Walter Benjamin’s legacy, 75 years on

John Dugdale in The Guardian:

WalterLike many a refugee in southern and central Europe today, Walter Benjamin was in flight from war and persecution 75 years ago, but was blocked at an intermediate border en route to the country chosen as his haven. He was part of a Jewish group which, hoping to escape occupied France, had hiked through a Pyrenean pass in autumn 1940 with a view to entering Franco’s Spain, crossing it to Portugal and then sailing to the US. However, in the words of Hannah Arendt, they arrived in the frontier village of Portbou “only to learn that Spain had closed the border that same day” and officials were not honouring American visas such as Benjamin’s. Faced with the prospect of returning to France and being handed over to the Nazis, he “took his own life” overnight on 26 September, whereupon the officials “allowed his companions to proceed to Portugal”. For Arendt, who successfully reached New York via his intended route a few months later, this was a tragedy of misunderstanding, a poignant but fitting end for a brilliant but misfortune-prone older relative (her cousin by marriage) whom she writes about with a kind of affectionate exasperation.

Yet Edward Stourton, in Cruel Crossing: Escaping Hitler Across the Pyrenees, notes “there are all sorts of unanswered questions surrounding Benjamin’s death. His travelling companions remembered him carrying a heavy briefcase containing a manuscript he described as ‘more important than I am’. No such manuscript was found after his death … A Spanish doctor’s report gave the cause of death as a cerebral haemorrhage, not a drugs overdose. There has been persistent speculation that he was actually murdered, perhaps by a Soviet agent who had infiltrated his escaping party.” By the time Arendt wrote her memoir (later used as the introduction to Illuminations) in 1968 the chaotic freelance critic she evoked, pinballing between temporary homes, disparate obsessions and the incompatible views of his friends Adorno, Brecht and Gershom Scholem, was fast emerging a la Orwell as a giant figure with an unexpectedly substantial estate in print – his collected writings were published in Germany in 1955, eventually followed by a four-volume Harvard edition in English – and formative power in multiple fields.

More here.