In the August issue of Biography, a popular us magazine, the editor-in-chief prefaces some musing on that month’s star profiles, General George C. Marshall and Tina Turner, with an outline of the magazine’s core philosophy: ‘No two life stories are even remotely the same, even the ones that begin in similar fashion or encounter similar obstacles or reach similar pinnacles. It’s what makes biographies so compelling and why we are reminded, again and again, “every life has a story”.’ An expedient cover for the monthly menu of predictable star stories, this sentiment celebrates individuality and unique fortune. Its corny conviction is all too easy to overturn by scanning the strikingly similar destinies of a generation of Jewish intellectuals born around the turn of the century. To make this point, Enzo Traverso’s recent book, The Jews and Germany, invokes Hannah Arendt who, along with so many others, became an émigré in the 1930s:

In 1943, Hannah Arendt described the tragic situation of the Jewish exiles in a moving article entitled We Refugees, in which she summoned up an entire generation of German Jews: ‘The story of our struggle has finally become known. We lost our home, which means the familiarity of daily life. We lost our occupation, which means the confidence that we are of some use in this world. We lost our language, which means the naturalness of reactions, the simplicity of gesture, the unaffected expression of feelings. We left our relatives in the Polish ghettos and our best friends have been killed in concentration camps, and that means the rupture of our private lives.’footnote1

Traverso reviews Hannah Arendt’s writings on the Jew as pariah. Arendt’s Jewish pariah is a worldless, stateless type who is humiliated, without means and socially marginalized, but who still remains proud and intellectual and rebellious.footnote2 For Traverso, just such a figure is Walter Benjamin, writing his theses on the philosophy of history in exile in a poorly heated Paris room, begging for handouts from friends.footnote3 Benjamin is made to be nothing but a pariah Jew, despite the fact that he, like Ernst Bloch, Alfred Döblin, Stefan Zweig, Hermann Cohen and so many others, had assumed the dual identity of Jew and German. Benjamin had been steeped in German culture, through years of happy and unhappy schooling, and he was devoted to a German humanism that he strove to promote in the darkest hours. In 1936, the year after the Nuremberg Race Laws which forbade marriage between Jews and ‘Aryans’, and six years after his encyclopaedia entry ‘Jews in German Culture’, Benjamin published a book in Switzerland. Entitled Deutsche Menschen, it was an annotated collection of letters from and to Goethe, Georg Büchner, Annette von Droste-Hülshoff, Kant, Georg Lichtenberg, Franz von Baader and other emissaries of a then ‘secret’ German tradition of ‘true humanity’. Momme Brodersen’s biography of Walter Benjamin recounts how the cover, font, title and motto were designed to ease the book’s passage into the Third Reich.footnote4 This long-distance communication from a Jewish-German dialogue slipped across the border, long after Benjamin himself had slipped out. His inability to return denotes a more generalized fate, that of Judeo-German culture, fractured and ending in exile.

The fate of a generation is pursued in Brodersen’s thoroughgoing biography, Spinne im eigenen Netz; Walter BenjaminLeben und Werk, now translated, revised and renamed Walter Benjamin: A Biography.footnote5 Even the book’s jacket blurb universalizes this individual biography, characterized as ‘an indispensable guide to the ruins and enchantments of the twentieth century’. Benjamin’s life is collocated as historical gazetteer. Brodersen’s book is an intellectual biography and that means that it has to juggle its pursuits. Intellectual biography dispenses details of a life with its moments of love, hate and financial dealings, and it glosses—in a smattering of lines—the intricacies of the oeuvre, its conditions of production and its meanings. One neat solution may be to read the life from the work and the work through the particulars of the life, as does Gershom Scholem when he reveals the coincidence of life circumstance and commentary in Benjamin’s Goethe’s Elective Affinities. It was in that same essay on Goethe that Benjamin had denigrated such bio-bibliographical inquiry, as favoured by contemporary philologists. Brodersen sticks by him.footnote6 In its stead, he goes after something more objective, generational and generalized. The book opens with a depiction of Berlin, at the moment of Benjamin’s birth. The city is undergoing radical physical and social change and at breathtaking speed. Such twinning of a life and a social space is entirely appropriate, for Benjamin, too, in his ‘autobiographical writings’ dissolves the individual into the social. ‘A Berlin Chronicle’ and ‘Berlin Childhood around 1900’ return to urban scenes of memory and history, not to divulge the narrative of a life, but to recollect collective experiences with technologies, spaces or customs. Conventional autobiography, Benjamin claims, has to do with time, sequence and the continuous flow of life. His reminiscences were different, for they conjured up spaces, moments and discontinuities.footnote7 Some years later, Benjamin reflected on these reminiscences, begun once he knew that he was on prolonged, perhaps even permanent, leave from the city of his birth. As ‘inoculation’, he reveals, he conjured up images most likely to awaken homesickness in exile, those of childhood, but he avoided nostalgia, by ‘limiting the examination to the necessary social irretrievability of the past, rather than the arbitrary biographical one’.footnote8

Brodersen’s biography straightens the convolutions of Benjamin’s recall and fills out the ‘brief, shadowy’ existence of the figures in the chronicle who ‘steal along its walls’.footnote9 He profiles an array of individuals who slid in and out of Benjamin’s orbit, always setting Benjamin as one node in a circuit of connections. Benjamin is cast inside a vessel called modern Berlin, and clearly the age and the place and the discussions make the man. Brodersen discloses that Benjamin’s thought springs from inspecting the joins between self and city:

His life’s work, to use a term that somewhat misleadingly suggests the idea of an unbroken continuity, is basically a constant reflection on his own city origins. It amounts to a meditation on the experience of the individual’s altering needs and possibilities within the labyrinth of constantly and rapidly changing impressions, and on whether he can still perceive or grasp his historical and social environment in some sort of context, or indeed make any kind of picture of it. In a nutshell: how to cope, how to find one’s way around.footnote10

In a 1929 review of Franz Hessel’s Spazieren in Berlin, Benjamin claims the existence of a postwar Europe-wide intensification of the desire for reality, the desire to chronicle and document.footnote11 Chronicle and document are at home in Benjamin’s work. He exhibits the chronicler’s concern with modes of recapitulating history, even if he up-ends the chronicle’s commitment to chronology. And he is fascinated by splinters excerpted from the material world, documents of the social. Benjamin’s essay, ‘The Author as Producer’, recommends the incorporation of real-life fragments in artefacts: cigarette stubs, cotton reels, bus tickets, scraps of textile, photographs. Benjamin is sure that the public has learnt that ‘the tiniest authentic fragment of everyday life says more than painting’.footnote12 His research into the history of photography convinces him that photographs bring objects closer, presenting for inspection an imprint of documentary traces of the world.footnote13