1930s: Berlin (a curation)
“I believe I would gain numerous insights into my later life from my collection of picture postcards, if I were to leaf through it again today.” (Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings
We know that Walter Benjamin had an early passion for postcards, many of these sent by his maternal grandmother (see also Walter Benjamin’s Archive, Ursula Marx et al. eds. 2015). But virtually all his life’s work was marked, in some way, by the tendencies of the collector. Following from this childhood collection of postcards, Benjamin would pursue the most anarchic of personal and scholarly archives: signs, scraps, letters, quotes, lists, maps, photographs, everyday objects, but also remembered experiences and perceptions. He viewed collecting as a “form of practical memory” (Arcades Project), of walking and rag-picking, rescuing debris that institutional archives might ignore or discard, theorizing history and modernity, pointing out that the collector seeks to “renew the old,” to examine not only one’s archival finds and treasures, but oneself and the present:
“And the man who merely makes an inventory of his findings, while failing to establish the exact location of where in today’s ground the ancient treasures have been stored up, cheats himself of the richest prize… Epic and rhapsodic in the strictest sense, genuine memory must therefore yield an image of the person who remembers.” (Selected Writings)
Having once described the “struggle against dispersion” as the “most deeply hidden motive of the person who collects,” (Arcades Project) Benjamin was forced to leave Germany in 1933. His childhood postcard collection was lost. But only the year before, he wrote Berlin Chronicle. A Berlin Childhood around 1900 was started in 1932 and revised in 1938. Both works remained unpublished in his lifetime.
By 1940, as a German Jew in Vichy France, Benjamin was in extreme danger and possessed no exit visa. Having crossed the Pyrenees in an effort to enter Spain as a refugee, but turned back at the border, he took his life on September 26, 1940.1
Love at Last Sight
As Graeme Gilloch suggests in his eloquent study of Benjamin’s life and work, it is difficult to separate the Berlin studies from the historical situation in which they were written, his exile and eventual suicide:
“Composed in the early 1930s, the Berlin studies were written just as the Nazi terror began to make life in the German capital impossible for him. They are composed from the precarious position of the prospective refugee rather than the comfortable vantage-point of the native. Benjamin’s texts recover his childhood experiences of Berlin at precisely the moment when he is compelled to bid the city a forlorn, final farewell. Berlin becomes legible only in the last throes of departure.
Berlin Chronicle and A Berlin Childhood around 1900 are thus far more than mere autobiographical exercises. They are fragile constellations constituted at a specific historical moment: when the ‘at first sight’ of the child intersects with the ‘at last sight’ of the imminent exile. They are Benjamin’s Tableaux berlinoises, precious pictures of places past and places passed, written by the leave-taker with the urgency and intensity, the heartache and hopelessness, of ‘love at last sight’. " (Graeme Gilloch, Walter Benjamin: Critical Constellations, 2002)
In Berlin Chronicle, Benjamin makes passing reference to his childhood postcard collection, but now recalls a card not of far places or travels but of his own city:
“It was a noisy, cheerful evening, but all the more silent was the journey there, through a snow-covered, unknown Berlin spreading about me in the gaslight. It stood in the same relation to the city I knew as that most jealously guarded of my postcards, the depiction of Halle Gate in pale blue on a darker background. The Belle-Allianceplatz was to be seen, with the houses that frame it; the full moon was in the sky.”
For all who are currently forced into exile by war and other humanitarian crises.
The precise date and details of Benjamin’s death remain a mystery, but the fact of his suicide is rarely disputed. “In a situation with no way out, I have no other choice. My life will end in a little village in the Pyrenees where nobody knows me. I ask you to pass on my thoughts to my friend Adorno and to explain the position I found myself in. I do not have enough time to write all the letters I would have liked to write.” (Benjamin’s final note, as recalled by Henny Gurland (Erich Fromm’s wife), the last person to see Benjamin alive.)