Skip to navigation | Skip to main content | Skip to footer
Menu Search the University of Manchester siteSearch

Alternatively, use our A–Z index


What can history teach us about migration?

Tanja R Müller

As the migration crisis continues, Dr Tanja Müller takes a walk in the footsteps of German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who died during the Second World War, to see what the past can teach us about current attitudes to those trying to reacvh a better life.

What is now a hiking trail across the Pyrenees from France to Spain was one of the last passages to freedom for those fleeing the Nazi occupation – or so hoped Walter Benjamin.

Born in Berlin in 1892, philosopher, writer, Jew, and communist sympathiser Benjamin fled Germany for Paris in 1933 when the Nazis came to power. But by 1940 Paris was under Nazi control and no longer safe. Benjamin thus travelled to Banyuls-sur-Mer, on the French border with Spain, from where one could reach Portbou on the Spanish side. From there he planned to travel to Lisbon, then to the USA and freedom, finally.

He was to travel on paths used by local smugglers – people like Lisa and Hans Fittko, both refugees themselves. Lisa had warned Benjamin that the track was dangerous and exhausting – 17 kilometres long and with 600 metres difference in altitude to overcome – but there was no other option. It must have felt like torture to Benjamin, who had a heart condition and breathing problems. On top of that he was carrying a heavy dispatch case full of manuscripts and other documents that he would not leave.

Benjamin and his fellow refugees eventually made it to Portbou. The Spanish border guards put them into a small hotel. However, as the travellers did not have an exit stamp from the French side, the guards threatened to send them back to France the next day. It’s not now clear whether this was a real threat, but Benjamin took it seriously. He poisoned himself during the night and died on 27 September 1940.

Those who travelled with him were subsequently allowed to continue their journey – thus one could say his sacrifice became their salvation.

This route of Benjamin’s last journey is now a cross-border walking trail, named in his honour. In Portbou, walkers can visit a monument erected in 1994 by Israeli artist Dani Karavan in his memory. The monument consists of a walled-in iron staircase that ends high above the sea with a glass wall. Walking the staircase to the end allows a view to the far horizon, inviting the visitor to imagine their freedom. But one cannot pass through the glass – the only route forward is to turn back.

The installation makes one think about the many lives lost on European shores in 2015. Each new fence that is being erected at any European border, each train station or port that is being blocked to those without proper papers, and each asylum accommodation that goes up in flames, are betraying not only European ideals but also those who seek sanctuary; those who, as Benjamin did 75 years ago, long for freedom.

Tanja R Müller. Senior Lecturer in International Development at our School of Environment, Education and Development, and Founding Member and former Director of Research of our Humanitarian and Conflict Response Institute.

The full version of this post, with photographs, appears at A version of this post and other blogs from our researchers appear on Manchester Policy Blogs –

Recent opinion