Heinrich Heine

Portrait: Heinrich Heine
Portrait of Heinrich Heine by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1831
Public Domain

Heinrich Heine

Satire against censorship

…, to write while the censor’s sword is hanging over my head by a thread – it is enough to drive one to insanity!

Heinrich Heine in a letter to his publisher Julius Campe, 20 December 1836

Heinrich Heine’s criticism of Germany’s political culture attracted the attention of the country’s literary censors who banned many of his works. His encounters with the authorities who tried to silence him were, however, artistically productive in terms of the satirical work he produced as a response. In the second volume of his work Reisebilder, Heine went as far as to use the censor’s own methods as a form of satirical criticism: the twelfth chapter of the work features a mass of dash strokes that suggest the extensive interference of the censorship authorities, leaving only four words on the page: “The German censors” and, six lines below that: “idiots”.

With the introduction of the press censorship law of the Carlsbad Decrees in 1819, works that were under 20 sheets in size (or 320 octavo pages) had to be submitted to the authorities for pre-censorship. To save costs, the censor did not attempt to restructure or edit questionable passages. Instead these were simply crossed out, rendering many texts unrecognisable. In order to avoid the censor’s wrath, many works were expanded to 20 sheets in length. They could still, however, fall prey to retroactive censorship. From 1826 in Prussia and 1834 in the whole of Germany, the process of simply striking out questionable passages in a text became an inacceptable form of censorship. Such texts now had to be reorganised and reset at the cost of the author and publisher, who were thus forced into undertaking a form of self-censorship.