Varying interpretations of history

Text by Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)

Translated into English by Joseph Massaad 

deutsch - franšais


The history book is subject to diverse interpretations. Two particularly opposed points of views are apparent. - Some see in every earthly matter a cycle of desolation; In the life of peoples as in the life of individuals, in the latter as in the organic nature in general, they see a growth, a blossoming, a wilting and finally a death: Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. " There is nothing new under the sun !" is their motto; and even this is not new, since already two thousand years ago it was uttered by a Leventine king. Our civilisation makes them shrug their shoulders, as they see it succumbing again to barbarism; They shake their heads over our freedom fights that will eventually only foster the advent of new tyrants; They smile over the endeavouring of a political enthusiasm that should render this world a better and happier place and which in the end cools down and produces no yield; - In this small chronic of hopes, needs, misfortunes, pains and joys, errors and deceptions, in which sphere the individual consumes his life, in this history of the individual, they also see the history of mankind. In Germany the philosophers of the history school , as well as the poets of the Wolfgang Goethe cultural era are convinced adepts to this viewpoint, moreover they demonstrate a sentimental indifference against any political and national enterprise to beautify matters. A sufficiently known government of Northern Germany knows particularly well how to appreciate this viewpoint, it favours the travel to the elegiac ruins of Italy of honest men, in order to develop in them comfortable thoughts of appeasement and fatalism for them to use , jointly with the preachers of Christian submission and with the help of sober news articles to dampen the short lived freedom fever of the people. Furthermore, whoever cannot elevate himself by the sheer strength of spiritual power, should better creep on the ground. The future will teach this particular government where the acts of creeping and intrigues lead to. The above mentioned, rather fatal and fatalistic viewpoint is opposed by a more positive concept, more related to the idea of a Providence and according to which all earthly things are destined to a higher fulfilment and that great heroes and heroic times are only intermediary steps towards a higher, divine like state of the human race, whose moral and political struggles would finally lead to the holiest peace, to the purest fraternity and to an everlasting blissfulness. The golden age, it seems does not lie behind us, but rather in front of us. We were not driven from paradise with a blazing sword, but we must conquer it with a blazing heart, through love; the fruit of knowledge provokes not death, but eternal life. " Civilisation " was for a long time the motto of the followers of such a viewpoint. In Germany, the school of Humanity paid particularly tribute to it. It is well known that the so called school of philosophy , with certitude has made this its target. It was particularly favourable to the scrutiny of political matters and as ultimate achievement of this viewpoint, one preaches an ideal form of state, which entirely based on principles of reason should in the last instance ennoble mankind and delight it. There is no need for me to name the champions of this viewpoint. Their high aspiration is, in any case more joyful that the curving of low lying tendrils; Should we have to fight them one day, we would do this with the dearest of our swords of honour, whereas a crawling servant can be dealt with by using the familiar whip. These two opinions, as I have presented them do not agree with the most vibrant of the emotions of our lives; On one hand, we do not wish to be filled in vain with enthusiasm and have to bet what is most valuable on anything that is useless and transitory in nature; on the other hand, we wish that the present retains its value and does not simply serve as a means with the future as its goal. And in fact, we feel ourselves disposed to a more important destiny than that of having to view ourselves as simply a means to an end; it will altogether appear to us as if goal and means are only conventional concepts, brooded by man in nature and in history and of which the Creator had no knowledge, in that every creation has its own purpose and every event is self conditioned and that everything, including the universe itself exits and happens by itself and for its own sake.
Life is a right. Life wants to validate this right vis-Ó-vis the stiffening death and the past and this validation is the revolution. The elegiac indifference of historians and poets should not cripple us in as far as these matters are concerned; and the exaltation of the tellers of good fortune should not tempt us to put at risk the interests of the present and what is the most defensible of human rights, the right to life. " Le pain est le droit du peuple " said St Just and this is the greatest saying of the entire revolution.