Passages of Life

Walter Benjamin was born in Berlin on 15 July 1892, the eldest of three children, into a wealthy Jewish family. His father, an art dealer, owned an antique shop. Benjamin recalled that his first contact with the power of words was of his mother, Pauline Schönflies, telling him stories as a small boy. At the age of 10 he started school at the Gymnasium Kaiser-Wilhelm in Berlin. He then studied philosophy, German literature and psychology at the universities of Freiburg and Berlin and published his first articles — about teaching — in the magazine Der Anfang. He travelled in Italy in 1912 and to Paris in 1913. In 1914 he chaired the Freie Studentenschaft free students’ association, highly critical of German nationalism. The following year, he began to translate Baudelaire and moved to Munich to continue his studies in philosophy at the university there, where he met Rainer Maria Rilke and the mathematician and philosopher Gershom Scholem, who became a close friend. Benjamin’s study of Hölderlin’s poetry dates from this time.


In 1917 he married Dora Sophie Pollak (née Kellner: 1890-1964) and enrolled at the University of Berne (Switzerland), where he met Ernst Bloch. His only son, Stefan (1918-1972), was born the following year. In 1919 Benjamin received his PhD cum laude with the thesis Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik (The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism). The following year he returned to Berlin for a short stay. In 1922 he moved to Heidelberg in an unsuccessful bid to pursue an academic career. From 1923 to 1925 he worked on his thesis Der Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (The Origin of German Tragic Drama), which was rejected by the University of Frankfurt but published in 1928, the same year as his Einbahnstraße (One-Way Street).


In 1929 he met Bertolt Brecht and his assistant Asja Lacis, with whom he began a relationship, and for whom he divorced Dora in 1930. With the growing power of the Nazi party, Benjamin left Germany for a while, spending several months in Ibiza and Nice before returning to Germany, but with Hitler’s electoral victory and the burning of the Reichstag on 17 March 1933 he left the country for good, taking refuge in Svendborg (Denmark) with Bertold Brecht and in San Remo with his ex-wife. He eventually settled in Paris, where he began working with Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer and received financial support from the Institut für Sozialforschung (Institute for Social Research). In contact with German artists, intellectuals and refugees in Paris, he became friends with Georg Lukács, Hannah Arendt, Hermann Hesse and Kurt Weill, and wrote tirelessly in very precarious economic conditions. In 1936 he published Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner Technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction) and continued working on his monumental (and unfinished) Passagen-Werk (The Arcades Project). He met Georges Bataille and joined the Collège de sociologie. In 1938 he made his last visit to Bertold Brecht in Denmark.


In January 1938, in the port of San Remo, Walter Benjamin said farewell to his friends Theodor and Gretel Adorno, who were sailing to New York. When they advised him to do the same, he replied: ‘In Europe there are positions to defend.’ That same year Benjamin’s brother Georg, a physician and Communist municipal councillor in Berlin, was arrested. At the end of February 1939, the Gestapo stripped Walter Benjamin of his German citizenship, which meant that he could not leave France without a residence permit in the country of destination establishing his status as a German refugee. On the first of September 1939 he was interned in a collection camp and later in a volunteer labour camp at Nevers. In late November he was released thanks to the intervention of French friends and returned to Paris where he worked on his last completed work, Über den Begriff der Geschichte Theses (Theses on the Philosophy of History). In 1940 Vichy France signed an armistice with the Third Reich and as the Nazis advanced on Paris Benjamin left the city in a hurry (his apartment had been searched by the authorities). Hitler’s troops took Paris on 14, 1940, almost unopposed.