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 science, 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.
For the same reason, Assmann has joined the campaign to make 8 May a remembrance day commemorating World War II and the Holocaust all across Europe, in part to unite Europeans in a shared vision of a peaceful future.
Aleida Assmann was born in Bethel, near Bielefeld (Germany), on 22 March 1947. 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 en 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 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). In 2011, she received the Ernst Robert Curtius Prize for essays from the University of Bonn Society.