Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

I read the following essay, which talks “about collections and how collections tell a personal story that might not otherwise be told”.  I found I had to read it several times, gradually reaching an understanding.  I’ve tried below, to help me improve my understanding, to put some of it into my own words, with a few thoughts of my own.  Over time, with more re-reading and wider reading, i hope I’ll reach a better appreciation of the essay, and be able to connect it to my own experience.

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940)

Benjamin proposes that the document of any civilisation is the story of the victors, and its artefacts become cultural treasures.

He writes on the differences between historicism and historical materialism.

What we call history presents a number of singular events, told without relation to the past or future or each other.  Each of these events becomes a cultural treasure, and the pain and suffering in the making of it is untold.  History makes the victors’ story the history of the era.

Historical materialism views events as not isolated, recognises the pain and suffering that go hand in hand with creating cultural treasures.  It doesn’t view the past from a set position.  Both the present and the future inform the past.  

In an effort to understand the Theses proposed, I précis/ summarise what I understand to be the salient points:

1. The image of the hunchback crouched under a table guiding a puppet moving chess pieces to win every game conjures up an absurd version of history.  Who is the hunchback who writes his own version of history and wins every time?

2. We feel fear and apprehension for the future and those coming after us.  We deride the past (would you want to go back to that?) and feel pity for those who didn’t have our advantages.  This is an anomaly.  If today is so great, why are we so anxious, and why are we compliant in organising our lives in a way that can’t possibly be sustained in our children’s future?  I have been discovering photos of my Victorian and later ancestors,  feeling their hardships all led to me, a fortunate and blest individual.  I think of my nieces and nephews and their children to come…they will live in a depleted, dangerous world.


4. We (the non-rulers, the non-victors) constantly reassess the past and rewrite history in the light of the present conditions…we can do this because we aren’t the ‘elite’, so we don’t have an overriding stake in the status quo.  So an example is the modern view of the British Empire (and slavery) as criminal compared to the historical and conformist view of it as glorious.

5.  I think it’s impossible to imagine the past as our forebears experienced it. When I try to visualise the ‘true picture’ of the past it never even flits by for an instant.  We have different concerns by which we judge what’s important.  We live in a different world.

6. Traditions, he says, are always under threat of being taken over as a tool of the ruling class, so that they then become a means of imposing conformity. 

7. History empathises with (i.e. is written by)  the victor.  Rulers are the conquerors and their heirs.  So, if we try to imagine a historical moment by disregarding everything that followed, we are empathising with the victors, and thus benefitting the rulers..  The spoils of victory (“cultural treasures” ) are created by great minds, but also by the toil and suffering of their contemporaries.  “There is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism”.   We should question historical documents in the light of what came after, not accept the version of the victors.  This reminds me of the work of artist Fred Wilson which I have talked about here.  He presents the defeated’s view of history in his work.

8.  The state of emergency in which we live isn’t the exception but the norm.  How true this feels to me, in my lifetime, when crisis after crisis rolls through the world.

9. A well known and loved thesis which I first came across in an exhibition in Eastbourne showing the work of Ori Gersht, one of the exhibits being a video, Evaders, of Benjamin’s fleeing from the Nazi regime, Över the Pyrenees.  Benjamin creates a vivid picture of what he calls ‘the storm of progress’, propelling the ‘angel of history’ backwards into the future, while the pile of wreckage created by past events grows skyward.  We see a chain of historical events and think it represents progress; in reality there is but one single catastrophe.

10. and 11.  This thesis addresses the politicians response, or lack of it, to the growth of fascism, and the next how the working classes too are duped into conformity, despite the fact that they weren’t able to partake of the benefits of all their hard work.  The fascist concept of labour is technocratic, it is about the exploitation of nature.

12. The oppressed and enslaved classes are at their strongest as the avengers of their enslaved ancestors; only to be a redeemer of future generations takes away their greatest strength.

13 – 18. Progress isn’t boundless or irresistible.  It exists within homogeneous empty time.  History is written as a progress of events punctuated by revolutions  



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