In April 1940 Gershom Scholem wrote from Jerusalem to Theodor Adorno in New York about their mutual friend in Paris: “I am very worried about Walter Benjamin, from whom I have heard nothing, even in answer to my inquiries, since early December 1939…. If you know anything, please write to me.” Three months later, Adorno replied with an update. After the fall of France and the German occupation of the capital, Benjamin had escaped south to the unoccupied zone. Adorno’s Institute for Social Research, which had moved from Frankfurt to Geneva and then to New York after the Nazis came to power, was working to obtain an American visa for him, gathering affidavits from scholars and potential financial supporters.
There was hope, but Adorno admitted that Benjamin’s fate “worries me just as much as it worries you.” A Jew who had fled Germany in 1933, Benjamin was legally stateless, and when World War II began he had been interned by the French for several months as an enemy alien. If he couldn’t get out of France, he might end up back in a prison camp or, worse, be handed over to the Nazis.
While Adorno and Scholem were exchanging letters about him in the spring of 1940, Benjamin was at work on his last essay, “On the Concept of History” (sometimes translated as “Theses on the Philosophy of History”). A set of eighteen short sections, it attempts to formulate the idea of redemption, always central to his thought, in a manner credible and urgent enough to meet the most disastrous moment in modern history. Benjamin conceives of redemption in two apparently incompatible ways: in Marxist terms, as a workers’ revolution, and in Jewish terms, as the advent of the Messiah. For Judaism, he writes, “every second of time was the strait gate through which the Messiah might enter”—even a moment when there seemed to be no hope of rescue.
The next time Adorno wrote to Scholem, in October 1940, it was to report that “Walter Benjamin has taken his life.” Benjamin had secured an American visa, but when his party of refugees tried to cross on foot into Spain in late September 1940, they were denied entry because they lacked a French exit visa. Exhausted and in despair, he took an overdose of morphine. The next day, the Spanish border guards changed their minds and allowed the rest of the group into the country. Only Benjamin remained in the village of Portbou, buried in a now unidentifiable grave. “I urgently implore you to write me,” Adorno concluded his letter. “I simply do not know how things can go on after Walter’s death, and communication from you would be infinitely important.”
The three-decade friendship between Adorno and Scholem grew out of this plea. Not every letter in their correspondence, which was published in German in 2015 and now appears in English translation, mentions Benjamin, of course. Over the years, the two men discuss their new publications, make travel plans, and ask about each other’s health. Sometimes they exchange gossip or offer assessments of job applicants at their respective institutions, the University of Frankfurt and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Adorno invited Scholem to lecture in Frankfurt in 1957—his first public appearance in Germany since the war—and when Adorno died in 1969, they were discussing Scholem’s invitation to him to lecture in Jerusalem.
World events make brief appearances in the correspondence—the Sinai War of 1956, the student rebellions of 1968—but there is rarely a frank or searching exchange of opinions about them. Perhaps it was their ability to refrain from such an exchange that allowed Scholem and Adorno to sustain a friendship despite their significant intellectual differences. (Scholem’s correspondence with Hannah Arendt, published in 2017, ended explosively in 1963 when he denounced Eichmann in Jerusalem.) But what brought and kept them together was their devotion to Benjamin and their determination that his work should not be forgotten.
In wartime, letters between New York and Jerusalem took weeks or months to arrive, and by the time Scholem received Adorno’s letter about Benjamin’s death, he had already learned the news from Arendt. Her experiences as a refugee in France paralleled Benjamin’s, but she was more fortunate or more resilient or both, and managed to get to New York in May 1941. She lived there for the next thirty-four years, producing her most important work and becoming a renowned thinker. Benjamin’s posterity, by contrast, was in the hands of his friends, as Scholem immediately understood:
I believe that it is the duty of his friends to rescue his papers, in whatever way the current circumstances allow…. The events of world history are such that, amidst all this terrible turbulence, the loss of one brilliant person is scarcely noticed; and yet there are enough people for whom the memory of this deceased will remain unforgettable.
For Scholem and Adorno, this mission grew over the years into a genuine fondness that could hardly have been predicted before they first met in 1938. Scholem had come to New York to deliver a series of lectures that a few years later became his magnum opus, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (1941), and he was introduced to Adorno at the home of the theologian Paul Tillich. Benjamin worried about how his two closest friends would get along when he was far from the scene, but Scholem, in his memoir Walter Benjamin: The Story of a Friendship (1975), recalled that they formed “an unexpectedly close relationship.” Benjamin was equally surprised. “I have seen with pleasure that many things go well as soon as I turn my back,” he wrote to Scholem. “What complaints I have received de part et d’autre in the past about you and Adorno! And now it turns out that it was a false alarm.”
To say that there had been complaints “on both sides” was an understatement. For years the spirits of Adorno and Scholem sat on Benjamin’s shoulders like a pair of rival tempters, pulling him in different intellectual and ideological directions—Scholem toward Zionism, Adorno toward Marxism. The triangular relationship was all the more fraught because the three men had so much in common. Born around the turn of the century into assimilated, bourgeois German Jewish families, they were radicalized by modern literature, World War I, and the rise of fascism and communism. But they responded to an age of crisis in very different ways, particularly when it came to the Jewishness that determined the course of their lives.
Scholem’s and Adorno’s contrasting attitudes can be seen in their very names. Gerhard Scholem was born in Berlin in 1897 and became a Zionist as a teenager; in 1923 he moved to Palestine and adopted a Hebrew name, Gershom. Scholem’s letters to Adorno are often signed Gerhard—it must have felt natural when he was writing in German—but when Adorno invited him to lecture in Frankfurt, Scholem noted, “A friendly reminder: it is important to me that, in all official correspondence and announcements, I am referred to only by my legal name, Gershom Scholem…and not by the German Gerhard.” The name declared Scholem’s rejection of Germanness, and he wanted his postwar German audience to be aware of it.
Adorno, on the other hand, changed his name to minimize its Jewishness. He was born in Frankfurt in 1903 as Theodor Wiesengrund, the son of a German Jewish father who had converted to Protestantism, and his first letter to Scholem is signed “Teddie Wiesengrund.” But as an adult he began to use the name of his mother’s Italian Catholic family, and his signature in the letters soon changes to “Theodor W. Adorno.” After the war he was one of the few Jewish exiles to return to Germany, spending his last twenty years as the influential leader of the Frankfurt School of critical theory at the University of Frankfurt.
This difference was also reflected in Scholem’s and Adorno’s intellectual paths. Scholem, whose Zionism was always more spiritual and cultural than political, learned Hebrew and pioneered the academic study of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. In his writings on antinomian mystics and false messiahs, like the seventeenth-century heretic Sabbatai Zevi, he redrew the conventional map of Jewish history, emphasizing the irrational, transgressive forces that came to the fore in moments of catastrophe and renewal—like the one Scholem himself was living through.
Adorno could also be described as a messianic modernist. At the end of Minima Moralia, his collection of aphorisms written in 1944–1947, he defines his intellectual mission in quasi-religious terms: “Perspectives must be fashioned that displace and estrange the world, reveal it to be, with its rifts and crevices, as indigent and distorted as it will appear one day in the messianic light.” But for Adorno, the relevant perspectives came from Marx rather than Kabbalah. Critical theory was based on the idea that the structures of capitalist domination are not only economic but also philosophical and cultural. By analyzing the trajectory of modern reason from enlightenment to fascism, critical theory could help to undo its catastrophic rule.
Scholem and Adorno didn’t necessarily take their interest in redemption and apocalypse from Benjamin; they lived in a time and place where such ideas came naturally. But he certainly helped to open the intellectual path they followed. Born five years before Scholem and ten years before Adorno, he was old enough for them to look up to, but still shared the experiences and problems of the younger generation. Indeed, before World War I Benjamin had been a leader of Germany’s youth movement, writing and lecturing about its unique moral responsibilities.
When Scholem and Benjamin met in Berlin in 1915, they recognized each other as kindred spirits. “I am convinced that, in a certain respect, in the very circumstances of our existence we have reached an equality whose primary color is no doubt gratitude and which would hold the promise of an extremely productive and splendid collaboration,” Benjamin wrote elaborately to Scholem in 1917. The next year Scholem moved to Switzerland to live near Benjamin and his wife, Dora, while attending the University of Bern. After Scholem’s emigration the friends only saw each other in person in 1927 and 1938, but they maintained an intimate, ardent correspondence.
Benjamin’s friendship with Adorno wasn’t as close, but it proved equally significant for his life and work. They met in 1923, when Adorno was a student at the University of Frankfurt and Benjamin was working on the thesis for his Habilitation, the second doctoral degree required for a full professorship in a German university. After years of work, The Origin of German Tragic Drama was rejected—reportedly his examiners couldn’t understand it—but it made a deep impression on Adorno. (A few years later, to Benjamin’s grim satisfaction, Adorno taught a seminar about the book at the very university that had rejected it.) Their connection was strengthened, and complicated, by Benjamin’s friendship with Adorno’s long-term fiancée and eventual wife, Gretel Karplus, who was a relative of Benjamin’s by marriage. He corresponded with them separately and his letters to “Felizitas,” as he called Gretel, are rather warmer and more personal.
These friendships beckoned Benjamin in different directions. Scholem believed that his genius could only be fulfilled within Judaism. “I would often tell him in jest: Actually, you ought to become the new Rashi,” Scholem wrote in his memoir, referring to the medieval French rabbi who is the most influential of all Jewish commentators. In a sense, he says, Benjamin did exactly that, becoming a “commentator of important texts around which his thinking was able to crystallize.” For Scholem, the fact that Rashi interpreted the Torah and the Talmud while Benjamin interpreted Kafka and Baudelaire didn’t prevent his friend from being an essentially Jewish thinker.
Adorno, however, encouraged Benjamin to use his interpretive gifts in the Marxist analysis of culture and history. Benjamin’s work began to move in this direction in the late 1920s, with materialist categories replacing the esoteric and mystical concepts in his early work. Scholem believed that this turn was a betrayal and that he was disguising his true insights in the political jargon of the moment. “You are engaging in an unusually intent kind of self-deception,” he wrote Benjamin in 1931. Yet Benjamin’s political turn was responsible for some of his most important writing, including the essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), which presents his work as an extension of Marx’s: “When Marx undertook his critique of the capitalistic mode of production, this mode was in its infancy…. Only today can it be indicated what form this has taken.”
Matters were complicated when Scholem and Adorno became not just Benjamin’s friends but his patrons. A freelance journalist, he knew periods of poverty even before 1933; with the Nazis in power it became almost impossible for him to publish in Germany, leaving him destitute. At different moments Scholem and Adorno each tried to come to his rescue, offering gifts with intellectual strings attached. In 1928 Scholem proposed to Judah Magnes, president of the newly founded Hebrew University, that Benjamin be hired as a professor of German and French literature. To make this possible he would need to learn Hebrew, and Magnes agreed to give him a stipend to pay for lessons. Benjamin embraced the plan with fervor. “My trip to Palestine is a settled matter, as is my intention to strictly observe the course of study prescribed by Your Hierojerusalemitic Excellency,” he wrote to Scholem.
Once he had gotten the money from Magnes, however, Benjamin’s interest in Hebrew rapidly waned, and he postponed the trip again and again before finally admitting that he would never take it. Scholem had believed that Benjamin was committed to making Judaism the center of his intellectual life, as he had done himself, but in 1930 Benjamin acknowledged, “Living Judaism I have certainly encountered in no other form than in you.” It wasn’t enough to make him give up the German language and German literature, where his true calling lay.
A few years later, when Benjamin was a penniless exile, Adorno offered him a lifeline in the form of a stipend from the Institute for Social Research. In addition to publishing his essays in the institute’s journal, Adorno hoped to make it possible for Benjamin to finish his long-planned magnum opus, The Arcades Project (Das Passagen-Werk), a study of nineteenth-century Paris. Once again, Benjamin tried to give his patron what he wanted, emphasizing the Marxist, materialist dimension of his analysis. But two long essays drawn from the larger work were rejected by Adorno, who complained of their failure of “dialectical” subtlety. Sometimes Benjamin was trying too hard to sound like a Marxist, he observed, and sometimes he gave up on Marxist categories entirely. “The materialistic determination of cultural characteristics is possible only when mediated by the total process,” Adorno lectured Benjamin in November 1938.
In pointing out that Benjamin was not a convincing Marxist, Adorno was echoing Scholem’s judgment from the opposite ideological perspective. They were both right: Benjamin was too individual and esoteric a thinker to submit to any ideological label, which is why his work has only grown in stature over time while the books of orthodox Marxists gather dust. Still, for Benjamin to receive such a rebuke from a younger man who once admired him, and at a moment when he was utterly dependent on Adorno’s favor for his meager livelihood, was a terrible blow to his dignity.
Despite their disappointments with Benjamin, Scholem and Adorno never stopped believing in his genius. He had other admirers of similar caliber, including Arendt, Bertolt Brecht, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. But Benjamin was almost unknown to the public at large, with much of his best work unpublished or buried in old journals. From the beginning of their relationship Scholem served as Benjamin’s unofficial archivist, receiving his manuscripts and clippings in a steady stream. Indeed, Benjamin’s letters often give the sense that he was writing for Scholem’s archive the way Soviet authors wrote “for the drawer”—giving up hope of a present readership to aim at the future. In 1932, considering suicide at a moment of economic desperation, Benjamin drew up a will naming Scholem his executor, with instructions to “publish a posthumous selection of my writings.”
Benjamin stepped back from the brink that time, but when he died eight years later, Scholem’s responsibility became urgent. He possessed the only copies of many of Benjamin’s early writings, including the important essay “On Language as Such and the Language of Man” (1916), which began as a letter responding to Scholem’s questions about language and mathematics. Meanwhile, after the war Adorno came into possession of Benjamin’s later manuscripts, which he had arranged with the French philosopher Georges Bataille to hide in the Bibliothèque Nationale before fleeing Paris in 1940. These included The Arcades Project, which Adorno was disappointed to find consisted mainly of notes. In 1949 he wrote to Scholem complaining of “the extraordinary retreat of expressed theoretical ideas as compared to the formidable hoard of quotations.”
After returning to Germany in 1949, Adorno worked with the newly established publisher Suhrkamp to bring out a first posthumous volume by Benjamin, his memoir Berlin Childhood Around 1900. It was a commercial failure. “The reviews that have appeared to date…are what in English is called awe-inspiring, such that they hinder the circulation of this book rather than helping it along,” Adorno wrote to Scholem in 1951. He also speculated that the name “Berlin” in the title was a turn-off for German readers who associated it with “trauma.”
Still, after some waffling Suhrkamp agreed to bring out a two-volume collection of Benjamin’s essays, and with this project the correspondence shifted into a higher gear. Scholem was skeptical—“Even by straining my imagination, I can’t envisage the supposed readership for Benjamin’s writings in Germany in 1955,” he wrote with characteristic grumpiness—but the two men worked together to gather documents, establish a chronology of Benjamin’s life, and draft separate introductions. Most of the work was done long-distance, but they established a rhythm of annual meetings tied to the Eranos conference, a gathering of theologians and humanists in Switzerand that Scholem attended most summers. “It was very exciting to read it all together,” Scholem wrote Adorno when the volumes were published, adding, “It is a shame that there are quite a lot of typos in the text as a result of the quick printing.”
In 1959 Suhrkamp agreed to publish a selection of Benjamin’s correspondence, and preparing this volume was more taxing. Adorno and Scholem engaged in delicate negotiations with Benjamin’s ex-wife, Dora, and various friends of his youth whom he broke with later on. The most important single contribution came from Scholem. “I myself have about 300 letters, many of them exceedingly brilliant,” he told Adorno. “Naturally, the Jewish side of things plays an extraordinarily important role in the letters to me.” Scholem believed that his own letters to Benjamin had been destroyed. In fact, they were seized by the Gestapo in Paris in 1940 and made their way via Moscow to the East German state archives in East Berlin, which finally sent copies to Scholem in 1977.
When the volume of Benjamin’s letters appeared in 1966, it struck a chord with the public that his earlier books hadn’t.1 This was partly because the letters were more accessible than the complex and elusive essays, and partly because a new generation was eager to learn about the vanished world of the German Jewish intelligentsia. The letters, followed in 1968 by Illuminations, the first English-language collection of Benjamin’s essays—edited by Arendt—attracted a wave of interest that soon earned him a secure place in the twentieth-century canon. Less than thirty years after his death, his friends had ensured that “the memory of this deceased will remain unforgettable,” as Scholem wrote in 1940.
Ironically, one way the younger generation made Benjamin its own was to attack the custodians of his work. In Germany, a small radical journal published an article claiming that Adorno had edited Benjamin’s letters in unspecified ways to conceal or deemphasize his politics. Thirty years after Adorno reproached Benjamin for not being Marxist enough, a new generation was using him to attack Adorno for not being Marxist enough.
“I am being defamed in the most unimaginable manner,” Adorno complained to Scholem in 1968, asking him to make a statement of support. Scholem replied that this would be a tactical error, advising him instead to downplay the controversy: “I did not take the whole matter anywhere near as seriously as you did.” As Scholem saw, the editing wasn’t the real issue; the attacks were a prelude to the student rebellion that would soon make Adorno a chief target.
Adorno died the next year at the age of sixty-five, but the correspondence between the two had one final irony in store. In November 1968 Adorno wrote a brief note to Scholem with the good news that he had secured a large grant, 120,000 marks, to publish Benjamin’s complete works.2 The source was Volkswagen, the automotive giant established by Hitler to provide cheap cars for the German people, which it had done by using concentration camp prisoners as slave labor. “Sometimes we professors aren’t as unworldly as the children of this world would have it,” Adorno boasted. It would have been more apt to quote Benjamin’s “On the Concept of History”:
There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And just as such a document is not free of barbarism, barbarism taints also the manner in which it was transmitted from one owner to another. A historical materialist therefore dissociates himself from it as far as possible. He regards it as his task to brush history against the grain.