Quoting German Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) out of context has become a mark of intellectual refinement. It takes books like Howard Eiland and Michael Jennings’s Walter Benjamin: A Critical Life (2014), which include detailed cultural history, to show his true originality, a goal I try to advance in Religion Around Walter Benjamin.
Writing this book gave me the chance to investigate the overlooked religious landscape of Benjamin’s Berlin beyond his small circle to the clergy, laity, occultists, and secularists of his world. Since most accounts of the city neglect its dynamic religious history, I found myself poring over primary sources in Jewish, Catholic, Evangelical (Lutheran), and municipal archives, and I learned that religious institutions and the religiosity of mass culture lay at the heart of the political and economic turmoil of the times. Prussian political theology fueled the nationalism behind World War I, and the defeat that resulted led immediately to the collapse the bond between church and state (Thron und Altar) and a violent revolution. Polarization of secular socialists and Christian nationalists, which had been growing since the beginning of the century, accelerated. The swing votes held by the predominantly-Catholic Center Party shifted to the right, and the Weimar Republic dissolved in 1933.
Benjamin grew up in a Berlin facing meteoric growth and change. The city’s population more than doubled between 1890 and 1925, particularly among working-class Jewish and Catholic populations migrating from Eastern Europe. Meanwhile, Benjamin’s upper-middle-class family moved further and further to the west, finally settling in Grunewald. Education in the humanistic youth movement of Gustav Wyneken led Benjamin to literary and philosophical studies, wartime exile in Switzerland, and a shaky career as a freelance scholar and critic. Self-aware as a member of the educated middle class (Bildungsbürgertum), Benjamin criticized intellectuals and authors like Alfred Döblin who presumed to capture life among the city’s poor. Benjamin’s writings about Berlin focus rather on the sensory experience of its markets, monuments, and Christmas celebrations, gesturing at the boundary between institutional religion and modern mass culture. In a 1929 piece written for radio, he writes:
We still hear of a puppet show, a silent one, which used to be performed in Berlin around Christmastime. It’s actually a secular Berlin variation on the South German nativity scene, and it’s called “Theatrum mundi,” or “Theater of the World.” On stage you would see various, parallel-running depictions of daily life, separated from one another by simple set pieces and continuously moving along invisible rollers. Wild game pursued by hunters and hounds; wagons, riders, and pedestrians; grazing cattle; steamships and sailboats; a train; boys scuffling about—everything came again and went in set intervals. It was a sort of mechanical forerunner to today’s cinema.1
The “theater of the world” contains many of Benjamin’s favorite antitheses: art and life, modern technology and its mechanical precursors, secularity and religion. More than grand churches and synagogues, Benjamin regarded such popular traditions, and the mass culture that emerged from them, as vital to understanding his religious environment.
Benjamin’s attunement to religion helped him to recognize the political dangers of his time. Long before he denounced the overheated writings of Ernst Jünger as “German fascism” in 1930, Benjamin understood that efforts to replace religious institutions through science, art, and nationalism, were themselves religious. While anyone could see that the volatility of Weimar Germany was political and economic, Benjamin exposed its religious undercurrents through his idiosyncratic and wide-ranging essays on literature and culture.
Researching Religion Around Walter Benjamin showed me how deeply Benjamin’s work engaged the religious life and thought of his day. Though he rarely set foot inside a church or synagogue, his scrupulous research on particular works and phenomena, from children’s toys and public signage to the parks and streets of Berlin and Paris, acknowledged their connections to religion and religiosity. And despite his reputation as a Jewish thinker, Benjamin read and understood more deeply in Christian sources, including Karl Barth’s Epistle to the Romans, a work that shared Benjamin’s mistrust of religious and political institutions alike. Benjamin made friends and engaged in dialogues with Christian thinkers like Florens Christian Rang and Karl Thieme who shared his literary sensibilities and antipathy for German nationalism.
As a free-lance scholar and journalist, Benjamin produced multiple experiments that challenged the foundations of German political theology. These efforts were rarely straightforward, and some were barely legible to his audience. In typically recondite fashion, Benjamin addressed the crisis of Weimar political theology in a book about seventeenth-century plays, The Origin of German Tragic Drama (Trauerspiel). Through analysis of tragedy and allegory in these early modern texts, Benjamin engaged the crises of sovereignty and religious legitimacy that beset Germany after the loss of World War I and the collapse of Wilhelmine church-state order.
One-way Street, a collection of experimental prose aphorisms and sketches published in the same year as Origin (1928), includes some of Benjamin’s fullest descriptions of lived religion, most of which come from his travels outside Germany. Benjamin described the Italian town of Atrani thus:
The gently rising, curved baroque staircase leading to the church. The railing behind the church. The litanies of the old women at the “Ave Maria”: preparing to die first-class. If you turn around, the church verges like God himself on the sea. Each morning the Christian era crumbles the rock, but between the walls below, the night falls always into the four old Roman quarters. Alleyways like air shafts. A well in the marketplace. In the late afternoon, women around it. Then, in solitude: archaic plashing.2
Benjamin’s habits of discerning the religion around him led to this well-known description of the angel of history illustrated by one of his favorite possessions, Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus:
His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which piles wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them.3
Angelus Novus (1920) by Paul Klee. Israel Museum, Jerusalem
Gazing at the “wreckage” of history, the angel’s eyes meet the spectator’s, breaking the plane of the picture to suggest a brief moment of shared awareness. This encounter between catastrophe and consciousness epitomizes Benjamin’s concept of the “dialectical image,” and the combination of religion and modernity contained even in the title of the Angelus Novus is one of its key elements.
Benjamin found a counterpart to the angel’s critical potential and religious resonance in the figure of the itinerant urban spectator: the flâneur. Tied to his studies of nineteenth-century Paris and modelled on Edgar Allen Poe’s “Man of the Crowd” (1840), the flâneur wandered the modern city without a particular destination or purpose in mind. But like the scholar and critic, the flâneur practiced habits of seeing and discernment that combined the functions of priest and detective: “The flâneur is the priest of the genius loci. This nondescript pedestrian, with a cleric’s dignity and a detective’s nose—there is something about him, about his diffident omniscience, of that master criminologist, Chesterton’s Father Brown.”4 Practicing his own “diffident omniscience,” Walter Benjamin uncovered religious clues in his landscape that exposed the political dangers concealed within it.