Walter Benjamin - Life

Life

Part of a series on the
Frankfurt School
Major works
Reason and Revolution
The Work of Art in the
Age of Mechanical Reproduction Eclipse of Reason
The Fear of Freedom
Dialectic of Enlightenment
Minima Moralia
Eros and Civilization
One-Dimensional Man
Negative Dialectics
The Structural Transformation
of the Public Sphere The Theory of Communicative Action
Notable theorists
Max Horkheimer · Theodor Adorno
Herbert Marcuse · Walter Benjamin
Erich Fromm · Friedrich Pollock
Leo Löwenthal · Jürgen Habermas
Important concepts
Critical theory · Dialectic · Praxis
Psychoanalysis · Antipositivism
Popular culture · Culture industry
Advanced capitalism
Privatism · Non-identity
Communicative rationality
Legitimation crisis

Benjamin and his younger siblings, Georg (1895–1942) and Dora (1901–1946) were born to a wealthy business family of assimilated Ashkenazi Jews in the Berlin of the German Empire (1871–1918). The patriarch, Emil Benjamin, was a banker in Paris who relocated from France to Germany, where he worked as an antiques trader in Berlin; he later married Pauline Schönflies. He owned a number of investments in Berlin, including ice skating rinks. In 1902, ten-year-old Walter was enrolled to the Kaiser Friedrich School in Charlottenburg; he completed his secondary school studies ten years later. Personally, Walter Benjamin was a boy of fragile health, so, in 1905, the family sent him to Hermann-Lietz-Schule Haubinda, a boarding school in the Thuringian countryside, for two years; in 1907, returned to Berlin, his schooling resumed at the Kaiser Friedrich School.

In 1912, at the age of twenty, he enrolled at the Albert Ludwigs University of Freiburg, but, at summer semester's end, returned to Berlin, then matriculated into the Humboldt University of Berlin, to continue studying philosophy. Here Benjamin had his first exposure to the ideas of zionism, which had not been part of his liberal upbringing, this exposure gave him occasion to formulate his own ideas about the meanings of Judaism. Benjamin distanced himself from political and nationalist zionism, instead developing in his own thinking what he called a kind of "cultural zionism"—an attitude which recognized and promoted Judaism and Jewish values. In Benjamin's formulation his Jewishness meant a commitment to the furtherance of European culture. Benjamin expressed "My life experience led me to this insight: the Jews represent an elite in the ranks of the spiritually active...For Judaism is to me in no sense an end in itself, but the most distinguished bearer and representative of the spiritual." This was a position that Benjamin largely held lifelong.

Elected president of the Freie Studentenschaft (Free Students Association), Benjamin wrote essays arguing for educational and general cultural change. When not re-elected as student association president, he returned to Freiburg University, and studied, with particular attention to the lectures of Heinrich Rickert; in that time he travelled to France and Italy.

In 1914, as Germany and France fought each other in the First World War (1914–1918), the intellectual Walter Benjamin began faithfully translating the works of the 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821–1867). The next year, 1915, he moved to Munich, and continued his schooling at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, where he met Rainer Maria Rilke and Gershom Scholem; the latter became a friend. In that year, Benjamin wrote about the 18th-century Romantic German poet Friedrich Hölderlin (1770–1843).

In 1917 he transferred to the University of Bern; there, he met Ernst Bloch, and Dora Sophie Pollak (née Kellner) (1890–1964), whom he later married, and they had a son, Stefan Rafael (1918–1972). In 1919 Benjamin earned his doctoral degree cum laude with the dissertation essay Begriff der Kunstkritik in der Deutschen Romantik (The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism). Later, unable to support himself and family, the Benjamins returned to Berlin, and resided with his parents; in 1921, he published the essay Kritik der Gewalt (The Critique of Violence). At this time, Benjamin first became socially acquainted with Leo Strauss, and would remain an admirer of him and of his work throughout his life.

In 1923, when the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research) was founded, and later became home to the Frankfurt School, he published Charles Baudelaire, Tableaux Parisiens. In that time he became acquainted with Theodor Adorno and befriended Georg Lukács, whose The Theory of the Novel (1920) much influenced him. Meanwhile, the inflation in the Weimar Republic, consequent to the First World War, made it difficult for the businessman Emil Benjamin to continue supporting his intellectual son's family, Walter, Dora, and Stefan. At year's end of 1923, his best friend, Gershom Scholem, emigrated to Palestine, a country ruled under the British Mandate of Palestine; despite repeated invitations, he failed to persuade Walter Benjamin (and family) to leave the Continent for the Middle East.

In 1924, Hugo von Hoffmansthal, in the Neue Deutsche Beiträge magazine, published Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften (Goethe’s Elective Affinities), by Walter Benjamin, about Goethe’s third novel, Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809). Later that year, Benjamin and Ernst Bloch resided in the Italian island of Capri; Benjamin wrote Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiel (The Origin of German Tragic Drama), as an habilitation dissertation meant to qualify him as a tenured university professor in Germany. He also read, at Bloch’s suggestion, History and Class Consciousness (1923), by Georg Lukács. In the event, he also met the Latvian Bolshevik and actress Asja Lācis, then residing in Moscow; she became his lover and was a lasting intellectual influence upon him.

A year later, in 1925, the Goethe University Frankfurt, at Frankfurt am Main, rejected The Origin of German Tragic Drama as Benjamin’s qualification for the habilitation teaching credential; he was not to be an academic instructor. Working with Franz Hessel (1880–1941), he translated the first volumes of À la Recherche du Temps Perdu (In Search of Lost Time), by Marcel Proust. The next year, 1926, he began writing for the German newspapers Frankfurter Zeitung (The Frankfurt Times) and Die Literarische Welt (The Literary World), that paid enough for him to reside in Paris for some months. In December 1926 (the year his father, Emil Benjamin, died), Walter Benjamin went to Moscow to meet Asja Lācis, and found her ill, in a sanatorium.

In 1927, he began Das Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project), his incompleted magnum opus, a study of 19th-century Parisian life. The same year, he saw Gershom Scholem in Berlin, for the last time, and considered emigrating from Continental Europe (Germany) to Palestine. In 1928, he and Dora separated, then divorced two years later, in 1930; he published Einbahnstraße (One-Way Street), and a revision of his habilitation dissertation Ursprung des Deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of German Tragic Drama). In 1929 Berlin, Asja Lācis, then assistant to Bertolt Brecht, socially presented the intellectuals to each other. In that time, he also briefly embarked upon an academic career, as an instructor at the University of Heidelberg.

In 1932, during the turmoil preceding Adolf Hitler’s assumption of the office of Chancellor of Germany, Walter Benjamin left Germany for the Spanish island of Ibiza for some months; he then moved to Nice, where he considered killing himself. Perceiving the socio-political and cultural significance of the Reichstag fire (27 February 1933) as the de facto Nazi assumption of full power in Germany, then manifest with the subsequent persecution of the Jews, he moved to Paris, but, before doing so, he sought shelter in Svendborg, at Bertold Brecht's house, and at Sanremo, where his ex-wife Dora lived.

As he ran out of money, Benjamin collaborated with Max Horkheimer, and received funds from the Institute for Social Research, later going permanently into exile. In Paris, he met other German artists and intellectuals refuged there from Germany; he befriended Hannah Arendt, novelist Hermann Hesse, and composer Kurt Weill. In 1936, L'Œuvre d'Art à l'Époque de sa Reproductibilité Technique (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) was first published, in French, by Max Horkheimer in the Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung journal of the Institute for Social Research.

In 1937 Benjamin worked on Das Paris des Second Empire bei Baudelaire (The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire), met Georges Bataille (to whom he later entrusted the Arcades Project manuscript), and joined the College of Sociology. In 1938 he paid a last visit to Bertolt Brecht, who was exiled to Denmark. Meanwhile, the Nazi Régime stripped German Jews of their German citizenship; now a stateless man, Benjamin was arrested by the French government and incarcerated for three months in a prison camp near Nevers, in central Burgundy.

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