Are cultures owned by groups of people

History and memory

Aleida Assmann

To person

has been Professor of English and General Literature at the University of Konstanz since 1993. Your research area includes the following topics: German memory history after World War II, cultural-scientific memory research and memory theory.

Our memory is a gigantic collection of data. Some we remember for a lifetime, others we forget again. Why is that? Does our memory get worse in times of media culture? Do we all have a Google memory?

Storage memory collects and stores sources, objects and data. But things are getting worse and worse in electronic media culture. Today we rely on our Google memory. Quick access to knowledge is more important to us than having knowledge. (& copy AP)

Embodied or outsourced

By being able to write something down, people and cultures expand the range of their memory. The external memory of the recording expands and relieves the memory; At the same time, this creates a growing discrepancy between embodied memory and what is stored externally. Libraries and archives are gigantic data storage devices that can be connected to and from which one can draw, but they do not guarantee the survival of vividly embodied or memorized knowledge, the scope of which is becoming ever smaller in a written culture and especially in an electronic media culture. Today we rely on our Google memory; quick access to knowledge is more important to us than having knowledge.

The cultural memory is divided into two areas, which relate to one another like the foreground and background: a memory memory and a functional memory. Storage memory collects and preserves sources, objects and data, regardless of whether they are needed by the present; we can speak here again of a passive memory. The functional memory, on the other hand, is an active memory; it contains a small selection of what a society selects from the past and updates from the stock of its cultural tradition.

The process of outsourcing knowledge in writing is therefore not a one-way street, but is answered through feedback from memories and personal re-appropriations. We call this embodied treasure trove of cultural knowledge education. Canonized classics are learned by heart or are at least present in quotations, museums canonize images and sculptures in their permanent exhibitions, monuments keep the past physically present, anniversaries bring historical events back into the present at regular intervals.

individually versus collectively

While no one has ever doubted the existence of an individual memory, there are many who consider the term 'collective memory' to be a pure mystification. Maurice Halbwachs, who introduced this term in the 1920s, met with criticism and distrust. Critics who understood the term to be something like a collective folk spirit reported justified skepticism. However, Halbwachs' research went in a completely different direction. He investigated forms of social group memory in which those who share a common experience, such as a family, a school class, a soldiers' regiment or a travel group, participate.

He has shown that memories are inherently social and form the communicative and emotional cement of a group. His radical thesis was that people do not develop any individual memory in the strict sense, but have always been included in memory communities. Like language, memory is formed in communicative processes, i. H. in telling, absorbing and appropriating memories in close proximity. Anyone who is completely alone cannot develop any memory at all after Halbwachs.

Anyone who applies the term 'collective memory' not only to small social groups in a face-to-face situation, but also to large groups such as ethnic groups, nations and states, must be aware of the fact that such units do not have a collective memory, but make one with the help of different memorial media such as texts, images, monuments, anniversaries and commemoration rites. With the help of common points of reference in the past and cultural tradition, such collectives create a we-identity, which is not a matter of origin and descent, but of participation in the form of learning, identification and other forms of practiced belonging.

Until recently, the rules of choosing points of reference from the past followed what Nietzsche defined as 'monumental historiography'; The aim was to construct a heroic self-image for the group and to elevate it mythically with the help of images of the enemy. A decisive turning point has taken place in politics of the past since the 1990s, when various states began to reflect on their historical guilt and to incorporate it into their self-image in the form of public confessions.


Trauma refers to an experience that is so painful that the gates of perception close to this force. As something that cannot be told or remembered within the framework of a person's identity construction, it is split off from consciousness and encapsulated. What is locked in the capsule or crypt is not forgotten, but rather conserved aside and becomes noticeable after a certain time interval through certain symptoms. The therapy aims to transform the trauma into conscious memory and convey it with the identity of the person. Although it cannot be cured by this, it can be defused in its destructive power.

The specifics of trauma are the long-term consequences for victims of sexual abuse or torture, which is why the statute of limitations has been lifted for such offenses. In the case of the collective historical trauma of the Holocaust, the hindsight is just as evident; it took until the 1980s for the victims' painful and humiliating experiences to be narrated and for them to be heard. The concept of the moral witness who gives a voice to the dead among the victims belongs in this context. In the meantime, in addition to the Holocaust, other genocides have entered global consciousness that demand symbolic recognition and material restitution. These include the genocide of the Armenians, the so-called Middle Passage of the slaves deported from Africa, the natives of the United States of America, Canada and Australia.

The retrospective nature of historical trauma also means that it is inherited from one generation to another. The later born, who identify with these family fates, thus become members of a 'community of suffering'. In this context a new historical-political problem has arisen: political groups base their identity on a 'chosen trauma' (Vamik Volkan) and compete with others in victim competition.

Memory does not develop in isolation, but is always socially related to other individuals and, on a political level, to other groups, where it reacts and refers to other memories. The retrospective nature of memory, which is so evident in trauma, applies to memory in general. That is why what we remember is not based on what actually happened, but on what we can later tell a story of. What is remembered from the past and what is not ultimately depends on who is using the story and for what purpose.