A lesson from Heinrich Heine – How to prophesy the future by knowing the present


Heinrich Heine, 1831

For Christmas 2011, I received a kindle from my wife. After I had downloaded more free public domain works than I will ever be able to read in my lifetime, I actually read “On the History of Religion and Philosophy of Germany” by Heinrich Heine. It proved to be a fascinating work from beginning to end. One of the most interesting parts was toward the end when he began to write as though he knew without a doubt, that some dark and foreboding world shattering event would transpire in Germany, in the future.

I sometimes wonder who today, is rightly able to discern the times?

23 These are the numbers of the divisions of the armed troops who came to David in Hebron to turn the kingdom of Saul over to him, according to the word of the Lord…32 Of Issachar, men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do, 200 chiefs, and all their kinsmen under their command. (1 Chronicles 12:23, 32; ESV)

But the answer to that question is not merely to find the “prophets” in the world today that have some supernatural ability. The answer is, at least partly, to seek a “prophet” much closer to home. Jesus seemed amazed that we all can look to the clouds, the wind, the sky, and “foretell” what is coming. He seemed to think that we should be able to look at other “appearances” in life and “interpret the present time” and he strongly stated that we have that responsibility. Jesus said that “hypocrites” are those that pick and choose what aspects of  “the future” they want to know about. He knew that the destructive storms of “humanity” are always brewing and will eventually be met by God’s judgments. This complex of storm/judgment is what we need to be ready for, otherwise we are building our houses with our heads in the sand.

54 He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you say at once, ‘A shower is coming.’ And so it happens. 55 And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat,’ and it happens. 56 You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? (Gospel of Luke 12:54-56; ESV)

Heinrich Heine was a man that “interpreted” the currents of philosophy, the undercurrents in the nature of man, the force of politics, and the lessons of weather (past historic events). Based on these, he was able to predict what the “buds” of the present would “bear” in the future.

Following two short articles to set some context for Heinrich Heine, is an excerpt containing most of his “prophecy.” Bear in mind that what he wrote was published in 1834! (WWI was from 1914-1919; WWII was from 1939-1945.) He certainly had some insight, and the courage to speak out in regard to what he saw as inevitable.


From Gale Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The German author Heinrich Heine (1797-1856) is best known for his lyric poems, a number of which are considered among the best in German literature. His essays on German literary, political, and philosophical thought contain remarkable and frequently prophetic insights. (Answers.com )

Excerpt from Wikipedia:

Among the thousands of books burned on Berlin’s Opernplatz in 1933, following the Nazi raid on the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft, were works by Heinrich Heine. To commemorate the terrible event, one of the most famous lines of Heine’s 1821 play Almansor was engraved in the ground at the site: “Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” (“That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.”)

Excerpts from Heinrich Heine:

It is said that the spirits of darkness tremble with affright when they behold the sword of an executioner. How, then, must they stand aghast when confronted with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason! This book is the sword with which, in Germany, theism was decapitated…

The life-history of Immanuel Kant is difficult to write, for he had neither a life nor a history. He lived a mechanical, orderly, almost abstract, bachelor life, in a quiet little side-street of Königsberg, an old city near the north-east boundary of Germany. I believe that the great clock of the cathedral did not perform its daily work more dispassionately, more regularly, than its countryman, Immanuel Kant. Rising, coffee-drinking, writing, collegiate lectures, dining, walking–each had its set time. And when Immanuel Kant, in his grey coat, cane in hand, appeared at the door of his house, and strolled towards the small linden avenue, which is still called “the philosopher’s walk,” the neighbours knew it was exactly half-past four. Eight times he promenaded up and down, during all seasons; and when the weather was gloomy, or the grey clouds threatened rain, his old servant Lampe was seen plodding anxiously after, with a large umbrella under his arm, like a symbol of Providence…
What a strange contrast between the outer life of the man and his destructive, world-convulsing thoughts! Had the citizens of Königsberg surmised the whole significance of these thoughts, they would have felt a more profound awe in the presence of this man than in that of an executioner, who merely slays human beings. But the good people saw in him nothing but a professor of philosophy; and when at the fixed hour he sauntered by, they nodded a friendly greeting, and regulated their watches.

But if Immanuel Kant, that arch-destroyer in the realms of thought, far surpassed Maximilian Robespierre in terrorism, yet he had certain points of resemblance to the latter that invite a comparison of the two men. In both we find the same inflexible, rigid, prosaic integrity. Then we find in both the same instinct of distrust,–only that the one exercises it against ideas, and names it a critique, while the other applies it to men, and calls it republican virtue. In both, however, the narrow-minded shopkeeper type is markedly manifest. Nature had intended them to weigh out sugar and coffee, but fate willed it otherwise, and into the scales of one it laid a king, into those of the other, a God. And they both weighed correctly.

German philosophy is a matter of great weight and importance, and concerns the whole human race. Only our most remote descendants will be able to decide whether we deserve blame or praise for completing first our philosophy and afterwards our revolution. To me it seems that a methodical people, such as we Germans are, must necessarily have commenced with the Reformation, could only after that proceed to occupy ourselves with philosophy, and not until the completion of the latter could we pass on to the political revolution. This order I find quite sensible. The heads which philosophy has used for thinking, the revolution can afterwards, for its purposes, cut off. But philosophy would never have been able to use the heads which had been decapitated by the revolution, if the latter had preceded.

…Christianity–and this is its fairest service–has to a certain degree moderated that brutal lust of battle, such as we find it among the ancient Germanic races, who fought, not to destroy, not yet to conquer, but merely from a fierce, demoniac love of battle itself; but it could not altogether eradicate it. And when once that restraining talisman, the cross, is broken, then the smouldering ferocity of those ancient warriors will again blaze up; then will again be heard the deadly clang of that frantic Berserkir wrath, of which the Norse poets say and sing so much. The talisman is rotten with decay, and the day will surely come when it will crumble and fall. Then the ancient stone gods will arise from out the ashes of dismantled ruins, and rub the dust of a thousand years from their eyes; and finally Thor, with his colossal hammer, will leap up, and with it shatter into fragments the Gothic Cathedrals.

And when ye hear the rumbling and the crumbling, take heed, ye neighbours of France, and meddle not with what we do in Germany. It might bring harm on you. Take heed not to kindle the fire; take heed not to quench it. Ye might easily burn your fingers in the flame. Smile not at my advice as the counsel of a visionary warning you against Kantians, Fichteans, and natural philosophers. Scoff not at the dreamer who expects in the material world a revolution similar to that which has already taken place in the domains of thought. The thought goes before the deed, as the lightning precedes the thunder. German thunder is certainly German, and is rather awkward, and it comes rolling along tardily; but come it surely will, and when ye once hear a crash the like of which in the world’s history was never heard before, then know that the German thunderbolt has reached its mark. At this crash the eagles will fall dead in mid air, and the lions in Afric’s most distant deserts will cower and sneak into their royal dens. A drama will be enacted in Germany in comparison with which the French Revolution will appear a harmless idyl. To be sure, matters are at present rather quiet, and if occasionally this one or the other rants and gesticulates somewhat violently, do not believe that these are the real actors. These are only little puppies, that run around in the empty arena, barking and snarling at one another, until the hour shall arrive when appear the gladiators, who are to battle unto death.

And that hour will come. As on the raised benches of an amphitheatre the nations will group themselves around Germany to behold the great tournament. (On the History of Religion and Philosophy in Germany, Second Edition, 1852)

Heinrich Heine certainly saw the signs, read them, and was therefore able to “predict” what would develop. But is it really possible that we can interpret our times in a similar manner? The answer depends on our ability “to see” the present realities in their fulness. In other-words, to see them not merely as naked events, but in their essences and knowing their tendencies. William Stringfellow believed that only the biblical revelation could grant us that ability. Below is a quote, showing our immediate task, as Americans, to “interpret the present time.”

“The task is to treat the nation within the tradition of biblical politics – to understand America biblically – not the other way around, not (to put it in an appropriately awkward way) to construe the Bible Americanly.” (William Stringfellow, “An Ethic for Christians & Other Aliens in a Strange Land“, 1973, p.13)

Obviously, this merely reveals the task, and provides the tool for the task as the Bible in its political fulness. But if we seek to understand America biblically, we may fulfill Paul’s wish that we “could all prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:5). I hope to present future posts that will present the outworking of that task.

Comments, questions, critiques are always welcome! Thank you.

Original Content © Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity, 2013. Excerpts, links, and reblogging may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bryan M. Christman and Manifest Propensity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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