Walking the Chemin Walter Benjamin means commemorating both the escape of Walter Benjamin from National Socialist Germany and further movements of flight and migration in the 20th century. Besides, connecting the chemin to our present day can hardly be avoided. The view of the Mediterranean Sea, which slips constantly into the visual field while one hikes to Portbou, provides access to Benjamin’s notion of the relationship between past and present.
Why do we hike along the Chemin Walter Benjamin just at a time when there is a lot of migration and movements of escape towards Europe? At a time when people put their lives at risk at sea? At a time when there is a contentious debate about the legitimacy of sea rescue?
According to Benjamin, interest in historical events is fed by a feeling of recognizing oneself and one’s own fate in the past. Only in specific ages are specific historical knowledge and perceptions intelligible. Any historical knowledge refers to its origin in time. Our 2019 view on German Unification, for example, differs from that of twenty years ago. Awareness of a phenomenon like the success of a right-wing extremist party – not only, but especially – in the eastern Federal States of Germany, has led us to think differently about politics and its possible failures in the last decades, or the social and cultural legacy of the German Democratic Republic. Without the appearance of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), we would not have thought of those aspects.
Instead of constructing a sequence of causalities and designing continuities, historians should focus on “the constellation which his [or her] own era has formed with a definite earlier one” (On the Concept of History, p. 397). This new view on present and past is what Walter Benjamin described as a Copernican turn in considering history. He reminds historians not to recognize history as a self-contained entity, but to experience “the present as waking world, a world to which that dream we name the past refers in truth. To pass through and carry out what has been in remembering the dream!” (The Arcades Project, p. 389).
Benjamin’s notion of history as a non-determined process instead of as progress does not allow us to wonder about or even to criticize the atrocities in the modern world. Things are not getting better and better just because we are moving forward in time. Terrible things can happen anytime, and such atrocities are not ‘abnormal’ or relics of the past. Instead of progress, Benjamin foregrounds salvation. A modern translation of Benjamin’s “salvation” could be liberation, which can happen every second of time, but only when those nameless and forgotten people who suffered are heard and remembered. This is an opportunity for a new notion of history. In this notion, the past is never self-contained and can be modified through tradition and transformation or re-invention. Historical injustice can be balanced by remembrance, and furthermore through the expression of a demand towards the future.
According to Benjamin, especially in times of tension and confusion, the gates of salvation are particularly open, but barbarism can also step through this gap. Are the gates not wide open, so we can move into a better future, especially in our times? The key to salvation lies in the past. It has to be “to brush[ed] […] against the grain” (On the Concept of History, 392) so we can find the pieces of a utopian promise. Another key to salvation lies within the present understanding of history, and in the renunciation of the ideology of historical progress, which is according to Benjamin, a catastrophe in itself.
Looking out from the Pyrenees to the Mediterranean Sea, one can see a lot, but none of it is progress.
Benjamin, Walter, “On the Concept of History,“ in: Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 4: 1938-1940, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Howard Eiland, et al. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 389-400.
Benjamin, Walter, The Arcades Project, convolute K1,3, translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 389.
Schröder, Thomas/Engelmann, Jonas (ed.), Vom Ende der Geschichte her. Walter Benjamins geschichtsphilosophische Thesen (Mainz: Ventil, 2017).
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.