On Walter Benjamin’s Legacy: A Correspondence Between Hannah Arendt and Theodor Adorno
While he lived, Benjamin was remarkably focused on preserving his legacy. Perhaps he knew, intuitively, that his thinking was powerful enough to attract future interlocutors and interpreters — that, like the works he described in “The Task of the Translator,” it would achieve “fame” in the form of countless future translations and interpretations.
Publication of Benjamin’s work while he lived was uncertain and scattered. During the 1920s and 1930s, Benjamin, impoverished, without a stable existence, repeatedly fought to ensure the survival of his writing. Typically, this took the form of sending handwritten copies or typescripts to his friends: Gershom Scholem, Hannah Arendt, Georges Bataille, and Gretel and Theodor Adorno, among others. After his death, Benjamin’s legacy was gradually reassembled by these friends. His correspondence partners, the interlocutors he engaged with on theoretical, philosophical, and aesthetic questions, as well as personal matters, each had a stake in his legacy. And they did not agree on very much at all.
It is well known that Benjamin kept his friends separate from each other. Brecht and Scholem could never have agreed over the continuing resonances and value of an inherited messianic theology; Arendt and Adorno differed over a whole range of issues beginning with their estimation of Martin Heidegger and what Adorno derided as his “jargon of authenticity.” Despite the achingly difficult political decisions faced by public intellectuals in that period — communism, the nature of the fascist threat, Zionism and world war, to name a few — the differences among all these thinkers were ultimately less over their outward political stances than over the intellectual content — and of course also ultimately the political implications — of their thought.
The six letters exchanged by Arendt and Adorno during the three-month period between January 30 and May 2, 1967, and translated by us below, give a vivid picture of the fight over Benjamin’s legacy, as the two sought influence and control over the publication of their friend’s philosophical and literary estate, along with the right to pride of place when it came to interpreting and overseeing the works it contained — most especially his final work and intellectual testament: the “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”
January 30, 1967
Dear Mr. Adorno,
I'm about to edit a selection of Benjamin's writings for America. You will recall that in 1941, in New York, I gave you the manuscript “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which Benjamin had given me shortly before his death, and which you or the institute returned to me after transcription or photocopying. I noticed now that your reprint in the "Writings" as well as in the mimeograph publication of the Institute from 1942 shows some not insignificant modifications. Almost all of these variants can be explained as necessary editorial interventions, but there is a passage in the VIIth thesis that does not exist in my manuscript.  I would like to know whether you had access to another manuscript for the text — possibly the "typescript" mentioned by [Rolf] Tiedemann — and whether you can date it. The Manuscripts can be dated, because a number of them were written on wrappers in which newspapers were sent, whose postmarks are still decipherable.
Many thanks in advance and the best regards,
February 3, 1967
Dear Mrs. Arendt,
Thank you very much for your letter.
There were a number of copies of Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” that came to me from many different places, and with the best of my ability today, after more than 25 years, I can no longer say what served as the basis for publication. The first publication, if I am not much mistaken, was in the mimeographed volume "In Memory of Walter Benjamin," which Horkheimer and I published in a very limited edition in 1942. Of course we have not made changes in the text; where deviations exist, there are variants between the different versions. The typescripts available to us here are no longer to be dated. Insofar as my wife, in whose custody these things are, could determine, these are the following readings:
VII. Thesis, p. 497: 2. Typescript different motto: "We need history, but we need it differently from the way a spoiled idler in the garden of knowledge needs it.”
Line 4/5 Print: historical materialism, Manuscript: historical dialectics.
Line 2 from the bottom. Print: historical materialist, Manuscript: historical dialectician.
P. 498, line 5. Print: materialist, Manuscript: dialectician
Line 3 from the bottom. Print Materialist Manuscript: Dialectician.
Perhaps I may add that the two-volume edition of the Writings is quite a provisional one, and that, as I pointed out in my introduction, it does not satisfy scholarly philological claims. After a very complicated history, which took place in large part while I was in Los Angeles for a year, my late friend Suhrkamp suddenly decided to publish it after all, but gave me relatively short notice. Faced with the question whether I should forgo the edition or do something more or less improvised, I decided, after consultation with Scholem, for the latter. Decisive for both of us was the thought that Benjamin would not have acted differently in the same situation. I confined myself to working through a single text in such a way that I believe I am allowed to regard it as reasonably authentic, that is to say, cleansed of printing, spelling, and typing errors. It is the text "Destiny and Character," which Benjamin always considered a kind of key to his entire oeuvre. In addition, meanwhile, Tiedemann's edition of the Baroque book [Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama] may have done for it what was not done, and could not be done, for the "Writings," and what can probably only be expected from the projected complete edition, whose realization, however, will take many years. It may not be unimportant to know this for the assessment of all the questions related to the "Writings."
With the friendliest regards,
Your sincerely devoted,
T. W. Adorno
February 19, 1967
Dear Mr. Adorno,
Thank you for your prompt response to my request.
Since most of the Benjamin manuscripts are in your possession, I would be glad, if you are interested, to provide you with a photocopy of the manuscript (not a typescript) that Benjamin gave me. Let me know if you are interested.
Of course, you were perfectly right not to wait until it is possible to get a critical edition. I only regret one thing, namely, that you did not include the original Baudelaire essay, which you were unable to decide to publish at the time, in the edition, since according to Tiedemann the second version is toto coelo different.
With the best regards,
February 22, 1967
Dear Mrs. Arendt,
Thank you very much for your kind letter.
Of course I’d be extremely grateful if you gave me a photocopy of your manuscript for our archive here.
As far as the original Benjamin essays on Baudelaire is concerned — that is, the text I did not print in the journal at the time — it is not a first version of the later published text, but rather a very different part of the projected written work, which barely even overlaps with the final version. The reasons that persuaded me not to include it within the scope of the strictly limited edition of the Writings are simple enough: namely that this text did not seem to me to do justice to the tremendous claim that objectively emanates from Benjamin's conception. But I am thinking very much of printing it now, especially in the context of the controversy connected to the two volumes of letters.
With the friendliest regards, always yours,
T. W. Adorno
March 17, 1967
Dear Mr. Adorno,
Attached the promised photocopy of the Benjamin manuscript for your archive. The paper on which it is written is very bad, and the writing in places already faded. I hope it comes out anyway. We have gone to a lot of trouble here. I've also photocopied the back pages for you so that the archive has the possibility of dating them.
I knew from the letter and also from Benjamin himself that the original Baudelaire essay was very different from the later published one, and I think I have also understood your objections, although I never read the manuscript; at any rate, I do not remember.
You write of a controversy connected with the two-volume edition of letters, of which here, naturally, I know nothing. I may have written that I'm about to write about Benjamin for the first time, naturally also using the letters. I hope very much that I do not get into a controversy, no matter on which side. I highly appreciate your introduction to the essays, but I still do not have the same image of Benjamin as you. It could happen that neither you nor Sholem [sic] will be satisfied with me.
With friendly greetings, yours,
P.S.: Since the first page came out very badly, we have made three copies of it that complement each other in a sense, for the reader; so if you cannot read a word on one, you will be able read it more clearly on the other.
May 2, 1967
Dear Mrs. Arendt,
Thank you for your letter and the photocopy of the Benjamin manuscript for our archive. It is touching how much trouble you have taken with this matter.
Of course I am very eager to know what you intend to write about the letters. Deviations of your view of Benjamin from mine can only be of use to the subject. For me it is axiomatic and describes Benjamin's meaning in my own intellectual existence: the essence of his thinking as intrinsically philosophical. Never have I been able to see his work from any other point of view, and it seems to me that it is only in this way that it assumes its full weight. To what extent this, of course, distances itself from every traditional conception of philosophy, is something I am aware of, and moreover: that Benjamin did not make it easy to hold precisely this view of him. After all, I believe, after the very best of knowledge and contact, which intensified toward the end, that the outwardly sharp changes in Benjamin's position were in reality much less acute. He would not be the great figure he was, if it were otherwise.
In Vienna I unfortunately missed Günther Stern, who was ill with influenza. But otherwise, for some years, a friendly contact between him and me has been restored.
With kind regards,
Susan H. Gillespie is the founder of Bard College’s Institute for International Liberal Education and Bard College Fellow in Translation and Translatability.
Samantha Rose Hill is the assistant director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities and visiting assistant professor of political studies at Bard College. She is also associate faculty at the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.
 The seventh thesis as it exists in published version of the “Theses on the Philosophy of History” did not appear in Hannah Arendt’s copy.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Samantha Rose Hill considers the continent-spanning turmoil that has marked the publication of Walter Benjamin's "Theses on the Philosophy of History."...
This piece appears in the upcoming issue of the Los Angeles Review of Books Print Quarterly Journal: The Epistolary Issue, No. 21 To receive the LARB Quarterly Journal, become a member or purchase at your ...
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.