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Walter Benjamin: Biographical Note & Chronology
Walter Benjamin, born on July 15, 1892, studied philosophy in Freiburg,
Munich, Berlin and Bern. Earning a degree with his Concept of Criticism
in German Romanticism, he was not successful in his attempt
to become a university professor. His Habilitationsschrift ,
On the Origins of the German Trauerspiel, was rejected by Frankfurt
University only to become a canonized classic of 20th Century literary
Benjamin made his living as a free-lance author and translator in Berlin,
where he also took part in progressive German psychopharmacological research.
A prolific critic, he was forced into exile by the Nazis in 1933. Emigrating
to France, he became a member of the Institute of Social Research (which
included Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, Herbert Marcuse, Otto Kirchheimer,
Friedrich Pollack, Leo Löwenthal, Franz Neumann, Karl Wittvogel and
others). Benjamin made an attempt to join the Institute when it emigrated
from Paris to New York. In flight from the Gestapo he took his own life
in the Spanish border-town of Port Bou on September 27,1940. Some of his
most important publications include: Goethe's Elective Affinities,
The Origin of German Trauerspiel, One-way Street, The
Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Berlin Childhood
in 1900 and the monumental Paris Arcades Project.
- 1892 Walter Benjamin is born on 15. July
- 1902-1905 Attends the Kaiser Friedrich-Wilhelm
Gymnasium in Berlin.
- 1905-1907 In Haubinda, a country boarding
school in Thüringen, Benjamin becomes deeply influenced by Gustav
- 1907 Benjamin returns to the Kaiser Friedrich-Wilhelm
- 1912 School-leaving examination [Abitur]
in Berlin and commencement of the study of philosophy at the Albert Ludwig
University in Freiburg im Breisgau. Friendship with the poet C.F. Heinle.
- 1912/13 Continuation of studies in Berlin.
- 1913 At Whitsuntide, Benjamin undertakes
his first journey to Paris. He returns to Freiburg to study during the
summer semester, and then continues his studies in Berlin during the winter.
- 1914 Elected President of the Berlin "Free
Student Group". He becomes acquainted with Dora Sophie Pollak.
- 1914/15 Composition of the essay "Two
Poems by Friedrich Hölderlin" (first published in
1955). On 8. August 1914, Benjamin's friend, Heinle, commits suicide with
his fiancée in the 'Sprechsaal' of the house which Benjamin and
Ernst Joël rent on behalf of the Free Students' Union. Heinle's suicide
devastates Benjamin, and the memory of the young poet stays with WB for
the rest of his life.
- 1915 Makes the acquaintance of Gerhard
(Gershom) Scholem. The friendship and correspondence between Benjamin and
Scholem is to become decisive for both men.
- 1915/17 Studies in Munich. Benjamin makes
the acquaintance of Felix Noeggerath, the 'genius' (in WB's correspondence),
whose ideas about 'experience' will lead Benjamin toward the posthumously
published essay "On the Program of the Coming Philosophy."
Through Noeggerath, Benjamin becomes further acquainted with the Stefan
George circle and the work of the Americanist, Walter Lehmann, in whose
classes on Ancient Mexican culture WB first meets Rainer Maria Rilke.
- 1917 Benjamin marries Dora Sophie Pollak
and emigrates to Bern, Switzerland.
- 1918 Birth of son, Stefan. Acquaintance
with Ernst Bloch.
- 1919 Under the sponsorship of Richard Herbertz
in Bern, Benjamin takes his doctor's degree with the work The Concept
of Criticism in German Romanticism.
- 1920 Returns to Berlin.
- 1921 Friendship with Florens Christian
- 1921/22 Benjamin writes the treatise on
Goethe's Elective Affinities.
- 1923 First encounter with Theodor W. Adorno.
Benjamin's closest friend, Scholem, emigrates to Palestine. Benjamin publishes
his translation of Baudelaire's Tableaux Parisiens and begins working
on Origins of the German Trauerspiel [mourning play].
- 1924 Between May and October, Benjamin
is on the island of Capri working on the Trauerspiel book. He makes
the acquaintance of Asja Lacis and becomes involved with Marxism.
- 1924/25 The work on Goethe's Elective
Affinities is published by Hugo von Hofmannsthal in Neue Deutsche
Beiträge [New German Contributions].
- 1925 Benjamin's attempt to qualify as lecturer
at the University of Frankfurt with hisTrauerspiel book as Habilitationsschrift
is unsuccessful. Benjamin and the writer-translator, Franz Hessel, begin
to translate Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, only one volume
of which is published in 1930.
- 1926/27 In December and January, Benjamin
visits Moscow. The posthumously published Moscow Diary kept by WB
during this visit is now considered not only one of the most revealing
personal documents he ever wrote, but also an invaluable eyewitness account
of life in Moscow during this period.
- 1927 Begins the Passagen-Werk [The
Paris Arcades project]. At the end of May, WB makes his debut as a raconteur
of "Hörspiele" [Radio Models or Plays] on the Südwestdeutscher
Rundfunk [Southwest German Radio]. In December, Benjamin begins a series
of investigations in experimental psychopathology as a test subject of
Drs. Ernst Joël and Fritz Fränkel of the Berlin Gesundheitshaus.
Extant protocols from these experiments, which continue up to May of 1934,
record investigations into the use of hashish, opium and mescaline as psychotomimetic
agents. Some of these protocols will make their way verbatim into Benjamin's
- 1928 Origins of the German Trauerspiel
and One-Way Street are published by Ernst Rowohlt.
- 1929 The important essay
"Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia"
is published in four installments in Die Literarische Welt.
- 1930 Walter and Dora Benjamin are divorced
- 1932 First stay on Ibiza from April to
- 1933 In March, Benjamin goes into exile
in Paris. From April to September he recuperates on Ibiza. Begins working
on Berlin Chronicle, the first version of the later A Berlin
Childhood Around 1900.
- 1934 From July to October he visits Brecht's
place of exile, Skovsbostrand in Denmark.
- 1934/35 Stays in San Remo from October
to February. Benjamin becomes a member of the Institute for Social Research.
The essay"The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"
appears in a French translation in the Zeitschrift für
- 1936 Visits Brecht in Denmark for a second
time. Under the pseudonym Detlef Holz, Benjamin publishes the collection
of letters, Deutsche Menschen (German People), with the Swiss publisher
- 1938 Last stay with Brecht in Denmark.
- 1938/39 Around New Year's Benjamin meets
Adorno for the last time in San Remo
- 1939 From September to November Benjamin
is interned in the Camp des travailleurs volontaires in Nièvre.
"Some Motifs in Baudelaire" is published by the Zeitschrift
- 1940 Works on the "Theses on the
Philosophy of History" Through the intercession of Max Horkheimer,
Benjamin receives an affadavit and visa for the USA. He leaves Paris in
June and makes his way to Lourdes. An attempt to flee across the Pyrenees
fails. In the border town of Port Bou, Benjamin takes his life with a lethal
dose of morphine on 27. September.
- 1942 Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno
edit the omnibus volume Walter Benjamin zum Gedächtnis [To
the Memory of Walter Benjamin] in which the Theses on the Philosophy
of History first appears.
- 1955 Theodor W. Adorno and Gretel Adorno
edit the two-volume selection of Benjamin's Schriften for the publisher
- 1972 Publication of the six-volume critical
edition of Benjamin's Gesammelte Schriften [Collected Writings]
is begun by Suhrkamp. The final book, Vol. 7: 2, was completed in 1989.
- 1990s Harvard University buys the copyright
from Suhrkamp Verlag for all future English translations of Walter Benjamin's
* * *
Some Biographical Fragments
by Lloyd Spencer (Leeds, U.K.)
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