History is full of important figures who are worth remembering for their contributions in the search for knowledge, whether in the scientific, philosophical, literary or other fields. In this article we will talk about one of these figures, specifically, belonging to the 20th century: the German philosopher, literary critic and translator Walter Benjamin.

In this brief biography of Walter Benjamin we will review his life , and some of his most outstanding contributions throughout his career.

A biography of Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin, full name Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin, was a philosopher and literary critic, as well as translator and essayist, of German origin . He was born on 15 July 1892 in Berlin, Germany, and died on 26 September 1940 in Portbou, Spain, at the age of 48.

The thought of Benjamin, associated with the Frankfurt School, is nourished by different disciplines and orientations, such as German idealism, romanticism, historical materialism and Jewish mysticism. His contributions focused above all on two currents: Western Marxism and aesthetic theory .

Thus Benjamin was a restless philosopher, heavily influenced by Marxism, who drew on different philosophies and currents to develop his own thinking. In addition, he was a great traveller, as he was in different countries learning and training.

Origins and childhood

Walter Benjamin was born in Berlin in 1892 into a wealthy family of Ashkenazi origin (this term refers to Jews settled in Central and Eastern Europe). His family was dedicated to business, and at that time was fully integrated in Germany .

His father was Emil Benjamin, a banker from Paris who had moved to Germany; in Berlin he worked as an antique dealer. His mother was Pauline Schönflies, who told him stories in the evenings (this is how Benjamin remembers it, and he actually draws inspiration from them to develop one of his theories).

Thus, Benjamin reflects on them, focusing on the relationship they establish between tradition and the present time. Later, in 1905, Benjamin enters a boarding school in a rural area, specifically in Thuringia (Germany). Two years later, in 1907, Benjamin returned to school in Berlin.

Studies, life and career

When he turns twenty, Walter Benjamin begins his studies of philosophy at the University of Freiburg (Germany), although after a short time he moves to the University of Berlin to continue there.

It was at the University of Berlin that he became acquainted with Zionism, a Jewish nationalist political movement and ideology. From there, Benjamin develops a “cultural Zionism”, based on the value of the culture of Jewish mysticism . On the other hand, Benjamin, perhaps influenced by his origins, defends Judaism as an essential part of European culture, and values it especially for its spirituality.

In addition, Walter Benjamin is also interested in educational issues, and during his university years he joins a group called “Free Students Union”, where he is chosen as president . Thus, he develops for this group some writings that mention the need for a reform, both on the educational and cultural level.

As for his private life, Walter Benjamin married Dora Pollack in 1917. They had a son, Stefan Raphël (1918-1972). At that time, Benjamin was looking for a theme for his thesis, which ended up focusing on the philosophy of Kant and Plato.

Frankfurt School

We saw at the beginning of the article how Walter Benjamin’s thinking was, to a large extent, associated with the Frankfurt School. Thus, Benjamin was a collaborator of that School, although he was never directly “associated” with it.

For its part, the Frankfurt School, in Germany, was made up of a group of researchers and scholars who followed a series of theories and theoretical orientations, such as those of Freud, Marx and Hegel .

Walter Benjamin adopted a Marxist philosophy in his career. Marxist philosophy aimed to study the nature and foundations of Marxism, a theoretical model that explains reality, formed through the thought of Karl Marx, a German philosopher and revolutionary of Jewish origin. Let us remember that Marx’s contributions had repercussions in fields as diverse as economics, law, history and sociology.

Literature: translations and literary reviews

Walter Benjamin, as we have seen, was also a translator and literary critic. His translations include those of two important figures: Marcel Proust and Charles Baudelaire. On the other hand, one of Walter Benjamin’s best-known works was La labor del traductor (this is an essay), which deals precisely with this literary activity in which he was involved: translation.

As for his literary critiques, the critiques of works such as the novel , by Goethe, and some works by Franz Kafka, Karl Kraus, Marcel Proust, stood out, Charles Baudelaire… He also translated into German the work Les Fleurs du Mal , and some parts of the novel by Proust À la recherche du temps perdu .

Death in Spain

In 1940, in the historical context of the occupation of France by the Nazis, Walter Benjamin goes to the United States, crossing Spain . But the Spanish police intercepts him, along with a group of refugees of which he is also a member, because he does not have the documentation (visa) required at that time.

As a result, Benjamin, in a hotel in the Pyrenean border town, ingests a lethal dose of morphine and commits suicide in Portbou (Girona province). He was 48 years old and his death occurred on 26 September 1940.

Bibliographic references:

  • Capella, J.R. (1990). “Notes on the death of Walter Benjamin.” Meanwhile (43): 101.
  • Cano Gaviria, R. (2009). The passenger Walter Benjamin. Montblanc, Spain: Ediciones Igitur.
  • Steiner, U. (2012). Walter Benjamin: An Introduction to His Work and Thought. UCP.