Are there any indications of collective consciousness

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.

Nations have no memory. Nevertheless, the names of metro stations and public spaces are reminiscent of the triumphs and defeats of days gone by. Is there a common memory? What is the difference between the individual and the collective memory? Aleida Assmann provides insights into memory research.

Construction of a National Memory? Tolbiac metro station in Paris. Named after the battle of Z├╝lpich (Roman Tolbiacum). In 496 the Franks defeated the Alemanni at this place. (& copy AP)

The path from individual to collective memory is not that of a simple conclusion by analogy. Institutions and corporations do not have a memory in the manner of individual memory, because there is nothing there that corresponds to the biological basis, the anthropological disposition and the natural mechanisms of memory. That is why voices were repeatedly heard warning against the concept of collective memory as a pure mystification. However, such skepticism should not lead us to abandon the term entirely. Because it aims at phenomena that can be grasped empirically and which clearly stand out from the conditions of individual memory.

Memory constructions

Institutions and corporations such as nations, states, the church or a company 'have' no memory, they 'make' one and use memorial signs and symbols, texts, images, rites, practices, places and monuments. With this memory institutions and corporations 'make' an identity at the same time. This memory no longer has any involuntary moments because it is intentionally and symbolically constructed. It is a memory of will and calculated choice. The cultural memory construction differs significantly from the individual memory in three of the characteristics mentioned. It is not networked and designed for connectivity; on the contrary, it tends to cut itself off from other memory constructions.


The memory of a nation takes no notice of the fact that other historical reference points are chosen across the border and that the same historical events appear in an entirely different light. Nor is it fragmented, but based on narratives that, like myths and legends, have a narrative structure and clear message. After all, it does not exist as an unstable and fleeting structure, but is based on symbolic signs that select, fix and generalize individual memories and make them passable across generations. We shall come back in detail to the different forms of storage, those of repetition and those of material duration.

Remembering and forgetting

In addition to these clear differences, there is also one thing in common. It applies to both individual and collective memory that they are organized in perspective. Both are not set for the greatest possible completeness, are based on a strict selection. Forgetting is a constitutive part of individual and collective memory. Nietzsche described this fundamentally perspective character of memory with a term from optics. He spoke of the 'horizon' and meant a point-based limitation of the field of vision. Nietzsche continued to understand the 'plastic power' of memory as the ability to build as clear a boundary as possible between remembering and forgetting, which separates the important from the unimportant, or, more precisely: the useful from the not useful. Without these filters, Nietzsche said, there could be no identity formation (he spoke of 'character') and no clear action orientation. In his opinion, overly crammed knowledge stores lead to a softening of the memory and thus to a loss of identity.

The national memory

It is not difficult to determine the selection criteria which were decisive for the creation of a collective memory. The constructions of a national memory are particularly characteristic in this regard. This regularly deals with those points of reference in the story that strengthen the positive self-image and are in line with certain action goals. What does not fit into this heroic image will be forgotten. Victories are easier to remember than defeats. The metro stations in Paris commemorate Napoleon's victories, but none of his defeats. In London, on the other hand, in the land of Wellington, there is a metro station called Waterloo, which is clear evidence of the perspective character of collective memory. But not only glorious victories, also tragic defeats are commemorated in the national memory, where a nation bases its identity on a victim consciousness that must be kept alive in order to legitimize resistance and mobilize heroic resistance.

An example of this are the Serbs, who inscribed the defeat in Kosovo in 1389 in their national calendar of saints, or the Israelis, who made the fortress of Massada, which fell under the Romans, a place of political memory. This memory does not weaken, but steel. That is why the collective national memory is under emotional pressure and is just as receptive to historical moments of exaltation as of humiliation, provided that they can be processed in the semantics of a heroic image of history. The role of victim is also worth striving for because it is transfigured by the pathos of innocent suffering. On the other hand, what finds it difficult to get into the national memory are moments of guilt and shame, because these cannot be integrated into a positive collective self-image. Until recently, traumatic experiences in history were hardly accessible because there were no cultural processing patterns for them. This applies to the persecuted and exterminated natives of different continents, the abducted African slaves, the victims of genocide in the shadow of the First and Second World Wars, such as the Armenians and the Jews.