Benjamin, Walter (1892-1940)

Walter Benjamin was a German philosopher, literary critic, and writer who worked in exile in Paris after 1933. Besides being the author of Berlin Childhood around 1900 (Berliner Kindheit um neunzehnhundert) which was written throughout the 1930s, Benjamin published book-length studies on the Romantic concept of criticism, on Goethe, and on allegory and melancholy in the German mourning play, along with influent critical essays on authors such as Kafka, Proust and Baudelaire, as well as a seminal essay on art in the age of technical reproduction. As part of his research for the Frankfurt Institute of Social Research, Benjamin worked until his death on the Passagen-Werk (his so-called Arcades Project), studying the glass covered passages of nineteenth-century Paris as a microcosm of urban modernity.

Resulting from Benjamin's passion for children's books and Russian toys as well as his activity as a radio narrator for children around 1930, his urban childhood memoir Berlin Childhood reflects upon the experiences of children in private and public spaces of the metropolis. Originally conceived by Benjamin as a way of writing on contemporary Berlin issues, his childhood recollections soon turned away from chronological narrative in order to explore a deliberately fragmented mode of literary presentation. Focusing on the spaces and images through which childhood becomes mentally accessible to the adult writer, aged forty, in the light of his present situation, Berlin Childhood is composed of more than thirty minor chapters that may be read separately or arranged in various configurations. Detailed descriptions of bourgeois interiors as (uncannily) experienced by a child join renderings of the child's encounters with public places such as the Tiergarten park or a market hall as well as with urban characters inhabiting the real and imaginary world of urban childhood. In this way, modern urban childhood is represented in a series of enigmatic and intimate miniatures.

Benjamin's Berlin Childhood provides insight into a variety of private, semi-private, and public spaces, all of which prove important to the amnesia of an intellectual adult living an insecure life after having fled the Nazi regime of Germany in early 1933. As a modern literary critic and intellectual, Benjamin was trying to understand what was fundamental about childhood as a contemporary urban experience. Although the narrator's childhood was indeed socially privileged, the young individual's entire experience is recalled under the sign of what Benjamin terms "entstellte Ähnlichkeit" (disfigured similitude). The child identifies fully with the things, images, and words surrounding him; on the other hand, this mimetic approach takes the elements of the world for granted to such an extent that reality appears as magic or at least as inhabited by many forces–contradicting the idea of an autonomous individual mastering his own life. In this way, a powerful constellation of mimesis and "misunderstandings" (from the adult point of view) is laid bare at various situations of everyday life that seem to anticipate and even out-line the adult urban life of the narrator in exile. With a description of the particular approach to life provided by the backyard "Loggias" of his childhood apartment, Benjamin establishes a literary self-portrait of an extraterritorial child, neither fully inside the family apartment nor successfully integrated into the society of the metropolis. With all its contradictions, this Berlin childhood seems to point out the cultural and social sphere of the city as the adequate place for addressing the essential issues of modern life, private and public alike.

A preface by Benjamin, found in the only version of Berlin Childhood to provide a table of contents indicating the order of the individual chapters, also outlines some of the basic methodological assumptions informing the book. Writing his urban childhood memories first in order to limit nostalgia in exile, the narrator further suggests to leave out individual details, focusing, instead, on "the images… in which the experience of the metropolis settles in a child of the bourgeois class," as Benjamin terms it (1989, p. 385). In this way, the author hopes to contribute to a new literary and historiographic genre, capable of providing a language that may successfully articulate the experiences of childhood in the modern city.

See also: Autobiographies.


Barlyng, Marianne, and Henrik Reeh, ed. 2001. Walter Benjamins Berlin: 33 laesninger i Barndom i Berlin omkring a r 1900. (Walter Benjamin's Berlin: 33 readings into Berlin Childhood around 1900.) Hellerup, Denmark: Spring Publishers.

Benjamin, Walter. 1972-1989. Gesammelte Schriften, vol. I–VII. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

Benjamin, Walter. 1985. "Berliner Chronik." In Gesammelte Schriften, vol. VI, pp. 465-519.

Benjamin, Walter. 1989. "Berliner Kindheit um neunzehnhundert [Fassung letzter Hand]." In Gesammelte Schriften, vol. VII, pp. 385-433.