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. Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
What in the photograph looks like a beautiful landscape today, used to be a dangerous border crossing zone between France and Spain in the first half of the 20th century, which many people crossed in flight.
Flight refers to escape by way of physical movement. However, people are not always able to flee by relying only on themselves. In some cases, people are locked up, as in the case of prison inmates, and perhaps hope for the aid of guards. Others stand in front of seemingly insurmountable seas, mountains or rivers and depend on the help of people who know the landscape and its secret pathways. One such example is Walter Benjamin, who fled across the Pyrenees, this beautiful landscape depicted above, in September 1940 with the help of Lisa Fittko. Others are confronted with “closed” borders and need the support of border guards. People who flee with the help of others take risks. They have to trust others out of necessity, and thus put their destiny in their hands.
Escape assistance can take various forms. Those who provide aid can furnish provisions and hide refugees, they can also issue new passports or lead refugees across a mountain range – as Lisa Fittko did. She not only helped Walter Benjamin but also numerous other refugees to cross the Pyrenees. Escape aid is any action that is carried out to help those escaping risk of death by persecution, torture or death. Escape assistance should not be considered as lugging (Schlepperei), which is motivated by enrichment, in principle. It can be an act of resistance against a political regime, but can also be carried out for humanitarian or altruistic reasons without material motivation (even today, human trafficking without intent to enrich goes largely unpunished). Continue reading →
In 1939, around 100 internment camps were created in France, among them the one in Gurs at the bottom of the Pyrenees. Originally, this camp was built for refugees leaving Spain in the context of the Spanish Civil War. Under the Vichy Regime, the camp was used primarily for the internment of German Jews, fighters of the Résistance, and so-called hostile foreigners. During this time, the camp consisted of 428 huts, which were composed of little “ilôts” (islands), each “ilôt” separated from others by barbed wire. In 1944, the camp was used for the internment of fleeing Spanish refugees and about 300 members of the Wehrmacht. Because of the bad hygienic conditions, more than 3000 humans died in the internment camp in Gurs.
Gate of the cemetery (photo: Sarah Noske)
The “memory work” at the camp in Gurs began very early, shortly after the end of the Second World War. In 1945, the Jewish communities of the Basses-Pyrénées set up a monument to remember the Jews who had suffered or died in Gurs. In 1957, the mayor of Karlsruhe became aware of the dilapidation of the cemetery in Gurs. As 6504 Jews from Baden had been deported to Gurs in October 1940, he pleaded for the reconstruction of the cemetery. The rebuilt cemetery was officially opened in March 1963. Other communities of Baden were also involved in the renovation of the cemetery. Furthermore, two steles were erected on the grounds of the cemetery: one in the middle of the cemetery in order to commemorate the Jewish victims and another one in the entrance area. It remembers the victims of the International Brigades.
“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.”)
“Passages” by Dani Karavan (photo: Phil Kuehlthau)
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? Continue reading →
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. Continue reading →
As recently as 2015, travellers to Turin and eight other south and west European cities (Milan, Genoa, Florence and Rome, Paris and Marseille, Valencia as well as Lisbon) could take advantage of a special offer: a city tour provided by migrant residents. This initiative, co-funded by the European Union, aimed to allow visitors to experience the city “through different eyes.” The tourists took on the role of migrants whereas the latter functioned as locals. Thus, different forms of mobility – such as migration and travel – and their appendant overlaps and effects could be explored conjointly.
But the question arises: Can we indeed trace the historical experiences of heterogeneous migrants through such participatory tourist practices? Can we apply the public enactments and shared personal experiences of guided tours likewise to forms of mobility such as escape, which are associated with existential threat and which have been controversially discussed and managed, for instance since 2015? What can historians contribute in view of recent disputes in Europe and elsewhere, particularly given the necessity of balancing different historical experiences, interpretations and memories?
Following a frequently used refugee route
In some regions, refugee movements form part of public commemorative culture. Among numerous other memories, histories of flight and escape are thus immediately visible there. As part of a curricular excursion, we travelled to such a region, namely the French-Spanish Pyrenees, along with students of the Justus Liebig University Giessen in the summer term of 2019. Our focus was a 15 km trail that cuts through the mountains. This trail follows the refugee route taken by Walter Benjamin in his attempted escape from French Banyuls-sur-Mer to Portbou in Spain. Continue reading →