The Path of Escape in the Age of Touristic Reproduction

Phil Kuehlthau

Graffiti at the wayside (photo: Phil Kuehlthau)

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

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. Continue reading

Memory-Work in Process? The Internment Camp in Gurs

Sarah Noske

Memorial site in Gurs (photo: Dennis Riemann)

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.

Cemetry (photo: Sarah Noske)

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The “Chemin Walter Benjamin” in the Competition of Remembrance

Sarah Noske

“Passages” by Dani Karavan (photo: Dennis Riemann)

“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