Humboldtians in Focus

Constructing Memory

By Christina Berndt

Memory Studies examine how our self-image and our present are shaped not only by the past as such, but also by the way we remember it. Aleida Assmann and Karl Galinsky, pioneers of this still young discipline, received this year’s Max Planck Research Award.

Some say humanity has failed to learn anything from all the horrors that have befallen it. But even when political developments may be disappointing sometimes: humans have learned certain things. The Holocaust was so terrible, the military use of toxic gases and human experiments so appalling, that such barbarity is condemned today across many national and religious boundaries.

Lest we forget: Aleida Assmann reads the names of victims of National Socialism on the Synagogue Memorial in Konstanz.
Lest we forget: Aleida
Assmann reads the names
of victims of National Socialism
on the Synagogue Memorial in
Konstanz.

Foto: Axel Griesch

For not only the individual human being possesses a memory. Entire peoples – just like religious or ethnic communities or families – are capable of maintaining a “collective memory”, a term that French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs coined as early as 1925. Aleida Assmann’s great accomplishment is to have understood the significance of and to have further developed this notion – partly in collaboration with her husband, Egyptologist Jan Assmann. Aleida Assmann is considered a pioneer of the young subject Memory Studies, which, in contrast to history, does not focus on the past as such, but the forms in which this past is upheld in present consciousness.

The individual’s memory is shaped by personal recollections. But no one is alone with his or her memories. In fact, each human being is influenced by events in the distant past – by a grandmother’s stories as well as by traditional rites, history lessons at school, films at the cinema. “Each ‘I’ is connected with a ‘we’, from which it draws fundamentals of its identity,” Aleida Assmann says. Because biographical anecdotes, rites and films are difficult to compare, Assmann resorts to a more differentiated study of collective memory. Depending on the duration, emotional intensity and the degree of institutionalisation, she refers to a “social”, “national” or “cultural” memory.

“No one is alone with his or her memories. In fact, each human being is influenced by events in the distant past – by a grandmother’s stories as well as by history lessons at school or films at the cinema.”

What is stored in the social memory is most easily forgotten, for it is passed on mainly orally. “As long as a group continues to communicate about an experience, social memory is upheld,” Assmann explains. “It dies, however, along with its living carriers.” The national memory lasts longer, rooted in instruction at school, street names, and anniversaries. Just like the individual’s memory, however, it has a narrowed perspective and is partisan. “Narratives become myths, the most important characteristic of which is their emotional power,” Assmann says. They continue to be passed on as long as they support the self-image of the collective. But there are also the “hot cores” of pain and guilt which may, in the long term, lead to changes in the national memory.

Cultural memory will persist longer still, stored on CDs and film as well as in books and on papyrus. Libraries, museums and archives preserve such material remains of culture – albeit in a highly selective manner. Only a tiny fraction of them will be kept alive in actual circulation. Assmann emphasises that each generation redefines its approach to history. The shift in perspectives that occurred in the generation of 1968 corrected some narrowed historical perceptions, for example the exclusion of Jewish victims from German remembrance. Since 2000, themes like displacement and uprooting that “had been marginalised during the previous two decades by the official historic discourse” have been rediscovered in the context of the growing interest in the topic of family trauma.

Assmann claims that social memory has thus gained new significance in the face of the “monumental declamations of the state”. She specifically credits literature with accomplishing this turnaround, as it never ceases to “facilitate a critical distance from the officially mandated interpretation of the present time“.

Aleida Assmann’s achievement goes beyond the analysis of the forms of memory. She also intervenes in the public discourse and actively participates in shaping a responsible and differentiated culture of remembrance in Germany.

How Augustus played with memory

US citizen Karl Galinsky is actually a Classical Philologist, but as one of the most innovative minds in the field of Cultural Studies, his transfer of insights from antiquity to the modern age is spectacular. And his knowledge about the first Roman emperor Augustus (63 B.C. to 14 A.D.) has led him to the following conclusion: New heads of state may break with many of the things their predecessors did. But the more they change, the more they should, at the same time, rely on old traditions in order not to lose the people’s trust. This may be one of the most important pieces of advice Galinsky can give today’s politicians and his own president. Augustus succeeded in unifying his divided people with a skilful combination of tradition and innovation.

Karl Galinsky tracking down Roman history in the Pantheon.
Karl Galinsky tracking
down Roman history in the
Pantheon.

Foto: Axel Griesch

The style of Augustus’ governance is so interesting partly because his was the one Roman era to have a far-reaching impact on successive cultures: as a model or as a counterexample, but always in a very powerful way. Galinsky is the first to offer us an adequate understanding of Augustan culture and rule, and in his work, he also takes up seemingly surprising themes such as disenchantment with politics, multiculturalism or post-modern architecture. Until Karl Galinsky took a close look at Augustus’ rule, Classical Philologists had been convinced that this era had been remarkably traditional. But Galinsky toppled this perception. On the contrary, he believes that the era was dynamic and experimental. Augustus gave his people the feeling that they were embarking on a new age. Yet at the same time, he avoided a rupture with his tory by maintaining tradition. Augustus even revived some rites that had already sunk into oblivion in order to configure cultural memory and thus strengthen Roman identity.

At the beginning of his reign, Augustus’ empire was shaken by civil wars. Augustus, however, unified the people by reminding them of their traditional religiousness, on which the Romans themselves had still relied a century earlier. They ascribed their rule over the world to their good relations with their gods.

Augustus also had to take action against the prevailing disenchantment with politics. In this context, Caesar’s successor always emphasised that he was reinstating the republic, whilst behaving like an autocrat. He would always refer to himself merely as princeps, the first citizen, whose rule was based solely on the consent of the others and his moral authority. Augustus succeeded in creating a positive image of himself and shaping the cultural memory of his time and the future.

“Rome was the epitome of a multicultural society, from which today’s democracies could learn a few things.”

Cultural memory also endowed the ethnically diverse Roman Empire with integrity. Rome was actually the epitome of a multicultural society, from which today’s democracies could learn a few things. Each citizen enjoyed full freedom with regard to language, dress, and religion, as long as he observed the basic principles of Roman rule – i.e. respected the constitution, sacrificed to the official gods, submitted to the law and paid his taxes.

There was also great artistic freedom, as Galinsky found out. Contrary to what had long been assumed, the arts and literature were experimental, imagination knew no boundaries. The art that emerged then remained a model for a long time and thus fostered pride and a sense of unity.

Galinsky examines the workings of Roman cultural memory on all these levels, recognising that collective memories sometimes depend on who remembers what and why. And it is from this insight that he wants to draw lessons for the modern age – who is shaping ideas, who is controlling them, and what people prefer to forget.


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Aleida Assmann Aleida Assmann
Foto: Axel Griesch

Professor Dr. Aleida Assmann teaches English Literature at the University of Konstanz. Together with Karl Galinsky, she received the 2009 Max Planck Research Award, the international research award granted by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Max Planck Society.

Karl Galinsky Karl Galinsky
Foto: Axel Griesch 

Professor Dr. Karl Galinsky teaches Classical Philology at the University of Texas at Austin, USA. In 1992, he was granted a Humboldt Research Award and then spent the following years as a guest researcher at Mainz University and the Freie Universität Berlin.

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