"Birthplace of Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)" Düsseldorf by Nemorino
Düsseldorf Travel Guide: 951 reviews and 2,159 photos
The center of Düsseldorf is located at kilometer 743 on the Rhine River, meaning it used to be 743 km downstream from Konstanz.
Actually it's now a bit less than that, since they have straightened out the river in a few places, but to avoid confusion they have fudged the distances and left the numbers unchanged. (Which just goes to show that the Germans are not as pedantic as they are sometimes made out to be.)
Düsseldorf is 55 km downstream from Cologne (with which it has more in common than it would like) and 34 km upstream from Duisburg, with which it shares an opera company, the Deutsche Oper am Rhein = German Opera on the Rhine.
You'd think the people of Düsseldorf would always have been proud that their city was the birthplace of a major nineteenth century author, Heinrich Heine (1797-1856).
But no, until quite recently a lot of people in Düsseldorf wished he had gone off and been born somewhere else. Why?
• Generations of anti-Semites disliked Heine because he was Jewish (by birth, not religion).
• During the Cold War Heine was considered a Communist, since he always spoke out for social justice and was personally acquainted with Karl Marx when they both lived in Paris.
• Religious people of all denominations were bothered by his anti-religious convictions. He once wrote: "Religion and hypocrisy are twin sisters who look so much alike that at times it is impossible to tell them apart."
• And he didn't always take his fellow Germans as seriously as they took themselves: "Dangerous Germans! They suddenly pull a poem out of their pocket or start a conversation about philosophy."
So Düsseldorf had a problem with Heine just as Augsburg had with Bertoldt Brecht. The Augsburg city council debated for decades before finally naming an unimportant street after Brecht, and it took about twenty years of controversy before the Düsseldorf University was officially named the Heinrich-Heine-University in 1989. Even then it only happened because the older generation of professors had died off or retired, and the younger generation thought it was a good idea.
If Heinrich Heine were alive today he would no doubt be a blogger, which is essentially what he was during his lifetime, except that the internet had not yet been invented so he had to make do with newspapers, magazines and books.
But like a true blogger he tended to be several things at once. He was a poet, an essayist, a travel writer, a novelist, a social critic and a humorist, usually all at the same time. His most famous travel book, about a long hiking trip in the Harz Mountains, is not only a description of his hike but also includes some poems and social criticism and several funny dreams about how awful it was to be a law student in Göttingen.
A short funny passage in one of Heine's books even inspired a major opera, a deadly serious opera by Richard Wagner (1813-1883) called The Flying Dutchman, about a ship's captain who has to sail the seas for all eternity until he is redeemed, if ever, by the fidelity of a loving woman.
In Heine's version a destitute young Polish aristocrat called Schabelewopski goes to the theater in Amsterdam to see a play called The Flying Dutchman, but he only sees part of it because he meets a lovely blonde blue-eyed Dutch girl who starts flirting with him by dropping orange peels on his head from the upper balcony. In the intermission he finds her and whispers: "Maiden! I want to kiss you on the mouth." To which she whispers back: "By God, my dear Sir, that is a good idea." So when everyone else goes back in to see the rest of the play, Schabelewopski and the Dutch girl stay behind and kiss wildly on a black sofa in the lobby. Plus other things that he only hints at through a long -----.
When he finally goes back to his seat the play is nearly over and the wife of the Flying Dutchman, whom Schabelewopski comically refers to as "Mrs. Flying Dutchwoman" (Frau fliegende Holländerin), proves her fidelity and redeems the Flying Dutchman by throwing herself into the sea and drowning herself.
The moral of the story, according to Schabelewopski, is that women should take care not to marry any Flying Dutchmen, but the author Heinrich Heine must have been astounded when Richard Wagner contacted him in Paris and asked if he could use the story for an opera.
Of course Wagner left out the part about Schabelewopski and the Dutch girl on the black sofa. Still, I can recommend The Flying Dutchman as one of Wagner's shortest and most accessible operas. I have seen it in Frankfurt am Main, Mainz, Wiesbaden and Augsburg, but not in Düsseldorf, though I have seen several other operas in Düsseldorf on various occasions.
Update: Since Schabelewopski spent half a year in Hamburg on his way to the Netherlands, you can now read more about his adventures and predilections on my Hamburg intro page, which is entitled "In the footsteps of . . . Schnabelewopski?!" and in my tip on one of his favorite hangouts, a street in Hamburg called the Jungfernstieg where he spent many a summer afternoon sitting in the sun, "thinking what young men usually think, namely nothing, and looking at what young men usually look at, namely the young girls who were passing by".
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