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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.
Essays & sites in English:
- "Walcott, Benjamin & the Postcolonial Lyric"
- "Benjamin, Surrealism & Photography"
- "Benjamin: The Intellectual in a Straw Hat"
- "Benjamin's 'Critique of Violence'"
- "Abraham's Promise: Violence, Critique & the Birth of a Nation"
- "Antinomial Walter Benjamin" [Review of Beatrice Hanssen's Walter Benjamin's Other History]
- "Benjamin's Aura/ Stevens' 'Description without Place'" and others.
Essays & sites in German:
Sites in Spanish:
Walter Benjamin Congress in Amsterdam & more....
Go on to next links page: Critical Theory & the Frankfurt School....