BENJAMIN, WALTER (1892–1940), German philosopher and literary critic. Born in Berlin, Benjamin attended Haubinda, a country educational establishment, where he met the radical school reformer Gustav Wyneken. From 1910 to 1914 Benjamin took an active part in the youth movement influenced by Wyneken and was for some time the students' president at Berlin University. He published his first articles under the pseudonym Ardor in Der Anfang edited by Wyneken. In 1915 Benjamin broke off with Wyneken and his movement because of their acceptance of World War I. Benjamin studied philosophy in Freiburg, Berlin, Munich, and Berne. He returned to Germany in 1920 and lived there till 1933. His thesis written to obtain the qualification to teach aesthetics and history of literature at the university in Frankfurt was not accepted. Today, however, this work on the origin of the German drama (Berlin, 1928) is regarded as one of the most important philosophical interpretations of this field. In 1929 Benjamin joined Bertold Brecht (Versuche ueber Brecht, 1966), with whose ideas he identified himself to a large extent. Benjamin felt his Jewishness intensely and had for several years toyed with the idea of going to Palestine. When the Nazis came to power he first went to the Balearic Isles and then to Paris. At the outbreak of World War II he was interned as a German citizen, but was released in November 1939. He fled to the south of France and, with a group of refugees, crossed the Spanish border. When the police chief of the border town Port-Bou threatened to send them back to France, Benjamin took his own life. Between 1914 and 1924, he did not publish much. Then he wrote a long essay, Goethe's Wahlverwandtschaften (publ. by H. v. Hofmannsthal in Neue deutsche Beitraege, 1924–25; in book form 1964), and continued his intensive activity as essayist and literary critic, especially in the Frankfurter Zeitung, Literarische Welt, and Die Gesellschaft. During his lifetime, Benjamin published only two books: a volume of philosophical aphorisms Einbahnstrasse (Berlin, 1928), and, during the Nazi era, under the pseudonym Detlev Holz, Deutsche Menschen, eine Folge von Briefen (Lucerne, 1936), an annotated collection of 25 letters from 1783–1883), in which he discussed the flowering and the first decadence of German bourgeois culture. The first collection of his writings appeared posthumously in 1955 (Schriften, 2 vols., Frankfurt), edited by Theodore Adorno who had always stressed Benjamin's importance as a philosopher. Illuminationen (1961; Illuminations, 1969), Angelus Novus (1966), Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit (1963), Staedtebilder (1963), and Zur Kritik der Gewalt (1965) contain more of his essays, some taken from his literary legacy. G. Scholem and Th. Adorno published a selection of his correspondence (2 vols., 1966). Benjamin is considered as the most important critic in the German language between the two wars, and his importance is growing. His thought, formed by Kant and the religious-philosophical current, had been metaphysically oriented in the beginning. Later, especially from 1930 on, Benjamin showed an inclination toward Marxism, whose ideas he, however, interpreted in a highly personal way. Benjamin considered himself as a philosophical commentator of important literary events, stressing especially historical, philosophical, linguistic, and social motives. Intellectually, he was extremely independent, a fact felt in everything he wrote, even in the short book reviews. His concentrated prose makes him difficult to read. He had a strong poetic streak, expressed clearly in his Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert (first published in Frankfurt, 1950). Benjamin was also important as a translator, especially of French literature, which attracted him deeply. He translated from Baudelaire (Tableaux Parisiens, 1923), several volumes of Proust (1927–30), and several novels by M. Jouhandeau. (Gershom Scholem) It was gershom scholem who quoted the following remark by his friend Walter Benjamin: "Whenever I will find my own philosophy, it will be somehow a philosophy of Judaism" ("Wenn ich einmal meine Philosophie haben werde, so wird es irgendwie eine Philosophie des Judentums sein"). Scholem wished to point to Benjamin's hidden commentary on Judaism when he dealt with the philosophical question of language and translation (since Benjamin's early Essay Über die Sprache überhaupt und über die Sprache des Menschen, 1916), the question of a philosophy of history (e.g., in Benjamin's theses which promote a messianic philosophy of history), and also when he discussed German-Jewish writers like Karl Kraus and Franz Kafka (cf. Benjamin/Scholem, Benjamin über Kafka, 1980). In his philosophical as well as in his critical works Benjamin remains ambivalent, however: On the one hand he avoids the construction of Jewish or even less Zionist perspectives, on the other hand he engages in a subtextual and also critical dialogue with Judaism and Zionism, his philosophical starting point being the Neo-Kantianism of hermann cohen , his early letters to Ludwig Strauß and, from summer 1916, his friendship with Scholem. Both Scholem and Benjamin agreed in taking a critical attitude towards assimilation as well as towards Buber's type of cultural Zionism and his legitimization of war during the World War I period. But whereas Scholem found a clear Zionist alternative, Benjamin placed himself intellectually between universal Judaism and Marxism. And whereas – after the failure of Benjamin to qualify as a teacher in 1925 at the University of Frankfurt with his thesis Der Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels – Scholem tried to convince him to come to Jerusalem between 1926 and 1930, Benjamin became inspired by the syndicalist French thinker Georges Sorel, the communist Asja Lacis, whom he met in Capri 1924 and in Moscow 1926, and approached the Frankfurter Institut für Sozialforschung and later on Bert Brecht, whom he joined in his Danish exile in 1934. Already in the last years of the Weimar Republic, Benjamin moved to Paris, "the capital of the 19th century," where he also spent the most time after March 1933. Here (in the Paris National library) he worked on an encyclopaedic historiographical project on the modernity of Paris in the 19th century,   the socalled Passagen-Werk, which was not published until 1982 (in two volumes) and since then has come to be considered one of Benjamin's most important scientific works. Here he was combining the Marxist analysis of the "Warenwelt," the psychoanalytic method of "Traumdeutung," and the surrealist techniques of writing and quoting. On this basis he found a new method of performing history and by this means "saving" its neglected aspects much better than telling its linear story as the 19th century "Historismus" did. In the Passagen-Werk as well as in his thesis Ueber den Begriff der Geschichte (1940) he developed a philosophy of history which is apocalyptic and messianic at the same time: The historiographer is entitled to save the forgotten and the dead. Benjamin has seen here also a Jewish conception of history, which understands time not as "empty" and "homogeneous" but every "now," every "second" as "the little gate through which the Messiah may enter." (Andreas Kilcher (2nd ed.) -BIBLIOGRAPHY: G. Scholem, Walter Benjamin (= Leo Baeck Memorial Lecture, no. 8, 1965); R. Tiedemann, Studien zur Philosophie Walter Benjamins (= Frankfurter Beitraege zur Soziologie, vol. 16, 1965), includes bibliography; W. Kraft, in: Merkur, 21 (Ger., 1967), 226–32; H. Heissenbuettel, ibid., 232–44; R. Alter, in: Commentary (Sept. 1969), 86–93; H. Holz, in: Sinn und Form, 8 (1956), 514–49; P. Missac, in: Critique (Aug.–Sept. 1966), 692–710 (Fr.). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: H. Arendt, Benjamin, Brecht, Zwei Essays (1971); G. Scholem, Walter Benjamindie Geschichte einer Freundschaft (1975); idem, Walter Benjamin und sein Engel (1983); W. Menninghaus, Walter Benjamins Theorie der Sprachmagie (1980); St. Mosès, Der Engel der Geschichte (1994); S. Weigel, Entstellte Ähnlichkeit. Walter Benjamins theoretische Schreibweise (1997); A. Deuber-Mankowsky, Der fruehe Walter Benjamin und Hermann Cohen (2000); H. Peukert, Wissenschaftstheorie, Handlungstheorie, Theologie (1980); H. Ruttnies and G. Smith, Benjaminiana (1991); S.B. Plate, Walter Benjamin (2005).

Encyclopedia Judaica. 1971.

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  • Benjamin, Walter — born July 15, 1892, Berlin, Ger. died Sept. 26, 1940, near Port Bou, Spain German literary critic. Born into a prosperous Jewish family, Benjamin studied philosophy and worked as a literary critic and translator in Berlin from 1920 until 1933,… …   Universalium

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