Rene (Rainer) Maria Rilke (1875-1926): Family Background


During these fin-de-siecle years for the Hapsburg monarchy, German middle-class families like the Rilkes were also caught in conflicting social and ethnic pressures. Being part of the governing minority produced some of their anxieties and those of many of their compatriots. As Germans, both the poet's parents felt privileged by nature, yet neither was an aristocrat, a status that would have guaranteed their entry into German society.


Rilke's father, Josef, born in 1838, had failed in his ambitions even within the bourgeoisie. At the time his son was born in 1875, he was a minor railroad official who had not managed to obtain a commission in the army after many years of service, including some distinction in Austria's war against an insurgent, unifying Italy. A throat ailment forced him to take too many sick leaves, and when by 1865 officer status had become even more elusive, he took a job with the Turnau-Prague-prague Railway (secured with the help of his more successful older brother, Jaroslav), in which he advanced moderately over the years. Still, when he courted Rilke's mother, he was handsome and well mannered and comported himself like an imperial officer, even in civilian clothes.


Sophie (or, as she called herself, Phia) Entz was the daughter of a highly placed bank official with the title of Imperial Counsellor; her mother, Caroline, came from. an upper bourgeois (but not aristocratic) German family, well established and distinguished as manufacturers and landowners. Although Carl Entz never achieved the rank of nobility, he had risen to prominence within his class. Rainer's mother was born in 1851. She was 13 years younger than her future husband. The mansion in the Herrengasse where Phia was raised with her sister and two brothers would remain in her memory as a treasured ideal: a baroque edifice with high ceilings, broad stairways, and many rooms filled with polished furniture.

Yet Phia felt trapped in her sumptuous home. At one point she shocked everyone by rebelliously draining a bottle of champagne. The act was symptomatic of the same drive toward personal freedom that would later energize her son. Social ambition--a passion the grown Rainer Maria would share--was the main outlet for a woman in her time, which led her to respond to the promise Josef Rilke's military bearing implied. She married him in 1873.

Since Jaroslav Rilke had been recently elevated to the peerage, Phia may have hoped that this privilege might also be extended to his younger brother. Unfortunately for her, this turned out not to be the case. Indeed, her expectation that Josef would lead her into the noble houses of the first families in town was to prove an ill-fated illusion for which she would never forgive him.


Rainer was born in Prague which at the time was in Biohemia, part of the Austro-Hugarian Empire. He grew up during the last quarter of the 19th century, when the facades of the great buildings along the Vltava River still looked splendid. The plaster covering the ancient bricks had not yet peeled off as cafes and theaters cast their lights upon the water. And the Hradcany Castle looked down upon the city, dominating the scene with its massive walls, a symbol of Austrian imperial power.

Vaclavske Namesti--or Wenzelsplatz, as the Germans called it in that bilingual city--is a generous plaza lined with trees and a busy thoroughfare leading from the broad steps of the National Museum toward the center of town. The area surrounding it was the focus of Rilke's childhood. The rumbling carts and horse-drawn wagons have now been replaced by automobiles and trucks, but most of the old structures still stand, suggesting time frozen in an unchanging present. As today's visitor emerges from the subway station near the museum and turns into the streets where the young Rilke lived, he finds a scene that even now connects him with the distant past of the 1870s. The street where Rilke was born--Jindrisska ulice or Heinrichgasse--trails among tired-looking buildings that still betray their nineteenth-century origin behind their renovated storefronts.

A few yards farther down from Heinrichgasse 19, where the young Rilke lived with his parents in a rented flat (the building has since been torn down to make room for a bank), the street widens into a square with a gate and a church. Svatemo Jindrisska or St. Heinrich, standing next to a well-kept rectory, is wide and commodious with a round nave and a stubby steeple of the same yellow sandstone as the gate. This was the place where Rilke was baptized and where his mother offered her devotions during his early years.

The geography of the world surrounding the young Rilke reflects in many important ways the topography of the future poet's mind. Across from Heinrichgasse 19 was the Herrengasse--Panska ulice--the street in which his maternal grandparents owned an impressive mansion and in which his mother had spent her girlhood. This building, too, was torn down to make room for a bank, but one can still discern from the adjoining ornate structures how elegant the place must have been. Peering out of the window of his parents' apartment, the child could not help but be aware of the great contrast between his own home and the mansion around the corner where, he feared, he might not quite belong. Already as a small child, then, Rilke lived in two contrasting yet not far distant places: Heinrichgasse for the common folk and Herrengasse, "the street of the gentry," Jindrisska and Panska ulice. They were to make up the fabric of his life, the texture of his work.

Prague was one of the principal cities of the Austro-hungarian Empire, a city of divergent classes, languages, peoples: Czech, German, Jewish. German remained the language of the Austrian governing elite, the military officer corps, and the professional establishment. It was also the native language of a considerable population of Germans and German-speaking Jews who were responsible for a lively and often controversial culture.

The complex history of Prague and Bohemia as part of the Austrian empire created tensions akin to those in a colonial city where a German minority dominated community and economic life and a Czech majority were looked down upon and too often relegated to the lower reaches of the social scale. But by the time of Rilke's childhood, Czech intellectuals were becoming increasingly vocal, especially with the establishment of an autonomous Czech component of the Carl-Ferdinand University, which supported the further growth of an indigenous professional class. And a rich literary and cultural tradition was being nourished by contemporary artists of stature.

Family circumstance

In their modest apartment in Heinrichgasse, they were soon in straits, for Josef's salary did not suffice for Phia's needs. Her dowry was quickly spent, and the cramped, badly furnished flat was a constant reminder of her error. Meanwhile, her sister Charlotte had become an aristocrat by marrying a titled imperial officer, Mahler von Mahlersheim, who rose to the rank of colonel by the time of Rilke's childhood.

Phia's expectations of Josef were not ungrounded. There was a tradition in Josef Rilke's family on which the myth of the noble line had been based, just as there was a tradition for military service, though severely disrupted by death, illness, and hopelessness for three of the family's four sons. The first blow was the death from dysentery of Emil, the second son; there followed Josef's decision to abandon his career; later came the suicide of the youngest son, Hugo, whom the child Rilke loved well, because he could not bear being still a captain at fifty-one. Only the eldest son, jaroslav, was successful. The one brother to pursue a civilian career, he lent luster to the family as a distinguished attorney. Their sister, Gabriele, however, found a titled husband, Wenzel, Knight of Kutschera-Waborski, a prosecuting attorney in Prague, by whom she had four children.

Jaroslav was the magnet of the family, a source of nurture and protection for them all, whose generous though autocratic spirit was to shape the young Rilke's life. He used his high worldly position with the grandeur of an Old Testament patriarch. His law office represented a great number of important German families in Prague and the Bohemian territory, many of them landowners who depended on his expertise in real estate. He was also politically active as a delegate to the Bohmische Landtag, the legislative assembly of the Bohemian territory.

Yet Jaroslav, too, was possessed by the lust for nobility. He married into an aristocratic family--his wife was Melvine, Freiin von Schlosser--and was active in trying to establish his own family as descendants of a noble line from Carinthia. He almost succeeded. In 1873 Jaroslav acquired the title of Knight of Ruliken, but only for himself and his children. At one time he had employed most of his office for weeks in an effort to trace his family origins, but he could not prove his nobility. When the attempt failed, the emperor bestowed the title only upon him and his direct descendants in recognition of his service.

Eventually Jaroslav would turn to his brother Josef's only son to groom him as his likely successor. Rilke's failure to live up to his family's expectations as either a soldier or a jurist, fighting instead for the right to be a poet, became one of the great conflicts that shaped his career.

Christopher Wagner

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Created: August 21, 1999
Last updated: August 21, 1999