Childhood Studies Walter Benjamin
Gillian Lathey
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 November 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 November 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0244


Cultural theorist and political philosopher Walter Benjamin (b. 1892–d. 1940) reflected on the thought processes and imaginative life of the child both in dedicated writings and, tangentially, in his major works. As a young man Benjamin wrote essays critical of high school education, and he was a supporter of the German Youth Movement until he became disillusioned with its nationalist tone. Subsequently Benjamin’s engagement shifted toward early childhood and took many forms: he collected antique children’s books; recorded the sayings and opinions of his infant son; made radio broadcasts for children; composed a memoir of his own childhood years in Berlin; and devoted a number of prose fragments to aspects of drama for young people, play, toys, and the numinous qualities of childhood reading. Influenced by the German Romantic view of the purity of a child’s vision that removes the subject-object barrier, Benjamin suggests in these works that in the course of developing an intense relationship with its immediate locality the child simultaneously absorbs and animates the innate qualities of the natural or manufactured object. Benjamin also regarded language play, witnessed in the utterances of his young son and the magical resonance of his own childhood misunderstandings, as essential to the formation of memory images and the imagination. He does not, however, present an idealized vision of childhood, since children are engaged in a cycle of destruction as well as renewal, and play with the detritus of daily life is essential to the growth of the child’s autonomy—as indeed are acts of mimesis and an immersion in the imaginative world of the book and its illustration. Alongside these observations on the child’s intellectual and imaginative development, Benjamin assumes the role of mentor in broadcasts for children that seek to encourage a historical and political consciousness in the young. He returns to his student interest in education in essays on the nature of colonial and proletarian pedagogy, and in a manifesto on proletarian children’s theater. Initially, little critical attention was paid to Benjamin’s writings on childhood in the English-speaking world, partly because of their gradual appearance in English translation. It is only in recent decades that the significance of Benjamin’s illuminating reflections on childhood, play, and education has become apparent, and that the autobiographical Berlin Childhood around 1900) has gained recognition as an expression in serial “thought-images” of the speculation on memory and materialist historiography that is essential to his philosophy.


Benjamin’s personal life and the impact of his work on the development of cultural criticism in the 20th century are the subject of a number of biographies, in which varying degrees of attention are devoted to his childhood years, engagement with contemporary youth movements, and theoretical observations on childhood. Eiland and Jennings 2014 takes a chronological approach, highlighting the role of autobiographical writing on childhood within Benjamin’s broader philosophical speculations on memory and place. The focus of Witte 1991 on Benjamin’s alienation from his bourgeois heritage establishes the childhood origins of his theoretical writings on 20th-century culture.

  • Eiland, Howard, and Michael W. Jennings. Walter Benjamin: A Critical Biography. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014.

    This biography by leading Benjamin scholars presents a chronological account of Benjamin’s life and work. Writings on childhood and pedagogy are mentioned only briefly, except for a discussion of Benjamin’s reflections on color illustrations in children’s books and several pages of incisive commentary on Berlin Childhood around 1900, linking Benjamin’s memoir to his general philosophy of place and memory.

  • Witte, Bernd. Walter Benjamin: An Intellectual Biography. Translated by James Rolleston. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1991.

    The first two chapters on Benjamin’s childhood in Berlin and his engagement with the radical youth movement in Germany prior to the First World War establish the significance of Benjamin’s bourgeois heritage and the memoir Berlin Childhood around 1900 within the development of his intellectual life.

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