The Magazine

The Mysterious Death of Walter Benjamin

The famed critical theorist is widely believed to have committed suicide while fleeing the Nazis. Was he actually murdered by Stalin's agents.

Jun 11, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 37 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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TO MANY CONTEMPORARY INTELLECTUALS, especially academics of postmodern outlook, the radical German writer Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) embodies the restless consciousness of the past century. Jewish and Marxist, a critic and philosopher, he was little known during his lifetime. But after his death—he is widely believed to have committed suicide in Spain, as he attempted to flee the Nazis to America—his essays were collected and translated into English in the ’60s and ’70s. These challenging works form the basis for his standing as a leading social critic of his day.

His friend and admirer Hannah Arendt called Benjamin "probably the most peculiar Marxist ever." A connoisseur of esthetics more than an economic determinist, he wrote outside the rigid strictures of the Marxist canon. While his associates Theodor W. Adorno and Bertolt Brecht embraced Stalinism (the former ambivalently, the latter enthusiastically), Benjamin was more interested in the artistic radicalism of the French Surrealists. His essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" has been read by legions of university students; but the last major work verifiably his, an essay entitled "Theses on the Philosophy of History" written just months before he died, represents something more important: one of the most insightful analyses of the failure of Marxism ever produced.

Seen by enthusiasts as a kind of latterday Rimbaud, a genius whose work was submerged amid the noise of his capitalist surroundings, and whose life was cut short, Benjamin today—make no mistake—is a superstar. An Amazon search for his name calls up 304 titles—including a memoir by Larry McMurtry, Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen: Reflections at Sixty and Beyond. And central to his cult among leftist academics is his suicide.

Benjamin died at a hotel in the Catalan town of Portbou in late September 1940, having just crossed the Pyrenees on foot from France with several companions. A manuscript he reportedly carried with him to the end has disappeared. Thus, his death—in Franco’s Spain, as he fled the Nazi invasion of France—is held to epitomize the destruction of the modern intellect by fascism. Yet a careful analysis of the evidence points toward a different conclusion—that Walter Benjamin was murdered by Soviet agents.

This conclusion rests not on any smoking gun, but on two lines of detective work: first, showing how tenuous in all its particulars is the generally accepted story of the suicide; second, showing how thoroughly plausible is the deliberate liquidation of such a man in that time and place. To make this case requires an excursion into the murky world of leftist-intellectual intrigue in wartime Europe.

In a feature in the Times Literary Supplement of February 9, 2001, Lesley Chamberlain, a writer on Freud, reviewed the essentials of the accepted account of the suicide. "Benjamin’s famous fate," wrote Chamberlain, "was to fall afoul of the Spanish police . . . who determined to put him on a train [back] to France the next day. Ill, exhausted, and hearing that he was beginning a rail journey that would surely lead to his death in a concentration camp, he overdosed on morphine. Shocked by his demise, or confused as to their orders, the Spanish police allowed the remaining party to continue." Comments Chamberlain, "The history that murdered Benjamin was brutal and nonsensical."

Apart from Benjamin’s fear of the Nazis, none of Chamberlain’s factual assertions can be confirmed. Momme Brodersen, author of Walter Benjamin: A Biography, published in English in 1997 and incorporating recent research, concedes this. "None of the new evidence contradicts [the suicide story], although it does not categorically confirm it either." Documentation of Benjamin’s death by a Spanish judge shows no evidence of the presence of drugs. A doctor’s report states that a cerebral hemorrhage, perhaps aggravated by the exertion of crossing the Pyrenees, killed him. Strangely, the New York German Jewish weekly Aufbau, two weeks after his death, printed an account in which Benjamin committed suicide by swallowing poison "before the horrified eyes of his four women companions."

One of those women, Henny Gurland, is the source of the only contemporaneous document purporting to support the suicide theory, a document often referred to as the "suicide note."