Things never seemed to work out for Walter Benjamin. He failed to obtain the teaching post he wished for in Germany and, for the rest of his life, made only a precarious living through his writing.
As a Jew, he fled Germany to exile in Paris, and then had to leave Paris in 1940 as the German tanks approached. Having obtained a US visa he eventually made his way to the very south west corner of France and crossed the Pyrenees to the relative safety of Spain.
What happened next has always been unclear. On crossing the border and arriving in the Catalan town of Portbou he was told by the local police, under pressure from the French authorities, that the French-Spanish border was now closed and refugees were to be returned to France, which probably meant being turned over to the Gestapo for execution or deportation.
Rather than face that, Benjamin preferred to take his own life using the morphine tablets that he carried… just in case. It was 26 September 1940.
In an ironic and bitter twist, it turned out that the news was incorrect and the prohibition was withdrawn. The local authorities, shocked at his suicide, allowed the rest of his party to continue their journey. He could have carried on and lived.
Legend has it that he was carrying a manuscript — his life's most important work, as he remarked to his guide across the mountains. The fate of the manuscript is also clouded in mystery. It may have been the collection finally published as The Arcades Project (various essays about Paris, its history, topography, its corners and alleyways). We will probably never know for sure. He was buried in an unmarked grave.
Born in 1892, Benjamin was part Marxist, part Jewish mystic, a fascinating writer, but not always an "easy read". The strange mixture was probably best illustrated by two of his closest friends: the German dramatist and poet Bertolt Brecht and Gershom Scholem, brother of the German Communist Party leader Werner Scholem but a specialist in the study of the Kabbalah (Jewish mystical text) based in Tel Aviv.
In his brilliant study of Central and East European Jews, Redemption Thought, Michael Löwy heads the chapter on Benjamin with the apt words "Outside all currents, at the Crossing of the Ways".
Writing occupied Benjamin's life. In the mid-1960s essays such as Theses on the Philosophy of History and Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and books such as One Way Street and Other Writings and his study of Charles Baudelaire were translated into English and much discussed on the left — indeed, done to death by academia.
To anyone attempting to understand the essence of photography and the moving image, Art in the age… is an essential starting point.
For me, the main interest of Benjamin lies in his various essays, book reviews and articles now available in six volumes of Selected Writings published by Harvard University Press and easy to access in the UK; a dazzling collection of essays on such diverse topics as Surrealism, Goethe, a toy exhibition in a Berlin museum, a critique of violence, the metaphysics of youth to name just a few.
Benjamin was part of that Jewish cultural and intellectual milieu of Central and Eastern Europe (Franz Kafka, Martin Buber, Ernst Bloch, Erich Fromm, György Lukács and many more) who did so much to shape that part of the world culturally and politically, and whose influences actually goes well beyond the borders of any country. After the Holocaust, almost nothing of that remains, except the books they have left us. A barbaric waste of human potential, creativity, intelligence and genius.
For those coming to Benjamin for the first I would recommend One Way Street as a "starter": beautiful essays many of them recollecting his childhood days in Berlin. Despite his "outsider" persona, Benjamin shouldn't be forgotten. If you are ever in Portbou (it's at the very northern end of the Costa Brava) visit his memorial plaque and put some flowers there.
• More here, in Workers' Liberty 66: Esther Leslie on Walter Benjamin