Walter Benjamin’s Berlin

Sanders Isaac Bernstein visits some of Walter Benjamin’s former Berlin homes…

“I have long, indeed for years, played with the idea of setting out the sphere of life—bios—graphically on a map,” wrote Walter Benjamin from the Italian seashore in 1932. The failed academic turned roving philosopher, feuilletonist, and literary critic had begun a project he was to work on for most of the life remaining to him—A Berlin Chronicle (1932), which became the longer Berlin Childhood around 1900 (1938).

Walter Benjamin (1897 or 1902), photo by atelier Selle & Kuntze (Potsdam). This image was used on the cover for Berlin Childhood around 1900, published in 1938.

With these two texts, Benjamin sought to map the Berlin of his childhood—a project that rhymed with his other major work of his final years, the unfinished Arcades Project, which looked to the nineteenth-century Parisian arcades for a prehistory to twentieth-century modernity.

He set out to follow the French writer Marcel Proust, whose In Search of Lost Time Benjamin had translated, and the writing of his friend, the Berlin flaneur Franz Hessel, whose rendering of Berlin Benjamin had once called “an Egyptian dreambook for the waking.” He also modelled his project in part on “Paris Vécu,” the memoir of the French writer, Leon Daudet, who had covered his city street by street. “‘Lived Berlin’ does not sound so good,” Benjamin wrote, “but is as real.”

Despite various claims that Benjamin “was no Berliner” (Werner Fuld in his 1979 biography), that “in restlessness Benjamin found his identity” (as Wilhelm van Reijen and Herman van Doorn elaborate in their treatment of Benjamin’s life and work), and that Paris was the real centre of his work, no theoretical lens can refute that Walter Benjamin was born in Berlin on July 15, 1892—and most of his life, despite frequent trips away, took place amidst its streets, cafés, and parks.

Walter Benjamin (left) and his brother Georg and sister Dora.

It was among Berlin’s hills he learned to ride a bike. He suffered his “first great disappointment of [his] life…one afternoon on Peacock Island” when he failed to find a peacock feather, proving the place, he claimed, “a peacock island that bore no peacock earth.” It was in the city where he “was taken unawares by the awakening of the sex drive (whose time had come)” when he demurred to attend temple on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, to instead ogle the women walking the street.

It was in Berlin that he first stayed out at Viktoria Café, on Friedrichstraße and Unter den Linden, until three in the morning. And it was also in Berlin where his best friend, Fritz Heinle, committed suicide, a moment that marked him for his entire life. Benjamin also wrote broadcasts about his hometown for radio stations in Berlin and Frankfurt in the late twenties and early thirties, giving talks on Berlin’s dialect, its markets, and its toys (his radio program was at least partially aimed at children).

Though he always took trips away, Berlin was there, on his mind, in his thoughts. As he wrote in Berlin Childhood, the project began out of a sense of possible forced departure: “in 1932, when I was abroad, it began to be clear to me that I would soon have to bid a long, perhaps lasting fare­well to the city of my birth.”

Benjamin indeed left the city of his birth for the final time on March 17, 1933, just two weeks before the Nazis instigated a national boycott of Jewish businesses, centralising the campaign of harassment that led first to Kristallnacht and then the Shoah. While away from Berlin, Benjamin still worked on the writings about his childhood. As he wrote his close friend the philosopher, Gerschom Scholem, “these childhood memories…are not narratives in the form of a chronicle but rather…individual expeditions into the depths of memory.”

His explorations always led him back to one area of Berlin in particular—the West. In an early section of Berlin Childhood, Benjamin called himself a “prisoner of Berlin’s Old and New West.” His family, “my clan, in those days, inhabited these two districts. They dwelt there in a frame of mind compounded of obstinacy and self-satisfaction, an attitude that transformed these neighbourhoods into a ghetto (which they regarded as their fiefdom).”

Magdeburger Platz 4

Postcard featuring Magdeburger Platz from 1909

Walter Benjamin’s first home in Berlin, at Schöneberg’s Magdeburger Platz 4, is long gone. Though much of this block remains with buildings from the turn of the century, the house in which he spent his first years has been demolished. A mid-century apartment complex sits where his home was, overlooking Magdeburg Park.

In Benjamin’s day, Magdeburger Platz had a Markthalle at its centre. There, Benjamin remembers, “behind wire partitions, each bearing a number, slow-moving market women were enthroned—priestesses of a venal Ceres, purveyors of all fruits of the field and orchard, all edible birds, fishes, and mammals.” This structure and its scene has long been demolished. However, you can still get a small sense of how the city’s market halls used to be at the renovated Markthalle Neun in Kreuzberg—and of the structure, in Samariterviertel’s Blanckensteinpark, where the skeleton is preserved.

Sketch of the longer facade of the Magdeburgplatz Markthalle

Not a minute away from Magdeburger Platz was his aunt’s house on the former Steglitzer Straße, which he named ‘Stieglitzer Straße’, or ‘goldfinch street’, because somehow the idea of a goldfinch in a cage “bore greater resemblance to this street harbouring the aunt at her window than the Berlin suburb that meant nothing to me.” However, this name echoes a bit differently within the larger context of the neighbourhood. Benjamin described his aunt’s street corner with Genthiner Straße as “one of the streets least touched by the changes of the last thirty years”.

“In the back rooms and attics, as guardians of the past, numerous prostitutes have established themselves here, who, during the inflation period, brought the district the reputation of being a theatre of the most squalid diversions.”

In 2016, the government temporarily closed Magdeburger Platz’s playground because it had become a site of prostitution. Some things might change, but some things stay the same.

Kurfürstenstraße 154

To visit where Benjamin’s second childhood home used to be is to find a Deutsche Post outlet and apartments above that must hail from the last quarter of the twentieth century. “However, this home was, like all of Benjamin’s early homes, a short walk from the Tiergarten, the site of many of Benjamin’s childhood fantasies. There, he wrote, he learned to lose himself in Berlin “as one loses one’s way in a forest.”

Indeed, the Tiergarten at that time was transitioning from a national forest to a city park. However, for Benjamin, it became the training ground of his flaneuring, which 30 years later, he and his friend, Franz Hessel, would reprise:

He led the way along these paths, and each, for him, became precipitous. They led downward, if not to the Mothers of all being, then certainly to those of this garden. In the asphalt over which he passed, his steps awakened an echo.

Zoo station, early 1900s

As a child, Benjamin walked to the garden as well to visit the Berlin Zoo. Benjamin’s father owned stock in the Zoo that allowed his family to visit for free. At the Zoo, Benjamin’s favourite animal was the capricious otter. Like Benjamin in Berlin, he was sometimes there and sometimes not.

Carmerstraße 3

This stately brick house, built by the well-known Berlin architects Friedrich Körte and Konrad Reimer in 1891, still stands—the only one of Benjamin’s dwellings to survive to the present day. Today it houses Germany’s official professional organisation of apothecaries. Benjamin’s family moved into the house around 1901, when Benjamin first enrolled in the Kaiser Friedrich School, which was across Savignyplatz at 43 Bleibtreustraße, today the Joan-Miro-Grundschule.

Savignyplatz, 1902

Benjamin attended the school from 1901 until 1912—interrupted by illness in 1904 that led him to be sent to a country school until 1907, where he met the teacher Gustav Wyneken, whose ideas about youth revival inspired Benjamin’s early interest in literature. Even after returning to Kaiser Friedrich in 1907, Benjamin had little pleasant to say about this school. However, he did begin a reading group and write his first essays for the school journal, Der Anfang.

A few minutes away, by the Deutsche Oper, lies Krumme Straße, the crooked street that Benjamin was to write about in Berlin Childhood. In Benjamin’s youth it was something that “fairy tales sometimes speak of…arcades and galleries that are lined on both sides with small establishments full of excitement and danger.”

On this street, Benjamin remembers a swimming pool to which he was forced to go, a pawnbroker’s shop, and a stationery shop, where to Benjamin’s libidinous delight there were what he called “risqué publications”. Though, in the past century, the pawnbrokers’ shops have been turned into apartments, the swimming pool still exists.

Today it is a protected monument, Charlottenberg’s municipal baths, the oldest swimming pool in all of Berlin. On the sleeting night I walked past it, its front, renovated in 1985, lit up by a glowing sign, I could see, as a boy who also disliked the cold water, how the child Benjamin might have sought alternatives to entering that imposing building.

Nettelbeckstraße 24

This Charlottenburg street became Schöneberg’s An der Urania on November 1, 1962. Benjamin wrote little about this particular home of his, which his family moved into for only a little while after he graduated from Gymnasium. For some of the time his family lived here, Benjamin was studying at the University of Freiburg, which he attended 1912-1914.

Just north of this home lay the house where Benjamin met with other figures of the German youth movement into which he poured his enthusiasm until 1915. It was there he spent time with the closest friend of his late adolescence, Fritz Heinle. Heinle was a poet from Aachen, whom Benjamin met in Freiburg in 1913. He and his girlfriend, Rika Seligson, killed themselves in the meeting house, four days after Germany invaded Belgium. The suicide haunted Benjamin his entire life:

when I recall its old-fashioned apartment houses, its many trees dust-covered in summer, the cumbersome iron-and-stone constructions of the municipal railway cutting through it, the sparse streetcars spaced at great intervals, the sluggish water of the Landwehr Canal that marked the district off from the proletarian quarters of Moabit, the splendid but wholly unfrequented cluster of trees in the Schlosspark Bellevue, and the unspeakably cruel hunting groups flanking its approach at the star-shaped intersection of roads…it was close to the abyss of the Great War as the Meeting House was to the steep slope down to the Landwehr Canal.

Benjamin was to claim “the city of Berlin was never again to impinge so forcefully on my existence as it did in that epoch.” Nearby this home and that ill-fated Meeting House was also the Kurfürstendamm and its cafés. Before World War I, Benjamin visited the old West End Café, which in A Berlin Chronicle, he claimed never to love because he “did not yet possess that passion for waiting without which one cannot thoroughly appreciate the charm of a café.”

Romanisches Haus, around 1900

However, it was there that he first met regularly with Heinle and once met the surrealist poet Else Lasker-Schuler. Benjamin “came to be on much more intimate terms with a neighbouring café…the Princess Café,” where he and Heinle migrated. There, they occupied their own private boxes, as the café was designed so as to facilitate private encounters. Completing the set of Benjamin’s cafes was the “Romanische Café,” which Benjamin called Café Großenwahn, Café “Delusions of Grandeur.”

Delbrückstraße 23

“It is true that countless facades of the city stand exactly as they stood in my childhood,” wrote Benjamin in 1932. At the end of World War II, thirteen years later, that statement could not be more false. Similarly, the Grünewald house in which he was very reluctantly to spend much of his adulthood had also perished. Emil Benjamin had purchased this massive home in 1912.

Delbrückstraße 23 (rebuilt after being parially destroyed in the war), in 2017. Image via Wikipedia.

When Benjamin moved back to Berlin from Bern, Switzerland, where he had completed his doctorate in March 1920, he had married Dora Pollack, with whom he had had a young child, Stefan. He could only secure parental support on the condition that he and his wife live in the family home on Delbrückstraße; Benjamin described this period as one of a “long, awful time of depression.”

Benjamin did move out of the Delbrückstraße villa to the home of Erich Gutkind, a scholar of esoteric spiritualism, for most of the summer of 1920. Am Falkenberg 119, at the edge of Grunau, a house adorned in the classic canary of the celebrated Berlin modernist architect, Bruno Taut, was to be a respite for Benjamin and his wife, Dora, who was earning the majority of the family’s income by translating telegraphs from English. A few months later, they moved to the Bismarck pension on Hubertusallee, then attempted to set themselves up in their own apartment, before finally returning to the villa of Benjamin’s parents in December.

At the familial villa the Benjamins entertained their friends, such as the philosophers Ernst Bloch and Gerschom, then Gerhard, Scholem. Walter unpacked his library. Dora installed a piano. They hung in this house Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, a gift from Dora to Walter, which was to stand at the centre of Benjamin’s final work, “On the Concept of History,” and offered its name for the literary magazine he never could start up.

Angelus Novus by Paul Klee (1920)

However, the hyperinflation of 1922’s autumn interrupted this brief period of familial harmony. With the financial situation worsening, Benjamin’s father, a businessman himself, demanded Benjamin work at a bank. If not, he would cut his son off. While Benjamin offered to become a bookseller in partnership with Gutkind, that was not acceptable to the businessman father. They fought and Dora left the house with the child for Vienna and Walter for Heidelberg. They would return to spend the summer of 1923 at Delbrückstraße.

Over the next several years, Benjamin spends only a few months each year at his parents’ villa. He attempts—and fails—to gain an academic place in Frankfurt with his The Origins of German Tragedy (1928). He shuttles between Capri and Moscow in pursuit of Asja Lacis, the Latvian actress whom he met in Capri in 1924 and had introduced him to Marxism and Bertolt Brecht. In 1927 he begins spending increasing amounts of time in Paris.

However, despite his desire to escape his parents’ home, Benjamin wrote some of his best-known work in this house. The free housing, along with the income that Dora earned with her translations, was what permitted him the time to write.

Out of the early unrest of the Weimar Republic came his “Critique of Violence” (1921) with its famous articulation of divine, or mythic, violence—one of his earliest published writings. “The Task of the Translator,” with its irreverent theory of translation, arrived soon after. And finally, “Goethe’s Elective Affinities,” where he worked out, one could say, the task of the critic, was also produced during his time here.

Prinzregentenstraße 66

This address, on a quiet gladed street in Wilmersdorf, is the only of Benjamin’s homes that Berlin officially remembers. His intermittent stays here across three years are marked by a plaque that commemorates his life, death, and how Benjamin wrote part of Berlin Childhood around 1900 in a flat that was once here.

Benjamin’s stay in this apartment, which he thought would be only temporary, was the last time that Benjamin had all of his belongings in one place and his library of 2,000 books complete and completely unpacked. When he looked up from his reading in the winter, he could look out at an ice skating rink. It was his last home before exile.

Benjamin moved into “his Communist cell,” as he would refer to it, after returning from a cruise through the seas of Scandinavia in July 1930. His marriage had ended that spring, with the official decree of divorce arriving on April 24, 1930 while he lived temporarily in an apartment at Meineckstraße 9. He had decided to cheer himself up with some travel; when he came back, he sublet the fifth-floor flat at Prinzregentenstraße 66 from the painter, Eva Boy.

Here he lived close to his cousin, Egon Wissing, and his wife, Gert, with whom he would take various drugs over the next few years. In this home, Benjamin read, before it was published, the first book of his friend and Frankfurt School theoretician, Theodor Adorno—Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic—and which he recognized as “groundbreaking.”

He also began to write some of the more explicitly political work engaging fascism, on which his legacy, in part, depends. “Theories of German Fascism,” a review of Wars and Warriors, edited by the reactionary writer of war, Ernst Jünger, diagnosed a fatal mysticism that Benjamin saw as a threat to Germany’s future.

He fashioned the concept of “left-wing melancholy” in a review of Erich Kästner’s poetry written in 1931, to refer to the thinker who is too attached to an idea, even its failure, to attend to the actual radical possibilities of the present.

Out of this home comes his “Little History of Photography,” which was published in two instalments in 1931, and gave us the term “the optical unconscious,” to describe the visual world of which we, without photographs, are unaware. And, in his final return to Berlin, during the winter of 1932 after a stay in Spain, he wrote, as the plaque commemorates, a number of the many little histories that figure in Berlin Childhood Around 1900.

These episodes were to be his “inoculation” against the “homesickness” that he foresaw in his future exile.

Exile

Walter Benjamin, 1928

Benjamin’s exile lasted seven years—and though he might have inoculated himself against homesickness and published 26 individual pieces of it, he never got to see the full rendering of his bios in Berlin in print. After spending much of the thirties in exile in Paris, on September 26, 1940, denied entry into Spain, Benjamin overdosed on morphine in the French Alps rather than be remanded to the German authorities in charge of France.

Ironically, the next morning, Benjamin’s companions were allowed to cross the border. Benjamin, who did have an entrance visa to the United States, would have been able to come to New York—a possibility that has spawned countless counterfactual speculations. Famously, his briefcase goes missing.

However, he did leave to Hannah Arendt a draft of his treatise inspired by Klee’s angel, “On the Concept of History,” where the past could only be told from the position of the present. In this telling of history, there is no safe, fixed ground. “To articulate what is past,” Benjamin wrote, “does not mean to recognise ‘how it really was.’” Rather: “it means to take control of a memory, as it flashes in a moment of danger.” The teller comes to sit within the history he constructs. He makes his own tradition, his own home in history—his own home in story.

This final grand theory of history resonates with a story that Benjamin, in one of the early versions of Berlin Childhood around 1900, tells about a Chinese painter, who had painted a picture of “a park and a narrow footpath that ran along a stream and through a grove of trees, culminating at the door of a little cottage in the background.

Walter Benjamin’s gravestone in Portbou cemetery

The painter’s friends examined the painting. However, when they turned to congratulate their friend on the painting, he was gone. He had become part of the art. “There,” Benjamin wrote, “he followed the little path that led to the door, paused before it quite still, turned, smiled, and disappeared through the narrow opening.”

Of course, for Benjamin, many of these paths that his writing spreads before us lead us to and through Berlin.

 

 

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