The Angel of History

Angelus Novus, 1920, Paul Klee, Indian ink and oil paint on paper, 31,8 x 24,2 cm, Israel Museum


The angel would have his back to the future because he was looking at the past and at those defeated and defeated by the supposed progress of history

Translated into a symbol of the angel of history by Walter Benjamin, the painting by Swiss author Paul Klee, became, under Benjamin's ownership, a revolutionary structure and from then on assumed its own history, independent of the painting's author (Baptista , 2008).

Like every symbol, its function was assumed by Walter Benjamin as presenting information that cannot be translated into words. His name was considered for the title of a newspaper, although this project did not materialize, and his analysis serves as the basis for exposing the concept of history with which Walter Benjamin would reconfigure the study of this field of research.

In the ninth thesis of his essay “On the Concept of History”, Benjamin wrote: “There is a painting by Klee called New angel. It represents an angel who seems to want to move away from something he is staring at. His eyes are wide open, his mouth is dilated, his wings are open. The angel in the story must have this aspect. His face is directed towards the past. Where we see a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe, which tirelessly piles ruin upon ruin and scatters it at our feet. He would like to stop to wake the dead and gather the fragments. But a storm blows from paradise and clings to his wings so tightly that he can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly drives him into the future, to which he turns his back, while the pile of ruins grows into the sky. This storm is what we call progress.”

The angel would have his back to the future because he was looking at the past and at those defeated and defeated by the supposed progress of history. The angel would bring a key to open the doors to the memory of history that is decanted in images, repressed in the unconscious. He defended a process of anamnestic presentification, which would be a type of ethics of discontinuity in the flow of history that has been constructed to recontextualize it.

Where current historiography celebrates the glory of genocidal heroes, the historical materialist must keep his distance, celebrating these events would be the equivalent of having empathy with the catastrophe, for him history must not only take over the tradition of the oppressed, but refound them, bringing a hope for liberation and building a new space for the dead, for the foundation of a new beginning.

Walter Benjamin would have made a “Copernican revolution” in history, just as Darwin did in biology, Newton in physics and Freud in psychology. This is due to the fact that it states that the past is always an interpretation of the present, therefore it is never something static and immobile or linear, but always subject to transformation. He tries to show that history can always be reinterpreted and remodeled, it can be told from the perspective of the defeated, the defeated, because according to him, history in the way it is narrated is always from the perspective of the victors and the dominant classes. By telling the story against the grain, we rescue the memory of the dead and humiliated people of the past and give them a place in the present.

Therefore, Walter Benjamin contradicts the positivist and evolutionary views of history that would have a dogmatic and orthodox view of progress, built on a teleological concept of linear history, which would even be permeating the historical materialism of his time, making it vulgar, such as proposed by György Lukács in his critique of Soviet realism in art.

Walter Benjamin had Jewish descent, and in Judaism he sought the idea of ​​the propitious time, which must be captured, as it escapes us. He stated that the past is not gone, but it slips out of our hands if we allow it, if every time the past flashes into the present and we don't realize that it slips away from us. The past is in ruins, but the ruins shine in the present, and in each generation a tenuous messianic force is still present, which would bring hope for social change and salvation for the dead of history.

True universal history, based on the remembrance of all victims, without exception, will only be possible in the future classless society. Friedrich Nietzsche, cited in the epigraph by Walter Benjamin, is taken as a warning that historiography must serve the present “to favor the event of a future time”, interrupting the continuity of oppression.

The rise of Nazism in Germany during the Second World War forced Walter Benjamin to go into exile in France in 1933, distancing himself from the work of Paul Klee. Two years later, a friend took her to Paris, where she stayed with Walter Benjamin until the moment when, with the non-aggression pact between Stalin and Hitler and the eastern border of Germany being free from Soviet invasion, the Nazis advanced with their troops. to Western Europe, forcing Walter Benjamin to try to escape across the French border with Spain, in June 1940. When detained crossing the border, Benjamin commits suicide.

Before leaving the French capital, Walter Benjamin took care to remove the drawing from the frame and place it next to the writings that he would like to be saved from the imminent catastrophe. His texts and Klee's work were taken care of by the writer and philosopher Georges Bataille, then an employee of the National Library who hid the material until the end of the Second World War.

Subsequently, the angel was sent to the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, then exiled in the United States, with whom Walter Benjamin corresponded, and who would return to Europe only in 1949. After years of dispute between Stefan Benjamin, only son and legal heir of Benjamin, and G. Scholem, a notable scholar of Jewish mysticism and a great friend of the philosopher, New angel arrived in Jerusalem in 1972. Ultimately, the “messenger of Kabbalah”, as Walter Benjamin sometimes called him, found his final destination as part of the collection of the Israel Museum, where he remains to this day.

According to Michael Löwy (2005), we are used to classifying different philosophies of history according to their progressive or conservative, revolutionary or nostalgic character for the past. Walter Benjamin escapes these classifications. He is a revolutionary critic of the philosophy of progress, a Marxist opponent of progressivism, a nostalgic for the past who dreams of the future, a romantic supporter of materialism. He is, in every sense of the word, unclassifiable.

Theodor W. Adorno defined him as a thinker “far from all currents” and his utopian messianism is distinguished by its strictly impersonal character: it is the messianic era of the future present in each generation in a tenuous form that interests him and not the person of the Messiah. Nothing is more distant from their spiritual and political approach than the religious cult of a charismatic savior, a prophet or an ancient hero.

Walter Benjamin would almost have been a professor of German literature at the University of São Paulo (USP), but, according to Löwy, due to some incompetent authority, the University had lost the opportunity to include Walter Benjamin in its teaching staff.

in your book Walter Benjamin: fire warning – a reading of the theses ‘On the concept of history’, Michael Löwy recalls that in a letter to Walter Benjamin, dated September 23, 1935, the cultural historian and fundamental name in XNUMXth century literary criticism, Erich Auerbach, referred to the possibility of a contract between Walter Benjamin and USP in the first years of its foundation. This document was discovered by researcher Karlheinz Barck, in the archives of Walter Benjamin kept at the Academy of Arts of the German Democratic Republic.

Writes Erich Auerbach on September 23, 1935, from Rome: “Dear Mr. Benjamin, Just now, my wife discovers in Neue Zürcher Zetitung last Saturday for your collaboration. What a joy! May you still be there, may you write, and these sounds of the disappeared homeland. Please give us a sign of where and how you are. At least a year ago, when I was looking for a teacher to teach German literature in São Paulo, I thought of you (…), I sent your address to the competent authorities – but nothing came of it…”.

Erich Auerbach was referring to the founding of the University of São Paulo, which took place the previous year, and whose first classes of professors were recruited from among European intellectuals, such as Claude-Lévi Strauss, in a project of “peripheral modernization”, which continues today.

Michael Löwy adds: “Some Brazilian writer should invent a short story with the imaginary story of the illustrious anti-fascist exile's stay in Brazil in the 1930s: his arrival in Santos in 1934, where he was received by some colleagues from USP (…); his first impressions of the country and of São Paulo, the University, the students; his difficult learning of the Portuguese language; his attempt to read Machado de Assis in the original language, with the aim of a materialist interpretation; his arrest by Dops (…), denounced as an agent of international communism; his police interrogation (…), his incarceration on a prison ship, where he meets and becomes friends with Graciliano Ramos; the notes he takes in a notebook comparing Graciliano with Brecht; and his anguish, while he waits for them to release him or deport him to Germany.”

Cidnei Marschalk is a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of São Paulo (USP).


BAPTISTA, M. R. About angels and dry leaves: around the Angelus Novus by Paul Klee. HORIZON – Journal of Theology and Religious Sciences Studies, v. 7, no. 13, p. 127-141, 3 Dec. 2008.

WELCOME, V. “Brushing history against the grain”: Walter Benjamin’s contributions to the dialectical conception of history. Necessary Work Magazine, v. 18, no. 35, p. 20-37, 23 Jan. 2020.

BENJAMIN, Walter. “On the Concept of History” (1940). In: Selected Works, v. I, Magic and technique, art and politics. Translated by Sérgio Paulo Rouanet.

IMBROISI, Margaret; MARTINS, Simone. Angelus Novus, Paul Klee. History of the Arts, 2023. Available at:

LÖWY, Michael. Walter Benjamin: fire warning. A reading of the theses “On the concept of History”. Sao Paulo: Boitempo, 2005.

the earth is round exists thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.

See this link for all articles