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.)