Theology and antifascism in Walter Benjamin

Carmela Gross, VULTURE, series BANDO, 2016


Benjamin was one of the first intellectuals of the German left to denounce the ideology of fascism

The growth of fascism in Italy, Germany, Austria, Spain, throughout the first half of the XNUMXth century, was often supported, legitimized and authorized by Christian-theological arguments. Carl Schmidt is only the most erudite representative of this reactionary use of the theological heritage. However, both Christian and Jewish authors also find a theological hermeneutics at the service of anti-fascism and socialism (utopian, libertarian or Marxist). Walter Benjamin is one of the most interesting representatives of this approach; his reflection is especially inspired by Jewish messianic references, but Christian figures and images also appear in his political-theological discourse.

Benjamin was one of the first intellectuals of the German left to denounce the ideology of fascism. In 1930 he published a polemical article against the mystical cult of war in Ernst Jünger, under the title “Theories of German Fascism”. The conclusion of this text is unambiguous: to the “magic” discourse on the war of the fascists, it is necessary to oppose “the Marxist sleight of hand which, alone, is capable of combating this obscure enchantment” – namely, the metamorphosis of war into “war”. civil"'.[I] After the seizure of power by Nazism and his exile (1933), the fight against fascism continued to feed his writings. Proof of this is the renowned conclusion of the essay on “The work of art in the age of its technical reproducibility” (1935): against the fascist aestheticization of politics, Marxists must answer for the politicization of art. If, in his texts, fascism appears as a strange amalgam of archaic culture and technological modernity, it is this second aspect that predominates in the second half of the 1930s.

In his last text, the Theses About the concept of history (1940), we find a bitter critique of the illusions of the left – prisoner of the ideology of linear progress – regarding fascism, which this ideology seems to consider an exception to the norm of progress, an inexplicable “regression”, a parenthesis in the march forward of the humanity.

Two examples illustrate what the author of the Theses means:

– For social democracy, fascism was a vestige of the past, anachronistic and pre-modern. Karl Kautsky, in his writings from the 1920s, explained that fascism was only possible in a semi-agrarian country like Italy, but could never be installed in a modern and industrialized nation like Germany...

– As for the official (Stalinist) communist movement, it was convinced that Hitler's victory in 1933 would be ephemeral: a matter of a few weeks or a few months, until the Nazi regime was overthrown by workers and progressive forces, under enlightened leadership of the KPD (German Communist Party).

Benjamin had perfectly understood the modernity of fascism, its intimate relationship with contemporary industrial/capitalist society. Hence his criticism, in Thesis VIII, of those who were surprised by the fact that fascism was “still” possible in the XNUMXth century, blinded by the illusion according to which scientific, industrial and technical progress is incompatible with social and political barbarism. . There must be, observes Benjamin in one of the preparatory notes to the Theses, a theory of history from which fascism can be unveiled (sighted).[ii] Only a conception without progressive illusions can account for a phenomenon like fascism, deeply rooted within modern industrial and technical “progress”, which was possible, in the last analysis, in the XNUMXth century. The understanding that fascism can triumph in the most “civilized” countries and that “progress” will not automatically make it disappear will allow us to improve our position in the anti-fascist struggle, thinks Benjamin. A struggle whose supreme objective is to produce “the true state of exception”, that is, the abolition of domination, the classless society.

From 1933 onwards, and even more so after the Munich Treaty of 1938, the Soviet Union appeared in Benjamin's eyes, as in the eyes of numerous leftist intellectuals throughout Europe, as the only recourse against the fascist threat, the last barrier to imperialist pretensions of the Third Reich. In a letter dated August 3, 1938 to Max Horkheimer, he expresses, “with great reserve”, the hope, “at least for the time being”, that the Soviet regime – which he describes unadornedly as a “dictatorship personal with all its terror” – as “the agent of our interests in a future war”. Benjamin adds that it is an agent that “costs the greatest imaginable value, insofar as the price of sacrifices is paid, which particularly erodes the interests that are close as producers” – an expression that undoubtedly refers to the emancipation of workers. and to socialism.[iii] The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (1939) will strongly undermine this last illusion.

It is probably to this event that he refers in Thesis X, when speaking of “politicians in whom the opponents of fascism had placed their hope”, who “lay down almost dead on the ground” and “aggravate their defeat, betraying their own cause”. The expression undoubtedly seeks the communists (Stalinists), who “betrayed their cause” by collaborating with Hitler. More precisely, the phrase refers to the KPD (German Communist Party), which, unlike the Soviet CP, “spread out on the ground”. According to Benjamin, the hope of a consistent fight against fascism is raised by the communist movement, much more than by social democracy. However, the pact undermined that hope. “Treason” designates not only the agreement between Molotov and Ribbentrop, but also its legitimization by the different European communist parties that will adopt the Soviet “line”.[iv] Indeed, Benjamin shares the categorical condemnation of the treaty with several other dissident German communists exiled in Paris, such as his friend Heinrich Blücher (Hannah Arendt's husband), Willy Münzenberg or Manes Sperber.[v]

It is also from 1938 onwards that a theological dimension – very present in his youthful writings – reappeared in his works and strongly impregnated his anti-fascist reflection – which did not fail to refer to Marxian historical materialism.

That year, Benjamin published an article on the novel by exiled German-Jewish communist writer Anna Seghers, Dis retung (The Rescue), under the title “A Chronicle of the German Unemployed” (1938). This surprising text in many ways can be considered a kind of sequel to the great essay on “The Narrator” of 1936: Seghers is presented not as a novelist, but as a narrator (Erzahkerin), and his book as a chronicle (Chronicle), which gives it a high spiritual and political value. Benjamin compares her art to that of pre-perspective miniatures, or of chroniclers of the Middle Ages, whose characters live in an age that "perceives the Kingdom of God as a catastrophe". The catastrophe that befell German unemployed and working people, the Third Reich, is the exact opposite of this. Reich Gottes: “she is something like her mirror image (Gegenbild), the advent of Antichrist. As is known, this imitates the blessing promised by the messianic age. In an analogous way, the Third Reich imitates socialism”.[vi] What Benjamin outlines here – about a communist-inspired novel! – is a type of theological, Judeo-Christian critique of Nazism as a false messiah, as an antichrist, as a diabolical manifestation of an evil, deceitful and cunning spirit. As is well known, the Antichrist is an archaic figure who appears for the first time in the Epistles of John, but whose origins lie in the notion of antimessiah already present in Judaism. Eschatological in nature, it designates an evil impostor who tries, shortly before the end of the world, to substitute himself for Jesus Christ.

Socialism is thus interpreted, theologically, by Benjamin as the equivalent of the messianic promise, while the Hitler regime, this immense mystification that proclaims itself “national socialist”, is akin to the Antichrist, that is, to the infernal powers: the expression “ radiant nazi hell” (die strahlende Nazihölle) appears later in the text. Benjamin had probably been inspired, to sketch this surprising parallel, in the writings of his friend and correspondent, the Protestant theologian – and militant revolutionary socialist – Swiss Frits Lieb, who, since 1934, had defined Nazism as the modern Antichrist. On the occasion of a lecture in 1938, Lieb had expressed his hope of seeing the defeat of the Antichrist in a last fight against the Jews, the appearance of the Messiah – the Christ – and the establishment of his Millennial Kingdom.[vii]

After paying homage to Anna Seghers for having courageously and unambiguously recognized the failure of the revolution in Germany, Benjamin concludes his text with an anguished question: “Will these human beings be able to release?” (Werden sich diese Menschen befreien?) The only hope would be a Redemption (Salvation) – yet another messianic concept – but where would it come from? The answer, this time, is profane: salvation will come from children, the proletarian children the novel talks about.

The concept of “Antichrist” is found again in the Theses of 1940. In Thesis VI, “the messiah does not come only as redeemer, but as victor of Antichrist”. In commenting on this passage, Tiedemann observes an unusual paradox: “Nowhere else does Benjamin speak in such a directly theological way, but nowhere else does he have such a materialist intention”. It is necessary to recognize in the Messiah the proletarian class and in the Antichrist the dominant classes.[viii]

The observation is pertinent, but I would have to add some precisions. Benjamin is aware that the proletarian masses can be mystified by fascism. In an article written for the Pontigny Lecture on Baudelaire (1939), Benjamin observed that crowds are today "shaped by the hands of dictators". But he does not lose hope of “seeing, in the submissive crowds, cores of resistance – cores that formed the revolutionary masses of Forty-eight and the Communards".[ix] In other words: in a moment of extreme danger, a savior constellation is presented, linking the present to the past. A past where, despite everything, shines, in the night shadow of triumphing fascism, the star of hope, the messianic star of redemption – the Stern of Erlösung by Franz Rsenzweig – the spark of revolutionary insurrection.

According to Benjamin, the equivalent – ​​the “correspondent”, in the sense of the correspondences of Baudelaire – profane of the Messiah are, today, the anti-fascist resistance nuclei, the future revolutionary masses heirs to the tradition of June 1848 and April and May 1871. As for the Antichrist – which he does not hesitate to integrate within his messianic argument of explicitly Jewish inspiration –, its secular counterpart is not, as we see above, the “ruling classes in general”, but the Hitlerian Third Reich.

How can this messianic theology be articulated with historical materialism?

This question is clearly unraveled by Benjamin in Thesis I. To account for this paradoxical association between materialism and theology, Benjamin will create a allegory ironic: a chess-playing automaton – historical materialism – that can win every game thanks to a dwarf hidden inside the device – theology.

Let's try to decipher the meaning of the elements that make up this strange allegory. First, the automaton: it is a doll or puppet “which we call 'historical materialism'”. The use of quotation marks and the form of the sentence suggest that this automaton is not "true" historical materialism, but what is commonly called so. “Commonly” by whom? The main spokesmen of Marxism at the time, that is, the ideologues of the Second and Third Internationals. According to Benjamin, historical materialism effectively becomes, in their hands, a method that sees history as a kind of machine driving automatically to the triumph of socialism. for this materialism mechanic, the development of the productive forces, economic progress, the “laws of history”, necessarily lead automatically to the final crisis of capitalism and the victory of the proletariat (communist version) or to the reforms that will gradually transform society (social-democratic version ). However, this automaton, this puppet, this mechanical puppet, is not capable of win the game.

“Winning the game” has a double meaning here:

– correctly interpret history, fight against the oppressors' view of history;

– defeat the historical enemy itself, the ruling classes – in 1940: the fascism.

For Benjamin, the two meanings are closely linked, in the indissoluble unity between theory and practice: without a correct interpretation of history, it is difficult, if not impossible, to fight fascism effectively. The defeat of the Marxist labor movement – ​​in Germany, Austria, Spain, France – against fascism demonstrates the inability of this soulless puppet, this senseless automaton, to “win the game” – a game where the future of society is being played. humanity.

To win, historical materialism needs the help of theology: it is the dwarf hidden inside the machine. This allegory is, as you know, inspired by a short story by Edgar Allan Poe – translated by Baudelaire – that Benjamin knew very well: “Maelzel's chess player”. It is a chess-playing automaton presented in 1769 at the court of Vienna by Baron Wolfgang von Kempelen and which will end, after several adventures, in the United States, in a tour organized by a Viennese inventor-entrepreneur, Johann Nepomuk Maelzel. Poe describes this automaton as a figure "clothed turquoise style”, whose “left hand holds a pipe” and who, if it were a machine “should always win” chess games. One of Poe's explanation hypotheses is that a dwarf, previously hidden inside the device, "made the machine move". The similarity – almost word for word – with Thesis I is obvious.[X]

In my view, the link between Poe's text and Benjamin's Thesis is not just anecdotal. The philosophical conclusion of “Maelzel's Chess Player” is the following: “It is certain that the operations of the automaton are governed by the spirit and not for something else”. O spirit from Poe becomes in Benjamin the theology, this is, the messianic spirit, without which historical materialism cannot “win the game”, nor the revolution triumph over fascism.

It seems to me that Ralph Tiedemann is mistaken when, in his book on Benjamin's Theses – a very interesting one at that – he writes: “The theological dwarf is dead too, because he has become a piece of a dead apparatus. The automaton assembly is dead, and already perhaps represents the death camp and the ruins of Thesis IX.”[xi] If the set, dwarf included, were dead and ruined, how can he win the game against the opponent? What the thesis suggests is exactly the opposite: thanks to the vivifying action of the dwarf, the whole becomes alive and active.

Theology, like the dwarf in the allegory, can act today in only one way. hidden inside of historical materialism. In a rationalist and agnostic age, she is an “ugly, shrunken old woman” (Benjamin's translation) who has to be hidden…. Interestingly, Benjamin does not seem to conform to this rule, for in the Theses, theology is really visible. Perhaps this is advice to the document's readers: use theology, but don't show it. Or else, as the text was not intended for publication, it was not necessary to hide the hunchbacked dwarf from public view. In any case, the reasoning is analogous to that of a note from the Book of Parisian Passages, which Benjamin had integrated into the preparatory materials for the Theses: “My thought behaves towards theology like a blotter with ink. He is totally impregnated with it. But if the blotter dominated, nothing that is written would exist”.[xii] Once again, the image of a determining – but invisible – presence of theology at the heart of “profane” thought. By the way, the image is quite curious: in fact, as those who practiced this now-disused instrument know, traces of writing in ink are always left on the surface of the blotter, but mirrored!

What does “theology” mean for Benjamin? The term refers to two fundamental concepts: the remembrance (Eingedanken) and messianic redemption (Erlösung). Both are essential components of the new “concept of history” that the Theses build.

How, then, to interpret the relationship between theology and materialism? This question is presented in an eminently paradoxical way in the allegory: first, the theological dwarf appears as the master of the automaton, which he uses as an instrument; however, at the end, it is written that the dwarf is “at the service” of the automaton. What does this inversion mean? One hypothesis would be that Benjamin wants to show the dialectical complementarity between the two: theology and historical materialism are sometimes master, sometimes servant, they are at once each other's master and servant, they need each other.

The idea according to which theology is “at the service” of materialism must be taken seriously – a formula that reverses the traditional scholastic definition of philosophy as ancila theologiae, “servant of theology”. Theology for Benjamin is not an objective in itself, it does not aim at the ineffable contemplation of eternal truths, and even less, as its etymology indicates, the reflection on the nature of the divine Being: it is in service of the struggle of the oppressed. More precisely, it must serve to re-establish the explosive, messianic, revolutionary force of historical materialism – reduced to a miserable automaton by its epigones. The historical materialism that Benjamin deals with in the following theses is what results from this vivification, this spiritual activation by theology.

According to Gerhard Kaiser, in the Theses, Benjamin “theologizes Marxism. True historical materialism is true theology […]. His philosophy of history is a theology of history”. This kind of interpretation destroys the delicate balance between the two components, reducing one to the other. Any one-sided reductionism – in one sense as in the other – is incapable of accounting for the dialectic between theology and materialism and their reciprocal necessity.

Conversely, Krista Greffrath thinks that “Thesis theology is a auxiliary construction […] needed to wrest the tradition of the past from the hands of its current managers”. This interpretation runs the risk of giving an overly contingent and instrumental of theology, when it is actually an essential dimension of Benjamin's thought since his first writings in 1913.

Finally, Heinz-Dieter Kittsteiner believes he perceives a kind of distinction in functions between the puppet and the dwarf: “Historical materialism faces the present as a Marxist, the past as a theologian of remembrance.” However, this division of labor is not consistent with Benjamin's ideas: according to him, Marxism is as necessary for understanding the past as theology for present and future action.[xiii]

In order to better understand the significance of messianism in Benjamin, it is useful to analyze an important passage from Thesis II: “There is a secret meeting scheduled between the preceding generations and ours. So someone on Earth has been waiting for us. If so, we have been given, like every generation before ours, a fragile messianic force to which the past appeals”. In other words, messianic/revolutionary redemption is a task assigned to us by past generations. There is no Messiah sent from heaven: we are the messiah, each generation holds a portion of the messianic power that it has to exercise.

The heretical hypothesis, from the point of view of Orthodox Judaism, of a “messianic force” (Messianische Kraft) attributed to humans is also presented in other central European Jewish thinkers, such as Martin Buber.[xiv] However, while, for him, it is an auxiliary force, which allows us to cooperate with God in the work of redemption, in Benjamin this duality seems to be erased – in the sense of canceled. God is absent and the messianic task is entirely entrusted to human generations. The only possible messiah is collective: humanity itself – and more precisely, as we will see later, oppressed humanity. It is not about waiting for the Messiah, or calculating the day of his arrival - as in the Kabbalists and other Jewish mystics practicing the guematria – but to act collectively. Redemption is a self-redemption, of which we can find the profane equivalent in Marx: men make their own history, the emancipation of the workers will be the work of the workers themselves.

Why is this messianic power weak (schwache)? This is perhaps the melancholy conclusion that draws Benjamin from the past and present failures of the emancipatory struggle. Redemption is anything but certain; it is only a small possibility that one must know how to grasp.

According to Jürgen Habermas, the right that the past exercises over our messianic power “can only be respected if we constantly renew the critical effort of the look that sees a historical past claiming its liberation”.[xv] This observation is legitimate, however too restrictive. Messianic power is not only contemplative – “the look on the past”. he is also active: redemption is a revolutionary task that takes place in the present. It is not just about memory, but, as Thesis I reminds us, it is about win the game against a potent and dangerous adversary: ​​fascism. If Jewish prophetism is at the same time the reminder of a promise and the call to a radical transformation, in Benjamin the power of the prophetic tradition and the radicalism of Marxist criticism unite in the demand for a salvation that is not the simple restitution of the past, but the active transformation of the present. In September 1940, Benjamin was arrested by Spanish police in Port-Bou, on the border between Vichy France and Franco's Spain. Threatened with being handed over to the Gestapo, he chooses suicide: this was his last act of resistance to fascism.

*Michael Lowy is director of research at Scientific Research National Center (France); author, among other books, of Walter Benjamin: fire warning (Boitempo).

Translation: Paolo Colosso.


[I] W. Benjamin, “Théories du fascisme allemande”, 1930, in Oeuvres II, Gallimard, “Folio-essais”, 2000, p. 215.

[ii] W Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften (GS), Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, ​​1980, Bd. I, 3, p. 1244.

[iii] Letter quoted by T. Tiedemann, Dialektik im Stillstand. Versuche zum Spätwerk Walter Benjamins, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, ​​1983, p. 122.

[iv] An example of what Benjamin felt was a betrayal of the anti-fascist fight: the Central Council of the KPD adopted a resolution in July 1939 that, reaffirming its opposition to Hitler, “praises the non-aggression treaty between the Soviet Union and Germany” and calls for “ the development of economic relations with the USSR in the spirit of sincere and unreserved friendship between the two countries”! (Cf. Theo Pirker (ed.), Utopie und Mythos der Welt-revolution. Zur Geschichte der Comintern 1920-1940, Munich: DTV, 1964, p. 286).

[v] Not to mention Léon Trotsky, who, since his exile in Mexico, had denounced the treaty as a real “betrayal” that had made Stalin “Hitler’s new friend” and his “butler” (supplier of raw materials). . Cf. His articles from the 2nd to the 4th of September 1939 in Leon Trotsky, Sur la Deuxième World War, texts compiled and prefaced by Daniel Guérin, Bruxelles: Éditions La Taupe, 1970, p. 85-102.

[vi] W. Benjamin, “Eine Chronik der deutschen Arbteitlosen”, GS, III, p. 534-535.

[vii] Cf. Chrissoula Kambas, “Wider den 'Geist der Zeit'. Die anti-faschitische Politik Frits Liebs und Walter Benjamin”, in J. Taubes (ed.), Der Fürst disse Welt. Carl Schmitt and die Folgen, Munich, Fink, 1983, p. 582-583. Lieb and Benjamin shared the conviction that fascism had to be resisted with weapons in hand.

[viii] R. Tiedmann, “Historischer Materialismus oder politischer Messianismus? Politische Gehalte in der Geschichtsphilosophie Walter Benjamins”, in P. Bulthaup (ed.), Materialen zu Benjamins Thesen, Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp taschenbuch, 1975, p. 93-94.

[ix] Walter Benjamin, “Notes sur les Tableaux parisiens de Baudelaire”, 1939, GS, I, 2, p. 748.

[X] Edgar Allan Poe, “Le Joueur d'échec de Maelzel”, in Histoires Grotesques et Sérieuses, trans. by Charles Baudelaire, Paris: Folio, 1978, p. 100-128.

[xi] R. Tiedemann, Dialektik im Stillstand.Versuche zum Spätwerk Walter Benjamins, p.118.

[xii] GS I, 3, p. 1235

[xiii] Articles by G. Kaiser, K. Greffrath, and HD Kittsteiner can be found in Peter Bulthaup (ed.), Material zu Benamins Thesen 'Über den Begriff der Geschiste', Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, ​​1975.

[xiv] According to Buber, for Hasidic Judaism, God does not want redemption without the participation of human beings: a “cooperative force” was agreed to human generations (mit wirkende Kraft), a messianic force (Messianische Kraft) active. M. Buber, Die Chassidische Bücher, Berlin: Schoken, 1927, p. XXIII, XXVI, XXVII.

[xv] J. Habermas, “L'actualité de W. Benjamin”, Revue d'Estétique, n.1, 1981, p. 112.

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