Culture of remembrance

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Remembrance of the genocide of the Armenians with the "Eternal Flame" at the memorial site of Zizernakaberd in Yerevan (2014)

The culture of remembrance describes how individuals and society deal with their past and history . Remembrance cultures are the historically and culturally variable manifestations of collective memory . The article mainly deals with the culture of remembrance in Germany.


The culture of remembrance is one of the key concepts in cultural studies . Hans Günter Hockerts sees the culture of remembrance as a loose collective term “for the totality of the non-specifically scientific use of history in public”.

Christoph Cornelißen includes the scientific field and understands the culture of remembrance "as a formal umbrella term for all conceivable forms of conscious memory of historical events, personalities and processes, be they aesthetic, political or cognitive in nature". It takes place in all forms of collective memory , in historical discourse, but also in private memories. The bearers of the culture of remembrance can be individuals, social groups as well as the state and nation. All forms of appropriation of the remembered past (texts, images, monuments, buildings, festivals, rituals, etc.) are equally important components of the culture of remembrance. The term is "synonymous with the concept of historical culture , but it emphasizes more than this the moment of the functional use of the past for present purposes, for the formation of a historically founded identity".

According to Jan Assmann , the culture of remembrance of one's own social group poses and answers the question: "What must we not forget?" in this respect, culture of remembrance has a community-building effect. A culture of remembrance is only possible where the past is present through testimonies of some kind and where this shows a characteristic difference to the present. “Culture of remembrance” is not synonymous with the similar term “ tradition ”, as it conceals the break between past and present and puts continuity in the foreground.

Aleida Assmann sees the term culture of remembrance as "inflationary spread" with very different meanings. She sees three meanings of the term “culture of remembrance”, the first as a collective term for the “pluralization and intensification of approaches to the past” on the background that remembrance work has increasingly exceeded the field of academic specialization. The second meaning is “the appropriation of the past by a group” with an identity-creating effect, which can thus confirm its values. Thirdly, she sees “the ethical culture of remembrance” as a critical examination of state and social crimes, whereby the victim's perspective is particularly important.

However, due to a pronounced culture of remembrance, the elements that are not highlighted are surrendered to oblivion .

Expression and forms

Tokyo cemetery
Hermannsdenkmal (1875): Traditional culture of remembrance with a transfiguring and sometimes falsifying style

The oldest and most widespread form of remembrance culture consists in the creation of tombs and cemeteries with the further development of mausoleums . Extreme manifestations are monumental tombs such as the pyramids of Giza or the public presentation of corpses, which to some people seem bizarre, such as in the Lenin mausoleum in Moscow.

Examples of private or subjective forms of memory culture are family albums , genealogy or various anniversaries with personal or family connections. If there is public interest , works of remembrance culture can be officially designated as cultural assets or cultural monuments .

Archives are destined for the culture of remembrance , the material of which can be made accessible through historical studies. The results of the scientific processing are reflected in various types of publications such as scientific monographs , articles in specialist journals or commemorative publications .

Public documentation and media presentation also play a major role . This purpose is served in particular by public, church and private museums. In addition to the permanent presentations, a large public can be reached with special exhibitions that are not only presented in museums; The Prussian exhibition in 1981 , for example, met with great media coverage . The Wehrmacht exhibition from the 1990s exemplarily demonstrated that exhibitions not only serve the culture of remembrance, but can also initiate the formation of opinions on controversial topics.

Demonstrative public culture of remembrance is documented in monuments for people and historical events. A type that is widespread in Europe is the war memorial . When remembering events with negative connotations, one speaks of a memorial . The national monuments , which were mainly created in the 19th century, are a separate type .

Monuments for people are almost exclusively erected after the death of the respective person. Exceptions to this rule are mainly used for political instrumentalization of the objects. Almost all the monuments to Kaiser Wilhelm I were erected after his death, while many of the numerous Bismarck monuments were erected during the lifetime of the Chancellor . The person-related monuments often represent the person himself, but other objects can also be linked with the name of the person, such as a Bismarck tower or a Goethe stone .

A culture of remembrance also takes place in public events with an identity-creating or identity-preserving character, for example in the design of national days of remembrance with often ritualized forms such as military parades or the laying of wreaths . By awarding prizes that are not only historical in character, a contribution to the culture of remembrance can also be made, such as the award of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in Frankfurt's Paulskirche or the International Charlemagne Prize in Aachen's historic town hall . In the field of scientific remembrance culture, there are chair dedications such as the Romano Guardini chair or lectures that remember famous people such as the Gauss lecture of the German Mathematicians Association.

Viking reenactment
Lippe state railway steam train on museum trips

The naming of public traffic areas (such as a “ Strasse des 17. Juni ”) and buildings have an effect on everyday life . Popular media for the culture of remembrance are also stamps and coins. The personal images on these are usually, with the exception of ruling personalities, only realized after the death of the respective person; the same principle is usually followed when naming streets.

Remembrance activities are not tied to the location of the historical event (commemorative events in the German Bundestag). Nevertheless, if the place is known and accessible, it is usually of particular importance for the establishment of memorial sites or the practiced culture of remembrance ( Völkerschlachtdenkmal in Leipzig, Holocaust memorials ). The lack of clarity about the location of an event can not only stimulate research into it (for example theories about the location of the Varus Battle ), but also call into question the justification of local memorial sites (for example the Kalkriese Museum ).

A culture of remembrance can also be created through scenic or functional action; Examples of the former are reenactment events, for the latter the museum operation of historical transport .

In addition, memorials , days of remembrance , orders of merit, honorary and disabled people as well as memorials and memorials also play a greater role. As an expression of the “commemorative state” regulation of collective memory, they are not only of cultural value, but also of past-political and consequently ideological value. As an expression of official efforts for if not binding, at least state-socially standardized (i.e. politically representative desired) origin, event and subsequent interpretation, the forms of “memorial statehood” communicate collectively opportune patterns of interpretation. Practiced political and moral creeds, public stagings and political monuments often serve time-, culture- and regime-bound values ​​and are therefore components of representative symbolic politics of concrete social systems.

The role of the state

Memorial plaque
Remains of the Stalin monument in Budapest in 1956

The function of the state in the context of the culture of remembrance consists in its ideal and financial support. Furthermore, public corporations appear as carriers of institutions such as archives, museums or historical buildings. Examples are the Federal Archives , the Prussian Museum of the State of North Rhine-Westphalia or the administration of the state castles of the State of Bavaria . It is not uncommon for cultural assets to be brought into foundations such as the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation for preservation and development .

The state's task is also to create the legal framework, for example through laws on monument protection . An extreme case in democratically constituted states is the setting of legal limits for content-related statements in the case of Holocaust denial if it is defined as a criminal offense, as in Germany. There is also an active state intervention in the culture of remembrance when buildings are removed that would be suitable as possible places of remembrance, such as the Garrison Church in Potsdam or the Reich Chancellery in Berlin in the post-war period.

Questions of public memory and the perception of history are closely linked to questions of the legitimation of claims to power and the establishment of a national identity. This can lead to a state ritualization of the culture of remembrance. This politicization of the culture of remembrance becomes particularly visible in the case of regime changes , in which the previous interpretation of some historical events is changed by the new power. A visible example can then be the handling of monuments that are reminiscent of heroes of the previous regime, but who no longer enjoy the same reputation after the regime change.

On such occasions, the state monuments of earlier political regimes can be given counter marks, supplementary panels or substitute functions or the functions of historical buildings can be changed, for example the rededication of former monarchical palaces to main parliament, library or university buildings. Such demonstrative reallocations are aimed at relativizing or distancing from events previously found to be memorable or even venerable, outdated political orders or social customs and manners.

The endeavor of political rulers to specify or at least influence the content and direction of the culture of remembrance is already palpable in ancient cultures, for example in the iconographic design of the memory of the battle of Kadesh . The prevention of a culture of remembrance in the sense of a Damnatio memoriae , for example in the succession of Pharaoh Akhenaten , can be traced back to the same time periods .

Leaders of the state have taken the initiative on various occasions to change cultures of remembrance through speeches, gestures and political actions. As the beginning of a directed to the respective own nation memory culture to a position of international understanding as the Reconciliation Mass was in the Cathedral of Reims considered that President Charles de Gaulle and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in July 1962 visited together and thus the German-French friendship ushered . Willy Brandt's kneeling in Warsaw at the Warsaw Ghetto Memorial and the speech given by Federal President Richard von Weizsäcker on the 40th anniversary of the end of the war were also perceived in a similar way .

Multiperspectivity of the culture of remembrance

Spanish Civil War: Franquist State
Monument in the Valley of the Fallen
Picasso's view of the Spanish Civil War: Guernica
Memorial to the murdered Sinti and Roma in the Great Tiergarten in Berlin (detail: center of the fountain with stone and fresh flower on a triangle reminiscent of the angle of the
concentration camp )

In the first years of the Federal Republic of Germany there were difficulties in establishing a culture of remembrance for the events of July 20, 1944 , as these were still controversial at the time. The historian Norbert Frei speaks of a “memory struggle” that spanned the early 1950s Dimensions shaped.

There was a different culture of remembrance in the GDR than in West Germany. The history of use of the Prora building complex on Rügen is an example of an incomplete culture of remembrance. Planned as a KdF seaside resort during the Nazi era, but never completed, as a barracks it was one of the largest and most notorious military locations in the GDR with a system-stabilizing function. In contrast to the original function of the Nazi era, post-war history has only been an object of remembrance culture for a few years.

In a multiethnic context, the diversity of memories can result in different cultures of remembrance of certain historical events, for example in countries like Ukraine, where the population composition changed drastically during the Second World War . In a city like Czernowitz , which lost a considerable part of the Jewish population as a result of the Holocaust , traces of this culture still remain, which can serve as a starting point for a culture of remembrance.

The same historical events of a controversial nature result in the parties involved each having their own forms of remembrance culture; one example is the memorial sites of the Spanish Civil War . The political character of the culture of remembrance becomes particularly visible in the case of regime changes, in which the previous interpretation of some historical events is changed by the new power.

The culture of remembrance of genocide has a considerable potential for conflict in many countries, especially if this still affects disadvantaged minorities today. Examples include the Herero and Nama uprising in Namibia , the Armenian genocide in Armenia and Turkey, and the genocide in Rwanda . Other forms of violence, such as apartheid in South Africa, the reign of terror of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia , the acts of Stalin in the Soviet Union and Mao in China, or the war crimes of the Japanese army in East Asia during the Second Sino-Japanese War , are still large today Parts inadequately worked up.

The genocide Porajmos at the European Roma -Bevölkerung in Nazism remember history museums and memorials in Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Germany. German memorials are the memorial for the Sinti and Roma of Europe murdered under National Socialism and the Documentation and Cultural Center of German Sinti and Roma .

Remembering can be used specifically to deal with past conflicts and ultimately to overcome them. A. Assmann sees the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa as an example , which became active after the end of the apartheid policy. The last memory of an injustice that has occurred offers the prerequisite for reconciliation: remembering has the function of catharsis .

Conservation, restoration and reconstruction

The conservation , restoration and reconstruction of historical objects represent an important material requirement for ensuring the culture of remembrance. Examples of safeguarding the culture of remembrance are the conservation of documents due to the risk of the descriptive material falling apart or indecipherability , but also the technical legibility of digitally archived texts , the reconstruction by deciphering a palimpsest , the uncovering of the creation process of buildings and works of art, but also the reconstruction of their hypothetical original state as with the restoration of the Sistine Chapel .

Picture from the time of the reconstruction of the Dresden Frauenkirche (May 2003), the old black parts of the building are clearly visible
Partial view of the building ensemble of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, 2004

Divergent attitudes stand next to and against each other about the implementation of the reconstruction of buildings. On the one hand, a strict preservation of a found condition can be attempted. One example of this is the retention of the heap of rubble after a bomb attack, such as the ruins of the Dresden Frauenkirche during the GDR. On the other hand, what has been handed down can be integrated into a new overall structure, such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin by Egon Eiermann or the Pinakothek in Munich by Hans Döllgast . Sometimes a special type of reconstruction in the form of anastylosis is possible, in which the exact position of many of the stones still present is calculated and these old parts are inserted into the new building accordingly, as happened when the Dresden Frauenkirche was rebuilt in 1991.

In addition to restorations and reconstructions in the spirit of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc , in which an originally intended, perfect state is to be restored , such as the Roman fort Saalburg in the Wilhelmine era , historical streets are also destroyed, such as in the old towns of Warsaw and Danzig and similar reconstructed on Frankfurt's Römerberg , whereby the structure visible from the outside reflects the historical impression, but the interior is designed in a modern way. The Warsaw reconstruction was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO ,

A special type of reconstruction occurs when a new building is erected on the site of an earlier one, to which architectural elements are inserted that correspond to this old building, as was the case with the construction of the Humboldt Forum on the site of the destroyed Berlin Palace , in order to recreate the earlier urban situation . Another special feature of this measure is that the new building replaces the Palace of the Republic , which was built in the meantime and which in turn represented its own historical epoch.

Culture of remembrance for the Holocaust

Stumbling block for Nazi victims

The culture of remembrance of the Holocaust is of particular importance in German-speaking countries because of its scope, its uniqueness and its ethical dimension. According to Aleida Assmann , the process of coming to terms with the Nazi era in the post-war period took place in two phases. In the first, which is referred to as coming to terms with the past or politics of the final stroke, the focus was on symbolic actions of a final character, such as the reconciliation mass attended by Adenauer and de Gaulle in Reims or the development of the relationship with the State of Israel . This type of forgetting, known as dialogical forgetting, should avoid the attitudes evoked by memory, such as hatred or revenge. In a subsequent second phase, which has intensified since the 1980s, the conviction prevailed that reconciliation is only possible through common memory.

Important places of remembrance of the Holocaust are the memorials on the grounds of former concentration camps . The decentralized opposite pole is formed by the stumbling blocks that have been laid in many German towns and that remind people by name of abducted and murdered people in their previous places of residence.

The monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin-Mitte has the character of a central memorial, the establishment of which in the 1990s was associated with numerous controversies regarding the location of the memorial, the artistic execution, the financing, but also the question of which Groups of victims should be commemorated by the memorial.

Special postage stamp of the Deutsche Bundespost 1988

The nature and extent of remembering the Holocaust were often the subject of fierce controversies, including emotional ones, such as the speech on the 50th anniversary of the Reichspogromnacht by Bundestag President Philipp Jenninger on November 9, 1988 and the so-called historians' dispute that began in 1986 . This was mainly led by specialist scientists who faced each other directly in two camps, but did not make use of the usual media of scientific discourse, but was largely carried out in front of a large public through articles and letters to the editor in large daily and weekly newspapers , which led to the dispute received exceptional media attention. The historians' dispute, which dealt with the singularity of the Holocaust or its possible causal link with the Stalinist terror , remained inconclusive and provided “no gain in knowledge about the functioning of the National Socialist terror”. Historians from both camps argued about the "sovereignty to interpret German identity after National Socialism" and instrumentalized Auschwitz for their respective positions.

Discussion about the central Holocaust memorial

According to Jan-Holger Kirsch, a culture of remembrance and historical mourning only played a subordinate role in the dispute over the Berlin “Holocaust Memorial”; its real meaning lies in a “redefinition of 'national identity' in a united Germany”. The memorial is a prominent exhibit of the “ Berlin Republic ”, in which confessions to the nation and confessions to historical guilt are no longer perceived as a contradiction. The Holocaust is used in the service of an identity policy in which the Jews in particular are again excluded despite ostentatious appropriation.

The conflict between the Chairman of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Ignatz Bubis, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl about the organization of the Neue Wache in Berlin also played an important role in the mid-1990s . This was accepted by the former on condition that a central Holocaust memorial be built, but no other groups of victims such as B. to allow Sinti and Roma .

Criticism of the Holocaust culture of remembrance

Loss of authenticity through sacralization

The historian K. Erik Franzen thinks of the former Dachau concentration camp that the topography of the site has been given a strongly religious orientation through the establishment of various sacred memorial sites with the main idea of ​​Christian reconciliation. "The 'authentic' place almost dissolved in the course of dealing with the past - if there are any authentic places."

Hans Günter Hockerts demands that the ritual ceremony of remembrance in Dachau be separated from the differentiated historical exploration of history.

Suggestive musealization

In her autobiography, the literary scholar and Holocaust survivor Ruth Klüger , using the example of the Dachau concentration camp, denied the suitability of memorial sites as places of learning and museums. Dachau is so clean and tidy that it looks downright inviting in that it is more reminiscent of a holiday camp than of tortured life. In a conversation about the increasing memorialization of memory, she said that “pathos and kitsch” would obscure the view of reality and also do not do justice to the victims. Aleida Assmann comments that for Klüger the “museum-like places of remembrance” have become “ cover memories ”.

Ritualizing language

Sigrid Jacobeit sees the problem that, through the language of remembrance, what is to be remembered is taken out of the context of the past and placed in a new, possibly politically motivated one:

“The language of remembrance ritualizes, it selects, varies, unifies and tends to convey clear images of history that correspond to the respective society. The past is decontextualized and thus decoupled from political, social and cultural concepts, and an attempt is even made to 'come to terms with the past and render it harmless for all time'. ,Never again !' - stands for this as a warning-deceptive slogan. "


The case of a description of the Holocaust by Binjamin Wilkomirski , which was first celebrated in public and later recognized as an invented “autobiography”, led Aleida Assmann to the statement that the culture of remembrance is partly becoming a “template”, with the fitting being the authentic apply and the non-fitting is repelled.

Quasi-religious ritualization

Florian Wenninger sees the problematic aspects of the established culture of remembrance in the quasi-religious ritualization of remembrance, in reaching a consensus through radical decontextualization , in the satisfaction of "latent voyeurism and [the] need for moral self-appreciation" as well as in the too general and therefore arbitrarily formulated Lessons Derived from History. Wenninger sees it as an inadmissible shortening of “breaking down the mode of action of totalitarian regimes… to a level of personal courage” by calling for “ civil courage ” from the individual; this does not serve to clarify the past, but rather to “moral ennoble the present”. His conclusion with Adorno is : "The return or non-return of fascism [is] essentially not a psychological, but a social question."

Lack of orientation for the present

As part of an expert opinion on the further development of the culture of remembrance, commissioned by the North Rhine-Westphalian state government in 2008, Harald Welzer from the Institute for Cultural Studies in Essen examined the effectiveness of the culture of remembrance and remembrance at Holocaust memorials. Welzer notes the widespread willingness of young people, as determined in empirical studies, to deal with the issues of the Nazi era, but from a social-psychological point of view sees it as counterproductive to “provide the conveyance of historical knowledge with moral instructions for use”. He opposes the equally counterproductive "pathos of remembrance-cultural speech formulas": If it is to be effective, the remembrance culture must "no longer focus on the monumentalized horror of the extermination camps, but on the less spectacular, everyday image of a society that is becoming increasingly criminal". As a solution, he proposes to thematize references to the present and to show room for maneuver in “new type of bourgeois learning venues” that the “everyday social life of the marginalized society” should be presented rather than the “horror of annihilation”.

Ulrike Schrader and Norbert Reichling, as representatives of the North Rhine-Westphalian historical sites, insinuate Welzer to assume a distorted image of the work in the memorials. They also point out that memorial sites are not only aimed at young audiences. They reject Welzer's proposed solutions because they are not only based on false assumptions, but are also "not very original, outdated and dangerous".

In a similar vein as Welzer, Gerhard Schröder also expressed his skepticism in 1999. He advocated a memorial in which the discussion of history takes place: “A visible sign of not forgetting and an opportunity or also a stimulus for intensive discussion. [...] I don't want school classes to be dragged there because that's how it should be. Rather, you should go there because you feel the need to remember and deal with things. "

Political Instrumentalization: The Walser Controversy

When Martin Walser received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade in Frankfurt's Paulskirche in October 1998 , he responded with a speech that sparked a great deal of media coverage. Among other things, he said:

“No serious person denies Auschwitz; no person who is still sane points to the horror of Auschwitz; but when this past is held up to me every day in the media, I notice that something in me is resisting this permanent presentation of our shame. Instead of being grateful for the incessant presentation of our shame, I start looking away. When I notice that something in me is resisting it, I try to listen to the motives that our shame is being held against, and I am almost happy when I think I can discover that more often than not, the motive is no longer remembering, not forgetting, but rather the instrumentalization of our shame for present purposes. Always for good causes, honorable ones. But instrumentalization. [...] Auschwitz is not suitable for becoming a threatening routine, a means of intimidation that can be used at any time, or a moral club, or even just a compulsory exercise. What comes about through ritualization is of the quality of lip prayer [...]. "

Critics expressed their indignation and accused Walser of historical revisionism and of trivializing the Holocaust. Ignatz Bubis described the speech as "spiritual arson". Gerhard Schröder mainly criticized the course of the public debate that followed. Both Walser and his opponent Bubis had taken serious positions with sometimes misleading formulations: “There were exaggerated formulations in his speech. A poet is allowed to do that. I shouldn't. "

In 2015, Walser specified in an interview with Spiegel that he did not mean an instrumentalization of Auschwitz in German-Jewish relations, but rather one in German daily politics, as it is e.g. B. was practiced by Günter Grass in his rejection of German reunification or by Joschka Fischer in his support for German intervention in the Kosovo war .

See also

With reference to National Socialism:


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Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Astrid Erll: Collective memory and culture of remembrance. An introduction. 3. Edition. Stuttgart 2017, ISBN 978-3-476-02645-3 .
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  3. Christoph Cornelißen: What does a culture of remembrance mean? Concept - methods - perspectives. In: History in Science and Education. 54, 2003, pp. 548-563, here p. 555.
  4. Jan Assmann: The cultural memory. 2nd Edition. CH Beck, Munich 1997, p. 30.
  5. Jan Assmann: The cultural memory. 2nd Edition. CH Beck, Munich 1997, p. 34.
  6. Aleida Assmann: The new unease in the culture of remembrance. An intervention. CH Beck, Munich 2013, 2nd edition 2016 ISBN 978-3-406-69243-7 , pp. 32–33.
  7. Arnd Krüger : The seven ways to fall into oblivion. In: Arnd Krüger, Bernd Wedemeyer-Kolwe (Ed.): Forgetting, Displaced, Rejected. On the history of exclusion in sport. (= Series of publications by the Lower Saxony Institute for Sports History Hoya. Volume 21). LIT-Verlag, Münster 2009, ISBN 978-3-643-10338-3 , pp. 4-16; the original theory (excluding sport) is based on Paul Connerton: Seven Types of Forgetting. Memory studies . 1, 2008, pp. 59-71.
  8. a b Sebastian Huhnholz: History / Commemoration . In: Rüdiger Voigt (Ed.): Handbook State . 1st edition. tape 1 . Springer Fachmedien Wiesbaden, Wiesbaden 2018, ISBN 978-3-658-20743-4 , p. 451-463 , doi : 10.1007 / 978-3-658-20744-1_41 .
  9. Jan Assmann: Egypt. A story of meaning. Scientific Book Society Darmstadt 1996, pp. 285–295.
  10. Jan Assmann: Egypt. A story of meaning. Scientific Book Society Darmstadt 1996, p. 244.
  11. Norbert Frei: memory struggle. On the legitimation problem of July 20, 1944 in post-war Germany. 1995.
  12. Andreas Montag : Prora is reminiscent of NVA construction soldiers. Mitteldeutsche Zeitung, November 23, 2010.
  13. Gottfried Lorenz: Review of: Stefan Wolter: The Prince and the Proradies - From the fight against collective repression. Projects - Verlag Cornelius GmbH, Halle / Saale 2009.
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