Walter Benjamin’s life and work is difficult to categorize. A Renaissance man of letters, he wrote on topics ranging from art history and aesthetics to linguistics, politics, and psychedelic drugs. An ardent Marxist and critical theorist, Benjamin also fused his understanding of Jewish mysticism with historical materialism, prompting critic Terry Eagleton to call him the “Marxist Rabbi.” His close friends included superstars of the Frankfurt School like Theodore Adorno and Max Horkheimer, as well as political theorist Hannah Arendt and the great scholar of Jewish mysticism Gershom Scholem.
Benjamin’s chief contributions to twentieth century intellectual history are likely his work on the aesthetic significance of image reproduction (like photography) and the character of modern urban spaces, such as the Parisian arcades, though he is also known as a consummate translator of Proust and Baudelaire.
Benjamin’s life has also provided a theoretical model for a distinctly ambivalent stance on Jewish identity. Pushed out of Nazi Germany in the 1930s, Benjamin became a Jewish expatriate in Paris until he was forced to flee once again. In a tragic series of events, Benjamin narrowly missed escaping to neutral Spain. He died near the Spanish border and became the intellectual martyr of World War II.
Walter Benjamin was born in Berlin in 1892 to a liberal, educated Jewish family. His father was a businessman who sometimes sold art at auction, and encouraged Benjamin’s intellectual pursuits by helping him collect a vast philosophy library. As a boy, Benjamin watched his stately residential neighborhood undergo rapid changes because of industrialization. Always a keen observer of city life, he often referred to his early childhood memories of Berlin in later writings and theories about the urban proletariat and social injustice.
Benjamin’s political activity germinated in Gustav Wyneken’s private school, which sought to create a youth movement devoted to the ideals of Kant, Hegel, Goethe, and Nietzsche. In 1912, Benjamin began his undergraduate education, which would take him to the universities of Freiberg, Munich, and Berlin where he studied under the neo-Kantian philosopher Heinrich Rickert, art historian Heinrich Wölfflin, and sociologist Georg Simmel.
Did you like this article? MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.