Study Guide

Walter Benjamin Biography

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Basic Information


Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin (BEN-ya-mean)


The Aesthete, The Auratist, The Brainiac of Berlin, The Frankfurter, Mr. Mystic



Home town

I was born in Berlin and was one of those kids who had it pretty good money-wise—Dad was a banker and made shrewd investments. Unfortunately, I was the delicate type: always coughing, laying on the fainting couch, and being generally sick. I had a brother and a sister, but I was the oldest and, arguably, the smartest and most fragile.

Work & Education


This may seem old-fashioned, but my occupation is actually "theorist," which is to say I conceptualize huge ideas and write earth-shattering essays.

On the side, I translate, but I've never been a high roller. Dad basically supports me, my wife, Dora, and my son, Stefan. I may be fascinated by German Romanticism, but that doesn't mean I have illusions about making a living. You try living in Berlin in the 1920s.

Try as I might—again and again and again—I have never been able to earn my teaching qualifications. Guess I don't have what it takes to become a tenured professor. Womp womp. I guess my amazing contributions to the republic of letters make up for my inability to ever pin down a 9 to 5 with full benefits… right?


I attended a string of schools, including a boarding school in Haubinda, Thuringia (get a map, lazy), but my education got hot and heavy at the Humboldt University in Berlin, where I started to get really into philosophy. I later went on to school in Munich, where I fell under the influence of intellectual luminaries such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Gershom Scholem. At the University of Bern, Switzerland, I earned my PhD with an illuminating piece of scholarship entitled The Concept of Art Criticism in German Romanticism.

I have never been able to qualify as a professional academic. I went through all of the necessary steps to attain my higher doctorate—called the Habilitation—but some of the professors were real blockers. In fact, a bunch of them were just downright hostile to my ideas about Baroque drama. They especially hated on my chapter titled an "Epistemo-Critical Prologue." Eventually, I just moved on—and look who had the last laugh. Suck it, professors.


Political views

My political and theological views are a bit of a mash-up. I started out by getting into political Zionism as a young'un. I really felt like political action was essential to being a Jewish person and I was into the idea of acquiring a charter for sovereign Jewish territory in Palestine.

Later, some right-wing theories started to appeal to me, but only because they had all sorts of spirituality in them. One of my pet right-wingers was Carl Schmitt (later a Nazi, so my bad on that one). Schmitt and I were on the same page when he asserted in Political Theology that "sovereign is he who decides on the exception." Translation: Only the big kahuna gets to break the law.

Of course, once I saw the brutality that justified this nutty right-wing thinking, I made an immediate break with Schmitt and his lot. Yeah, I've always been a multifaceted—read: contradictory—thinker, but I'm not alone. My BFF Gershom Scholem wrote an essay about me in On Jews and Judaism. Here's what he had say about me:

Even in authors whose picture of the world exhibits mostly reactionary traits he heard the subterranean rumblings of revolution, and generally he was keenly aware of what he called "the strange interplay between reactionary theory and revolutionary practice." 

This is all just Gershy's way of saying that I see the potential for revolution even in the most conservative writers and images. I always hold on to the hope that radical change is possible—even as the fascists are on the rise. In the early years of my education at the University of Humboldt, I became very keen on Zionism again and fancied myself a cultural Zionist, which means I applied Jewish values to all of life.

Remember that Germany in my day was not a pretty picture. National Socialism (The Nazi Party) was on the rise, and the heat was on the Jewish people. I even had to fake a medical condition to get out of military service for World War I because I just was not down with German politics. I see politics as opposed to the soul, using nihilism for its own ends (source).

Politics just don't jibe with my interest in myth and the imagination; but since the 1930s, I have embraced (I actually called it "coverting to") Marxism, and its influence is all over my writing from that era. Plenty of people were confused about my move from mysticism to materialism, but like I said, I'm a complex guy.

Religious views

My parents were assimilated Jews, so I pretty much picked it up from there. My friendship with the Kabbalistic scholar Gershom Scholem stimulated my interest in Zionism, but I'm mostly about the cool occult ideas and Messianism, not the Hebrew-speaking, temple-going religiousness.

Here's something for you: I even see the act of translation as spiritual. Want to know more? Check out my essay "The Task of the Translator."

Activities & Interests


The past and present intertwined
Metaphysical experiences


Worship of idols
The bourgeoisie
Making too much out of historical events
The Enlightenment Period
Hard and fast truths
Classical aesthetics


Fine arts
Film studies
Philosophy and literature


The Frankfurt School
The Illuminators
The Jewish Mystics Society
Western Marxists for Aesthetic Theory
The Lions of Zion
Free Students Association
The Youth Movement
Translators for Radical Change
The Association of Freelance Hyperintellectuals
Historical Materialists Who Contradictorily Believe in Mysticism

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