poor ancestors, whose lives were passed in melancholy abstinence from all the enjoyments of this beautiful world, and who mortified the warm, rosy hued flesh till they became mere pale, cold ghosts. Yes! I declare it with full conviction: our descendants will be a fairer and happier race than we are. For I believe in progress; I believe that happiness is the goal of humanity, and I cherish a higher idea of the Divine Being than those pious folk who suppose that man was created only to suffer. Even here on earth I would strive, through the blessings of free political and industrial institutions, to bring about that reign of felicity which, in the opinion of the pious, is to be postponed till heaven is reached after the day of judgement. The one expectation is perhaps as vain as the other; there may be no resurrection of humanity either in a political or in a religious sense. Mankind, it may be, is doomed to eternal misery; the nations are perhaps under a perpetual curse, condemned to be trodden under foot by despots, to be made the instruments of their accomplices and the laughing-stocks of their menials.

The duration of religions has always been dependent on human need for them. Christianity has been a blessing for suffering humanity during eighteen centuries ; it has been providential, divine, holy. All that it has done in the interest of civilisation, curbing the strong and strengthening the weak, binding together the nations through a common sympathy and a common tongue, and all else that its apologists have urged in its praise all this is as nothing compared with that great consolation it has bestowed on man. Eternal praise is due to the symbol of that suffering God, the Saviour with the crown of thorns, the crucified Christ, whose blood was as a healing balm that flowed into the wounds of humanity. The poet especially must acknowledge with reverence the terrible sublimity of this symbol. The whole system of symbolism impressed on the art and the life of the Middle Ages must awaken the admiration of poets in all times. In reality, what colossal unity there is in Christian art, especially in its architecture! These Gothic cathedrals, how  harmoniously they accord with the worship of which they are the temples, and how the idea of the Church reveals itself in them! Everything about them strives upwards, everything transubstantiates itself; the stone buds forth into branches and foliage, and becomes a tree ; the fruit of the vine and the ears of corn become blood and flesh; the man becomes God ; God becomes a pure spirit. For the poet, the Christian life of the Middle Ages is a precious and inexhaustibly fruitful field. Only through Christianity could the circumstances of life combine to form such striking contrasts, such motley sorrow, such weird beauty, that one almost fancies such things can never have had any real existence, and that it is all a vast fever-dream - the fever-dream of a delirious deity.

French authors, misled by certain German authorities, have fallen into gross error in supposing that during the Middle Ages popular superstitions were identical throughout the whole of Europe.

Here we have indications of the true Gnostic conception as to the deterioration of the previously divine, and in this transformation of ancient national beliefs the idea of Christianity most profoundly manifests itself.

National faith in Europe, though more strongly marked in the northern than in the southern countries, was pantheistic. Its mysteries and symbols were referable to a worship of nature; in every element men adored some marvellous being, every tree revealed a deity, all the phenomena of the universe were informed by divinity. Christianity reversed this view; nature, ceasing to bear the impress of the divine, became diabolised. But the joyous and artistically beautiful forms of Greek mythology that were still potent side by side with Latin civilisation in the south, could not so readily be transformed into the hideous and repulsive features of Satan as the Teutonic gods, over whose creation certainly no artistic thought had presided, and who were always as dreary and as sad as their northern abodes. Thus in France you could produce no such gloomy and terrible kingdom of Satan as we in Germany, and the world of apparitions and sorcery even assumed with you a genial aspect. How beautiful, how distinct and many coloured are the popular legends of France compared with those of Germany; those monstrosities of blood and cloud that glare at us with such wan and cruel countenances. [...] ...our national poetry and our traditional folk-lore preserved that dismal northern spirit of which you can hardly form any idea. Like us you have many kinds of elementary spirits, but ours differ as widely from yours as a German differs from a Frenchman. How brightly coloured and especially how cleanly are the demons of your fabliaux and wizard romances in comparison with the rabble-rout of our colourless and very often filthy ghosts!

The main feature in the character of German demons is that everything ideal has been stripped from them, and thus they exhibit a mixture of the vile and the horrible.

These atrocities did not originate directly in the Christian Church, though indirectly such was their origin; for, the Church had so cunningly inverted the old Teutonic religion, that the pantheistic cosmogony of the Germans was transformed into a pandemonic conception; the former popular divinities were changed into hideous fiends. But man does not willingly abandon that which has been dear to his forefathers, and his affections secretly cling firmly thereto, even when it has been mutilated and defaced. Hence popular superstitions, travestied as they have become, may in Germany outlive the official creed of our days, which is not, like them, rooted in the ancient nationality.

Even Nature, during this sublime epoch of the Christian religion, seemed to have put on a fantastic disguise; for oftentimes though man, absorbed in abstract subtilties, turned away from her with abhorrence, she would recall him to her with a voice so mysteriously sweet, so terrible in its tenderness, so power- fully enchanting, that unconsciously he would listen and smile, and become terrified, and even fall sick unto death. The story of the nightingale of Basle comes here into my recollection, and as it is probably unknown to you I will relate it.
One day in May, 1433, at the time of the Council of Basle, a company of clerics, composed of prelates, doctors, monks of every colour, were walking in a wood near the town. They were disputing about points of theological controversy, distinguishing and arguing, contending about annates, expectatives, and reservations, inquiring whether Thomas Aquinas was a greater philosopher than Bonaventura, and so forth. But suddenly, in the midst of their dogmatic and abstract discussions, they all became silent, and remained as if rooted to the spot before a blossoming lime-tree, wherein sat a nightingale carolling and sobbing forth her tenderest and sweetest melodies. These learned men began to feel in a strangely blessed mood as the warm spring notes of the bird penetrated their scholastic and monastic hearts; their sympathies awoke out of their dreary winter sleep, and they looked on one another in raptured amazement. But at last one of them shrewdly remarked that herein must be some wile of the evil one, that this nightingale could be none other than an emissary of the devil, seeking to divert them by its seducing strains from their Christian converse, and to entice them into voluptuousness or other alluring sin, and he thereupon proceeded to exorcise the evil spirit, probably with the customary formula of the time : Adjuro te per eum, qui venlurus est^judicare vivos et mortuos. To this adjuration it is said that the bird replied, "Yea, I am an evil spirit" and flew away laughing. They, however, that had listened to its song fell sick that same day, and died shortly thereafter.
This story needs no commentary. It bears the terrible impress of a time when all that was sweet and lovely was decried as the agency of the devil. The nightingale itself was declared a bird of evil fame, and men made the sign of the cross when it sang. The true Christian walked abroad with his sentient being wrapped in anxious reserve, like an abstraction, like a spectre in the midst of smiling nature.

If asked as a matter of conscience, I should admit that Pope Leo X. was in reality far more reasonable than Luther; and that the Reformer had quite misunderstood the fundamental principles of the Catholic Church. For Luther did not perceive that the idea of Christianity, the annihilation of the life of the senses, was too violent a contradiction of human nature ever to be capable of complete realisation. He did not comprehend that Catholicism was a species of concordat between God and the devil, between spirit and matter, whereby the autocracy of the spirit was theoretically admitted, whilst matter was placed in the position of carrying out in practice all its annulled rights. Hence a subtle system of concessions devised by the Church for the benefit of the senses, though so conceived as to stigmatise every act of sensuality and to preserve to the spirit its arrogant usurpation. Thou art permitted to lend an ear to the tender emotions of the heart and to embrace a pretty girl, but thou must acknowledge that it is an abominable sin, and for this sin thou must do penance.  [...] ...how must this Leo de Medicis have laughed at the poor, chaste, simple monk who imagined the Gospel to be the charter of Christendom, and that this charter must be a truth!

Part Second:

A peculiar awe, a mysterious piety, forbids our writing more to-day. Our heart is full of shuddering compassion: it is the old Jehovah himself that is preparing for death. We have known him so well from his cradle in Egypt, where he was reared among the divine calves and crocodiles, the sacred onions, isises, and cats. We have seen him bid farewell to these compansions of his childhood and to the obelisks and sphinxes of his native Nile, to become in Palestine a little god-king amidst a poor shepherd people, and to inhabit a temple-place of his own. We have seen him later coming into contact with Assyrian-Babylonian civilisation, renouncing his all-too-human passions, no longer giving vent to fierce wrath and vengeance, at least no longer thundering at every trifle. We have seen him migrate to Rome, the capital, where he abjures all national prejudices and proclaims the celestial equality of all nations, and with such fine phrases establishes an opposition to the old Jupiter, and intrigues ceaselessly till he attains supreme authority, and from the Capitol rules the city and the world, urbem et orbem. We have seen how, growing still more spiritualised, he becomes a loving father, a universal friend of man, a benefactor of the world, a philanthropist; but all this could avail him nothing!
Hear ye not the bells resounding? Kneel down. They are bringing the sacraments to a dying god!
[From the end of the book (on Heine's vision of the future German revolution):]

[note: the following translation differs from that used above]

Christianity - and this is the fairest merit - subdued to a certain extent the brutal warrior ardour of the Germans, but it could not entirely quench it; and when the cross, that restraining talisman, falls to pieces, then will break forth again the ferocity of the old combatants, the frantic Berserker rage whereof Northern poets have said and sung so much. The talisman has become rotten, and the day will come when it will pitifully crumble to dust. The old stone gods will arise then from the forgotten ruins and wipe from their eyes the dust of centuries, and Thor with his giant hammer will arise again, and he will shatter the Gothic cathedrals... .

Come it will, and when ye hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world's history, then know that at last the German thunderbolt has fallen. At this commotion the eagles will drop dead from the skies and the lions in the farthest wastes of Africa will bite their tails and creep into their royal lairs. There will be played in Germany a drama compared to which the French Revolution will seem but an innocent idyl. At present, it is true, everything is tolerably quiet; and though here and there some few men create a little stir, do not imagine these are to be the real actors in the piece. They are only little curs chasing one another round the empty arena, barking and snapping at one another, till the appointed hour when the troop of gladiators appear to fight for life and death. And the hour will come. As on the steps of an empty amphitheatre, the nations will group themselves around Germany to witness the terrible combat. 

[note: here is the same section from the translation which the rest of the above text has been taken from:

When ye hear the trampling of feet and the clashing of arms, ye neighbours' children, ye French, be on your guard, and see that ye mingle not in the fray going on amongst us at home in Germany. It might fare ill with you. See that ye take no hand in kindling the fire ; see that ye attempt not to extinguish it. You might easily burn your fingers in the flame. Smile not at my counsel, at the counsel of a dreamer, who warns you against Kantians, Fichteaus, Philosophers of Nature. Smile not at the fantasy of one who foresees in the region of reality the same outburst of revolution that has taken place in the region of intellect. The thought precedes the deed as the lightning the thunder. German thunder is of true Ger- man character : it is not very nimble, but rumbles along somewhat slowly. But come it will, and when ye hear a crashing such as never before has been heard in the world's history, then know that at last the German thun- derbolt has fallen. At this commotion the eagles will drop dead from the skies and the lions in the farthest wastes of Africa will bite their tails and creep into their royal lairs. There will be played in Germany a drama compared to which the French Eevolution will seem but an innocent idyl. At present, it is true, everything is tolerably quiet; and though here and there some few men create a little stir, do not imagine these are to be the real actors in the piece. They are only little curs chasing one another round the empty arena, barking and snapping at one another, till the appointed hour when the troop of gladiators appear to fight for life and death. And the hour will come. As on the steps of an amphi- theatre, the nations will group themselves around Germany to witness the terrible combat.]