Walter Benjamin was born to a prosperous Jewish family in Berlin on July 15, 1892. He received a private education at home until the age of ten, after which he finished high school and studied philosophy at Humboldt University of Berlin. As World War One broke out, Benjamin was beginning to translate the poetry of Charles Baudelaire. In 1915, at the age of 23, Benjamin moved to Munich where he met Gershom Scholem, with whom he forged a close friendship that would last for many years. In Munich, Benjamin also met the poet Rainer Maria Rilke and authored a paper on the poet Hölderlin. Having managed to avoid being drafted into the German army by feigning lower back pain, Benjamin moved to Bern in Switzerland in 1917. There, in 1919, he received his doctorate on "The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism," summa cum laude. However, failing to find his niche in the academic world, Benjamin struggled to make a living. By this time he was married to Dora Pollack and father to a son named Stefan Raphael.
Benjamin wrote an essay entitled: "A Critique of Violence", published a translation of Baudelaire and continued to write and research, but the family’s financial situation deteriorated as a result of the crisis in the Weimar Republic. In 1923 Benjamin’s good friend Gerschom Scholem decided to immigrate to Palestine (Eretz Yisrael). Scholem invited Benjamin to join him, later even trying to entice him with the prospect of a lectureship at the Hebrew University but to no avail. Benjamin had never been drawn to the practical nationalism of Zionism, seeing Judaism as a spiritual-cultural force in Europe.
Benjamin continued writing in German and gradually won himself recognition in the intellectual community. A study he wrote on a novel by Goethe, a book on the origin of German tragedy and his ongoing research activities were supposed to pave the way to tenure at a German University, but this was not to be. In the 1920s Benjamin translated part of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, wrote for the newspapers and lived for a while in Paris. There in the bustling modern French capital, he began his great work on Parisian life in the 19th century.
Momentous political changes were occurring in Germany and all over Europe. With Hitler’s rise to power, Benjamin wandered to Ibiza in Spain and then Nice, France. After the burning of the Reichstag in 1933 he settled in Paris and mixed with a group of exiled German intellectuals: Hannah Arendt, Kurt Weill, Herman Hesse and others. Benjamin, who struggled to earn a living as an exile in Paris, immersed himself in his work. He wrote about Baudelaire, spending long days in the libraries and wandering the streets of Paris by night. He continued working on his 19th century Paris piece and wrote “On the Concept of History”. In 1938, German Jews were stripped of their citizenship, and Benjamin became a stateless exile. He was arrested and incarcerated for three months. When the Nazis conquered France in the summer of 1940, he fled south. His hope was to reach the United States, for which he had managed to secure a visa. Having reached the Pyrenees, he crossed the border into Spain with a group of refugees and the assistance of a guide. When he reached Port Bou in Catalonia, it turned out that the Franco regime was not willing to accept any more refugees. Faced with the prospect of being deported to France and arrested by the Nazis, an ailing, exhausted, lost and desperate Benjamin took an overdose of morphine pills. He died on 25 September 1940, at the age of 48.
Benjamin’s philosophy drew upon several sources: aesthetics, Marxist theory, the philosophy of Theodore Adorno and the Frankfurt School with which he was associated, and the influence of Jewish mysticism as encountered through the works of Gershom Scholem. Today, Walter Benjamin is perceived as a seminal critic of twentieth century Western intellectual trends, someone who viewed the proletariat as the central force on the historical and cultural stage, understood the significance of the city in modernist perceptions and the new human experience, and dealt intensively with the importance of translation as a cultural act. Walter Benjamin paid much heed to photography seeing it as a new medium in that it had the power to redefine the distance between people, and between people and objects. Questions of proximity and distance, integration and alienation, transfer of concepts and perceptions between people and cultures, and impact of the subjective historical perspective on literary creativity and on the world in general, and no less so the tension between eternity and apocalypse, refined society versus primal forces of violence and destruction – all these make Walter Benjamin an exceedingly relevant thinker at the beginning of the 21st century.
The archives of the National Library contain several items belonging to Walter Benjamin. These are made available to the public here. One significant item is a parchment bound notebook, hand sewn with red thread, the pages of which are filled with Benjamin’s minute handwriting. The notebook contains letter drafts, journal entries, and notes for writing articles.