Biography of Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin was a German Jewish philosopher and cultural critic. While he enjoyed little acclaim during his lifetime, he is now regarded as one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century.

Benjamin was born in 1892 to an affluent German Jewish family in Berlin. He attended the University of Freiburg before transferring to the University of Berlin where he studied philosophy. After being introduced to Zionism at university, Benjamin distanced himself from that movement and instead championed what he called "cultural zionism." Benjamin saw his Jewishness as an integral part of his European identity and sought to celebrate and espouse Jewish culture throughout Europe.

Benjamin continued his schooling for more than six years, and eventually earned his Ph.D. with the dissertation The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism. He attempted to serve in the military during World War I but was rejected, after which he continued working on his degree and his translations of notable French literary works by Charles Baudelaire and Marcel Proust.

In 1932, just before Adolf Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, Benjamin moved to the Spanish island of Ibiza, and then to Nice in France. After the Nazi regime was fully in power in Germany, Benjamin moved to Paris, where he spent time with a number of other German Jewish intellectuals and refugees. One of these intellectuals was Hannah Arendt, a Holocaust survivor and influential political philosopher who would eventually marry Benjamin's first cousin. Arendt would go on to edit Benjamin's collection of essays, Illuminations, in which his most famous piece, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," appears.

As the war continued in Europe, Benjamin joined a Jewish refugee group with plans to flee to the United States. He made it across the border from France to Spain in September of 1940 but was told by Spanish police that he and the other refugees would be deported back to France. Benjamin, fearing being turned over to Nazi authorities, killed himself that same night with an overdose of morphine tablets. The others in his refugee group were allowed passage the next day, including Hannah Arendt, who carried with her the manuscript for Benjamin's Theses.

Study Guides on Works by Walter Benjamin

These essays are the thoughts of a well-established German Jewish philosopher who lived from the late 19th century until September 1940. As a philosopher, he devised theories about the development of technology in relation to human progress, as...