Walter Benjamin’s Last Work
By Samantha Rose HillDecember 9, 2019
Arendt and Benjamin met in exile in Paris in 1933 through her first husband, Günther Anders, who was a distant cousin of Benjamin’s. They would frequent a café on the rue Soufflot to talk politics and philosophy with Bertolt Brecht and Arnold Zweig. And while Arendt’s marriage to Anders didn’t last, her friendship with Benjamin grew and flourished during the war years.
Arendt hesitated leaving Benjamin in Lourdes. She knew he was in a wobbly state of mind, anxious about the future, talking about suicide. Benjamin feared being interned again, and he had difficulty imagining life in the United States. Arendt wrote to Gershom Scholem that the “war immediately terrified him beyond all measure” and “[h]is horror at America was indescribable.” His strained relationship with Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer at the Institute for Social Research (also known as the Frankfurt School) left him in a state of financial precarity. The tenuous flow of correspondence conducted through networks of friends and letters (when they arrived) complicated matters more, leaving one dependent upon time itself. Benjamin, already an anxious man, stopped going out and “was living in constant panic.”
When Benjamin was released from the Clos St. Joseph internment camp in Nevers in the spring of 1940, he returned to Paris for a brief period before fleeing to Lourdes around June 14, en route to Marseilles. It was during this time that he wrote what would become his final work, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” or as it is also translated, “On the Concept of History.”
The “Theses,” a collection of philosophical fragments on historicism and historical materialism, were originally written on the backs of colorful envelopes — green, yellow, orange, blue, cream. The cramped passages in tiny script illustrate the conditions of exile: he is saving space because he is short on paper. As a text, the “Theses” marry Benjamin’s interests in Marxism and theology, reflecting on temporality and the possibility of a weak messianism to interrupt the flow of empty homogeneous, capitalist time. The most famous fragment, which lies at the heart of the work, was inspired by Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus, which Benjamin purchased in 1921, and which inspired a birthday gift from Scholem: a poem titled “Greetings from the Angelus on July 15.” The painting accompanied Benjamin for some 20 years of his life, and, as he describes it, pictures the angel of history being blown backward into the future by the forces of progress piling ruins at his feet.
The stack of empty envelopes, now tucked away in a manila folder in Hannah Arendt’s archive at the Library of Congress, bear Benjamin’s last work and final Paris address — 10, rue Dombasle, Paris 15e. They were written for a future he would never know. As Benjamin writes in one thesis: There is no document of civilization, that is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
The documents of Walter Benjamin’s death are plural. What information we have about his final days comes from Lisa Fittko and Henny Gurland (Erich Fromm’s wife), who led a small group of refugees through the Pyrenees to Portbou, a common route of escape for refugees at the time. Fittko describes how Benjamin had to walk for 10 minutes, then rest for a minute, given his poor health. He carried only a leather attaché case, which contained his most valuable papers. Upon arriving in Portbou on the night of September 26, 1940, they were told at the police station that the Spanish border had been closed, and that without French exit papers they would be returned and sent to camps. That night, Walter Benjamin took a lethal dose of morphine. Gurland was the last person to see him alive, and this is important, because she wrote what essentially became his will. According to her, Benjamin died on September 27. The Spanish doctor’s death certificate declares that Benjamin died from a cerebral hemorrhage on September 26 (perhaps an attempt to cover up the suicide). The municipal certificate shows that he was buried on September 27. Another burial record is dated September 28. Hannah Arendt writes to Gershom Scholem that Benjamin died on September 29.
We will never know what happened to Walter Benjamin, or his leather attaché case, but we do know (in part) what happened with his final work, “Theses on the Philosophy of History.”
The afterlife of Benjamin’s “Theses” is embroiled in turmoil. Benjamin was anxious about the publication of his papers, and he was doubly anxious that the Institute would edit his work and publish it in the United States without his approval. Arendt was anxious that Adorno and Horkheimer would censor Benjamin’s work. Adorno was anxious that Arendt would try to publish Benjamin’s work without his consent. Scholem was anxious that Adorno wouldn’t publish Benjamin’s work at all.
Before Benjamin’s death, he dispersed his papers widely among his friends: Scholem had most of Benjamin’s essays in Palestine; Georges Bataille was hiding the Arcades Project, among other papers, and the Klee painting in the French National Library where he worked; Gretel Adorno had a number of writings in New York; and Arendt had copies of Benjamin’s literary and philosophical essays. These and other copies were hand-transcribed by Benjamin himself.
A few months after Benjamin’s suicide, Arendt and Blücher made their way from Marseilles to Portbou to Lisbon. As they sailed to New York in the spring of 1941, they read the “Theses” aloud to their fellow passengers. And a couple days after arriving in New York, Arendt took a suitcase with Benjamin’s work to Adorno and Horkheimer at West 117th Street. She left Benjamin’s papers with the Institute, but refused to hand over her copy of the “Theses.” She made them make copies instead.
From Arendt’s correspondence, it’s clear that she never quite believed Benjamin entrusted the execution of his literary estate to Adorno. At the very least, she never trusted Adorno to actually publish Benjamin’s papers. This is complicated by the fact that Benjamin left no real will, or if he did, it was lost. The instruction to give his papers to Adorno comes secondhand through Gurland, who claimed that she felt it necessary to destroy Benjamin’s final message, a suicide note of sorts. As we have it, she rewrote Benjamin’s last letter from memory and passed it on. The five sentences read:
In a situation presenting no way out, I have no other choice but to make an end of it. It is in a small village in the Pyrenees, where no one knows me, that my life will come to a close [va s’achever].
I ask you to transmit my thoughts to my friend Adorno and to explain to him the situation in which I find myself. There is not enough time remaining for me to write all the letters I would like to write.
The last letter Benjamin sent Adorno is dated August 2, 1940, and chronicles his anxieties about his papers:
I spoke to Felizitas [Gretel Adorno] about the complete uncertainty in which I find myself concerning my writings. (I have relatively less reason to fear for the papers devoted to the Arcades than for the others.) As you know, however, things are such that my personal situation is no better than that of my writings …
In all of Benjamin’s fretfulness about his papers, there is no request in this letter that Adorno publish his work. In fact, quite the opposite. He goes on to write: “The complete uncertainty about what the next day and even the next hour will bring has dominated my existence for many weeks,” which is followed by this admonition:
I hope that I have thus far given you the impression of maintaining my composure even in difficult moments. Do not think that this has changed. But I cannot close my eyes to the dangerous nature of the situation. I fear that those who have been able to extricate themselves from it will have to be reckoned with one day.
Benjamin’s final letter to Arendt, written August 9, 1940, from Lourdes, concerns his exit papers and decision to head to Marseilles, where he would need to collect his papers for emigration. He mentions his “deep anguish” about the fate of his manuscripts and notes that he has had little contact from friends, but that he is keeping his spirits up by reading. On September 20, Benjamin, Arendt, and Blücher were reunited in Marseille. On September 25 or 26, Benjamin left for Portbou.
Benjamin had seen Theodor and Gretel Adorno for the last time in December 1938 in San Remo, Italy, before their departure to New York. During their days in San Remo, they talked about their respective work. Adorno shared his In Search of Wagner with Benjamin, and Benjamin discussed transforming his Baudelaire project with Adorno. (Adorno would later use this meeting to argue to Arendt that Benjamin had entrusted him with his work because he knew it best.)
After his visit with Adorno, Benjamin returned to Paris. During the winter of 1938–1939 he had frequent meetings with Arendt. A circle of German émigrés had formed around them, as one of Benjamin’s biographers describes it, and they held regular discussions in Benjamin’s apartment. In exile, Arendt, not Adorno, had become Benjamin’s primary interlocutor. That February, Scholem arrived in Paris on his way to New York and visited with Arendt and Benjamin. And it was these conversations with Arendt about Scholem’s Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism that most informed “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” When Benjamin finished the “Theses” in late April, early May 1940, he sent a copy to Gretel in New York, with a note:
The war and the constellation that brought it about led me to take down a few thoughts which I can say that I have kept with me, indeed kept from myself, for nigh on twenty years. […] Even today, I am handing them to you more as a bouquet of whispering grasses, gathered on reflective walks, than a collection of theses.
Who ought execute Benjamin’s literary estate, then, is not clear from his final correspondence. From reading his letters, it appears that he was closer to Gretel Adorno than Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and even Arendt. Gurland’s secondhand note is presumably authentic, but we can never know. What we do know is that everyone has tried to claim Benjamin since his death, and the struggle among Arendt, Adorno, and Scholem to publish the “Theses,” among other works, led to an open air of suspicion and masked hostility.
A few weeks after arriving in New York, Arendt moved to Massachusetts to live with an American family as an au pair so she could learn English. While there, she received word from the Institute that they had misplaced a couple of Benjamin’s writings that were in the suitcase she had delivered. Which ones? We don’t know. But Arendt did not believe that they had been lost. She believed that Adorno intentionally misplaced them so that he would not have to publish them. She saw it as an act of censorship, a continuation of Adorno’s mistreatment of Benjamin’s work since the so-called Baudelaire controversy, in which Adorno had critiqued and rejected Benjamin’s Baudelaire essay for not being Marxist or dialectical enough. She wrote to Blücher on August 2, 1941:
This morning I received the enclosed letter of doom. I am quite distraught at the chutzpa and the naïve effrontery of writing something like that to me. But that’s the least of the problems. I take it that the group of bastards is of the same opinion and that they will simply suppress the manuscript. It’s quite a stroke luck in the circumstances that I have the manuscript. After all, I was obligated to give it to them, knowing that Benji had sent them a copy which never arrived. Snubby [Arendt’s pet name for Blücher], please, please, say something. I’m all alone and so horribly desperate and frightened because they do not seem to be willing to print it. And so terribly furious that I could murder the whole lot of them. If only one could write to Palestine, maybe Scholem could have it properly published with Schocken [Verlag] — who, N.B., is in New York. But I’d have to know first if the stupid asses are not going to take it. And, bastards that they are, they will never give me a straight answer. They’ll just keep stringing us along. We certainly won’t be able to lecture them on loyalty to a dead friend. They’ll avenge themselves, the way Benji basically avenged himself by writing this.
It would not be an understatement to say Arendt hated Adorno. After meeting him in Frankfurt in the 1920s, she remarked: That one will never come in my house! Her dislike was personal and political. She blamed Adorno for her first husband’s failed habilitation, thought he had strong-armed Benjamin into rewriting his Baudelaire essay, and found the Freudo-Marxism of the Frankfurt School to be transparently ideological. Since the early 1930s, Benjamin’s stipend from the Institute for Social Research was his primary source of income. Around 1935, Benjamin met with Friedrich Pollock, who agreed to double his monthly stipend from 500 francs to 1,000 francs to write The Paris Arcades. A few years later in 1938, and a couple months after Adorno rejected Benjamin’s work on Baudelaire, he received a letter from Max Horkheimer informing him that his stipend would likely be canceled because of the financial circumstances of the Institute. Benjamin was plunged into one depression after the next at the hands of Adorno and Horkheimer, and Arendt saw the “misplaced papers” as a continuation of Benjamin’s mistreatment by the Institute for Social Research.
This is the backdrop of Arendt’s letter to Blücher. Similarly, she wrote to Scholem shortly after arriving in the United States: “I can’t get a word out of Wiesengrund [Adorno]. I talked to him when he was here, but after he left for California he hasn’t mentioned it again. You know what I think about these gentlemen…” Arendt spared no word talking about the “bastards.”
It took nearly two years after Benjamin’s death for Adorno and Horkheimer to publish something, and even then it was Gretel Adorno who did the work. In 1942, Gretel produced a limited-edition mimeograph of Benjamin’s writings, titled Walter Benjamin zum Gedächtnis (In Memory of Walter Benjamin). It took five more years for Benjamin’s “Theses” to appear in print in the journal Les Temps modernes — and five more for a two-volume selection of his collected writings to be published by Suhrkamp Verlag.
When Arendt received her copy of the 1942 mimeograph in the mail, she was furious. The somber tomb of pale typescript was sandwiched between two sheets of black construction paper. Not only did Adorno and Horkheimer fail to publish Benjamin’s work properly, but they did not even bother to bind it. She exclaimed to Scholem:
I’m writing in a rush just to let you know that the Institute has published a mimeographed volume in memory of Benjamin, which wasn’t even bound when they send it out. The only thing you’ll find in it from his literary estate is his “Historical-Philosophical Theses,” which I had brought with me. What I very much fear is that this will be it, and all the rest of his work they’ll bury away in the archives. It was a little more difficult for them to do it with the “Theses” because so many people knew about it, and because I was the one who gave it to them in the first place. As for the rest of the volume, there is an essay by Horkheimer and one by Adorno.
Arendt edited her copy with a blue marker, and made an interlinear translation of part of the famous Angelus Novus fragment:
unremittingly ruin on ruin piles
and lands there at his feet. He wishes he could stay
to rouse the dead and to join together the fragments. But a
wind blown from paradise got caught in his wings
and is so strong that the angel can no more
close them. This wind drives him unsparingly in the future
so that he turns his back while the pile of ruin before him
towers to the skies. What we call progress is this wind.
The “Theses” stood at the center of Arendt and Adorno’s dispute about the publication of Benjamin’s work, because Arendt retained her copy. Part of the controversy appears to stem from the fact that Arendt didn’t know Benjamin wrote as many as six copies of the “Theses” — entrusting one to Gretel Adorno — though she was aware that he had told many people about them.
In 1947, Adorno heard a rumor that Arendt was publishing Benjamin’s works without his permission and wrote to remind her that Benjamin had entrusted him with the publication of his papers. Adorno adds that he understood the “philosophical landscape” of Benjamin’s work better than anyone because of their discussions in San Remo:
I have heard from several sources that Schocken Verlag is planning [an] edition of Benjamin's writings, and Ms. Maier has now informed me that the plan falls to your responsibility. I hardly have to tell you how I would welcome such [an] edition. Perhaps it is not unimportant for the plan for you to know that Walter Benjamin has entrusted me with his entire literary estate, and that just now the manuscripts of the Arcades Project that were hidden in Paris during the war, and that probably contain the most important theoretical designs of his late work, have arrived in New York and are being kept there until there is an absolutely safe way for me to receive the irreplaceable material. I myself have in my possession the parts of Benjamin’s archive that he carried with him.
When I saw Benjamin for the last time, in January 1938 in San Remo, it was agreed between us that I should give a more comprehensive picture of his philosophical intentions. It seems to me that the execution of this plan, which we had discussed in detail, is not merely the fulfillment of a binding duty, but I also believe that I am not immodest if I regard myself as [more] qualified for the task than anyone else, both because of my intimate familiarity with Benjamin's intellectual landscape and because of the central consistency of our philosophy. Perhaps the edition would provide the opportunity to realize that plan.
Arendt and Scholem were skeptical that Adorno had actually acquired the Arcades Project from Bataille. And we know now that not all of them were delivered, since some remained hidden until the 1980s when they were discovered by accident in the French National Library by Giorgio Agamben. Still, there was not much that Arendt or Scholem could do. Adorno published the two-volume edition of Benjamin’s writings with Suhrkamp Verlag in 1955.
Dissatisfied with the German editions and committed to the afterlife Benjamin’s work, Arendt set out to publish two new volumes of Benjamin’s essays, what would become Illuminations and Reflections. When she began working on the first English-language edition in the spring of 1967, she wrote to Adorno, because she noticed some “variants” between her copy of the “Theses” and the German editions he had published. She was concerned that there were some “not insignificant” changes in the “Theses” in the German publications, including an entirely new fragment, thesis VII. She asked him if he had other versions and if so if he knew which he’d worked from in order to produce the 1942 mimeograph. Adorno responded by saying that there were a number of copies of the “Theses” that had been sent to him from multiple places. He deferred and said that the text was under the custody of Gretel, and offered Arendt Gretel’s list of noted manuscript variants. He added that the two-volume edition of writings was “provisional” and “does not satisfy scholarly philological claims.”
Arendt hadn’t seen the other versions of the theses, and, combined with her dislike and distrust of Adorno, she questioned the veracity of his German volumes. In fact, Benjamin wrote out the “Theses” several times, making minor, and sometimes major, adjustments. Notably, looking at Arendt’s copy and the published versions of the “Theses,” the Angelus Novus fragment numbers vary. Benjamin rearranged them, edited them, and added new fragments before he sent them to Gretel. In addition to Arendt’s copy and Gretel’s copy, one draft was sent to Dora Benjamin, and copies were sent to Scholem in Palestine and Theodor Adorno in New York, which never arrived. Benjamin also translated the “Theses” into French.
On the list of corrections that Adorno sent Arendt, one clear variant stands out. Materialist is substituted for dialectic. This would constitute a significant philosophical difference. A dialectician would attend to the movement of history itself, whereas a historical materialist would attend to the materiality of history in order to reject the Marxist conception of fluid movement. The difference, in short, is the glaring difference between Adorno and Benjamin — the difference at the heart of their argument over Baudelaire. Adorno criticized Benjamin for not being dialectical enough, and Benjamin thought Adorno’s insistence on dialectics rejected materialism in favor of ideology. Benjamin was interested in looking at the images of the past, not the movement of the past as a whole. Looking through the various versions of the “Theses” this variant appears only once — in Dora Benjamin’s copy, which is presumably the version Gretel was typing from since she changed historical back to materialist.
Arendt and Adorno’s correspondence continued for six letters, and includes a discussion of Adorno’s decision not to publish Benjamin’s Baudelaire work, even after Benjamin’s death. Arendt thanked Adorno for his response, offered to send him another copy of the “Theses” she had, and remarked that it was lamentable that Adorno failed to include the original Baudelaire essay, since it was “toto coelo different.” Arendt’s implication was that it was the original, not the version Adorno made him write. Adorno responded by saying that he didn’t print the Baudelaire essay because it was a different part of the Baudelaire work, and that he was considering publishing it given the controversy around the two volumes. He added: “[T]his text did not seem to me to do justice to the tremendous claim that objectively emanates from Benjamin’s conception.” Arendt responded by calling into question Adorno’s objection:
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.
At the end of Illuminations, Arendt offers an editor’s note, and comments on the variations in the “Theses”:
The translation of the text follows the two-volume German edition of Benjamin’s writings which, under the title Schriften, was edited and introduced by Theodor W. Adorno[.] […] Professor Adorno points out in his Introduction that it is not definitive: in the few instances where the original manuscripts could be consulted, it turned out that Benjamin’s handwriting was difficult to read, and as for the typescripts and printed newspaper or magazine copies, they “unquestionably contain numerous errors.” In the only case in which I was able to compare the original manuscript with the printed text, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” which Benjamin gave me shortly before his death, I found many important variants.
When Hannah Arendt sat down to write her introduction for Illuminations, she wrote it in German and had it translated into English by Harry Zohn, who was translating Benjamin’s work for the volume. She was concerned about Benjamin’s legacy, and because he had given her his papers to safeguard in friendship, she also felt a responsibility to make sure that they were published.
In the end, it was Arendt, not Adorno and the Frankfurt School, that introduced Benjamin to the English-speaking world. But more importantly, Benjamin’s friends were able to keep his work alive. In his final thesis, he writes:
We know that the Jews were prohibited from investigating the future. The Torah and the prayers instruct them in remembrance, however. This stripped the future of its magic, to which all those succumb who turn to the soothsayers for enlightenment. This does not imply, however, that for the Jews the future turned into homogeneous, empty time. For every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter.
We cannot turn back to see the future, but we can look back to Walter Benjamin’s works, in order to think about our present moment. The fragments that remain of the “Theses,” of the Arcades, the numerous biographies that try to constellate his final days, will never be complete. Somehow this disjointed historiography fits Benjamin’s own mode of critical thinking: pausing for breath, we must continuously return in a roundabout way to the object of contemplation. Benjamin’s life and work are to be returned to, without telos. And much work still needs to be done to ensure Benjamin’s legacy — works to be translated and published, stories to be told.
Susan H. Gillespie and I have translated the letters between Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt from German to English. I thank her for her brilliance in translating and editing. Her expertise on Walter Benjamin and experience translating Adorno is invaluable in conversation.
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.
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