Seventy-five years ago this week, after nearly a decade in exile, health failing, and facing internment and transfer to a concentration camp, Walter Benjamin ended his own life with a massive dose of morphine. Much of what we know of Benjamin’s final years comes from what remains of his long correspondence with Theodor Adorno and with Gershom Scholem, among others, a body of letters through which he relates his increasingly precarious position in Europe. The letter below, dated August 2nd, 1940, was Benjamin’s last message to Adorno, save a brief note penned the night of his death.
I was delighted to receive your letter of 15 July for a number of reasons–for one, because you kindly remembered my birthday; and for another, because of the great understanding which spoke from your words. No, it really is not that easy for me to write letters. I spoke to Felizitas1 about the enormous uncertainty in which I ﬁnd myself concerning my writings (although I fear rather less for the notes and papers connected with the Arcades project2 than I do for the other materials). But as you know, things currently look no better for me personally than they do for my works. The circumstances that suddenly befell me in September3 could easily be repeated at any time, but now with a wholly different prospect. In the last few months, I have seen a good number of people who have not so much simply drifted out of their steady bourgeois existence as plunged headlong from it almost overnight; thus every reassurance provides an inner succor that is less problematic than the external support. And in this sense I was profoundly grateful to receive the document4 addressed “à ceux qu’il apartment.” I can easily imagine that the letterhead5, which was a delightful surprise, could signiﬁcantly reinforce the possible effect of the document.
The complete uncertainty about what the next day, even the next hour, may bring has dominated my life for weeks now. I am condemned to read every newspaper (they now come out on a single sheet here) as if it were a summons served on me in particular, to hear the voice of fateful tidings in every radio broadcast. My attempt to reach Marseilles, in order to put my case at the Consulate there, was a wasted effort. For some time now it has been impossible for foreign nationals to obtain a permit for a change of residence. Thus I remain dependent on what all of you are doing for me from abroad. In particular, the prospect of hearing something from the Consulate in Marseilles renewed my hopes somewhat. A letter from the Consulate there would probably get me permission to go down to Marseilles. (I am actually still unable to decide whether I should make contact with any Consulates in the occupied territories. A letter which I sent to Bordeaux before the German occupation, received a fairly cordial but noncommittal answer: the required documents were still in Paris.)
I have heard something about your negotiations with Havana and your efforts concerning San Domingo. I am quite sure you are doing everything humanly possible, and indeed “more than humanly possible” as Felizitas puts it, to help me. My great fear is that we have much less time at our disposal than we imagined. And although I would not have contemplated the possibility a fortnight ago, new information received has moved me to ask Mme Favez, with the intervention of Carl Burckhardt, if she could possibly obtain permission for me to visit Switzerland on a temporary basis. I realize there is much to be said against trying this escape route, but there is one very powerful argument in its favor: and that is time. If only this way out were possible! – I have written a letter to Burckhardt for help.
You will be getting my curriculum vitae via Geneva–which is also how I shall probably be sending these lines. I have incorporated the bibliography of my writings into the biographical information because I don’t have the resources here to organize the material more precisely. (All in all it comes to approximately 450 items.) If a bibliography in the narrower sense is still required, the Institute’s ofﬁcial prospectus contains one you could use. I cannot provide you with a better one at present.
It is a great comfort for me to know that you remain “reachable” in New York, and constantly watchful, in the deepest sense, for me. Mr. Merril Moore lives in Boston at 384 Commonwealth Avenue. Mrs. W. Bryher, the publisher of Life and Letters Today has often mentioned me to him. He probably has a good idea of my situation and the will to do something to help. I think it might be worthwhile for you to get in touch with him.
For the rest, you can be sure that I have learned to value the efforts which Mrs. Favez is making on my behalf and her general reliability very much indeed.
I am very sorry to hear that Felizitas’ condition remains so unstable and that she will be unable to proﬁt from a relaxing holiday break this time. Please give her my heartfelt regards.
Could you also pass on my sincere thanks and kindest regards to Herr Pollock.
Lots of love from your
PS Please forgive the painfully complete signature: it is ofﬁcially required.
- Felizitas: Benjamin’s nickname for Adorno’s wife, Gretel
- the notes and papers connected with the Arcades project: Benjamin had handed these over to Georges Bataille, who concealed them in the Bibliotheque Nationale.
- The circumstances that suddenly befell me in September: Benjamin is referring here to his internment, ﬁrst outside Paris and subsequently at Nevers.
- the document: i.e. ofﬁcially conﬁrming Benjamin’s association with the Institute.
- the letterhead: the document in question appeared on the ofﬁcial headed paper of The Institute of Social Research, on which the name Walter Benjamin was also printed. In response to Hannah Arendt’s attacks on Adorno and the Institute in her essay “Walter Benjamin,” Friedrich Pollock later wrote to Hans Paeschke, the editor of Merkur, as follows: “In view of the rather scholastic philological precision which informs the polemic against Adorno, I can certainly inform you that documentary conﬁrmation of Benjamin’s position in the Institute is available. I possess some ofﬁcial headed letter-paper from the Institute in New York which lists, under the head of “Research Staff,” the two directors ﬁrst, and then the names of the “members” of the Institute in alphabetical order. The list commences with the names: “Theodor W. Adorno, Walter Benjamin...”