Walter Benjamin, the Jewish Question and Theses on the Philosophy of History

Walter Benjamin                      

Reading Hannah Arendt’s Introduction to Benjamin’s Illuminations

German-Jewish intellectuals, the alienated hommes de lettres of early twentieth century German-speaking Central Europe, constituted a class within that complex and multi-layered Jewish society against which a few of them rebelled, a rebellion which however could not prevent the dark disaster awaiting them in the German madness of the 1930s and 40s. Walter Benjamin was one of those rebels.

Hannah Arendt’s 51-page introduction to Benjamin’s world is a powerfully interpretive book in itself, which by no means is separate from the book that she introduces and also edits: she is  part and parcel of Illuminations, as is its author, Walter Benjamin, part and parcel of the introduction. As in any story of an intellectual figure like Benjamin, there are numerous variants and interpretations of his message.

I am not a Benjamin specialist. So in these few pages I am reporting what I have found stimulating and central to this man, who did not become widely known until some twenty years after his death in 1940. Today he is a cult figure.

The subject(s) Arendt deals with are humbling to the reader striving to grasp the moment of a century ago, a moment that she warns “was washed away, as it were, by the catastrophe of European Jewry and is justly (largely) forgotten.” Yet, the reader recognizes the immediacy of many of the issues raised in her work about Benjamin and their applicability to today, if only to confirm your own aversion to Zionism and/or the Jewish State of Israel. Considerations that most German-Jewish intellectuals of the early 1900s faced, though indecisively, as Arendt goes on to show.

Walter Benjamin was a German-Jewish intellectual. He was one of a handful of hommes de lettres as Arendt defines him: people who lived in the world of books but were not obliged to write them for a living, thus alienated from both state and society of those times. He lived in Berlin and Paris, and killed himself in the mountains between France and Spain trying to escape the Nazis and get to America.

You might also think of Benjamin in relation to chance. He had an up and down relationship with both good and bad chance. Mostly the latter. And it killed him. Killed him because he was also a self-defined bungler. He lived in Germany but apparently seldom felt at home there; his most beloved place was Paris whose streets gave birth to the figure of Benjamin’s flaneur, the stroller-idler-bohemian which became “a key figure in his writings”.

Although Benjamin called himself a literary critic, he was concerned with the truth content of a literary work and left its subject matter for the commentators. But, true to his nature, he was much more than a literary critic. He wrote studious works but was not a scholar. He was a Marxist but never joined the Communist Party. For some twenty years he considered emigration to Palestine but never did. He was not a translator but did magnificent translations into German of Baudelaire and Proust. He was not a poet but he wrote poetically. BUT, being a bungler made him a pushover for the god Chance whose fickleness in his regard made him an even greater bungler. Calamities happened to him time and again. Bad luck often visited him, as Arendt recalls, personified in German fairytales as a little hunchback. Like when a publisher finally accepted one of his major books, the publishing house promptly folded. The little hunchback had intervened. Again, Benjamin escaped Nazi Germany and settled in his beloved Paris. Then when the Nazis were about to bomb Paris he fled to Meaux, East of Paris—toward the Germans he was escaping from. For his safety, he thought. Then the Germans didn’t bomb Paris after all but bombed Meaux, a troop center. Pfusch! Bungled again. The little hunchback had visited him. His whole life went like that. Then he bungled right up to the end and he paid the god Bad Chance with his life. Benjamin had obtained an emergency U.S. visa from a consulate in unoccupied France, had a Spanish transit visa for Portugal and had secured ship passage to the USA.  But he didn’t have a French exit visa which the Vichy government refused him as a German Jew. This was not a great problem since you could easily walk over a mountain path from France to Port Bou in Spain and then travel on to Lisbon. But on that one day—not the day before or the day after—Spain rejected his transit visa. In desperation because of a heart condition, again bungling and with the god Bad Chance and the little hunchback against him, he decided to end it all then and there. He didn’t take the rest of the walk. His death prompted his friend, the poet Bertold Brecht, also in exile, in Denmark, to remark that this was the first real loss Hitler had caused to German literature.

At the beginning of her introduction, Hannah Arendt notes that posthumous fame seems to be the lot of unclassifiable writers, which Benjamin clearly was. Everything he wrote, she says, was sui generis, in the same way that Kafka was unique. Neither fit into the existing order, nor did they introduce a new genre for future writers. For example, Hugo von Hofmannsthal wrote that Benjamin’s long essay on Goethe was literally “absolutely incomparable.” It would be just as misleading to classify Benjamin as a literary critic (as he called himself) and essayist as to label Kafka simply a short-story writer and novelist. Benjamin’s unclassifiable status must have contributed in a major way to his isolation and aloneness, within which he saw beauty and paradox, for him always phenomena.

The Jewish Problem in the German-Speaking World

The Jewish problem was twofold according to Moritz Goldstein—Benjamin’s life-long friend—in an article “German-Jewish Mt. Parnassus” published in 1912 in the prestigious journal, Der Kunstwart: on the one hand, the non-Jewish environment which hated and rejected Jews and, on the other, assimilated Jews who wanted to remain Jews but did not want to admit their Jewishness either. Goldstein believed the problem insoluble. Yet, his aim was to force them to admit their Jewishness or be baptized, even though he and other Jewish intellectuals realized that would solve nothing. For German hate was genuine. So “our relationship to Germany is one of unrequited love”, he wrote, which we should “tear out of our hearts, but cannot.”

Benjamin and Kafka fought against the attitude of official middle class Jewry with whom intellectuals like themselves hardly had contact: their lying denial of the very existence of widespread anti-Semitism. Benjamin called such writing “a major part of the vulgar anti-Semitic as well as Zionist ideology.” Arendt quotes Kafka on the same subject of the insolubility of the Jewish problem for German-Jewish writers like himself: “ …they lived among three impossibilities: the impossibility of not writing; the impossibility of writing in German (he considered their German language as stolen and someone else’s possession); and the impossibility of writing differently” since no other language was available. “And,” he added as a fourth, “the impossibility of writing, for this (their) despair could not be mitigated through writing.”

Arendt wrote in 1968 that it is hard to take these problems seriously today since it is easy to misinterpret them as mere reaction to the anti-Semitic environment of that era. But not for intellectuals of the stature of Benjamin and Kafka. They were not criticizing anti-Semitism as such, but that Jewish middle class for their denial of the existence of anti-Semitism, as well as their (the middle class Jews) isolation deriving from their loss of reality which was backed up by the wealth of those same classes. And then their blaming of the Ostjuden (Jews from Eastern Europe) for any anti-Semitism. Benjamin and Kafka fought against the rich Jewish middle class because “it would not permit them to live the world as it happened to be, without illusions”. Important was that very few German-Jewish writers saw the problem as did Benjamin and Kafka because most of them belonged to that same middle class. Kafka labeled such German-Jewish middle class writers “the hell of German-Jewish letters.”

Hannah Arendt writes: “For the Jews of that generation the available forms of rebellion were Zionism and Communism, and it is noteworthy that their fathers often condemned the Zionist rebellion more bitterly than the Communist. Both were escape routes from illusion into reality, from mendacity and self-deception to an honest existence. But this is only how it appears in retrospect,” she notes. “At the time Benjamin tried a half-hearted Zionism and then a no less half-hearted Communism, the two ideologies faced each other with the greatest hostility: the Communists were defaming Zionists as Jewish Fascists and the Zionists were calling the young Jewish Communists ‘red assimilationists’.”  Gruesome pogroms during the Russian Civil War resulted in waves of Jewish emigration to Israel and accelerated the acquisition of Palestinian lands by legal Jewish emigrants, the subject of  a Spanish novel by Julia Navarro, Dispara, yo ya estoy Muerto, in English, Shoot Me, I’m Already Dead. In the novelist’s presentation many of the early Jewish settlers who bought their lands near Jerusalem legally were Socialists/Communists and their small farms and orchards were organized as communist collectives. Today’s Israel has changed. For example, there are roughly only 270 kibbutzim left, with about two percent of the population.

For those German-Jewish rebels it was as if the solution to their problem was to be found in either Moscow or Jerusalem; however, Benjamin—like Kafka—knew all the time that his productive life was in Europe. At the same time, neither of them wanted to return to the ranks of the Jewish people or to Judaism, not because they were too “assimilated (in the German language area) and too alienated from their Jewish heritage, but because all traditions and cultures as well as all belonging had become equally questionable to them. And this was also why they couldn’t return to the Jewish fold as proposed by the Zionists.” (Arendt) Still, that rare person that was Benjamin translated his personal conflicts into a more radical problem and questioned the Western tradition in toto. Therefore Marxism and the Communist revolutionary movement attracted him because it opposed the totality of political and spiritual traditions.

But the bulk of those European Jews of East and West followed the Zionist pied-pipers to Palestine, founded a state of their own on stolen property and became a quasi-European, right-wing state on land “stolen and someone else’s possession” (as Kafka had referred to the German Jews and the German language) and named it Israel, the Jewish People, the Hebrew Nation. One is left to wonder if they had really resolved the insoluble Jewish problem of last century before the tragedy: in any case, they retain their Jewish identity within their own nation-state, Israel, artificial as it may be.

In a sense then Benjamin decided not to decide. However, his point of departure always seemed to be the utter destructive basis of Fascism. His search in Zionism (finally discarded before he entered its labyrinth) and in Communism which he never adopted, perhaps because of the growing bureaucracy he saw in Communist Russia when he went to Moscow in 1926 and which might have reminded him of the official Jewry he was escaping from. His search for alternatives shines through in his memorable Theses on the Philosophy of History.

“Theses on the Philosophy of History”

Walter Benjamin completed this remarkable eleven-page writing in the spring of 1940, the last year of his life. It was first published in Neue Rundschau in Berlin, a quarterly magazine founded in 1890 and which has existed well over one hundred years, publishing the best of European writing, essays and fiction, by authors such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Thomas Mann and Franz Kafka. Hannah Arendt writes that shortly before his death Benjamin gave her a copy of the manuscript which contains, however, many variants written in his difficult to decipher handwriting. Her version of his eighteen Roman numbered paragraphs is included in the book Illuminations.

Benjamin thinking is complex thinking. His work is not material for a tea party reading. He loves allusions and even resorts to the supernatural. His hobby after that of book collector—he collected books not to be read but to be possessed—he became a collector of quotes, and aspired to construct a book made up of only quotes. And he himself left many of his own quotes for posterity … and for writers after him.

In his Theses, Benjamin devotes major attention to the defects of social democracy, to historical materialism and the “state of emergency”, which in his view is not the exception but the rule. For purposes of simplification I have extracted chiefly his views on the disaster of Social Democracy. Therefore, as he affirms in paragraph VIII, the necessity of attaining “a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the struggle against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm.

In general I have selected quotes that literally jump off Benjamin’s pages, quotes which I simply list under their respective number, without an attempt at comment. To some they will perhaps read like a listing of quotes. However, subjectively I do think his real subject in his Theses was the failure of Germany’s Social Democracy which paved the way for German Fascism. For me the Theses were far from impromptu or conceived in that last year; they seem to sum up matters he was writing about already in Berlin in his twenties. They sum up his life. The Benjamin legacy.


The class struggle, which is always present to a historian influenced by Marx, is a fight for the crude and material things without which no refined and spiritual things could exist…. They have retroactive force and will constantly call in question every victory, past and present, of the rulers.


Historical materialism wishes to retain that image of the past which unexpectedly appears to man singled out by history at a moment of danger …. That of becoming a tool of the ruling classes.


And all rulers are heirs of those who conquered before them. Hence, empathy with the victor invariably benefits the rulers. Historical materialists know what that means. Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate.


At the moment when the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes are prostrate and confirm their defeat (Social Democrats) by betraying their own cause, these observations are intended to disentangle the political worldlings from the snares in which the traitors have entrapped them.


The conformism which has been part and parcel of Social Democracy from the beginning attaches not only to its political tactics but to its economic views as well. It is one reason for its later breakdown. Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current….it was but a step to the illusion that the factory work which was supposed to tend toward technological progress constituted a political achievement….it (work, he means) already displays the technocratic features later encountered in Fascism…..


Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed class itself is the depository of historical knowledge….This conviction … has always been objectionable to Social Democrats….


Social Democratic theory, and even more its practice, have been formed by a conception of progress which did not adhere to reality but made dogmatic claims…. first of all, the progress of mankind itself…. Secondly, it was something boundless, in keeping with the infinite perfectibility of mankind. Thirdly, progress was regarded as irresistible, something that automatically pursued a straight or spiral course….


History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time, but time filled by the presence of the now. (Jetztzeit) (Or ‘now time’) Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history…. A tiger’s leap into the past. This jump, however, takes place in an arena where the ruling class gives the commands….


The awareness that they are about to make the continuum of history explode is characteristic of the revolutionary classes at the moment of their action. The great revolution introduced a new calendar. The initial day of a calendar … is the same day that keeps recurring in the guise of holidays, which are days of remembrance. Thus the calendars do not measure time as clocks do; they are monuments of a historical consciousness. …


A historical materialist cannot do without the notion of a present which is not a transition, but in which time stands still…. Historicism gives the “eternal” image of the past; historical materialism supplies a unique experience with the past … man enough to blast open the continuum of history.


Historicism rightly culminates in universal history. Materialistic historiography differs from it as to method…. Universal history has no theoretical armature. Its method is additive; it musters a mass of data to fill the homogeneous, empty time. Materialistic historiography, on the other hand, is based on a constructive principle.

I have substituted here Benjamin’s XVIII with his number IX as a conclusion:

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.

Gaither Stewart is a veteran journalist, his dispatches on politics, literature, and culture, have been published (and translated) on many leading online and print venues.




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