Bismarck, Otto v.
Kleist, Heinrich v.
Ossietzky, Carl v.
Schinkel, Karl Friedrich
b. July 15, 1892, Berlin
d. Sept. 26, 1940, near Port-Bou, Spain
man of letters and aesthetician, now considered to have been the most important
German literary critic in the first half of the 20th century.
Born into a prosperous Jewish family, Benjamin studied philosophy in Berlin,
Freiburg im Breisgau, Munich, and Bern. He settled in Berlin in 1920 and worked
thereafter as a literary critic and translator. His halfhearted pursuit of an academic
career was cut short when the University of Frankfurt rejected his brilliant but
unconventional doctoral thesis, Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels (1928; The
Origin of German Tragic Drama). Benjamin eventually settled in Paris after leaving
Germany in 1933 upon the Nazis' rise to power. He continued to write essays and
reviews for literary journals, but upon the fall of France to the Germans in 1940 he fled
southward with the hope of escaping to the United States via Spain. Informed by the
chief of police at the town of Port-Bou on the Franco-Spanish border that he would be
turned over to the Gestapo, Benjamin committed suicide.
The posthumous publication of Benjamin's prolific output won him a growing
reputation in the later 20th century. The essays containing his philosophical reflections
on literature are written in a dense and concentrated style that contains a strong poetic
strain. He mixes social criticism and linguistic analysis with historical nostalgia while
communicating an underlying sense of pathos and pessimism. The metaphysical
quality of his early critical thought gave way to a Marxist inclination in the 1930s.
Benjamin's pronounced intellectual independence and originality are evident in the
extended essay Goethes Wahlverwandtschaften (1924-25; "Goethe's Elective
Affinities") and the essays collected in Illuminationen (1961; Illuminations).
"Benjamin, Walter" Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
The Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate
Benjamin's Biography in German
International Walter Benjamin Association
International Walter Benjamin Society