Samuel Freeman at The NYRB:
Walter Benjamin is regarded by many (including Jeffries) as the most original thinker associated with the Frankfurt School. His literary criticism on Kafka, Proust, Baudelaire, and others has been enormously influential, as have his essays on modern art and on the philosophy of history.2 Despite Frankfurt School members’ efforts to help him, he was unable to find an academic position or escape from Europe in the late 1930s. Jeffries describes Benjamin’s tragic life, including his suicide in Port Bou, Spain, near the French border, as he was trying to escape the Gestapo and to embark for America via Portugal.3
Benjamin famously said in “Theses on the Philosophy of History” that “there is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.”4Equally renowned is his metaphor in the same essay that the Angel of History looks backward and witnesses the constantly accumulating wreckage of history as a single catastrophe. This concept of the inseparability of civilization and barbarism, a recurring theme in Benjamin, deeply influenced the Frankfurt School. Jeffries cites the “Theses” as the basis of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944), the most prominent single work of the Frankfurt School. In that book’s preface, the authors say they set out to do “nothing less than to explain why humanity, instead of entering a truly human state, is sinking into a new kind of barbarism.” They argue that Nazi totalitarianism was not a historical aberration. It was rooted in capitalism, in the Enlightenment, and in Western civilization.