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  • The Missing Briefcase

    By Henning Ritter

    Frankfurt Allegemeine Zeitung: 25. June 2001

    [Many Thanks to Johannes Schneider for emailing us this article]

    FRANKFURT. Every attempt to change or distort the established image of the critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) seems like sacrilege. That applies most of all to the final days of his flight over the Pyrenees to Port Bou where, fearing he would be sent back and turned over to the Gestapo, he killed himself on Sept. 26, 1940.

    But an article on "The Mysterious Death of Walter Benjamin," in the June 11 issue of the U.S. journal The Weekly Standard, tells of a very different drama. "The famed critical theorist is widely believed to have committed suicide while fleeing the Nazis," author Stephen Schwartz writes. "Was he actually murdered by Stalin's agents?" The article suggests that Schwartz is hardly an expert on Benjamin whom he has playing poker regularly in the early 1930s with Otto Katz, an agent of Joseph Stalin. Schwartz also makes little effort to support his speculations about Benjamin's renunciation of communism and his earlier relationship to the Communist Party.

    Instead, Schwartz paints a dramatic picture of the situation in 1940 in the part of France not occupied by the Nazis. There, thanks to the Hitler-Stalin pact, Moscow's agents were free to work unmolested, in cooperation with the Gestapo and on their own, as they tried to get even with Stalin's enemies and the many apostates from communist orthodoxy. Schwartz names many names, none of whom brings us any closer to Benjamin.

    Similarly, Schwartz's doubts about Benjamin's suicide are little more than vague conjecture. The circumstances were indeed strange and have not been explained to this day. The doctor who examined Benjamin established brain hemorrhage as the cause of death. The suicide theory is based entirely on the testimony of Henny Gurland, who accompanied Benjamin. She said he had told her that he had taken a large dose of morphine, and that he entrusted her with a letter to Theodor Adorno, which he asked her to memorize and then destroy. The letter, as reconstructed from Gurland's memory, did reach Adorno and is treated as Benjamin's suicide note.

    Schwartz's investigations would not be worth reporting if it were not for the still-unsolved riddle of the black attaché case that Benjamin carried with him during his escape over the Pyrenees. The briefcase was first mentioned in a letter dated March 16, 1980, in which the Jewish studies professor Chimen Abramsky wrote to Gershom Scholem of a woman who could reveal unknown details about Benjamin's flight. That turned out to be Lisa Fittko, the woman who found the escape route and guided the small group through the mountains. Scholem conducted an extended telephone interview with her, and she wrote a report that was published in the journal Merkur in 1982.

    Fittko later published her now-famous memoirs, "Escape Through the Pyrenees," in which Benjamin's briefcase comes close to playing the starring role. Benjamin was already carrying it during the trial run of the escape, Fittko reports. During the flight he had spent a night with it alone in a clearing, before the group found him again on the next day. Fittko says it was impossible to separate Benjamin from his case, though carrying it was a strain. When Fittko offered to carry it for him as they set out, she says Benjamin protested that "My new manuscript is in there" and explained, "You know, this briefcase is the most important thing to me ... I dare not lose it. The manuscript must be saved, no matter what happens. It is more important than my person."

    Fittko, who only found out about the tragic end of Benjamin's expedition after the fact, conjectured to Scholem that Gurland took the briefcase with the manuscript after Benjamin's suicide. But Gurland communicated only his suicide note. Her letter to Adorno of October 1940 says nothing about a briefcase or manuscript. Most enigmatically, Gurland does not report that Benjamin in any way mentioned the manuscript in his final discussion with her. We can only wonder whether he found a way to get it to safety, or whether he thought the situation so hopeless that he made no further attempt to save it. Gurland did say that the local police, the mayor and a judge "went through all of his papers and found a letter to the Dominicans in Spain." This would have been the logical point in her account for her to recall the briefcase and its contents, but again she did not mention it.

    We would therefore have little cause to believe that the briefcase even existed, if not for the police report of Oct. 30, 1940, which Max Horkheimer demanded immediately after hearing of Benjamin's death. The report describes "Mr. Walter's" belongings, "consisting of a leather briefcase of the kind used by business people, a man's watch, a pipe, six photographs, an x-ray picture, a pair of glasses, various letters and a few other papers, the contents of which are unknown." What became of those contents? Was that the long manuscript?

    The search was taken up by Rolf Tiedemann, the editor of Benjamin's collected works. In his 1982 editorial notes on Benjamin's Passagenwerk, he wrote that he believed there was a manuscript along with the personal items in the briefcase. But Tiedemann concluded that, "If he wrote anything during his stays in Lourdes and Marseilles, it must have been a text related to the Passagenwerk. He spent more than a quarter of a year there, which would have been time enough for a short or even a longer manuscript."

    To Tiedemann, a previously inconspicuous statement in the message conveyed by Gurland to Adorno now became a clue to the manuscript. From memory, Gurland reconstructed Benjamin's words as follows: "Je vous prie de transmettre mes pensées à mon ami Adorno." Tiedemann came to believe that these "pensées" were not just "thoughts" but a written work. He concluded that the "pensées" must have been the manuscript "of which Lisa Fittko reports."

    Tiedemann even described the manuscript: a text of a few sheets, "indeed appropriately characterized as pensées; which Benjamin feared losing, if he did not succeed in smuggling them out of France; and which he finished while he was still in Paris. One text that fulfills all of these conditions is his theses 'On the Concept of History.'"

    Scholem also considers it a "nearly inescapable" conclusion that "there was a manuscript by Benjamin." He believes it contained the "definitive formulation of his thoughts for a planned major work." To explain the disappearance of the manuscript, Scholem conjectured that Gurland must have destroyed it. But if Benjamin did write an important manuscript during the final months of his life, why did he not mention it in his last two letters to Adorno and Hannah Arendt?

    According to Tiedemann's version, Gurland did not destroy a manuscript but only overlooked it, and Fittko exaggerated the weight of the briefcase. Of course, that would deprive Scholem of Benjamin's "final" manuscript on the Passagenwerk, whose mere existence he hoped might offset his disappointment at how that masterpiece had been mystified from the beginning. In case the manuscript that Scholem believed was in the briefcase never resurfaced, Scholem at least wanted to ensure that the traces of the "real" Passagenwerk would vanish in the Pyrenees.

    Naturally, Schwartz does not overlook the heavy briefcase and the manuscript. Sticking to his cloak-and-dagger story, he conjures up a "possibly even harsher critique of Marxism" than the rather esoteric one in Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History." A document in which Benjamin broke with communism and the Soviet Union might have been the reason for his "liquidation" during the Stalinist hunt for enemies and renegades.

    In Vichy France, Benjamin was indeed surrounded by the Gestapo, communist agents, renegades and other intellectuals faithful to Moscow, and this leaves sufficient room for all kinds of speculation. But Schwartz fails to produce any evidence or even a well-founded circumstantial basis for his theory. To discourage further unfounded speculation, we should perhaps just forget the story of the heavy briefcase and the mysterious manuscript.

     


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  • The Werkbund-Archive/Museum der Alltagskultur des 20. Jahrhunderts, Berlin, includes an essay in German entitled "Walter Benjamin heute" as well as photos of Benjamin and the exhibition they staged several years ago called "Bucklicht Männlein und Engel der Geschichte- Walter Benjamin, Theoretiker der Moderne." The archive plans to include more Benjamin-related work soon, as well as the relevant English translations.
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  • Arcadian Adventures: Walter Benjamin, the Connoisseur of Everyday Life By Mark Kingwell [Harper's Magazine March, 2000 ] "In September 1940, the German Jewish writer Walter Benjamin killed himself with an overdose of morphine in a small Pyrenees village near the Franco-Spanish border. He had been turned away from a Spanish checkpoint at the end of a last attempt to escape from the Nazis, who had already interned him near Paris. Too exhausted to attempt for a second time the arduous mountain crossing, Benjamin wrote a final letter to his close friend and fellow cultural critic Theodor Adorno. "In a situation presenting no way out," he wrote, "I have no other choice but to make an end of it. It is in a small village... where no one knows me, that my life will come to a close." A large black briefcase, carrying what he told his companions was a "manuscript that must be saved," a manuscript that "is more important than I am," was forever lost. The tragic and mysterious circumstances surrounding Benjamin's death, together with the romantic longing evident in his life and even his most abstruse writings, have given his work a tangible aura of authority and authenticity; which is interesting, since he is best known for his analysis of the "aura" that surrounds artworks under capitalism, the elusive something that gives them their historical authority, their air of authenticity. " [inactive link--12/2/02]
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  • Walter Benjamin, Surrealism and Photography [Paper presented at Workshop on 'Literature as Revolt in Twentieth Century Europe', 17 August 1998, The University of Haifa, Israel (6th ISSEI Conference)]
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  • "Walter Benjamin and the Unity of the Fragment," by Angus Nicholls: "In the Introduction to The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno observes that his friend and colleague "seems empirically, despite extreme individuation, hardly to have been a person at all, but rather an arena of movement in which a certain content forced its way, through him, into language". Today this statement can only be read with an unbearable sense of irony, an irony which even the often prophetic Adorno could not have foreseen. In the last two decades, there has been an explosion of interest in Benjamin's writings ­ he has been adopted and lauded by disciplines as various as critical theory, the visual arts and psychoanalysis. A "certain content" has indeed "forced its way" into the corpus of Benjamin's works, but it is precisely this force ­ perhaps best described as a kind of desperate academic clamouring ­ which has effectively exploded any sense of unity in Benjamin's project." [inactive link]
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  • Dialectics of Allegoresis: Historical Materialism in Benjamin's ILLUMINATIONS by John Parker, for Other Voices, an interdisciplinary journal published by an editorial collective at the University of Pennsylvania, College of Arts and Sciences, (March 1997). [http://dept.english.upenn.edu/~ov/index2.html]Parker's essay explores Allegories of Historical Materialism; Allegories of the Marketplace; Allegories of the Negative.
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  • Jouvert: Journal of Post-colonial Studies: Special Double Issue: Religion Between Culture and Philosophy, ed. by Kenneth Reinhard and Julia Reinhard Lupton. Contains the article "On the 'Myth of the German - Jewish Dialogue - Scholem and Benjamin," by Alexander Gelley and "Discourse on 'Han' in Postcolonial Korea: Absent Suffering and Industrialist Dreams" by James K. Freda, "which undertakes an extended meditation upon Benjamin's 'melancholy dialectics,' reading from texts in postcolonial Korea."
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  • Walter Benjamin & the Possibilities of 'Productive' Aesthetics by Gary Tedman (1997) [inactive link]
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  • "Walter Benjamin in the Postmodern" in New Comparison #18. Aug. 1994)
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  • Excerpt from "The Spectacle, the Trauerspiel, and the Politics of Resolution: Benjamin Reading the Baroque Reading Weimar" by Lutz P. Koepnick.
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    Essays & sites in German:

     

     

     

     

     

     

  • Reinhard Döhl, Walter Benjamins Rundfunkarbeit [From the Univ. of Stuttgart]
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  • Rolf Tiedemann, Nachwort zu Berliner Kindheit um neunzehnhundert
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  • Ästhetik, Technik, MediumÜber Walter Benjamin und seine Bedeutung für die Gegenwart---Patrick Horvath [Mat.Nr.9502353 Studienkennzahl 301 / 312 Übung zur Lehrveranstaltung "Philosophische Grundlagen kommunikationswissenschaftlicher Theorienbildung" Dr.Hartmann Sommersemester 1999]
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  • Walter Benjamins Rundfunkarbeit (1)
    Benjamin. Moderne. Halbbildung. Ein Essay.
    By Adrian Stokar. 1996, Zürich) [inactive link]
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  • Walter Benjamin: Einbahnstraße "Sammlung philosophischer Fragmente von Walter Benjamin, erschienen 1928. - Wenn Benjamin philosophische "Lesestücke" und Skizzen in nichts den klassifikatorisch-deduktiven Darstellungsformen ähneln, die die Philosophie der letzten Jahrhunderte entwickelt hat, so erklärt sich diese ironische Standhaftigkeit des Autors gegenüber den herkömmlichen "Prinzipien der Kunst, dicke Wälzer zu schreiben", nicht zuletzt aus einem ungewöhnlichen Begriff von "philosophischem Stil". "
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  • Walter Benjamin: Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels Kunstphilosophische Abhandlung, von Walter Benjamin, entstanden 1928. - Als Habilitationsschrift von der Universität Frankfurt abgelehnt, später ohne nennenswerte Resonanz im Rowohlt-Verlag veröffentlicht, leitet Benjamins Frühschrift bereits jene Revolte gegen philosophische und philologische Tradition ein, die er seiner materialistischen Spätphase noch schärfer konturieren sollte.
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  • Tagung "Brecht und Benjamin" von Thomas Regehly [Am 14. und 15. November 1998 in Frankfurt/Main](Dreigroschenheft 1/1999)
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  • Gedenkort für Walter Benjamin in Portbou, Spanien: Kontaktanschrift AsKI e.V. Geschäftsstelle- Dr. Konrad Scheurmann -Prinz-Albert-Straße 34/53113-Bonn/Telefon 0228-224860 /Telefax 0228-219232/e-mail info@aski.org Internet-Server http://www.aski.org [Projektbeschreibung] [inactive link]
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  • Walter Benjamin: Schriftsteller [Short Chronology]
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  • Zeitgenossen: Walter Benjamin [from the Richard Dehmel website]
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  • Das Fremde verstehen - das Verstehen verfremden: Ethnologie als Herausforderung für Literatur - und Kulturwissenschaft ["To understand the strange - to estrange the Understanding: Ethnology as a Challenge for Literary and Cultural Science"]. An essay by Alexander Honold (Berlin) from Trans: Internet Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften (1-Nr. September 1997). In a note [#17], Honold refers to Benjamin's interest in the tribe of the "Botokuden" and mentions a reference to them in WB's collected letters [Gesammelte Briefe. Band I: 1910 - 1918, Frankfurt a.M., 1995, S. 130, 290]. Benjamin, Felix Noeggerath (who became an Indologist) and Rainer Maria Rilke attended Walter Lehmann's classes in Munich on ancient American culture and art.
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  • Konservative Revolutionäre und jüdische Intelligenz in der Weimarer Republik [Zu Gerhard Lauers Studie über Leben und Werk Erich von Kahlers] Short essay in German by Bernd Villhauer from the University of Jena. Mentions Walter Benjamin in the context of the Stefan George Circle.
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  • "Suhrkamp und Knaus einigen sich über Walter Benjamin" [SPIEGEL ONLINE - 21. Mai 1999, 21:42 URL: http://www.spiegel.de/kultur/literatur/0,1518,23916,00.html] [inactive link]
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  • "Passages - Homage to Walter Benjamin" Ausstellung in Tel Aviv. Das Tel Aviv Museum of Art präsentiert vom 23.12.1997 bis zum März 1998 die Ausstellung "Passages - Homage to Walter Benjamin". Die Ausstellung zeigt in Israel Dani Karavans "Gedenkort für Walter Benjamin in Portbou", der vom AsKI unter Federführung von Dr. Konrad Scheurmann und Dr. Ingrid Scheurmann eingerichtet worden ist. "
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  • Frau, aber trotzdem furchtbar -- In ihrem Leben stand die Partei an erster Stelle: Andrea Feth und Marianne Brentzel über das Leben Hilde Benjamins. [Berliner Zeitung, February 7, 1998]
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  • Hilde Benjamin: Chronologie
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    Sites in Spanish:

     


    Walter Benjamin Congress in Amsterdam & more....

     

  • In July 1997, the first Walter Benjamin Congress was held in Amsterdam: this website (in English) discusses the programme. See also A Participant's Notes about the Congress: <This site>
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