WALTER BENJAMIN (1892 -1940)

Life and Work: Part One

 Like many Jewish intellectuals in Germany, Walter Benjamin considered himself “German”.  His family was privileged and fully assimilated into the larger German society.  It would be this stratum of German society that would be the most unguarded and the most threatened by the Nazis.  Intellectuals thought of Hitler as a passing moment in the struggle of a desperate people to recover from and devastating and humiliating war and stood aside and let the masses have their say.  All too soon, those who could have formulated intelligent dissent found themselves faced with impossible choices: dissent and go to a death camp, remain silent and become complicit, slip quietly into exile before it was too late.  One way or the other, they would all be silenced.

As an intellectual and a Jew, Benjamin was doubly in danger.  Assimilated and privileged Jews assumed that they were “Germans” first and Jews second.  Indeed many Jews had converted or simply downplayed their religious identity.  It was a shock when they learned that “German” had been redefined, not as a nationality, but as a “race” and that “race” was Aryan.  The Nazis descended immediately upon the artists, the writers, the thinkers, and the Jews. The cream of German intellectuals left for other nations, becoming nomads and displaced persons.  Most of these scholars and artists survived and even thrived in their new surroundings.  Billy Wilder, film director, Erwin Panofsky, art historian, Marlena Dietrich, actor, Alfred Einstein, scientist—all contributed to American and world culture—and all would have died under Hitler.

Gentiles and dangerous literary figures, Bertolt Brecht and Thomas Mann, migrated from Germany and became unemployed writers in Hollywood.  Brecht felt stranded in this sunny land of capitalism, while Mann was much more comfortable in his new home.  As writers, both were separated from their native language and from the culture that had nurtured their creativity, as were all the refugees. The State Department of America, a bastion of anti-Semitism, was willing to grant refuge to only a handful of certain Jews of privilege, such as Theodor Adorno, who was half-Jewish.  Head of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer, arranged for Benjamin to get out of German-occupied France and obtained a visa to America for him.  But Walter Benjamin was a reluctant exile.

Unexpectedly, an entire generation of German intellectuals would become refugees and their work would be suddenly be divided into segments of before and after their displacement.  The oeuvre of Walter Benjamin is a case in point.  Although there are continuities in his ideas and preoccupations, the writer’s output can be divided into three sections: his youthful post-student work, aimed at getting him a post in a German university, his free-lance literary writings as a cultural critic in Berlin and finally the work of his exile years in Paris.

When Benjamin was born, Germany was barely twenty years old, a very new and very young modern nation.  That said, the new country acted in an anachronistic way, starting an imperialistic war on its neighbors.  The cultural mindset that dragged a modern nation into an old fashioned war was discredited, and after the Great War, Germany was forced to look forward into the future.  The result was the remarkable efflorescence of Weimar Germany.  Benjamin was a student during the War and came of age in city of the edge of trying everything new and daring, a city plunging into modernity.  For astute observers, Paris was displaced as the center of avant-garde innovation and Berlin took the lead in artistic experimentation.

Benjamin spent the years of the War translating Charles Baudelaire and studying German Romantic poets at the universities of Berlin and Munich.  He received his doctoral degree for his work on German Romanticism.  During his studies, he married and had a child and the young family returned to Berlin.  In the immediate post-war years, Berlin was awash with the casualties of the War, from prostituted war widows to crippled veterans to the psychologically maimed. Although he was opposed to the Great War, Benjamin explored the nature of violence in one of his earliest works, A Critique of Violence, 1921.  Benjamin’s later work would always be poetic, concerned with metaphor, and was deeply allusive and often elliptical in its references.

After the Institute for Social Research was founded in 1923, Benjamin made the acquaintance of Theodor Adorno.  On one hand, he began reading Georg Lukács and on the other hand, Benjamin was publishing work on Baudelaire.  However complex his intellectual interests, Benjamin was intent on becoming a university professor and continued his rather disjointed self-education by reading Lukács’ Marxist theories while writing the Trauerspeil on the Island of Capri in 1924.  Although Benjamin is often associated with the Frankfurt School, which was distinctly Marxist at that time, he was not a professional scholar, teaching at a university.  That said Benjamin shared with these philosophers an understanding of contemporary thought through a combination of neo-Kantianism from the Marburg School and Marxism.

In a recent book, 2011, The Messianic Reduction. Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time, Peter Fenves fully discusses Benjamin’s philosophical roots and quotes the writer’s own words, “In particular and in ever-repeated reading, during my time as a student, I concerned myself with Plato and Kant, in connection with Husserl’s philosophy and the Marburg school.”   However, the philosophers of the Frankfurt School, while also deeply steeped in Kant, were rigorously Marxist and more fully conversant with Marxist theories.  In contrast, Benjamin’s more casual and personal “take” on Marxism was mediated through Kant’s concepts on morality and with Jewish mysticism, especially on the Kabbalah. Benjamin’s Marxism was personal and idiosyncratic and unorthodox.

During the first years of his literary career, in post-war Germany, Benjamin was not political but engaged in what he called “redemptive criticism.”  When he turned to Marxism, it was because he approached Communism as a moral imperative that demanded certain political forms of action.  But he was not systematically trained in Marxist though and arrived at his ideas through readings of his own selection.  Georg Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness, written in 1923 in the wake of the post-war political upheavals commented,

Capitalism, by contrast, is a revolutionary form par excellence. The fact that it must necessarily remain in ignorance of the objective economic limitations of its own system expresses itself as an internal, dialectical contradiction in its class consciousness.  This means that formally the class-consciousness of the bourgeoisie is geared to economic consciousness. And indeed the highest degree of unconsciousness, the crassest, form of ‘false consciousness’ always manifests itself when the conscious mastery of economic phenomena appears to be at its greatest.

From the point of view of the relation of consciousness to society this contradiction is expressed as the irreconcilable antagonism between ideology and economic base. Its dialectics are grounded in the irreconcilable antagonism between the (capitalist) individual, i.e. the stereotyped individual of capitalism, and the ‘natural’ and inevitable process of development, i.e. the process not subject to consciousness. In consequence theory and practice are brought into irreconcilable opposition to each other. But the resulting dualism is anything but stable; in fact it constantly strives to harmonize principles that have been wrenched apart and thenceforth oscillate between a new ‘false’ synthesis and its subsequent cataclysmic disruption.

This internal dialectical contradiction in the class-consciousness of the bourgeoisie is further aggravated by the fact that the objective limits of capitalism do not remain purely negative. That is to say that capitalism does not merely set ‘natural’ laws in motion that provoke crises which it cannot comprehend. On the contrary, those limits acquire a historical embodiment with its own consciousness and its own actions: the proletariat.

Despite his erudition and sincerity, this book came under harsh criticism from Lenin and Lukács was forced to denounce his own work.  But Benjamin’s politicization can be dated from his reading of this book by Lukács in 1924, and his work took a new direction.  By the mid-twenties 1920s, Benjamin had shifted his literary ground.  He had broken with his family, and due to the financial crisis of the Republic, lost their financial support, and was adrift and living, as most commentators express it, “hand to mouth,” writing reviews on the cultural life in Berlin.  Suddenly thrust out of the middle class, Benjamin became aware of class distinctions and political issues. He might have found the work of the Hungarian Marxist congenial because Lukács also came from a neo-Kantian background.  Although they had acquaintances inn common, Lukács and Benjamin may not have met, despite the fact that the Hungarian was a refugee in Berlin from 1931 to 1933.

After his failed attempt in 1926 to find a place in the university system with his rejected thesis, or Habilitationsschrift, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels   (The Origin of German Tragic Drama or “mourning play”),Benjamin became a free-lance journalist and translator.  In pursuit of a woman with whom he had fallen in love, Asja Lacis, Benjamin took a trip to Moscow during the winter of 1926-17. The writer, an acute observer, combined an abject doomed unrequited love affair with an investigation of the workings of Communism.  Like many such pilgrims to the Soviet Union, he was shorn of any illusions he may have harbored and seems to have been able to separate the totalitarian regime of Moscow from the theories of Marx in his later works.

In Part Two of this brief study of Walter Benjamin, I shall discuss his works of the 1930s, the last decade of his life.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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If you have found this material useful, please give credit to Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.
Thank you.

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