Photograph of German literary critic Walter Benjamin.

Walter Benjamin

(1892 - 1940)

In 1928, when he was in his midthirties, Walter Benjamin completed The Origin of German Tragic Drama, a thesis that he hoped would secure him a post at the University of Frankfurt; it was deemed incomprehensible. In 1936 he wrote his most-cited essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” which first appeared in English in a selection of his works edited by Hannah Arendt in 1968. Benjamin died by suicide at the age of forty-eight in 1940 to avoid capture by the Gestapo.

All Writing


In an 1850 newspaper article, Karl Marx declared that “revolutions are the locomotives of history.” Ninety years later, Walter Benjamin countered with a different analogy: “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history,” he wrote, “but perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train—namely, the human race—to activate the emergency brake.”

The day unravels what the night has woven.

—Walter Benjamin, 1929

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