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Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for

History

Professor Aleida
Assmann

The Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW) has awarded the 2014
Dr A.H. Heineken Prize for History (200,000 US dollars) to Professor Aleida Assmann, Professor of English Literature at the University of Konstanz (Germany). Aleida Assmann is receiving the prize for her ground-breaking contribution to the study of the ‘cultural memory’ of nations and other types of human communities.Read more

Research

Each of us has recollections of the past. How we deal with the present depends on which events we remembered and which ones we forgot. The same is true for groups of people, for communities, and for entire nations: some events are stored in their ‘collective memory’, while others fade over time.
Aleida Assmann is a pioneer in what has become a distinct discipline: the study of one particular kind of collective memory, which she has named ‘cultural memory’.
It is the study of how societies deal with their past through cultural expression, for example the news media, literature, the visual arts, music, buildings and monuments, and remembrance days. Some memories are passed on culturally to new generations; others are mostly ignored and thus ‘forgotten’.
Together with Jan Assmann, her husband, Aleida Assmann has helped establish a successful discipline, an ‘anthropology of remembrance’ that connects literary studies with historical scholarship, anthropology, psychology, theology, and neuroscience. Their conceptual framework has been accepted and adopted worldwide.
Assmann recognised, for example, how Germany’s ‘cultural memory’ after the Second World War was dominated by feelings of guilt about Nazism and the Holocaust. In other countries and times, art and culture have typically allowed space for more positive self-reflections.
Assmann’s work raises interesting questions about how cultural memory can be modified for political or moral purposes. She has often participated in public debates on how societies can best deal with historical disgrace – neither by covering it up nor by getting stuck in guilt.
In Germany, she stressed the importance of using the annual national commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz both to ensure that Germans remember the Holocaust and to highlight how human rights are now part of the country’s political and moral foundation.
According to Assmann, democratic states and their societies distinguish themselves from others in taking the principles of care and public accountability seriously. This involves a new culture of remembrance that addresses unresolved issues of the past and listens with empathy to the voices of victims.

Researcher

Aleida Assmann was born in 1947 in Bethel, near Bielefeld (Germany). She studied English and Egyptology at the universities of Heidelberg and Tübingen and obtained her PhD in both disciplines in 1977. In 1993, Assmann became Professor of Anglistik und Allgemeine Literaturwissenschaften at the University of Konstanz (Germany). She has travelled abroad frequently for guest professorships, for example at Rice University (Houston), Princeton, Yale and the University of Chicago in the United States, and the University of Vienna in Austria.
She has published hundreds of essays, books and collections of articles on English literature, cultural memory and ‘remembrance’. She is member of the Academies of Science in Berlin-Brandenburg, Göttingen and Austria, and received an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Theology at the University of Oslo in 2008.
In 2009, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation and the Max Planck Society presented Assmann with a Max Planck Research Award (750,000 euros). In 2011, she received the Ernst Robert Curtius Prize for essays from the University of Bonn Society.