As German columns rolled across the border with the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg on May 10, 1940, 14 year old Arno Mayer climbed into a two-door Chevrolet with his parents, his sister, and his grandfather. A middle-class Jewish family, the Mayers had no illusions about what Nazi Germany’s invasion meant for them. They stayed ahead of the Wehrmacht and successfully avoided German aircraft, making it to France. After moving from town to town, they left France via Marseilles and arrived in Algeria. The following month, Arno’s father obtained American immigration visas in Casablanca, Morocco, in a manner strikingly similar to the plot of the classic film with Humphrey Bogart. In late winter of 1941, the family sailed, separately, from Portugal, setting foot in New York City four weeks apart. They survived. Arno Mayer, who later became a leading historian of modern European history, was one of the lucky ones.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews in Western Europe were not nearly so fortunate. Among them was the German-Jewish intellectual, Walter Benjamin, in exile in France since 1933. Conventional routes of escape closed quickly as Nazi Germany occupied much of France and all of the Low Countries. To slip the Gestapo’s nets, Benjamin had to improvise. Four months after the German invasion, he embarked on a dangerous and ultimately ill-fated journey across the Pyrenees.
Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was one of the seminal critics of modern cultural life (literature, theater, philosophy, theology, the study of language, the metropolis and its temptations and perils, painting, architecture, photography, radio, and the motion picture). While it is disgraceful that he was never offered an academic position, typical scholarly boundaries and territorialism could not contain him. Benjamin’s intellect was prodigious, restless, and nomadic.
Some of the most important Central European intellectuals of the twentieth century befriended Benjamin and attested to his brilliance.
“Everything which fell under the scrutiny of his words,” contended Theodor W. Adorno, “was transformed, as though it had become radioactive.
"His capacity for continually bringing out new aspects, not by exploding conventions through criticism, but rather by organizing himself so as to be able to relate to his subject-matter in a way that seemed beyond all convention—this capacity can hardly be adequately described by the concept of ‘originality.’” Hannah Arendt, with whom Benjamin became close in Paris during the 1930s, cautioned that “to describe adequately his work and him as an author within our usual framework of reference, one would have to make a great many negative statements,” in other words, spend an inordinate amount of time clarifying what Benjamin was not.
Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Kabbalah and Jewish mysticism, recalled of Benjamin the “immediate impression of genius: the lucidity that often emerged from his obscure thinking; the vigor and acuity with which he experimented in conversation; and the unexpectedly serious manner, spiced with witty formulations; in which he would consider the things that were seething within me.” His distant cousin, Günther Stern, later to gain renown under the pseudonym Günther Anders for his works on technology and the atomic bomb, said of Benjamin, “next to him we are all unsubtle barbarians.” None of these recollections exaggerate.
Returning to his writings and his life, particularly, the awful end he met, I reflect on how fortunate I was to study Benjamin and his friend and interlocutor, Siegfried Kracauer, at the University of Chicago with Miriam Bratu Hansen in 1996-1997. Hansen, whose mother, Ruth Bratu, escaped from Czechoslovakia in a Kindertransport in 1939, had studied with Adorno at the University of Frankfurt. Her essays on Benjamin, mass media, and mass culture, commencing with the 1987 “Benjamin, Cinema, Experience,” set the standard for scholarship in English on these subjects. After I finished my master’s work with her, I still eagerly sought out every new article she published on Benjamin, Kracauer, or Adorno. Miriam struggled with cancer for 13 years before passing away at the far too young age of 61 in 2011. This article on the last years of Benjamin’s life is dedicated to her.
Like Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Ernst Cassirer, Peter Gellhorn, the members of the Institute for Social Research, and so many other luminaries of German culture, Hitler’s accession to power in January 1933 was an absolute caesura in Walter Benjamin’s life. “For the interwar years fall naturally into two periods, before and after 1933,” Benjamin wrote in 1940. Before that fateful date, he aspired to become “the foremost critic of German literature.” Benjamin had authored remarkable studies of German Romanticism, the Trauerspiel (mourning play), a form of drama associated with the Baroque period in Germany, and a massive outpouring of essays and reviews for the newspaper, the Frankfurter Zeitung, and the periodical, Die literarische Welt (The Literary World). Not content to investigate older literary schools and genres, Benjamin also produced analyses of Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Surrealism, and the Austrian critic, Karl Kraus, which are still widely read today. The 1928 book, One-Way Street, comprised of aphorisms and brief essays, confirmed how innovative a writer and thinker he was.
A zealous collector, Benjamin hunted and purchased tomes on a staggering array of topics: science fiction, fairy tales and children’s books, Judaica, philology, physics, and theology, as well as novels and poetry. “Unpacking My Library,” his wonderful short text, transmits the pure bibliophilic excitement of a “relationship to objects which does not emphasize their functional, utilitarian value” and the “final thrill, the thrill of acquisition.” At times in his life, Benjamin cared more about and related better to his library than to human beings.
Benjamin also gave dozens of radio talks during the last years of the Weimar Republic. And he wrote enthusiastically, though not uncritically, of the explosive cultural potential of film and cinema.
Above all—and this gets to the heart of the matter about his attempted escape from France—Benjamin was a Marxist. While his sympathies had always been with the radical Left (Scholem remembered Benjamin’s admiration for Karl Liebknecht’s principled stand against German socialists’ support for the war effort in World War I) and tended toward an idiosyncratic anarchism, he did not really embrace Marxism until the mid-1920s. His study of Hungarian revolutionary Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness (1923) and his relationship with the Latvian Bolshevik and thespian, Asja Lacis, pulled him toward the communist movement. In the winter of 1926-27, Benjamin spent two months in Moscow and was able to witness (though it is not clear how well he understood) Joseph Stalin steadily gaining the upper hand over Leon Trotsky and the United Opposition in the battle for the direction of the USSR. Ultimately, he chose not to mimic the path taken by his younger brother, Georg (1895-1942), who had joined the Communist Party of Germany (KPD).
Instead, Benjamin preferred to work outside of organized parties and trade unions and contribute to the advancement of Marxist thought initiated by Lukács. In 1927, he envisioned a proletarian children’s theater. He also analyzed the “epic theater” developed by Brecht (the two soon became friends). Benjamin also showcased in 1927 his admiration for Soviet moviemaking, particularly the films of Sergei Eisenstein and Vsevolod Pudovkin. Most importantly, Benjamin intervened decisively in the famous interwar Marxist debates on mass media and mass culture, involving Bertolt Brecht, Siegfried Kracauer, Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer, and Ernst Bloch. Miriam Hansen recalled how “the key question for critical theory in the interwar years was which role the technical media were playing in the historical demolition and restructuring of subjectivity: whether they were giving rise to new forms of imagination, expression, and collectivity, or whether they were merely perfecting techniques of total subjection and domination.” This new mass culture, Benjamin hoped, heralded the liquidation of the hegemonic bourgeois culture and aesthetic ideals. Defiantly, he eventually appropriated the phrase “cultural Bolshevism,” used by Nazis against what they deemed “un-German” forms of art and expression, as a moniker for his own position.
As a self-described “conscious Jew” and unwavering Marxist, Benjamin epitomized everything Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party despised. And he was proud to earn their hatred.
Benjamin had followed the growing strength of the Nazi Party in German politics for a few years. As he watched the extreme Right gain ground in Depression-torn Germany, he produced a series of remarkable critiques that stretch across the decades separating the present from the 1930s. In one of them, “Theories of German Fascism,” he assailed the works of figures like Ernst Jünger and Ernst von Salomon, who, while not explicitly Nazi, furthered a counterrevolutionary paramilitary politics. Benjamin insisted that in their “mysticism of war” “what developed here, first in the guise of the World War volunteer and then in the mercenary of the postwar era, is in fact the dependable fascist class warrior. And what these authors mean by nation is a ruling class supported by this caste, a ruling class—accountable to no one, and least of all to itself, enthroned on high.” At the close of the essay, echoing Vladimir Lenin’s strategy in World War I, he called for the Left to transform any new war launched by this “caste” or its lords into a civil war. This answer to “German fascism” implied that Lenin’s revolutionary position from 1917 could be repeated in Germany in the early 1930s.
Disunity within the workers’ movement hindered any such strategy. After Hitler became chancellor on January 30, 1933, Benjamin understood that his time in Germany was over. For weeks, he barely stepped out of his apartment in Berlin. Benjamin fled the city on March 17, less than three weeks after the Reichstag Fire. Once in Paris, he searched for a livelihood in what the German communist Willi Münzenberg termed the “capital of the emigration,” joining a German émigré community in France whose numbers eventually swelled to more than 30,000. Even with xenophobia rising due to the influx of refugees, Benjamin adjusted rapidly to life in Paris. His French was good, and he had visited the city many times before.
Over the next seven years, Benjamin built an astonishing network of friends in the French capital. Although they had little contact before he relocated to Paris, Benjamin and his cousin, Günther Anders, shared a common admiration for Brecht and an absorption in Franz Kafka’s writings. Together, they frequented Paris’s cafes and played chess in the evenings. Benjamin developed an even stronger bond with Arendt, then married to Anders, a bond that deepened even as Arendt and Anders’s marriage fell apart. He also became acquainted with the novelist Anna Seghers, like his brother, a member of the KPD. Yet he did not restrict his network to fellow refugees. Benjamin established ties with Adrienne Monnier, the author and bookseller. And he became acquainted with the circle of intellectuals around the Collége de Sociologie like Georges Bataille (who worked as an archivist and librarian at the Bibliothèque Nationale where Benjamin did extensive research) and Roger Caillois. Still, he frequently departed from Paris for extended trips. Notably, he visited Bertolt Brecht, in exile in Denmark, during three different summers in the 1930s.
During this time, as the Great Depression spread hardship throughout France, Benjamin was constantly apprehensive about money. Max Horkheimer, director of the Institute for Social Research, pushed frequently by Adorno, provided money and opportunities for publication in the Institute’s Journal for Social Research.
This entire period of Benjamin’s life is fascinating and deserves extended treatment. Here, though, I want to focus on how he witnessed the unraveling of the fragile peace in Western Europe and experienced the descent into war in 1938-40. Due to the extensive research of Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, we have excellent editions of his writings from this period and a well-documented biography.
As Hitler threatened Austria in March 1938, Benjamin applied for French citizenship. The residence permit he held was not enough. As he waited in vain over the next 18 months for the paperwork to proceed, Benjamin discovered, to his horror, that France was no secure refuge from the Nazis.
In early May, Adorno wrote to Benjamin from Princeton and encouraged him to read the French translation of Leon Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed. The book, a brilliant critique of Stalin’s Soviet Union as a “degenerated workers’ state” coupled with a call to overthrow the dictator and recreate a multi-party socialist democracy, Adorno thought might benefit Benjamin. The Revolution Betrayed was a powerful rejoinder to the vile lunacy of the Show Trials in the USSR, where Stalin systematically eliminated the old Bolsheviks (he would soon turn his attention directly to Trotsky). Benjamin was hardly unfamiliar with Trotsky. He had read several of Trotsky’s works, including his autobiography, My Life, as well as Literature and Revolution and the astounding History of the Russian Revolution. When he traveled that June to Skovsbostrand, Denmark to spend time with Brecht, Benjamin continually came back to the question of Stalin and Stalinism.
Benjamin recorded how Brecht claimed that, in following the writings of Trotsky about the Stalin dictatorship, he realized that “grounds for suspicion exist; justified suspicion that called for a skeptical view of Russian affairs.” Nonetheless “suspicion was not yet a certainty” and “to derive a policy like Trotsky’s from it would be irresponsible.” Evidently, Benjamin did not dissent from Brecht’s unwillingness to support Trotsky’s revolutionary opposition to Stalin. In a letter to Max Horkheimer, he related convictions he shared with Brecht—that “at least for now, because—despite the gravest possible reservations—we still view the Soviet Union as the agent of our interests in a coming war, as well as the delaying of the war.”
The previous two years, however, had exacted a heavy price for this continued confidence. The outlandish charges against Marxist revolutionaries during the Show Trials, used as pretexts for so many executions, and Moscow’s unwillingness to stand against Hitler’s foreign policy, were “catastrophic for everything we’ve stood for over the past 20 years,” Benjamin told Horkheimer. From Brecht, Benjamin adopted and promoted a new maxim for such dark times: “do not build on the good old days, but on the bad new ones.” Things would deteriorate, though, beyond his worst nightmares during the next two years.
The Munich Agreement in late September 1938 between Hitler, Mussolini, Chamberlain, and Daladier over the fate of the Sudetenland really shook Benjamin.
“I do not know how long it will still physically be possible to breathe this European air,” Benjamin related to Adorno in early October. “It is already spiritually impossible to do so after the events of the past weeks.”
Soviet acquiescence to fascist expansion especially discouraged him. He believed, quite mistakenly, that it would be Mussolini who would make the next move—into Tunisia. Some modest comfort was afforded Benjamin when he learned that his son, Stefan, had already made it to England. Stefan’s mother, Dora, who had divorced Benjamin several years earlier, would soon follow.
The relief did not last very long. On November 10, Benjamin heard the news about Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), after a Jewish refugee from Poland had assassinated a German diplomat in Paris. During the pogroms across Germany, perpetrated by the SA and SS, some 100 Jews were killed and 30,000 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps. A month later, Benjamin told Adorno, the “situation of the Jews in Germany” was one “from which none of us can dissociate ourselves.” Adorno responded with shocking information—his parents had both been taken into custody by the Nazis during Kristallnacht in Frankfurt am Main, and his father’s offices had been destroyed. During the violence, Adorno’s father had suffered damage to his eye. With such horrors openly carried out, how long before war again engulfed the European continent?
Things continued to darken for Benjamin in 1939. In May, he became a stateless person. An article of his had appeared in a German-language journal based in Moscow three years earlier. Alerted to the piece and the identity of the author, the Gestapo moved to strip him of his citizenship.
That summer, Benjamin received another blow as he observed the Hitler and Stalin regimes warm to each other. In late August 1939, the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact fell like a hammer on him. Stalin and the USSR now appeared ready to not only abet but in fact benefit from the Third Reich’s imperialism.
The German invasion of Poland on September 1, thus, destroyed any residual hopes for an avoidance of war. In France, the “phony war,” as it became popularly known, did not seem so phony for Benjamin. On September 3, placards appeared in Paris, ordering Germans to show up with a blanket at the Stade de Colombes, the capital’s Olympic stadium. Benjamin duly reported on September 9. French authorities held him there for 10 days, feeding him and the other detainees liver pâté and having them construct their own latrines. From there he and a group of 300 émigrés were transferred to the Château de Vernuche, near the town of Nevers. They traveled part of the way by train and walked the rest. The forced march was onerous for Benjamin with his heart condition. Despite the fact that this was a château, it was not exactly hospitable. Moving into a completely empty and cold building, they slept on the floor until straw was found. According to Eiland and Jennings, Benjamin “established himself in a sort of lean-to beneath a circular stairway, a burlap drape allowed him something like privacy.”
Benjamin showed his mettle during the two months at Vernuche. He did not yield to despair. The commandant did distribute armbands that permitted detainees to go to Nevers. The consummate intellectual, Benjamin offered lectures and philosophical seminars. His payment consisted of Vernuche’s currency—mainly cigarettes and buttons. Under his direction plans were laid for a journal under Benjamin’s editorial direction. Titled Bulletin de Vernuche: Journal des Travailleurs du 54e Regiment (Vernuche Bulletin: Journal of the Workers of the 54th Regiment), its first issue was to have included a studies of camp life from a sociological perspective, reviews of art produced at Vernuche, and pieces about what detainees read. One of the people Benjamin met in the camp was a German, Hans Fittko, who played an important part in the last days of his life.
While he made the best of his time at Vernuche, Benjamin was quite fortunate to have outside support. Adrienne Monnier, an author and bookseller, exerted pressure on PEN, the international organization of writers, to intervene with the French government to free him. Monnier’s friend, the diplomat Henri Hoppenot, did the same. On November 16, 1939, Benjamin was released and immediately headed back to Paris.
After his release, Benjamin commenced work on an extraordinary text, “On the Concept of History.” Therein, he criticized how the socialist workers’ movement in Germany (and by implication elsewhere) had too easily accepted notions of progress. Such notions had weakened the Left’s ability to confront the rise of fascism, which seemed historically impossible. To redeem emancipator hopes from the past for a present faced with the fascist menace, “only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past,” Benjamin declared, “who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.” These are among the most chilling and prophetic sentences in Benjamin’s entire corpus.
The enemy’s victories continued, rolling right toward Benjamin’s doorstep. When German forces invaded France and the Low Countries on May 10, 1940, Benjamin, still in Paris, was not surprised. Unlike Arno Mayer and his family, he did not have to make a dramatic escape. He entrusted the “On the Concept of History” manuscript to Arendt. She would personally deliver it to Adorno after she finally made it to New York City herself in May 1941. Other papers he turned over to Bataille. Bataille sequestered them, with the assistance of two librarians, at Benjamin’s beloved Bibliothèque Nationale. These documents were so thoroughly hidden that some of them were not discovered until 1981.
During the German invasion, the intervention of Hoppenot again saved Benjamin from internment. He remained in the capital until June 14, just days before German soldiers paraded through the city. With his sister, Dora, who had been released from an internment camp, he went to Lourdes. Both of them had developed heart problems. At Adorno’s urging, Benjamin studied English but admitted his progress in the language was “not exactly barnstorming.” In the meantime, the Gestapo had discovered and ransacked his apartment in Paris. The June 22 cease-fire between the Hitler regime and the French government rescinded any provisions for asylum for Germans. As part of the new, collaborationist Vichy regime, militias pulled German and Austrian anti-fascists from internment camps and turned them over to the Nazis.
On August 21, Benjamin almost certainly saw news of the assassination of Trotsky in Mexico by an agent of Stalin’s secret police. The reports came about two days before the first anniversary of the signing of the pact between Hitler and Stalin.
Horkheimer tried to secure an immigration visa for Benjamin to San Domingo (today the Dominican Republic), but that fell through. Then he attempted to establish a position with the Institute for Social Research for Benjamin at Havana University, in Cuba. This, too, failed. Benjamin’s spirits plummeted. In early August 1940, he sent a letter to Adorno with observations about people whose means of support had totally collapsed since the fall of France. As far as his own case went,
“the complete uncertainty about what the next day, even the next hour, may bring has dominated my life for weeks now."
"I am condemned to read every newspaper (they now come out on a single sheet here) as if it were a summons served on me in particular, to hear the voice of fateful tidings in every radio broadcast.”
Full of gratitude for the Institute’s efforts on his behalf, he confessed that his “great fear is that we have much less time at our disposal than we imagined.” He clutched at the straw of making it to Switzerland, though he put little hope in the idea.
Shortly thereafter, some good news finally arrived. The Institute had managed to get a non-quota visa for Benjamin. This allowed for his entry into the United States. The consulate in Marseilles had been notified. Once he traveled from Lourdes to Marseilles, the consulate gave him the transit visas for Spain and Portugal, in addition to the entry visa. What Benjamin lacked was an exit visa for France. He understood all too well that the newly constituted Vichy security forces were enthusiastically cooperating with the Nazis in locating German and Austrian anti-fascists.
We know little about the month Benjamin endured in Marseilles, a city quite familiar to him. At some point in September, plans for an escape across the Pyrenees took shape. Before leaving Marseilles, he confided to Arthur Koestler, also trying to get out of France, that he held enough morphine “to kill a horse.”
A mother and son, Henny and Joseph Gurland, two Germans he had met in the port city, boarded a train with Benjamin and went to the countryside close to the Franco-Spanish border. In Port Vendres, a small fishing port, they met Lisa Fittko, a young anti-Nazi from Berlin. Benjamin had encountered her husband Hans at Vernunche. The Fittkos certainly deserve the appellation of “Rescuers.” Hans was later honored as one of the Righteous Among Nations by Yad Vashem. The German government awarded Lisa the Distinguished Medal of Merit in 1986.
Lisa wanted the group to set out for the Spanish town of Portbou, but steered the group away from a direct route manned by German troops. According to Eiland and Jennings, the group, like other refugees who had the journey before them, was “now forced westward higher into the mountains, along the ‘Route Lister’ from Banyuls. Lion Feuchtwanger, Heinrich and Golo Mann, Franz Werfel, and Alma Mahler-Werfel had all escaped by means of this rugged trail.” The mayor of the nearby town of Banyuls-sur-Mer had informed Lisa about this trail. It could be done, but Benjamin’s heart condition weighed on Fittko. She remembered him saying, unequivocally, to her concerns that “the real risk would be not to go.”
There is dispute about the chronology of the journey. Lisa Fittko recalled leaving Banyuls on September 25, 1940. In addition to her memoir, there is a beautifully written account in Jay Parini’s novel, Benjamin’s Crossing. Evidently, Benjamin walked for 10 minutes, then paused for a minute. It was clear to everyone how difficult the journey was for him. He clung to a black leather attaché case, containing a vital manuscript. Which manuscript this was has perplexed researchers. Wary of holding up the group, Benjamin exhibited unfailing courtesy and, on a few occasions, humor. At one point, though, the exertion just overwhelmed him. Joseph Gurland and Lisa Fittko had to carry Benjamin through a vineyard on their route. Exhausted and ready for the journey to end, he spent an evening by himself in the open, as the others secured lodging.
When they reached the small Spanish town of Portbou, for reasons still unknown, Spanish officials had closed the border. Benjamin, the Gurlands, and the Fittkos were told they would be returned to France the following day.
This shock left Benjamin despondent. His companions managed to locate a doctor. After examining him, the physician bled Benjamin and administered injections.
Benjamin felt trapped. Quickly, he wrote a last letter to Henny Gurland, which is almost unbearable to read.
“In a situation with no escape, I have no other choice but to finish it all. It is in a tiny village in the Pyrenees, where no one knows me, that my life must come to its end.”
Then during the night he took the morphine.
The next morning Gurland received an urgent summons from Benjamin. When she made it to his room, he was already losing consciousness. There was nothing that could be done for him. Records kept by the municipal government of Portbou and Church records differ on when he was buried in the Catholic section of the cemetery.
The shock in the small Spanish community was immediate. The border was reopened. Hannah Arendt noted the terrible tragedy of Benjamin’s timing: “One day earlier Benjamin would have got through without any trouble; one day later the people in Marseilles would have known that for the time being it was impossible to pass through Spain. Only on that particular day was the catastrophe possible.”
Walter Benjamin was one of the early victims of the catastrophe unleashed on the European continent by the Nazi dictatorship. His brother, Georg, perished in Mauthausen two years later. As the war continued, the Hitler regime set a precedent for criminality that shattered comparisons with other dictatorships. As the Nazis moved to not only physically annihilate European Jews, but to expunge them and their culture from history, Benjamin’s warning about a time when “even the dead won’t be safe” captured a reality far more destructive than the most extreme imaginings of bygone eras.