[3] Walter Benjamin: A Turbulent Life


Childhood in Berlin

Berlin at the end of the nineteenth century. This is the heyday of imperialism. Emperor William II wants to establish Germany as a world power. The social climate is rigid, patriarchal, militaristic and conservative. Walter Benjamin is born on the 15th July, 1892, the eldest of three children. His parents are well-to-do, liberal Jews. In Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert (A Berlin Childhood around 1900) Walter Benjamin remembers his schooldays - singing with Mr Knoche:
We practised the cavalry song from “Wallenstein“: “Come comrades, to horse, to horse! / Into battle, to freedom we go! / On the battlefield man still has a purpose, / his heart will be weighed. “Mr Knoche asked the class what the last line meant. Naturally no one could tell him. Mr Knoche, however, seemed satisfied, and explained: “You’ll understand when you grow up”. (1➘)
From 1905 to 1907 Benjamin attends the Hermann-Lietz-Schule Haubinda, an alternative school in Thuringia. In 1912 he passes his school leaving certificate at the Emperor Frederick Grammar School in Berlin. After this he wants to study and become an academic. He counts on the long-term financial support of his parents. As the Hamburg- based author and Benjamin specialist, Birgit Haustedt comments (2➘):

Close Come what may, Benjamin is determined to become an independent scholar and takes completely for granted that is parents will support him in this endeavour.

Stages in the Career of an Intellectual

Benjamin studies Philosophy, German and the History of Art, first in Freiburg, and then from the winter term 1912/13 in Berlin. He becomes actively involved in the Free German Youth Movement (3➘). He seems dissatisfied with his academic progress in Freiburg. As he writes in May 1912:
Scholarship is a cow. It goes: moo. I sit in the lecture hall and listen! (…)I am actually ten times less likely to do any independent academic thinking here than in Berlin (4➘)
At the conservative University of Berlin Benjamin founds the Debating Room, a discussion forum for critically-minded students. It is here he also meets Dora Pollak, his future wife. In 1914 he is elected President of the Free Berlin Students.

Close Benjamin’s early involvement in the student movement can be attributed to general artistic and political developments. From 1910 on art begins to change, there are the first abstract works of art, expressionism. In literature there is a very strong tendency to rebel against one’s father. And so the student movement can be classified as a protest against their fathers’ generation and everything obsolete. At the same time liberal, upper-middle class Jews have little sympathy with the dominant conservative militaristic aspirations of Prussian Berlin. In any event Benjamin was politically active at a very early stage. There are many other intellectuals one can say that about.
In 1917 Benjamin moves to Bern (Switzerland). He writes his doctoral thesis The Concept of Art Criticism in the German Romantic Era and in 1919 is awarded his doctorate with the highest possible grade, summa cum laude. In 1925 Benjamin wants to have his book, The Origins of German Tragedy recognised as a post-doctoral lecture qualification at the University of Frankfurt. Benjamin pre-empts the conservative professoriate’s impending rejection by withdrawing his application. His dream of becoming a university lecturer cannot be fulfilled. As freelance writer on the other hand his earning potential is severely restricted. In addition to this his father has substantial share losses and is no longer able to give him sufficient financial support.

Close His father’s financial disaster in 1920 means that Benjamin is no longer financially secure. In spite of this he holds fast to his inner compulsion to do intellectual work and not something completely different. Benjamin applies for various jobs, for example with the Fischer Publishing House in Berlin, but unsuccessfully.
In September 1933 after the national-socialists seize power Benjamin flees to Paris. His access to publishing opportunities in exile is restricted and his financial situation precarious.

Turbulent Private Life

It is not only in his works that Walter Benjamin deals critically with fossilised cultural and social structures. In his private life as well his ideas/concepts belong more in the student movement of 1968 than to the end of the First World War. Walter Benjamin and his wife, Dora, who marry in 1917 and have a son, have an open marriage, which permits extra-marital affairs. Walter starts a relationship with Julia Cohn, a friend from his youth; Dora falls in love with Walter’s best friend, Ernst Schoen. Both discuss their relationships exhaustively with each other. In general Walter has no time for bourgeois marriage, while Doris holds a more traditional view.

Close Walter Benjamin has a different concept of love and marriage than his wife, Dora. Dora Benjamin is more conventional. Even when she goes to London for a time with her lover, Ernst Schoen, she can only envision a conventional form of marriage with him. Walter Benjamin, on the other hand, is to all intents and purposes against bourgeois marriage from the outset.
When, in 1920, Benjamin’s parents can no longer financially support Walter and Dora, they both move into his parent’s house. Dora has no intention of financially supporting Benjamin’s love affairs. In 1929 she files for divorce. A typically bourgeois, bitterly contested divorce with each accusing the other of adultery.
Three women play an important role in Walter Benjamin’s life: Besides his wife, Dora, the sculptress, Julia Cohn and Asja Lacis (5➘). Asja Lacis comes from Moscow, is theatre director, author and communist. It is from her that Benjamin gets his definitive political impetus.

Close Walter Benjamin and Asja Lacis get to know each other better on the island of Capri. Many intellectuals such as Ernst Bloch live on Capri because life is so cheap there. Benjamin is fascinated by Asja Lacis’ astonishing vitality. Then they share a mutual interest in theatre: Benjamin is working on his book “The Origin of German Tragedy”; Lacis produces proletarian children’s theatre in the Soviet Union. Asja Lacis introduces him to historical materialism and fills him with enthusiasm for pragmatic? communism.correct term? To call her revolutionary is justified, as her own life is the embodiment of this. In any case Benjamin is decisively influenced by her.
Benjamin dedicates each of his main works to the most important women in his life: to Dora his post-doctoral thesis, to Julia Cohn his essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities and to Asja Lacis his text One Way Street.

Close Benjamin likes to dedicate his books to people. Benjamin dedicates his post-doctoral thesis to Dora as follows: projected in 1916, completed in 1925, then as now dedicated to my wife. He writes this at a time when the marriage was already in crisis. He dedicates ‘One Way Street’ to Asja Lacis with the words: This street is called Asja Lacis Street after the engineer of the author’s emancipation from it. This sentence also demonstrates that Benjamin had internalised much of Lacis’ way of thinking. The term ‘engineer’ that he uses probably comes from the Soviet Union and denotes something handcrafted something technical. What is especially important to note is that he does not conceal Asja Lacis’ contribution to his thinking.

Experiments with Hashish

Unlimited benevolence. Disappearance of the effects of compulsive, neurotic anxiety disorders. The beautiful character emerges. All those present take on a comic iridescent appearance. At the same time one is permeated by their aura. (…). The same thought paths are followed as before but now they appear to be strewn with roses. (W. B.: Hauptzüge der ersten Haschisch-Impression / Main Characteristics of a First Hashish Experience.)
Walter Benjamin notes down these impressions after taking hashish on the 18th December 1927 in Berlin. It is the time of the so-called wild twenties, a daring departure in all areas of society. In the following years Benjamin also regularly experiments with hashish (crock) and other drugs such as mescaline with friends in France and Spain. He aims to experience and research his altered perceptions in a state of intoxication. The drug experiments are therefore documented by observers and the test person who takes the drugs. Benjamin’s friend, the philosopher and Marxist, Ernst Bloch also participated in the drug experimentation. Bloch, whose texts are referred to by some factions of the 1968 student movement, is also friends with its protagonist, Rudi Dutschke. Benjamin never produces the book on the drug experimentation that he originally planned. A collection of transcripts, sketches and short texts appear posthumously under the title, On Hashish, and are often widely read in the 1970s.

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  1. Walter Benjamin: Berliner Kindheit um Neunzehnhundert, Kapitel 2, Projekt Gutenberg, Suhrkamp Verlag, Walter Benjamin Gesammelte Schriften IV-1, 1991 [DE] , Walter Benjamin's Berlin. A pathway which focuses on Walter Benjamin's childhood memoirs [EN] ,
  2. Birgit Haustedt is the author of Die wilden Jahre in Berlin (engl. The Wild Years in Berlin), Berlin 2002, Berliner Taschenbuchverlag. The chapter Elective Affinities deals with Walter and Dora Benjamin, free love and modern careers.
  3. The Free German Youth Movement belonged to the bourgeois youth movement, which came into being around 1900. It combined the quest for a new, individualistic way of life, simplicity, and a love of nature, but also a critical view of contemporary civilisation and an anti-bourgeois mind-set.
  4. Walter Benjamin studied philosophy with Prof.Dr.Heinrich Rickert in Freiburg. Letter from Walter Benjamin to Herbert Belmore 14.5.1912. Edition Suhrkamp 930, 1978. p. 40
  5. Further information on Asja Lacis see
  6. Evangelische Akademie Bad Boll. On the 8th of February 1968 there was a historic meeting. For the first time ever the Tübingen philosopher, Ernst Bloch, met the Berlin student rebel, Rudi Dutschke. The discussion was chaired by the director of studies, Klaus Roblin.
  7. Interview with Birgit Haustedt on her vita [DE]: