Walter Benjamin’s style of thinking is unique and resists classification, but it can be better understood and explained if related to the cultural atmosphere of Mittel-Europa at the beginning of the century, and to certain religiouspolitical undercurrents among German-speaking Jewish intellectuals of this period. Neo-romanticism, as a moral and social critique of ‘progress’ and of modern Zivilisation—in the name of a nostalgic loyalty to the traditional Kultur—became the dominant trend among the German intelligentsia from the end of the nineteenth century to the rise of fascism. It was mainly a reaction to the very forceful, brutal and rapid process of industrialization of the country during this time, which threatened to dissolve all ancient values and beliefs and replace them with the cold and rational calculations of commodity production. Several German-speaking Jewish writers and philosophers were attracted by this Weltanschauung and developed (in a relationship of elective affinity) a Romantic version of Jewish Messianism and a Romantic version of revolutionary (libertarian) Utopia. One of the central elements in this affinity was the restorative-utopian character of both spiritual configurations, which can be found in the works of several well-known figures of the Central European Jewish intelligentsia: Martin Buber, Gershom Scholem, Gustav Landauer, Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukács, and so on. footnote1

Walter Benjamin is related to this pattern not only by his personal links with most of the members of this complex network, but also because he concentrates in his life and thought all the contradictions, tensions and oppositions which divided this neo-Romantic Jewish–German culture: between Jewish theology and Marxist materialism, assimilation and Zionism, communism and anarchism, conservative Romanticism and nihilist revolution, mystical Messianism and profane utopia.

The intimate association of Messianic and anarchist-utopian themes (against a background of neo-Romantic criticism of ‘progress’) is one of the central features of Benjamin’s political philosophy. If we examine one of his first works, the speech ‘On Student Life’ (1914), we can already find the seeds of his whole social-religious Weltanschauung. Against the ‘formless’ idea of progress he celebrates the critical power of utopian images, such as those of the French Revolution and of the Messianic Kingdom; the real issues for society are not those of technology and science, but the metaphysical problems raised by Plato, Spinoza, the Romantics and Nietzsche, under whose inspiration the student community should become the harbinger of a ‘permanent spiritual revolution’. The anarchist dimension is already suggested by the statement that truly free art and knowledge are ‘alien to the state, frequently hostile to the state’. But it is also present in a more explicit way, in the reference to the Tolstoyan spirit of serving the poor, whose most authentic expressions were ‘the ideas of the most profound Anarchists and the Christian monastic communities’. footnote2 Utopia, Anarchism, Revolution and Messianism are alchemically combined and linked to a neo-Romantic cultural criticism of ‘progress’ and merely technicalscientific knowledge; the past (the monastic communities) and the future (the Anarchist utopia) are directly associated in a characteristically Romantic-revolutionary short-cut. This document contains in nuce many of Benjamin’s future preoccupations and one can rigorously show its similarity with his last writings. It suggests certain themes and motives that will recur during his life work, sometimes openly, sometimes as a hidden undercurrent. We can see a basic continuity in his spiritual trajectory from 1914 to 1940—which does not mean that there were no changes or transmutations: after 1924 Marxism becomes an increasingly essential ingredient of his world-view. Communism and historical materialism did not replace his former spiritualist and libertarian convictions, but amalgamated with them, forming a distinctive pattern of thought.

For Benjamin—as for many young Jewish intellectuals at the beginning of the century—Romanticism was the starting point, the decisive cultural climate, the basic source of values and feelings. It is important to insist on this, because criticism has (in general) not given sufficient attention to his neo-Romantic background and its relevance for his own social, religious and philosophical-historical views—which represent of course an original perspective, irreducible to classical Romantic ideas.

In one of his first publications (under the pseudonym ‘J. Ardor’), the short notice ‘Romantik’ (1913), Benjamin criticizes the ‘false Romanticism’ taught in school and calls for the birth of a ‘new Romanticism’, stressing that ‘the Romantic will to beauty, the Romantic will to truth, the Romantic will to action’ are ‘insuperable’ (unüberwindlich) acquisitions of modern culture. footnote3 In a little-noticed but highly significant essay in the form of a dialogue, also from 1913 (‘Dialog über die Religiosität der Gegenwart’) he writes that ‘we all still live very deeply immersed in the discoveries of Romanticism’ and that we have to thank Romanticism for the most powerful insights on ‘the nocturnal side of the natural’. Sharply criticizing the reduction of men to working machines and the debasement of all work to the technical, he insists, in opposition to the illusions of progress and evolution, on the need for a new religion (whose prophets would be Tolstoy, Nietzsche and Strindberg—i.e. cultural critics of modern civilization) and for a new, ‘sincere’ (ehrlichen) socialism, very different from the conventional one. footnote4

Benjamin’s first important literary essay (1914–15) was devoted to the revolutionary-Romantic Hölderlin, and after 1916 he became fascinated by Friedrich Schlegel’s youthful writings, which were to be the prima materia of his doctoral thesis. In a letter to Scholem in June 1917, he praised the ‘infinite deepness and beauty’ of the Frühromantik (Friedrich and August Wilhelm Schlegel, Novalis, Tieck and Schleiermacher were mentioned); he was particularly attracted by its ways of uniting religion and history and he significantly concluded that ‘Romanticism is the last movement that has once again saved tradition for us.’ footnote5 At the beginning of 1918, in the essay ‘Über das Programm der kommenden Philosophie’, he sharply criticized the ‘blindness’ not only of the Enlightenment but of the new times (Neuzeit) in general, precisely in relation to two dimensions of culture that are so essential to Romanticism: religion and history. His neo-Romantic scorn for the Aufklärung went so far that he singled it out as ‘one of the lowest-situated world-views’, and as a cultural era whose experience was ‘flat and shallow’. footnote6 In 1919 Benjamin presented his thesis ‘Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik’ and it was under the inspiration of this Romantic method of literary criticism that he wrote his well-known essay on Goethe’s Elective Affinities—celebrated by one of the main figures of neo-Romanticism, the writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, as ‘absolutely incomparable’. The correspondence during the twenties gives evidence of his persistent interest in Romanticism: he was deeply stimulated by Johann Wilhelm Ritter’s ‘distinctively Romantic esotericism’, by Tieck’s novel Eckbert the Blond, by the medieval fairy tales, and by Grimm’s collections of German Sagen. footnote7 He was even sensitive to conservative neo-Romantic cultural critics of capitalism: the mystic and esoteric German poet Stefan Georg, the Catholic royalist French novelist Leon Bloy (‘has ever a bitterer criticism, or rather satire, been written against the bourgeoisie?’), the Bachofen conservative commentator Ludwig Klages (‘without doubt a great philosophical work’) and even—horribile dictu—Action Française, to which he subscribed in 1924! footnote8 In 1930 he gave a lecture on E.T.A. Hoffmann and Oscar Panizza, who represented for him ‘the beginning and the end of the Romantic spiritual movement in Germany in the last century’, and whose religious-metaphysical dualism between Life and Automaton he considered as a kind of theology. He saw Hoffmann, with his fantastic story-telling, as the follower of an old tradition going back to the Greek and Oriental epic, and he considered that ‘authentic story-telling (Erzählen) has always a conservative character, in the best meaning of the word, and we cannot think of any one of the great story-tellers separated from the oldest spiritual heritage of humanity’. He also celebrated Hoffmann’s belief in ‘effective connexions with the most ancient times’ (Urzeit); as we shall see, this reference to a primeval, archaic or ancestral era would become central in his later writings, in contradistinction to the usual Romantic nostalgia for the Middle Ages. footnote9

It is true that in the thirties, with his growing appropriation of historical materialism, the references to Romanticism tend to become infrequent; yet some basic elements of the Romantic world-view are chemically sublimated in his religious and philosophico-political ideas. One of the last discussions of Romanticism in his writings is a review in 1939 of Albert Beguin, Le romantisme et les rêves. Benjamin argues that the author was unable to understand Romanticism as a reaction to social and industrial development, and he concludes with this illuminating insight: ‘The Romantic appeal to dream life was an emergency signal; it pointed less towards the way home of the soul to its Motherland, than to the obstacles that already had barred this way.’ footnote10