Pursuing the Past on the Spot as a Historiographical Method?

Alexander Milešević

The Pyrenees, 2019 (photo: Alexander Milešević)

It is difficult, almost impossible, to experience the past in the present, and this might be one of the reasons why historical methods usually do not include the after-perception of previous experiences. Sometimes, people try to experience the past via the method of re-enactment. Re-enactment is a social practice through which people attempt to recreate aspects of historical events. One the one hand, this practice enables one to experience and retrace the past. On the other hand, it is problematic because of the limited awareness about differences between the actual past and its faithful reproduction through re-enactment. Can empathizing thus lead to a better understanding of the past and of the decisions people took in their lifetime? Should we use such methods even in historical research to understand the past in a better way? The case of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin is a good example for discussing these questions. His flight from France to Spain across the Pyrenees in 1940 can be experienced by hiking from the French village Banyuls-sur-Mer to Portbou on the Spanish side of the border.

View to the Mediterreanean Sea (photo: Alexander Milešević)

How does the hiking experience affect our understanding of Benjamin’s flight? Obviously, hiking the Pyrenees’ path can provide insights into the spatial and temporal conditions during this journey. To this day, the Pyrenees form a natural border between France and Spain. If you walk from Banyuls-sur-Mer over the mountains to Portbou, it still takes about six to seven hours to complete the journey. There is no possibility to change to another means of transport once you have commenced the hike. Moreover, there are no little villages or houses in the mountains, and you encounter only few people during the hike. If you do not want to spend the night in the mountains, you must keep walking to Portbou or hike back to Banyuls. Physically, it is not only extremely exhausting because the path goes up and down continuously. You also have to watch out for loose stones on the gravel path.

 

However, there is no doubt that this hiking experience differed from Benjamin’s. The “Chemin Walter Benjamin” has a length of 18 kilometers and almost no landmarks. Once you pass the vineyards at the beginning of the path, nature becomes wild. At crossings with other paths, signs show you the direction of Walter Benjamin’s route. Benjamin was in poor health: according to his escape agent Lisa Fittko, he suffered from cardiac problems (Fittko 2015: 140). Hence, the flight was not only more risky for him than for those who fled with him, but it must have also been more difficult. Certainly, Benjamin and the entire group who accompanied him had to be aware of the risk of being caught; they could not take the usual means of transport. Trains were regularly checked, as well as known routes into Spain (e.g., Fittko 2015: 140-142). Benjamin, for instance, had already tried to escape from Marseille to Spain by ship, but had failed.

The question of whether recreating historical experiences should be used as a historical method is difficult to answer. Certainly, hiking the Chemin Walter Benjamin provides a better understanding of the landscape, duration and effort of the hike from Banyuls-sur-mer to Portbou, although one has to critically reflect on possible changes (e.g., in the hiking conditions), and, consequentially, on the distance between present and past. It is very important to have a grasp of the historical facts, but it is important as well to appreciate the personal impressions and experiences which facts presented in books often cannot mediate. Considering the definition of a historical method as a procedure which allows other persons to verify findings regarding the past (Emich 2006: 58-61), hiking along Benjamin’s escape route can be considered as a historiographical method, as long as one makes one’s own procedure transparent.

However, it is important to consider that tracking as a historiographical method may not provide all information and perspectives on a topic. Therefore, it is important to consider other perspectives like Lisa Fittko’s that may provide further illumination.

To conclude, the possibility for everyone to verify findings gained during the experience of the hike, and the transparent reflection on differences and similarities between the past and the present, means that the practice of pursuing the past on the spot can be considered to be a historiographical method. This is in contrast to the activity of re-enactment, which would equate our hiking experience with Benjamin’s final journey.

Literature:

EMICH, Birgit, Geschichte der Frühen Neuzeit studieren, Konstanz 2006.

FITTKO, Lisa, Mein Weg über die Pyrenäen. Erinnerungen 1940/41, München 2005.

VÖLKEL, Markus, Methode, historische, in: Jordan, Stefan (Hrsg.): Grundbegriffe der Geschichtswissenschaft, Ditzingen 2019, S. 211-215.

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.


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