Walter Benjamin's Berlin, 120 Years On

'I made myself a home in the jaws of a crocodile,' wrote Walter Benjamin, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, not long before he took his own life.


Not a fish but a goldfish that is more or less what I netted on my visit to the Walter Benjamin Archive in Berlin. The manuscripts of the Jewish-German philosopher and culture critic housed in the archive, which belongs to the Berlin Academy of the Arts, are not available for viewing: Like their author, they too suffer from surpassing sensitivity. However, they have been scanned digitally, and when the archivist Michael Schwartz asked me which word I wanted to search for I immediately replied “Hebraeisch.” Amazingly, from the database’s recesses of oblivion a single document in Hebrew was dredged up, containing two pages in Benjamin’s handwriting. They are probably remnants of his attempt to learn Hebrew at the end of the 1920s, after his good friend from adolescence, the kabbala scholar Gershom Scholem, persuaded him to follow him to Palestine and teach at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Scholem obtained a generous scholarship for Benjamin to learn the language before immigrating. However, Benjamin kept putting off his Hebrew studies, and when he finally did get around to them, in 1929, he abandoned them in less than two months. To Scholem’s great disappointment, Benjamin finally informed him that he was unable to leave Berlin.

The first page of the document contains 11 individual words, from hadag (the fish) to hakos (the drinking glass), alongside which Benjamin jotted down the German equivalent. On the second page he loosens up somewhat. Those who believe that Benjamin is one of the greatest Marxist thinkers of the last century may take an interest in his efforts to parse the word for “poor”; those who view him as a surrealist philosopher may admire the associative word combinations he toyed with; and those who consider him one of the founders of the study of visual culture will certainly not fail to see that Benjamin did not actually write the Hebrew words: He illustrated them in a manner simultaneously elegant and hesitant, meticulously ornamenting the printed letters.

In his memoir “Berlin Childhood around 1900,” Benjamin wrote: “There are words or pauses pointing us to that invisible stranger the future” (translation by Howard Eiland, published by Harvard University Press; all subsequent quotations from this edition). Accordingly, these forgotten Hebrew words, which had no future in the philosopher’s life, might forge the route for a journey in search of the remnants of his past in the city of his birth.

After all, as Benjamin explained in that memoir, written at the beginning of the 1930s, “Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.” What follows, then, is an attempt to get lost in the streets of present-day Berlin; spend time in a few of the places in which Benjamin grew up, wrote about and finally fled from; and while wandering, ponder the connection between his life and some of his ideas.


“I came into the world under the sign of Saturn that star of the slowest revolution, that planet of detours and delays,” Benjamin wrote (translation from “Melancholy Dialectics,” by Max Pensky). He was born on July 15, 1892, as Walter Bendix Schoenflies Benjamin, the eldest of the three children of Emil Benjamin, a merchant, and his wife, Pauline. As the offspring of a haut bourgeois family, he enjoyed private schooling until the age of 10 with a few other children from rich families. He then attended the Kaiser Friedrich School in Berlin, followed by a stint at a boarding school and a return to Berlin to complete his high school studies.

From 1912, when he was 20, he studied philosophy at universities in Freiburg and Berlin and was active in the Free Students Association. In these years he forged several highly meaningful relationships, with Jula Cohn, who was later his lover; with Dora Pollak, later his wife; and with Scholem, a friendship that spanned years and deeply influenced the mystic thrust in Benjamin’s thinking.

In 1917, the year of his marriage to Pollak, Benjamin obtained an exemption from army service in World War I, when he feigned painful attacks in the lower back during his medical. He and his wife moved to Bern, Switzerland, where he pursued his studies and where their only child, Stefan, was born in 1918.

A year later he obtained a doctorate on the basis of his dissertation, “The Concept of Criticism in German Romanticism.” However, he found it difficult to fit into German academic life and continued his scholarly pursuits on his own, with financial support from his family.

The renewal of his ties with Jula Cohn, in 1921, caused a crisis in his marriage. Three years later, on a visit to the island of Capri, Benjamin met a new lover, Asja Lacis, a communist revolutionary from Latvia, who stirred not only his passion, but also his interest in Marxism. In 1926 he visited her in Moscow, but as with Cohn, the relationship did not last, even after Benjamin and his wife were divorced in 1930. In the years of the Weimar Republic, Benjamin gained fame when an essay he wrote on Goethe appeared in the journal of the poet Hugo von Hoffmannsthal.

Benjamin published literary criticism in newspapers and journals, translated works from French, and wrote radio programs and skits. At the end of the 1920s he became friends with the playwright Bertolt Brecht, who also influenced Benjamin’s Marxist orientation. Marxism would occupy a more central place in his thoughts after his flight from Germany upon the Nazis’ assumption of power in 1933 with or without any connection to the fact that he found himself in increasingly dire material straits.


The angel has to be “Angelus Novus” (The New Angel), a small watercolor by Paul Klee from 1920. The painting caught Benjamin’s eye when he saw it, probably in an exhibition by the Swiss artist that was held in Berlin early in 1921. He lost no time acquiring the work, and the figure of the angel in it accompanied him for the rest of his life, as a kind of lucky charm. It also lent him inspiration in some of his writings, notably the famous composition “On the Concept of History,” which he wrote not long before his suicide, in 1940.

The manner in which Benjamin drew a connection in the work between Klee’s angel and the “angel of history” who observes the catastrophe of human history without being able to offer salvation, was widely commented on. As the Israeli scholar Ariella Azoulay noted, “Of all the concrete, fictional and archetypal images Benjamin wrote about, it is precisely the fictional image of the angel of history that became the one most associated with him.”

But long before numerous interpretations sought to shelter in the shadow of its wings, the angel played several roles in Benjamin’s life. He named a new journal of which he was appointed the editor in 1921 “Angelus Novus,” in part because of the attempt to draw a connection between the artistic avant-garde of the period and the Talmudic legend about angels who are being constantly created and find an abode in the fragments of the present. However, the journal folded after one issue. Benjamin also mentions Klee’s painting in a 1931 essay he dedicated to the Austrian writer and satirist Karl Kraus, according to which the painting makes it possible “to understand a humanity that proves itself by destruction” (source: Benjamin’s “Reflections,” edited by Peter Demetz).

Benjamin safeguarded the painting of the angel, which was hung in every apartment he lived in over the years; and quite possibly the angel guarded him, too. However, when he fled Berlin after the rise of the Nazis and went into exile on the island of Ibiza, the painting was left behind. In his short essay “Agesilaus Santander” (August 1933), he wrote, “The angel, however, resembles all from which I had to part: persons and above all things” (source: Gershom Scholem, “On Jews and Judaism in Crisis,” translation by Werner Dannhauser). In his essay, “Walter Benjamin and his Angel,” Scholem noted the personal significance the philosopher attributed in that period to the angel, in which he saw a parallel to his tangled relations with Jula Cohn and Asja Lacis.

About two years after Benjamin left Germany, a friend was able to get the painting to him. He hung it in his apartment again, this time in Paris. At the beginning of 1939, he tried to sell the work it was his only remaining property to pay for a trip to the United States. The sale did not work out. A year later, he parted with the angel for good. Before fleeing from Paris, in June 1940, he cut the painting from its frame and put it into one of the two suitcases in which he packed his papers. He gave the suitcases to the writer and philosopher Georges Bataille, who hid them in the National Library in the French capital.

After the war, the painting came into the possession of the philosopher Theodor Adorno, who in turn sent it to Gershom Scholem as a “special personal legacy,” as Benjamin instructed in his last will. After Scholem’s death, his widow donated the painting to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It is one of the most important works in the institution’s collection.


Scholem, Benjamin writes, probably came away with “an image of me as something like a man who has made his home in a crocodile’s jaws, which he keeps prized open with iron braces” (source: “The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin 1910-1940,” edited by Gershom Scholem and Theodor Adorno, translated by Manfred Jacobson and Evelyn Jacobson). The occasion was a “philosophical debate” between the two when they met for what would turn out to be the last time in Paris, in 1938. Benjamin seems to have been referring to his attempt to create a philosophical bridge between Marxism and Jewish theology and mysticism, a fusion his old friend considered constrained and artificial, and to which he objected strenuously.

However, as Prof. David Stern, from the Near Eastern languages and civilizations department at the University of Pennsylvania pointed out, the crocodile in which Benjamin supposedly made his home can be interpreted not only as an image of his Marxist approach, on whose materialist basis he built his tenuous abode. It can also symbolize the situation of German Jewry at the time, and in particular the melancholy fate of “the German-Jewish symbiosis,” Stern noted, writing in the Hebrew-language journal Teoriya Uvikoret in 1995. Even though Benjamin was not a typical representative of this ancient symbiosis, he could not evade it entirely, if only because he was a Jewish-German intellectual who intertwined the two cultures in his writings.

In light of this, it is surprising, not to say frightening, to discover that Benjamin’s crocodile has by chance become involved in one of the contemporary manifestations of the German-Jewish symbiosis, now in the form of the so-called “special relations between Israel and Germany.” In the context of those relations, Israel recently took delivery of a Dolphin-class submarine called the Tanin (Crocodile), the fourth of six submarines Germany undertook to build for the Israel Navy, and partially financed.

According to foreign reports, the submarine can carry nuclear warheads and is intended to provide Israel with second-strike capability if it is attacked and destroyed. The question of whether the Tanin will contribute to Israel’s security and to the continued existence of the Israeli-German symbiosis, or perhaps the opposite, remains as wide open as the jaws of Benjamin’s beast.


Klee’s “Angelus Novus” wears a skirt, but Benjamin was unable to see this, argues the artist Michal Heiman in an article she published in Haaretz Books supplement (in Hebrew, September 2006). Heiman was reviewing Ariella Azoulay’s book “Once Upon a Time: Photography following Walter Benjamin” (Bar-Ilan University Press, Hebrew), which devotes a chapter to a fresh observation of Klee’s painting. In contrast to Benjamin’s description, in which the angel is said to be looking straight ahead, eyes wide open, Azoulay maintains that the angel is cross-eyed, and its eyes look sideways. She then proceeds to discuss the meaning of Benjamin’s failure to see this.

In the review article, Heiman maintains that, like Benjamin, Azoulay also missed something in her observation of the angel. “They are looking mainly at its head, examining the wings, but do not lower their gaze to the bottom part of the body. If they had done so, they would undoubtedly have noticed the outlines of a skirt that Klee added to his ‘new female angel’ and wonder how to address the figure [...] There is a new male angel and female angel. One next to the other. One does not shunt the other aside.” Even though Heiman identified a “pointed sexual organ” in the angel’s body, she chose to emphasize the figure’s possible feminine identity and added to her article an illustrated note, which dwells on the hidden skirt in Klee’s work.

The new attire Heiman created for Klee’s and Benjamin’s angel joins a range of other interpretations of the painting, some of them based on biographical, philosophical and theological elements. For example, the scholar Stephane Moses proposed that we view the angel as an allegorical representation of a “messianic utopia” that expresses resistance to progress and symbolizes eternal catastrophe. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben identified the angel with modern man, who has lost contact with his past and is unable to locate himself in history.

However, other critics claim that despite the apocalyptic thrust that pervades Benjamin’s description of the “angel of history,” there is also an optimistic vision latent in it. The philosopher Jurgen Habermas maintains that the angel represents the possibility of redemption or transformation, because his gaze toward the past is a retrospective one that struggles with the accumulated wreckage. The Israeli scholar Galili Shahar argues that in the spirit of the kabbalistic idea of breakage and repair (shever vetikkun), Benjamin’s concept of history enfolds “a weak messianic force, a minor force which is committed to righting wrongs.” In his book “The Remnants of Revelation” (Bialik Institute, 2011, Hebrew), he adds, “What was defeated and forgotten and repressed and removed from the pages of history still awaits revelation, and hence transformation. Redemption entails the transformation of the past.”


In “Berlin Childhood around 1900,” the youth who became an adult plunged into the recesses of memory and extracted from them a wealth of personal and collective experiences from his adolescence in the capital of the Second Reich. On the one hand, Benjamin returned to the butterfly, flower and postcard collections he compiled assiduously, and to his walks through the Tiergarten. On the other hand, he recalled the nationalistic parades to the Victory Column in the center of the city to commemorate Germany’s defeat of France in 1871. The militaristic monument should be uprooted, he wrote.

The Victory Column, which is topped by the gilded, winged goddess of victory, has not yet been uprooted. However, the market hall in Magdeburg Square, whose delicacies and sights enchanted Benjamin in his boyhood, and where he got his first lessons in the dynamics of capitalism, is gone, destroyed in the Allied bombing of Berlin in World War II. Lushly verdant grass now occupies the site.

Benjamin’s childhood recollections also encompass the influence of the new inventions of the period. Thus, the ringing of the telephone between 2 and 4 P.M., when Benjamin’s friends called him, was “an alarm signal that menaced not only my parents’ midday nap but the historical era that underwrote and enveloped that siesta,” he writes in “Berlin Childhood.” There was also the awakening of sexual desire, which occurred on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, with Benjamin missing the holiday ritual and intertwining religious and sexual licentiousness. The memoir recounts, too, the emergence of class consciousness in the boy from the rich family, when he first became acquainted with the plight of the poor and the prostitutes (and tried to converse with the latter on the street solely from an impulse to disavow his class status).

The awareness of social injustice is apparent in one of the first pieces he wrote in his childhood, he recalls in “Berlin Childhood”: “It had to do with a man who distributes leaflets, and with the humiliations he suffers on encountering a public that has no interest in his literature. So the poor man [...] secretly jettisons the whole pack of leaflets.” From a Marxist viewpoint, it is difficult to miss the fact that the destitute hero of the piece frees himself from the false capitalist consciousness and performs an act of sabotage against the consumer culture and its mechanisms of replication. From a different perspective, the piece also appears to hint at the dialectical interplay of destruction and origin, which crops up in several of Benjamin’s essays and suggests how ruin and destruction can lead precisely to creativity and transformation.


Reading a book can generate “profane illumination” (sometimes translated as “secular enlightenment”), according to Benjamin in his 1929 essay “Surrealism.” He writes, “The most passionate investigation of telepathic phenomena, for example, will not teach us half as much about reading (which is an eminently telepathic process) as the profane illumination of reading will teach us about telepathic phenomena. And the most passionate investigation of the hashish trance will not teach us half as much about thinking (which is eminently narcotic) as the profane illumination of thinking will teach us about the hashish trance. The reader, the thinker, the loiterer, the flaneur, are types of illuminati just as much as the opium eater, the dreamer, the ecstatic. And more profane. Not to mention that most terrible drug ourselves which we take in solitude” (source: “Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 2, Part 1, 1927-1930,” edited by Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary Smith).


The well of inspiration does not overflow these days when one wanders through the places in western Berlin mentioned by Benjamin in his memoirs. This is due not only to the vicissitudes undergone by Berlin in the 20th century, which changed beyond recognition the face of the city known by the sickly, dreamy boy; nor to the absence of Benjamin himself from those places. Surpassing these reasons, perhaps, is the absence of the romantic melancholy that tinged Benjamin’s writing in his attempt to evoke the lost world of his childhood.

One of those longed-for venues is the home of his grandmother, his mother’s mother, at 12 Blumeshof Street, which radiated an “immemorial feeling of bourgeois security,” as Benjamin writes in “Berlin Childhood.” His grandmother did not die at home, nor did his other grandmother, his father’s mother, who lived in the building opposite. Accordingly, “The street became an Elysium for me, a realm inhabited by shades of immortal yet departed grandmothers.” In Benjamin’s early childhood the family lived on Kurfurstenstrasse, in the western part of Berlin, then moved to Nettelbeckstrasse and afterward to Carmerstrasse. Finally, thanks to the business success of Benjamin’s father, the family bought a villa on Delbruckstrasse in the prestigious Grunewald neighborhood, and it was to that dwelling that Benjamin returned with his wife and son when he was no longer able to provide for them by himself.

Most of his residences in Berlin have not survived, though one of them, at 66 Prinzregentenstrasse, in the Wilmersdorf district Benjamin’s last address in the city, where he lived after his divorce is still standing. A plaque at the site declares that Benjamin lived there from October 1930 until his emigration. He liked the studio apartment he found there, even though it lacked a desk. To this he came up with creative solutions outside the apartment (he usually wrote in cafes) and also within it (he wrote lying down on the sofa left him by the previous tenant).


Walter Benjamin took his last footstep in Berlin on March 17, 1933, a month and a half after Hitler’s appointment as German chancellor. Benjamin left hastily after Gretel Karplus (who would later marry Adorno) urged him to follow the example of several of his friends and colleagues leading intellectuals and creative artists who feared persecution at the hands of the new regime. After a brief stopover in Paris, Benjamin went on to Ibiza, an island that had previously been a tranquil haven for him.

The physical threat to him as a Jewish intellectual identified with left-wing circles was not the only cause of his hasty departure. More pertinent was the fact that the rise of the Nazis to power blocked every possibility for him to work and earn a living. Manuscripts he sent for publication were returned, and potential employers ignored his applications, as he reported in a letter to Scholem dated March 20, 1933. In the letter he described the growing persecution of opponents of the Nazi regime: “Every attitude or manner of expression that does not conform to the official one is terrorized a reign of terror that has reached virtually unsurpassable heights.” He also described briefly the “unbearable” atmosphere in Germany, “in which you first look at people’s lapels [for the insignia of the Nazi Party] and after that usually do not want to look them in the face anymore” (source: “The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin and Gershom Scholem, 1932-1940,” edited by Gershom Scholem, translated by Gary Smith and Andre Lefevere).


A neglected corner near the Liechtenstein bridge, on the way to the Berlin zoo, was engraved in memory of the boy Benjamin. “At that point, the avenue which welcomed the visitor resembled, with the white globes of its lampposts, an abandoned promenade at Eilsen or Bad Pyrmont,” he writes in “Berlin Childhood,” and continues, “It was a prophetic corner. For just as there are plants that are said to confer the power to see into the future, so there are places which possess such a virtue. For the most part, they are deserted places treetops that lean against walls, blind alleys or front gardens where no one ever stops. In such places, it seems that all that lies in store for us has become the past.”


The cup of coffee I was drinking in Walter Benjamin Square suddenly slipped from my hand and smashed into smithereens on the tiles of the square, which was inaugurated in 2000 in the Charlottenburg district, near the philosopher’s childhood haunts. No one but me noticed the small heap of fragments: The cafe was deserted and likewise the drowsy square in which it is located, at the entrance to one of two elongated office buildings that demarcate it. The fountain adjacent to the cafe was not working on the spring afternoon when I visited the square. On the abutting street, named after the German philosopher Leibniz, a few people walked by like monads (a term made famous by Leibniz), but at least there were people there.

I did not cry over the spilled coffee. With gaping mouth and bleary eyes I gazed at the heap of broken glass, which was stained with the dull color of the coffee grinds, but without any desire or ability to piece them together. Still, from the fragments of the cup a corrective thought emerged: to quote the shards of little words that I had come up with those 11 Hebrew words Benjamin had rendered in his elegant and hesitant handwriting as the platform for a discussion, itself truncated, about the fragments of the past that await redemption, according to the philosopher’s doctrine, and on the connection between them and the angel that hovered in some of his writings and became after his death a kind of doppelganger identified with his image.

The angel is also mentioned, as we noted, in the essay on Karl Kraus, in which Benjamin presents the writer and satirist as someone whose whole experience is based on keywords and who understood that “the more closely you look at a word the more distantly it looks back.” In the way that world history is closing in on him, Kraus resembles the saint who is depicted in Baroque paintings as being pressed onto the frame and holding his protective hands against the masses of angels hovering before him, Benjamin maintained. He also hinted at a resemblance between Kraus and the messenger who appears in old engravings to announce disasters, and between Krauss and Klee’s “Angelus Novus.” In reference to Kraus’ struggle in terms of its demonic self-reflection, Benjamin added, “where origin and destruction come together, his [the demon’s] reign is over. Like a creature sprung from the child and the cannibal, his conqueror stands before him not a new man; a monster, a new angel. Perhaps one of those who, according to the Talmud, are at each moment created anew in countless throngs, and who, once they have raised their voices before God, cease and pass into nothingness. Lamenting, chastising, or rejoicing? No matter on this evanescent voice the ephemeral work of Kraus is modeled” (source: “Reflections,” edited by Peter Demetz).

And if indeed Benjamin’s tendency to insinuate himself into the objects of his writing is also manifested in this essay, which he wrote about 10 years before his death, then we can summon the images attributed to Kraus as testimonies to the author’s own self-perception. As Susan Sontag wrote in her article “The Last Intellectual” (originally published in the New York Review of Books in 1978), “In his essay on Kraus, Benjamin asks rhetorically: Does Kraus stand ‘at the threshold of a new age? Alas, by no means. He stands at the Last Judgment.’ Benjamin is thinking of himself. At the Last Judgment, the Last Intellectual that Saturnine hero of modern culture, with his ruins, his defiant visions, his reveries, his unquenchable gloom, his downcast eyes will explain that he took many ‘positions’ and defended the life of the mind to the end, as righteously and inhumanly as he could.”

Suhrkamp Verlag