Aleida Assmann

The Memory Expert: Aleida Assmann – A Researcher of Literature and Culture

Assmann, Aleida (2007); Foto: Endrik Lerch AsconaAssmann, Aleida (2007); Foto: Endrik Lerch AsconaAleida Assmann has been dealing with the terms cultural memory and remembering for many years now. For her, official days of remembrance are important for the collective memory. That is why she advocates that the 8th May, the day of liberation from National Socialism, become a European day of remembrance.

Many people like to call the researcher into literature and culture, Aleida Assmann, "the memory expert", and that is not surprising because part of the main focus of her research since the 1990s has been on cultural anthropology including the topics cultural memory, remembering, and forgetting. For instance, she has dealt with the history of memory in Germany after the Second World War as well as with cultural academic research into, and theories of, memory.

But among the rows of her publications one also finds books that seemingly don't fit in – Hieroglyphen – Stationen einer abendländischen Grammatologie (i. e. Hieroglyphics – stages of a western grammatology), for example, that she published in 2004 together with her husband, the Egyptologist Jan Assmann. However, a look at her bibliography explains everything.

An ambitious career

Aleida Assmann, born in 1947 in Bethel near Bielefeld, studied English and Egyptology at Heidelberg and Tübingen. Between 1968 and 1975 she took part in excavations in Upper Egypt with her husband on several occasions. In 1977 she completed her doctorate in both English and Egyptology. In 1992 she qualified as a professor at the modern languages faculty of the University of Heidelberg. In 1993 she was called to the Chair of English and General Literature at the University of Konstanz. She has been a visiting guest professor at the Rice University Texas, the elite universities Princeton and Yale, as well as at the University of Vienna, among others. Incidentally: she is also the mother of five children, born between 1976 and 1983.

A common space in which to remember

Aleida Assmann `Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit´; Copyright: C.H. Beck Verlag60 years after the Holocaust and the ending of the Second World War, the Germans are still in the process of giving this traumatic past an appropriate "form of memorial". Often the discussion about "how" such a form of memorial should look is accompanied by disagreement and strife between the various different interest groups. In her book Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit – Erinnerungskultur und Geschichtspolitik (i. e. The long shadow of the past: cultures of memory and the politics of history) that appeared in 2006, Aleida Assmann points out ways that lead from an individual to a collective construction of the past. She examines the tensions between personal experience and official remembrance, gives advice on an appropriate culture of remembrance and advocates "giving memory a common space" for expression.

Lack of space in collective memory

Aleida Assmann differentiates between the terms "Erinnerung" and "Gedächtnis". One remembers (Erinnerung) as an individual person "when one has experiences that one processes, that one thinks about, that one recalls and that one relates to others". Larger groups, like a nation for example, create remembrance (Gedächtnis) in order to keep a part of the past ever-present, a part that they do not wish to be without because it is perceived as being particularly important for the present or the future of the nation in question. But what is it that is remembered? And how can the individual participate in cultural remembrance? Aleida Assmann thinks that above all days of remembrance offer a possibility for this. "Space is lacking in collective memory," she says. Whatever enters it is linked to a strongly normative value: "It is part of our identity". She cites 27th January as an example, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz that is anchored in the collective memory of the Germans; on the other hand the 3rd October as the day of reunification has no historical relevance; however the 9th November in turn is a date that is anchored in the collective memory of the Germans – in a dual function to remind one of the Reichskristallnacht (i. e. the night of the broken glass) and of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The function of days of remembrance

Days of remembrance stand for values that are important to the nation in question because here lessons have been learned from particular historical events. When a nation declares the day of liberation from Auschwitz a day of remembrance this means that it is likewise declaring that it does not want to forget and that it recognises human rights as the supreme value in the state. For Aleida Assmann, days of remembrance are very much more that a formality or lip-service precisely because they encompass the function of collective memory. That is why she can also visualise the 8th May, the official day on which the war ended, as a European day of remembrance, and it almost sounds like an appeal when she says: "The 8th May is a date when Europeans can meet and combine the individual, separate memories from their experience to form a common vision for the future."

Selection of her publications

Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit – Erinnerungskultur und Geschichtspolitik, C. H. Beck Publishers, Munich 2006

Generationsidentitäten und Vorurteilsstrukturen in der neuen deutschen Erinnerungsliteratur, Ed. Hubert Christian Ehalt, Picus Publishers, Vienna 2006

Hieroglyphen – Stationen einer abendländischen Grammatologie, Wilhelm Fink Publishers, Munich 2004

Einsamkeit – Archäologie der literarischen Kommunikation, Wilhelm Fink Publishers, Munich 2000

Geschichtsvergessenheit – Geschichtsversessenheit – Vom Umgang mit deutschen Vergangenheiten nach 1945, Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, Stuttgart 1999

Nadja Encke
is a freelance journalist

Translation: Moira Davidson-Seger
Copyright: Goethe-Institut, Online-Redaktion

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December 2007

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