Erich Auerbach to Walter Benjamin: Istanbul – Paris 1937

Berlin-born Romance philologist, literary and cultural scholar Erich Auerbach (1892-1957), now considered the founder of the discipline of comparative literature thanks to Palestinian postcolonial thinker, literary scholar, and also exile Edward Said (1935-2003) 11Edward Said, “Introduction to the Fiftieth Edition,” in Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature – New and Expanded Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013) is probably the most famous of the German academics and their families who fled Nazi Germany to the young Turkish Republic after 1933. He was also a close confidant of Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), also a Berliner who had fled not to Istabul, but to Paris. In their correspondence from 1937, Auerbach provides insights into his situation in his new home and, with his cultural-critical acumen and a touch of Orientalism, had a lot to say about the tensions of his migratory new beginnings, including (obligatory) start-up difficulties, Western colonialism, Turkish nationalism, and transnational fascism.

    Footnotes

  • 1Edward Said, “Introduction to the Fiftieth Edition,” in Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature – New and Expanded Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013)

Istanbul-Bebek

Arslanli Konak

3. Januar 1937

Lieber Herr Benjamin,

Schönen Dank für Ihren Brief […]. Mir geht es zunächst hier gut. Marie und Clemens haben eine Weihnachtsgrippe, mitten in den Umzug hinein, leidlich überstanden; die Wohnung am Bosporus ist herrlich, die Arbeit wissenschaftlich ganz primitiv, aber menschlich, politisch und organisatorisch überaus interessant. Das ganz ungeheuerliche Maß an Schwierigkeiten, Scherereien, Quertreibereien und Fehldispositionen seitens der hiesigen Stellen und aus den hiesigen Verhältnissen heraus, das einige Kollegen zur Verzweiflung treibt, ist mir nicht unerfreulich, weil es als Gegenstand der Beobachtung weit interessanter ist als das etwaige Ziel meiner Tätigkeit, die ich übrigens, wie sich von selbst versteht, nach Kräften ordentlich ausübe. […] Ich kenne von diesem Lande bisher nur Istanbul, eine wunderbar gelegene, aber doch unliebenswürdige und unverbindliche Stadt aus zwei verschiedenen Teilen: das alte Stambul, griechischen und türkischen Ursprungs, das noch viel Patina der historischen Landschaft bewahrt, und das „neue“ Pera, Karikatur und Vollendung einer europäischen Siedlung des 19. Jahrh[underts], nun in völligem Verfall. Dort gibt es die Reste grauenvoller Luxusläden, Juden, Griechen, Armenier, alle Sprachen, ein groteskes Gesellschaftsleben und die Paläste der früheren europäischen Botschaften, die nun Konsulate sind. Vom 19. J[ahrhundert] sieht man auch am Bosporus überall verfallene oder verfallende oder museumshaft erhaltene Sultans- und Paschapaläste, in einem halb orientalischen, halb rokokohaften Geschmack. Im übrigen aber wird das Land konsequent und vollständig beherrscht von Atatürk und seinen anatolischen Türken, einem naiven, mißtrauischen, ehrlichen, etwas unbeholfenen und bäurischen, dabei sehr emotiven Menschenschlag; weil härter und unverbindlicher, unliebenswürdiger, unbiegsamer als europäische Südländer sonst, aber doch wohl gut zu leiden und mit viel Lebenskräften, gewohnt an Sklaverei und harte, aber langsame Arbeit. Der grand chef ist ein sympathischer Autokrat, klug, großzügig und witzig, vollkommen verschieden von seinen europäischen Kollegen: indem er nämlich wirklich dieses Land selbst zum Staat gemacht hat, und auch, indem er absolut phrasenlos ist; sein Memoirenbuch beginnt mit dem Satz: Am 19. Mai 1919 landete ich in Samsun. Zu dieser Zeit war die Lage folgende… Aber er hat alles, was er getan hat, im Kampf gegen die europäischen Demokratien einerseits und gegen die alte mohammedanisch-panislamistische Sultanswirtschaft andererseits durchsetzen müssen, und das Resultat ist ein fanatischer antitraditioneller Nationalismus: Ablehnung aller bestehenden mohammedanischen Kulturüberlieferungen, Anknüpfung an ein phantastisches Urtürkentum, technische Modernisierung im europäischen Verstande, um das verhaßte und bewunderte Europa mit den eigenen Waffen zu schlagen: daher die Vorliebe für europäisch geschulte Emigranten als Lehrer, von denen man lernen kann ohne fremde Propaganda befürchten zu müssen. Resultat: Nationalismus im Superlativ bei gleichzeitiger Zerstörung des geschichtlichen Nationalcharakters. Dieses Bild, das in anderen Ländern, wie Deutschland und Italien und wohl auch Russland (?), noch nicht für jederman sichtbar ist, bietet sich hier in völliger Nacktheit. Die Sprachreform, zugleich phantastisch urtürkisch (Befreiung vom arabischen und persischen Einschlag) und modern-technisch, hat es fertiggebracht, daß kein Mensch unter 25 Jahren mehr irgendeinen religiösen, literarischen oder philosophischen Text verstehen kann, der älter ist als 10 Jahre, und daß die Eigentümlichkeit der Sprache unter dem Zwang der lateinischen Schrift, die vor einigen Jahren zwangsweise eingeführt wurde, rapide verfällt. Ich könnte viele Seiten Einzelheiten berichten; das Ganze ist dahin zusammenzufassen: Immer deutlicher wird mir, daß die gegenwärtige Weltlage nichts ist als eine List der Vorsehung, um uns auf einem blutigen und qualvollen Wege zur Internationale der Trivialität und zur Esperantokultur zu führen. Ich habe das schon in Deutschland und in Italien, angesichts der grauenvollen Unechtheit der Blubopropaganda [Blut-und-Boden-Propaganda] vermutet, aber hier erst wird es mir fast zur Gewißheit. […] Ich hoffe, bald wieder von Ihnen zu hören, und wir sind beide in freundlichster Erinnerung

Ihre

E[rich] und M[arie] A[uerbach]

Istanbul-Bebek

Arslanli Konak

3. Januar 1937

Dear Herr Benjamin,

Many thanks for your letter […]. I am fine here. Marie and Clemens are reasonably over the Christmas flu, which they had right in the middle of the move; the apartment on the Bosporus is glorious; as far as research goes my work is entirely primitive, but personally, politically, and administratively it is extremely interesting. The whole monstrous mass of difficulties, troubles, cross-purposes, and misarrangements on the part of the local authorities, and the local conditions that drive some colleagues to despair, is for me not unpleasant, since it is the occasion for observations far more interesting, it goes without saying, than any of the usual activities that engage my ordinary abilities. […] So far, of this country I only know Istanbul, a wonderfully situated but also unpleasant and rough city consisting of two different parts: the old Stambool, of Greek and Turkish origin, which still preserves much of the patina of its historic landscape, and the “new” Pera, a caricature and completion of the European colonization of the 19th century, now in complete collapse. There are the remains of dreadful luxury shops, Jews, Greeks, Armenians, all languages, a grotesque social life, and the palaces of the former European embassies that are now consulates. All along the Bosporus one also sees decayed, or decaying, or museum-quality nineteenth-century palaces of sultans and pashas in a half-oriental, half-rococo style. But in general, the country has become decisively and completely ruled by Atatürk and his Anatolian Turks – a naive, distrustful, honest, somewhat blunt and boorish but also emotional race of men. Because they are accustomed to slavery and hard, slow work, they are tougher and more unpolished, and also more rigid and more surly, than southern Europeans, but at the same time they are quite likable and have much vital energy. The “grand chef” is a sympathetic autocrat, smart, grand, and imaginative, completely different from his European counterparts because he has actually himself turned this country into a state and because he is absolutely without eloquence. (His memoirs begin: “On 19 May 1919, I landed in Samsun. At this time the situation was as follows…”) Yet he has had to accomplish everything he has done in a struggle against the European democracies on the one hand, and on the other against old Muslim, pan-Islamist sultan economy, and the result is a fanatical, antitraditional nationalism: a renunciation of all existing Islamic cultural tradition, a fastening onto a fantasy “ur-Turkey”, a technical modernization in the European sense in order to strike the hated and envied Europe with its own weapons. Hence the predisposition for European exiles as teachers, from whom one can learn without being afraid that they will spread foreign propaganda. The result: Nationalism in the superlative with the simultaneous destruction of the historic national character. This configuration, which in other countries such as Germany, Italy, and indeed also in Russia (?) is not yet a certainty for everyone, steps forth here in complete nakedness. The language reform – at once fantastical ur-Turkish (“free” from Arabic and Persion influences) and modern-technical – has made it certain that no one under 25 can any longer understand any sort of religious, literary, or philosophical text more than ten years old and that, under the pressure of the Latin script, which was compulsorily introduced a few years ago, the specific properties of the language are rapidly decaying. […] The whole needs to be grasped together in this way: I am more and more convinced that the contemporary world situation is nothing other than a cunning of providence to lead us along a bloody and circuitous route to the Internationale of Triviality and Esperanto culture. I thought this already in Germany and Italy, especially in the horrifying inauthenticity of “Blubopropaganda”, but here for the first time it has become a certainty for me. […] I hope to hear from you again soon, and you are in the most friendly remembrance of us both

Your

E[rich] and M[arie] A[uerbach]

Erich Auerbach was a German Romance philologist, literary and cultural scholar. As for countless others, his career in Germany was ended prematurely due to the racist “Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service,” ratified on April 7, 1933, which aimed at both the removal of Jewish civil servants and the dismissal of political “dissidents.” Since the so-called Frontkämpferprivileg (Privilege of Combatants) applied to him and he additionally even swore an “oath of loyalty of German civil servants” to Adolf Hitler in 1934, he lost his chair of Romance philology at the University of Marburg “only” at the end of 1935. 11All information according to the file Erich Auerbach in the State Archives Marburg Sign. 310, Acc 1978/15, No. 2261. cited in: Martin Vialon: Erich Auerbach. On the Life and Work of the Marburg Romance Scholar in the Time of Fascism. In: Jörg Jochen Berns (ed.): Marburg-Bilder. A Matter of Opinion. Zeugnisse aus fünf Jahrhunderten (= Marburger Stadtschriften zur Geschichte und Kultur, 52 (vol. 1), 53 (vol. 2)). Rathaus-Verlag, Marburg 1996, pp. 394-395. More than foreseeable, however, he contacted colleagues in Italy, England, and other places already in the course of 1935 in order to find a suitable position, even far below the rank of professor. Thanks to the interdenominational and anti-racist self-help organization “Notgemeinschaft deutscher Wissenschaftler im Ausland,” founded in 1933 22Johannes Feichtinger: Wissenschaft zwischen den Kulturen. Österreichische Hochschullehrer in der Emigration 1933-1945. Campus-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2001, p. 71. which from 1933 onward focused on emigration to Turkey, he finally followed the call to the İstanbul Üniversitesi. The latter had been founded in 1933 as part of the Kemalist program of Westernization and modernization, and one of its tasks was to recruit experts. In this way, several hundred German intellectuals and their families emigrated to Turkey, especially to the urban centers of Istanbul and Ankara, where they became involved in the work of the universities and ministries. Since Auerbach’s hopes of returning to a chair at a German university remained unfulfilled, he emigrated from Turkey to the United States in 1947, where he continued his academic career. He is still one of the most important representatives of his field today. His main work, written in Istanbul between 1942 and 1945, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature is one of the fundamental works of German Romance studies.

Walter Benjamin was a German-Jewish philosopher and Marxist cultural critic. He studied philosophy, German literature and psychology in Freiburg im Breisgau, Munich and Berlin and received his doctorate with the thesis Der Begriff der Kunstkritik in der deutschen Romantik under Richard Herbertz in Bern. In 1923/24 he met Theodor W. Adorno and Siegfried Kracauer in Frankfurt am Main. The attempt to habilitate at the Frankfurt University with the thesis Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels failed. His interest in communism led Benjamin to Moscow for several months. At the beginning of the 1930s, Benjamin pursued journalistic plans together with Bertolt Brecht and worked for the radio. The Nazi takeover forced Benjamin to flee to Paris in September 1933. In Nevers, France, Benjamin was interned in a camp for three months in 1939 with other German refugees. In September 1940, he made a vain attempt to cross the border into Spain. To escape his imminent extradition to Germany, he took his own life in Portbou on September 26, 1940. 33Walter Benjamin, https://www.suhrkamp.de/person/walter-benjamin-p-301.

Erich Auerbach and Walter Benjamin shared a close friendship, which manifested itself, among other things, in Auerbach’s financial support of Benjamin in the latter’s precarious situation in Paris, even after Auerbach himself had been forcibly released by the Nazi authorities on October 16, 1935, and lost his livelihood. With the flight to Istanbul, the two were then linked by the fate of refugeedom.

    Footnotes

  • 1All information according to the file Erich Auerbach in the State Archives Marburg Sign. 310, Acc 1978/15, No. 2261. cited in: Martin Vialon: Erich Auerbach. On the Life and Work of the Marburg Romance Scholar in the Time of Fascism. In: Jörg Jochen Berns (ed.): Marburg-Bilder. A Matter of Opinion. Zeugnisse aus fünf Jahrhunderten (= Marburger Stadtschriften zur Geschichte und Kultur, 52 (vol. 1), 53 (vol. 2)). Rathaus-Verlag, Marburg 1996, pp. 394-395.
  • 2Johannes Feichtinger: Wissenschaft zwischen den Kulturen. Österreichische Hochschullehrer in der Emigration 1933-1945. Campus-Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2001, p. 71.
  • 3Walter Benjamin, https://www.suhrkamp.de/person/walter-benjamin-p-301.

Original: Karlheinz Barck, „5 Briefe Erich Auerbachs an Walter Benjamin in Paris,“ Zeitschrift für Germanistik 9:6 (Dezember 1988): 688–694, 691–692.

Translation: Martin Elsky, Martin Vialon and Robert Stein, “Scholarship in Times of Extremes: Letters of Erich Auerbach (1933–46), on the Fiftieth Anniversary of His Death,” PMLA 122:3 (Mai, 2007): 742–762, 750–751.