Walter Benjamin: The Refugee and Migrant
Was Walter Benjamin a refugee or a migrant? Would he be considered as one or the other today? Is this what it means to actualise, to make contemporary, to bring Walter Benjamin into the Now? Perhaps. At least it sheds a certain historical light on the political - or the other way round, a political light on the historical. Walter Benjamin was a migrant. He began to dislodge himself from Germany in 1927, seeking other homes – Moscow, Ibiza, Denmark, Italy. He went back to work in Germany, jobbing, working on the radio, for newspapers and reviews.
But he sensed the changing times. With his precarious mode of employment as a freelance writer, he was always searching for the cheapest place to exist – eat, sleep – and read and write. He reports in his diary in 1932 that, having spent all his money, he seriously considered living in a cave on an island in the Mediterranean. He observed that he would endure any deprivation not to have to return to Berlin. Benjamin was blown by historical forces from the cushioned bourgeois home of his childhood to the comfortless cave of the dispossessed. But he took that decision to move – to find an algorithm of living costs and ability to earn, the place where one might earn a minimal income and the place where a minimal income was enough to survive on – in order to improve his life, economically, while doing what enticed him, and sometimes having to be a hack, serving up reviews or radio shows or bending his writing and ideas to suit that of various paymasters. He did this for as long as it was still possible. But after 1933, much was no longer possible anyway. The election of Hitler was and was not a break. Benjamin had seen it build and knew that it was another way of continuing the oppression and exploitation that constituted capitalism. Even the smallest review by Benjamin might open onto his understanding of this fact. Here, he presents the continuities between the late-nineteenth century of Bismarckian reaction and the present:
The barbarism of the present was already germinating in that period, whose concept of beauty showed the same devotion to the licked-clean which the carnivore displays toward his prey. With the advent of National Socialism, a bright light is cast on the second half of the nineteenth century. Those years marked the first attempts to turn the petty bourgeoisie into a party and harness it to precise political purposes. This was done by Stoecker, in the interest of the big landowners. Hitler’s mandate came from a different group. Nevertheless, his ideological nucleus remained that of Stoecker’s movement fifty years earlier. In the struggle against an internally colonized people, the Jews, the fawning petty bourgeois came to see himself as a member of a ruling caste and unleashed his imperial instincts. With National Socialism, a program came into force which imposed the ideals of the Gründerzeit - glowing warmly in the light of world conflagration - on the German domestic sphere, especially that of women
These lines come from Benjamin’s review of Dolf Sternberger’sPanorama, or Views of the Nineteenth Century. Here he observes how a late-nineteenth-century petty-bourgeoisie, under the influence of Adolf Stoecker, the progenitor of Jewish conspiracy theories that bemoan the influence of Jewish capital, ‘entered into an apprenticeship to the powers-that-be, one which has been revived and extended under National Socialism’ and how the ‘middle bourgeois strata’ relinquished political power, so that the ‘way was cleared for monopoly capitalism, and with it the national renewal’.
This national renewal was to occur without the Jews or the internationalists. A migrant leaves because the migrant can no longer live, or survive, or can only survive where they currently are. A migrant moves on. Benjamin tried to move on. He did move on. Again and again, seeking places to live. He spent much of his time waiting for pennies. This letter to Adorno in 1938 – who was responsible for brokering any chance of a successful financial relationship to the Institute for Social Research, expresses well the daily fear of rejection and hunger, and the pathetic ingratiation to which he was compelled:
I had been worrying for some time about the long-delayed arrival of your letter, as you can imagine, when I came across a passage in Regius just before hearing from you. Under the title ‘Waiting’ it reads as follows: ‘Most people wait for a letter every morning. That no letter arrives - or, if one does arrive, it contains only a rejection of some kind - generally holds true for those who are sad already’. When I came across this passage, I already felt sad enough to take it as a foretaste or presentiment of your own letter. If, ultimately, there was something encouraging for me in the letter (I say nothing about the unchanged perspective it expresses) then it is in the fact that your objections, however staunchly they may be shared by other friends, should not be interpreted as a rejection.
If there is melancholy and anxiety in Benjamin’s life, then it is to be located here, quite concretely, in the difficulties of getting published, and the attendant fear of poverty. Benjamin lists the reasons for his sadness in this letter – the situation of the Jews in Germany, his sister’s hopeless prognosis of disease, his fear that he may not become naturalised in France, for political reasons, which compelled him to adopt yet another writer’s pseudonym. He took steps to mitigate these disappointments and obstructions by moving on, seeking new homes, and new kindnesses for the migrant, who took up invitations when he could.
But 1933 – the declaration of the Third Reich - also represented something else. The migrant is made into a refugee. Out of the impossibility of staying - even if one wanted to - and remaining alive, Benjamin is made a refugee. On 28 February 1933, he writes to Gershom Scholem:
The little composure that people in my circles were able to muster in the face of the new regime was rapidly spent and one realises that the air is hardly fit to breathe any more – a condition of course which loses all significance as one is being strangled. This above all economically.
The economic agony that Benjamin had long known, given his inabilities to secure anything beyond precarious work, continued – though added to it was a fear of violence and delegitimation. The migrant turns refugee – though the experience is little different. More moves. More countries. More kindnesses, or their absence. More seeking. In seven years of exile in different parts of Europe he – the copious letter writer and receiver - has 28 changes of address.
Brecht, upon hearing of his suicide on the border of Spain and France, wrote a poem, quoted below, in which he named him as a refugee – or rather the German equivalent word, a ‘Flüchtling’, someone who takes flight, which emphasises instead the act of moving, not reaching a place of refuge. Benjamin was arrested 75 years ago, ‘in flight’, and remains perhaps forever in flight, a Flüchtling. As expressed by Brecht’s On the Suicide of the Refugee:
I'm told you raised your hand against yourself Anticipating the butcher
After eight years in exile, observing the rise of the enemy
Then at last, brought up against an impassable barrier
You passed, they say, a passable one.
Empires collapse. Gang leaders
Are strutting about like statesmen. The People
Can no longer be seen under all these armaments
So the future lies in darkness and the forces of right
Are weak. All this was plain to you
When you destroyed a torturable body.
Brecht emphasises this poem Benjamin’s capacities of observation – ‘observing the rise of the enemy’, ‘you saw all of that’ – rather than ‘All this was plain to you’. Observing the enemy, as it grows in strength, darkens the future, piles up its arms for war. It is those powers of observation that continue to make Benjamin fascinating. It is he whose every little utterance seems to work microcosmically, condensing energies, both negative and positive, his reconstruction of a thing, an event, a gesture annexes that observed thing or word or moment to the entirety of world history and possible futures. Benjamin fashions little worlds in which spatial and temporal forces are brought out amplified, magnified, isolated, made plain. Even perhaps exaggerated – for that means literally to ‘heap into a pile’, like the “one single catastrophe” that Benjamin famously placed before Klee’s Angelus Novus. Benjamin’s method in looking at things, at the things he blasts out of the continuum of time and space, condenses the forces operative in the Now, in the moment, but in relation to what has been, as well as what might have been.
The Arcades, for example, depict a microworld that Benjamin observed and explored, but also brought into being, reconstructed in a certain fashion in words. In these microworlds, like in our larger world, contradictions concentrate. Nationalism and internationalism was one important contradiction projected into the arcade as microcosm - the future of which was being fought over in Spain as Benjamin wrote hisArcades jottings in the 1930s. The arcade – a glass and iron covered walkway between streets, lined with upmarket shops and cafes, and inhabited variously by flâneurs, shoppers and the demi-monde - was a significant space in which modern life took form. It incubated modes of behaviour that would come to figure more prominently as one century passed into the next: distraction, shopping as leisure activity, seduction by the commodity spectacle, look-don’t-touch-display and flamboyant self-display. The arcades were an international architectural form, and they were crammed with colonial plunder. The empire provided the impulse for an expansion in commodity production, in terms of new sources of raw materials that could be worked over and sold off in the newly established markets and zones of influence.
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