Benjamin, Walter 1892-1940 (Detlev Holz, K.A. Stampflinger)

views updated

Benjamin, Walter 1892-1940 (Detlev Holz, K.A. Stampflinger)


Born July 15, 1892, in Berlin, Germany; committed suicide, September 26, 1940 in Port Bou, Spain; son of an art dealer; married; wife's name Dora (divorced); children: Stefan. Education: Attended universities in Freiburg, Munich, and Berlin, Germany, c. 1912; University of Bern, Switzerland, Ph.D., 1919. Politics: Marxist. Religion: Jewish.


Freelance writer, philosopher, and critic.



Der Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (criticism), E. Rowohlt (Berlin, Germany), 1928, translation by John Osborne published as The Origin of the German Tragic Drama, New Left Books (London, England), 1977.

Eibahnstrasse (aphorisms), E. Rowohlt (Berlin, Germany), 1928, translation by Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter published as One-Way Street, and Other Writings, New Left Books (London, England), 1979.

Kleine Geschichte der Photographie (essay), 1931, translation published as A Short History of Photography, 1972.

Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (essay), 1936, translation published as The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, 1968.

Uber den Begriff der Geschichte (criticism), 1942, translation published as Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1968.

Zentralpark (aphorisms), 1955, translation in New German Critique published as Central Park, 1985.

Illuminationen: Ausgewahlte Schriften (essays), Suhrkamp (Frankfurt am Main, Germany), 1961, translation by Harry Zohn published as Illuminations, Essays, and Reflections, Harcourt, Brace & World (New York, NY), 1968.

Versuche uber Brecht (criticism), 1966, translation by Anna Bostock published as Understanding Brecht, New Left Books (London, England), 1973.

Moscow Diary, translated by Richard Sieburth, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1968.

Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism (essays), translation by Harry Zohn, New Left Books (London, England), 1973.

Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings (essays and aphorisms), translation by Edmund Jephcott, Schocken Books (New York, NY), 1978.

Briefwechel, 1933-40 (letters), Suhrkamp (Frankfurt, Germany), 1980, translation in part by Gary Smith and Andre Lefevere published as The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, 1932-1940, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1992, translation in part by Manfred R. Jacobson and Evelyn M. Jacobson published as The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1994.

Selected Writings, edited by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings, Belknap (Cambridge, MA), 1996.

The Arcades Project, translation by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Belknap (Cambridge, MA), 1999.

(With Theodor W. Adorno) The Complete Correspondence, 1928-1940, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1999.

The Origin of German Tragic Drama, Verso (New York, NY), 2003.

Berlin Childhood around 1900, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2006.

On Hashish, translated by Howard Eiland and others; with an introductory essay by Marcus Boon, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2006.

The Writer of Modern Life: Essays on Charles Baudelaire, edited by Michael W. Jennings, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2006.

Benjamin's Abilities, edited by Samuel Weber, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 2008.


Goethe's "Wahlverwandtschaften" (essay; title means "Goethe's ‘Elective Affinities’"), 1924-25.

Berliner Kindheit un Neunzehnhundert (memoirs), Suhrkamp (Frankfurt, Germany), 1950.

Schriften (essays, addresses, and letters), two volumes, Suhrkamp (Frankfurt, Germany), 1955.

Zur Kritick der Gewalt und andere Aufsatze (essays), 1965.

Briefe (letters), two volumes, 1966.

Gesammelte Schriften (essays, criticism, and letters), six volumes, Suhrkamp (Frankfurt, Germany), 1972-89.

Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik (criticism), Suhrkamp (Frankfurt, Germany), 1973.

Denkbilder (essays), Suhrkamp (Frankfurt, Germany), 1974.

Gesammelte Briefe, Suhrkamp (Frankfurt, Germany), 1995.

Contemporaneidad Latinoamericana y Analisis Cultural: Conversaciones al Encuentro de Walter Benjamin, Iberoamericana (Madrid, Spain), 2000.

Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert: Giessener Fassung, Suhrkamp (Frankfurt am Main), 2000.

Trilectic (sound recording), Tzadik (New York, NY), 2001.

Walter Benjamin: Avertissement d'incendie: Une Lecture des theses "Sur le concept d'histoire", Presses Universitaires de France (Paris, France), 2001.

Medienasthetische Schriften, Suhrkamp (Frankfurt, Germany), 2002.

La obra de arte en la epoca de su reproductibilidad tecnica, Itaca [Mexico], 2003.

Revolucion Conservadora y Conservacion Revolucionaria: Politica y memoria en Walter Benjamin, Anthropos: Universidad Autonoma Metropolitana (Barcelona, Spain), 2003.

Schrift, Bilder, Denken: Walter Benjamin und die Kunste, Suhrkamp (Frankfurt am Main), 2004.

(With Gretel Adorno) Briefwechsel, 1930-1940, Suhrkamp (Frankfurt, Germany), 2005.

Arendt und Benjamin: Texte, Briefe, Dokumente, Suhrkamp (Frankfurt, Germany), 2006.

Also contributor to numerous journals, including the Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung.


German-born Jewish philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin published widely on such topics as technology, language, literature, the arts, and society during the years between the world wars. When Benjamin committed suicide in 1940, he left behind a large body of mostly unfinished work that has been slowly published in his native Germany and translated into English and other European languages. Since the 1980s, this fragmented oeuvre has elicited much commentary and become the focus of steady scholarly activity, including several thousand studies. Some of his most noted works are Illuminations, Essays, and Reflections; Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings; and The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, 1910-1940.

The son of well-to-do Jewish parents, Benjamin was privately schooled, entering the University of Freiburg in 1912. Seven years later, he completed a doctorate at the University of Bern, for which he wrote a dissertation on German Romantic art and literature. Although he decried the bourgeoise existence he was a part of, he aspired to a university position. In order to procure one, he wrote a second study, this time on German tragic drama of the seventeenth century. This work was incomprehensible to the faculty at the University of Frankfurt, and his application was rejected. Without the sponsorship of a university, Benjamin was forced to become a freelance translator, journalist, and critic. He contributed to many influential journals of his day. He espoused Marxism, yet declined to become an "official" member of any political party. He admired the work of Bertolt Brecht, an avant-garde German dramatist whose plays reflected the communism of the time, and in 1927 Benjamin traveled to Moscow to view communism firsthand.

As a Jew, Benjamin saw the danger of Adolf Hitler's rise to power, and in 1933 he left Germany permanently. In Paris and in Denmark, Benjamin eked out a living by writing radio scripts and reviews and essays for various periodicals. In 1935, he accepted a stipend from the Institute for Social Research to write essays for their Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung. Benjamin and the editors of the review, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, often disputed the content of the essays, and they required him to rework them endlessly. Despite the pleas of friends to relocate to Palestine, Benjamin settled in Paris in 1939, where he soon found himself in German-occupied territory. Benjamin and a group of refugees managed to escape from an increasingly hostile Paris and travel to Spain en route to the United States. When the group was not allowed to board a boat, and were instead turned over to the Gestapo, Benjamin took an overdose of morphine, feigned illness so no one would suspect what he had done, and refused medical attention, dying a short while later.

Benjamin is best known in the United States for his literary and cultural criticism, though his political, philosophical, and religious essays have been studied in greater detail by European commentators. Benjamin was first introduced to the American public in 1968 by Hannah Arendt in a long article in the New Yorker. In his literary and cultural analyses, Benjamin employed many different methodologies, including modernist, structuralist, and materialist approaches.

In approaching Benjamin, commentators have focused on his literary works. Among his essays are seminal works on Czech author Franz Kafka, French poet Charles Baudelaire, French novelist Marcel Proust, and German playwright Bertolt Brecht, as well as writings on photography and the mechanical reproduction of artwork. Writing about Benjamin's Reflections, Todd Gitlin of Nation called the essay on Baudelaire "dazzling" and the unfinished study of nineteenth-century Paris "one of the monuments of modernistic criticism." According to Gitlin, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Production and his cultural archaeology of nineteenth-century Paris anticipate and inspire the richest cultural criticism of recent years." R.Z. Sheppard in Time declared: "Essays on surrealism, the mimetic faculty, Brecht and the Austrian polemicist Karl Kraus support Hannah Arendt's claim that Benjamin was the most important German critic between the world wars." About the study of Kafka, translated in Illuminations, Essays, and Reflections, Frank Kermode in the New York Times Book Review described the so-called poetic nature of Benjamin's critical method. He is "not a critic who goes in for ‘close analysis.’ He isn't even, on this evidence, the master of any great range of critical strategies. He is not noisily prophetic or apocalyptic…. On the other hand it must be said that he chooses his illustrations with extraordinary skill and insight. The code of gestures is a brilliant notion."

Critics have debated heatedly the depth of Benjamin's conversion and commitment to communism. For example, according to Kermode: "There are many varieties of Marxism that can now be tried on Benjamin. But the approach is certainly wrong, as wrong as calling him a Cabbalist. Marxism, Jewish mysticism, and much else helped him to express his primary intuitions." Several commentators purported that Benjamin chose Marxism as the "lesser of two evils," when compared with fascism. Donald Marshall, writing in the Partisan Review, asserted: "I think he is [Marxist]. His writings have the immense merit of reminding us of the potential variety of legitimate Marxist approaches to cultural phenomena."

For many years, Benjamin wrote letters that combined his latest philosophical and critical concerns with personal news, often of his struggles to earn a living. Among his correspondents were Gershom Scholem, a longtime friend and scholar who established the modern study of Jewish mysticism; Theodor Adorno, a Marxist and editor for whom Benjamin wrote important essays; Austrian theologian and philosopher Martin Buber; Christian theologian Florens Christian Rang; and dramatist Bertold Brecht. In the 1980s and 1990s several selections of Benjamin's translated letters were published; however, all were flawed by faulty translations or omissions due to stipulations made by the German publisher.

The slow publication and translation of Benjamin's works, some as many as fifty years after their original publication, have made it difficult for non-German-speaking scholars to appreciate the scope and significance of Benjamin's efforts. Even basing their judgments on an incomplete body of work, however, many commentators have declared Benjamin to be among the brightest intellectuals of his generation. To quote Kermode: "There are more steadily systematic minds, and finer analytic minds; but there are few to match … [Benjamin's] intuitive power—the informing eye, the inquiring spirit."

The Complete Correspondence, 1928-1940, published in English in 2000, provides readers with unprecedented access to the life and thoughts of both Benjamin and his correspondent, Theodor W. Adorno. Both men were considered intellectuals of their day, and their letters offer a stimulating exchange of theories and thoughts as well as commentary on the state of the world during the time just prior to World War II and during its early years. The letters include critical analysis by each man of the other's writings, as well as the traditional personal discussions of two friends. David S. Gross, in a review for World Literature Today, noted that as the book is a direct translation from the German, all of the references in the bibliography are to a German reference. Overall, however, he considered the collection of letters a contribution to "an intellectual experience of the very highest order."

Berlin Childhood around 1900, which first appeared in English in 2006, offers readers a very different view of Benjamin and his life, focusing on his early days in Berlin and addressing both the experiences of his upbringing and the atmosphere of the city at the turn of the century. Written primarily between the world wars, the book illustrates the calm and the innocence of the time from the perspective of the much darker future. Michael Lukas, in a review for Tikkun, observed that "in Benjamin's hands, the most pedestrian moments of an inward-facing, bourgeois childhood become revelations about discipline and ideology."



Alter, Robert, Necessary Angels: Tradition and Modernity in Kafka, Benjamin, and Scholem, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA), 1991.

Bahti, Timothy, and Marilyn Sibley Fries, editors, Jewish Writers, German Literature: The Uneasy Examples of Nelly Sachs and Walter Benjamin, University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, MI), 1995.

Benjamin, Andrew, editor, The Problems of Modernity: Adorno and Benjamin, Routledge (London, England), 1991.

Benjamin, Andrew, and Peter Osborne, editors, Walter Benjamin's Philosophy: Destruction and Experience, Routledge (London, England), 1994.

Bolz, Norbert W., Walter Benjamin, Humanities Press (Atlantic Highlands, NJ), 1996.

Britt, Brian M., Walter Benjamin, and the Bible, Continuum (New York, NY), 1996.

Buck-Morss, Susan, The Origin of Negative Dialectics: Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the Frankfurt Institute, Free Press (New York, NY), 1977.

Buck-Morss, Susan, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1989.

Bullock, Marcus Paul, Romanticism and Marxism: The Philosophical Development of Literary Theory and Literary History in Walter Benjamin and Friedrich Schlegel, P. Lang (New York, NY), 1987.

Cesar, Jasiel, Walter Benjamin on Experience and History: Profane Illumination, Mellen Research University Press (San Francisco, CA), 1992.

Cohen, Margaret, Profane Illumination: Walter Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1993.

Eagleton, Terry, Walter Benjamin; or, Towards a Revolutionary Criticism, New Left Books (London, England), 1981.

Fischer, Gerhard, editor, With the Sharpened Axe of Reason: Approaches to Walter Benjamin, Berg (Oxford, England), 1996.

Frisby, David, Fragments of Modernity: Theories of Modernity in the Work of Simmel, Kracauer, and Benjamin, MIT Press (Cambridge, MA), 1986.

Gelley, Alexander, City Texts: Kracauer and Benjamin, University of California (Berkeley, CA), 1993.

Geyer-Ryan, Helga, Fables of Desire: Studies in the Ethics of Art and Gender, Polity Press (Cambridge, England), 1994.

Gilloch, Graeme, Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the City, Polity Press (Cambridge, MA), 1996.

Jennings, Michael William, Dialectical Images: Walter Benjamin's Theory of Literary Criticism, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1987.

Mehlman, Jeffrey, Walter Benjamin for Children: An Essay on His Radio Years, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1993.

Nagele, Rainer, Theater, Theory, Speculation: Walter Benjamin and the Scenes of Modernity, Johns Hopkins University Press (Baltimore, MD), 1991.

Pensky, Max, Melancholy Dialectics: Walter Benjamin and the Play of Mourning, University of Massachusetts Press (Amherst, MA), 1993.

Roberts, Julian, Walter Benjamin, Humanities Press (Atlantic Highlands, NJ), 1983.

Roblin, Ronald, editor, The Aesthetics of the Critical Theorists: Studies on Benjamin, Adorno, Marcuse, and Habermas, E. Mellen Press (Lewiston, NY), 1990.

Salzinger, Helmut, Swinging Benjamin, Fischer-Taschenbuch-Verlag (Germany), 1973.

Steinberg, Michael P., editor, Walter Benjamin and the Demands of History, Cornell University Press (Ithaca, NY), 1996.

Twentieth Century Literary Criticism, Volume 39, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1991.

Weigel, Sigrid, Body- and Image-Space: Re-reading Walter Benjamin, Routledge (New York, NY), 1996.

Wolin, Richard, Walter Benjamin, an Aesthetic of Redemption, University of California Press (Berkeley, CA), 1994.


Nation, July 8-15, 1978, Todd Gitlin, review of Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, pp. 58-59.

New York Times Book Review, December 18, 1969, Frank Kermode, review of Illuminations, Essays, and Reflections, p. 30.

Partisan Review, spring, 1978, Donald Marshall, review of Benjamin's work, pp. 313-316.

Tikkun, July 1, 2006, Michael Lukas, "All about the Benjamin," p. 63.

Time, July 17, 1978, R.Z. Sheppard, review of Reflections, pp. 91-92.

World Literature Today, autumn, 2000, David S. Gross, review of The Complete Correspondence, 1928-1940, p. 857.

About this article

Benjamin, Walter 1892-1940 (Detlev Holz, K.A. Stampflinger)

Updated About content Print Article