“Schwerer ist es, das Gedächtnis der Namenlosen zu ehren als das der Berühmten. Dem Gedächtnis der Namenlosen ist die historische Konstruktion geweiht.“
(“It is harder to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the famous. Historical construction is dedicated to the memory of the nameless.”)
These two phrases are written on the monument “Passages” created by the artist Dani Karavan in front of the Mediterranean Sea in the bay of Portbou in memory of Walter Benjamin. They are drawn from Benjamin’s last essay “On the Concept of History,” written in 1939, one year before he committed suicide in Portbou, Spain. Both phrases give an idea of what historical work should be dedicated to according to Benjamin: to the remembrance of the nameless, whose memory is more difficult to honour than that of the famous.
Memory is closely linked to oblivion: According to Aleida Assmann, oblivion is, in contrast to memory, the norm. In communities such as societies, not everything can be remembered, and that is the reason why such communities need to decide what (events, experiences, acts etc.) and who (individual persons or collective groups) to remember. But who are the agents of remembrance?
Sometimes, there are agents of remembrance, who decide what to select. In the case of the “Chemin Walter Benjamin,” one of the memory agents is the “Association of Walter Benjamin.” By creating information boards along the way, it remembers the last steps of Walter Benjamin. The paradox is that Walter Benjamin did not see himself as one of the victors of history, although he is at the centre of the remembrance culture in Banyuls-sur-mer and Portbou when it comes to the refugee route from France to Spain through the vineyards and mountains. Walter Benjamin and his sorrowful way to self-determination is not only remembered along the Chemin Walter Benjamin, but as well in Portbou with the art and memorial work “Passages” mentioned above: In this case Portbou and the German federal government were the central agents. The involvement of these different agents shows that memory agents sometimes compete, sometimes cooperate and negotiate about what should be remembered.
However, according to Walter Benjamin’s concept of history, Lisa Fittko and her husband Hans should be remembered as well. They were the ones who took this path many times and helped refugees to cross the mountains in order to flee from the Nazi Regime. Besides, the many nameless people, who walked the way to or from Spain before, should also be remembered. For example, different nameless individuals and groups fled in the other direction from the Franco Regime to France. None of them is mentioned along the path. In the competition of remembrance, Walter Benjamin is the winner, even though he never wanted to fulfil this role. Why so? Maybe because he is more famous than all the others who, like him, crossed the mountains.
However, some of the nameless become visible in the naming of the route. Before 1940, the route was called “Ruta Líster,” in remembrance of the general Enrique Líster, who escorted refugees from the Spanish Civil War. During the Nazi persecution in the 1940s, the path was often called “Ruta F” in honour of Lisa and Hans Fittko. Yet, this remembrance is ambiguous. On the one hand, it is problematic in that only three individuals are remembered among the numerous men, women and children who escaped or helped others to escape via this route. On the other hand, it opens up the possibility of identification for the individual walking the path even decades later.
Assmann, Aleida (2017): Formen des Vergessens, Göttingen: Wallstein Verlag.
Association Walter Benjamin: https://www.walterbenjaminsansfrontieres.fr/.
Boos, Verena (2018): Nachgehen, Eine Spurensuche auf Walter Benjamins letzter Fluchtroute, in: Zeithistorische Forschungen (Studies in Contemporary History) 15.3: 523-538, http://www.zeithistorische-forschungen.de/3-2018/id=5619.
This blog post is part of the series “Following the Fugitive.” It is the result of the Master’s seminar “Der Chemin Walter Benjamin – oder: Auf dem Weg zu einer digitalen Fluchtgeschichte” (The Chemin Walter Benjamin, or: Towards a Digital History of Escape) at the Justus Liebig University Gießen, organized by Anne Friedrichs (Mainz) and Bettina Severin-Barboutie (Gießen) in Summer 2019. It was funded by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) and the North Rhine-Westphalian Academy of Sciences, Humanities and the Arts. We thank Fatin Abbas for linguistic support.