When Nazism set its sights on Walter Benjamin, he could have fled, but he stood his ground. He needed to face barbarism head-on and learn the secret of its power. The outcome-an essay titled "On the Concept of History" -cost him his life. This, he said, was the "theoretical framework" required for an understanding of the twentieth century. Some of his aphorisms ("There is no record of civilization that is not also a record of barbarism," or "For the oppressed, the state of emergency is not the exception but the rule") have become common coin, as have his images of the "Angel of History" or the strange chess-playing puppet operated by a dwarf.
Benjamin, though one of the major philosophers of our time, is more often quoted than read or understood. Midnight in History aims to take us to the heart of each insight in his famous essay On the Concept of History and so reconstruct that "theoretical framework." This is no easy task: the work is fragmentary and written in Benjamin's characteristically austere prose. "Let nothing be lost," the directive he gave to historians who would train in his school, is the guiding principle of this reading of one of the most lucid, radical and moving texts ever written.
Those were dark times that invited a pessimistic stance. Benjamin warned that the logic of his age would lead to catastrophe. His genius, however, was to rescue from the scrapheap of history the makings of a future that would not be a mere outgrowth of the present. That lesson holds value for us today, because, although the catastrophe has already happened, the logic of history is still the same.
Translated by Martin Boyd
Authors > Manuel Reyes Mate
This philosopher holds a Ph.D. from the University of Münster (1972), Germany, and the Autonomous University of Madrid (1980), Spain. In 1990 he co-founded the Institute of Philosophy in Madrid, of which he was principal until 1998. Today, he heads the moral and political philosophy department and holds a research professorship endowed by Spain's Higher Council for Scientific Research.
Reyes Mate is the author of the following books:
La razón de los vencidos. Barcelona, Anthropos, 1991 (translated into French as La raison des vaincus. Paris, L'Harmattan, 1993); Memoria de Occidente. Actualidad de pensadores judíos olvidados. 1997 (translated into English as Memory of the West. New York, Rodopi, 2004. Penser en espagnol. Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2001); Auschwitz. Actualidad moral y política. Madrid, Trotta, 2003 (translated into Portuguese as Memórias de Auschwitz. Atualidade e politica. Porto Alegre, Brazil, Nova Harmonia, 2005); Medianoche en la historia. Comentario a la Tesis de Walter Benjamin sobre el concepto de historia. Madrid, Trotta, 2006 (translated into French as Minuit dans l'histoire. Commentaire aux textes de Walter Benjamin sur le concept d'histoire. Paris, Mix, 2009); La herencia del olvido. Madrid, Errata Naturae, 2008 (winner of Spain's National Essay Award 2010).
He is the editor of the Enciclopedia Iberoamericana de Filosofía, a 35-volume work (of which 30 volumes have been published so far) that draws together papers contributed by over 500 Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking authors. He is also the lead researcher for the project "Philosophy After the Holocaust," and a regular contributor to the op-ed pages of El País and El Periódico de Catalunya.