Walter Benjamin’s last resort for escaping the National Socialists in the autumn of 1940 was a path across the Pyrenees, which led from the French village of Banyuls-sur-Mer to Portbou in Spain. However, this path ended in a “situation with no way out” (Brodersen, p. 245). After Benjamin arrived in Portbou and was forced to return to France by Spanish authorities, he committed suicide.
Since 2007, Benjamin’s escape route has been marked as the Chemin Walter Benjamin. It invites those interested in cultural history to follow the path. But what exactly is marked by the Chemin Walter Benjamin?
The source material is problematic. Our knowledge depends on the memories of Lisa Fittko, Walter Benjamin’s escape agent, who described the path they took together in her memoirs. Her autobiography was written 40 years later, based on blurred and overlain memories, after her innumerable ascents of the Pyrenees. In historical science, one has to treat such a record as a questionable source.
The exact course of the route remains vague. Allegedly, the path is 95 % accurate in following the original route. Signpost no. 4 along the Chemin Walter Benjamin reads, “On the way to Spain, the group Walter Benjamin was part of, had a rest near the spring.” However, there is no corroboration of this statement in the memoirs of Lisa Fittko.
Consequently, the Chemin Walter Benjamin can only be a representation of the escape path. Metaphorically speaking, it is an image whose original is lost. Its purpose is to allow the visitor to imagine following an escape route, which remains concealed to us after all. In its shape as a cultural touristic institutionalised hiking trail, the Chemin Walter Benjamin serves as a cult space of commemoration. Its value is in its representation, in the potential of a public access to the assumed escape route of Walter Benjamin.
Benjamin founded his thesis of the decay of aura, which is inherent in an original, in the human need “to get hold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, its reproduction” (Benjamin, p. 223). The vagueness of Benjamin’s route and the mystery over the actual course of the route which occurred during its historical tradition has to give way to its reproduction for the image of a route to achieve repeatability, so that tourists can hike on a path they recognize as Walter Benjamin’s escape path.
The process which is criticized by Benjamin as “the adjustment of reality to the masses and of the masses to reality” (Benjamin, p. 223), is also demonstrated in the case of the Chemin Walter Benjamin. The reproduction of an escape route which accommodates the recipient in the moment of walking, e.g., in the form of signs, gives him or her an image of a route, whereby the reproduction (of the escape route) will be actualized. The forgotten course of the route will be displaced by the imagination of the route that is created by the defined route of the Chemin Walter Benjamin, the signs and the act of hiking.
In the end, the Chemin Walter Benjamin is a phantasmagoria. It creates a spectacle (of following in Benjamin’s footsteps) and evokes, so to speak, the ghosts of the past. As a mythical place, it remains meaningless without the information signs and panels that induce mythical images.
Brodersen, Momme, 1996. Walter Benjamin, A Biography. Trans. by Malcolm R. Green and Ingrida Ligers, ed. by Martina Dervis. London: Verso.
Benjamin, Walter, 1969. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” In Illuminations, ed. by Hannah Arendt, trans. by Harry Zohn, New York: Schocken Books.
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.