Aleida Assmann’s recent visit to the University of California, Berkeley, October 28-29, 2013, brought local and academic communities together to participate in discussion on cultural memory and dealing with the past. Chair of English Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Konstanz and a leading scholar in cultural memory studies, Assmann began her two day visit with the US premier of her first film Anfang aus dem Ende: Die Flakhelfergeneration (2013), followed on the second day by a lecture titled “From Collective Violence to a Common Future: Four Models for Dealing with a Traumatic Past”. Assmann’s visit was coordinated with Deniz Göktürk’s current graduate seminar in the Department of German, “Cultural Memory Reloaded.”
The Flakhelfergeneration, the generation born in Germany in 1926-29, was the last to be drafted straight out of school to serve in anti-aircraft units in 1943-45. Assmann’s documentary interweaves interviews with over twenty members of this generation with archival photographs to assemble a picture of the final years of the World War II, its aftermath, and the survivors’ different ways of dealing with these memories. Though all interviewees shared a similar experience of collective mobilization, each story was unique, which provided a diverse survey while characterizing them as a generation based on a common educational formation. In the lively Q & A session following the screening, Assmann provided insight into her filmmaking process, including how she selected the topic and participants, and the cross-generational collaboration with her children in editing the film.
In her lecture, Assmann traced four models of remembrance with regard to traumatic events, corresponding roughly to the stages that public memory has undergone in Germany since the end of the war: dialogic forgetting (e.g. the post-war silence); remembering a shared past in order to never forget (e.g. Holocaust commemoration); remembering in order to overcome with an outlook toward a common future (e.g. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions); and dialogic remembering that would transcend narratives of a particular nation and engage in cross-border conversations (e.g. comparisons of history textbooks between Germany and Poland or discussions about the different status of the Leningrade Blockade, where 700.000 Russians starved to death, in German and Russian collective memory).
The final stage leaves us in the present with a model that is not yet fully realized. Assmann proposed the framework of the EU as an opportunity for each country to come together and engage in a dialogue of remembering directed towards a common future. Although commemoration practices are circulating globally and cross-border conversations appear to be on the right path, Assmann stressed that much still has to change in the mindsets of the individual countries in order for this theoretical model to be put into practice.
Assmann addressed a wide range of topics in the discussion that followed the lecture, including ways in which her model might be implemented and through what media, the role of language, barriers to dialogue, and potential pitfalls of the various models she introduced. She also drew connections to debates beyond the German context, such as the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, slavery in the US, Latin American dictatorships, and 9/11. Although she was careful to situate her concepts geographically and historically, she suggested that these four models might be more broadly applicable.
The personal accounts shown in the film juxtaposed with the theoretical abstraction of the lecture provided for a well-rounded event with rich discussion on the agents and institutions of commemorations. From an American veteran to a sister of a Flakhelfer-brother as well as graduate students and professors from various departments, the audience was exceptionally diverse; proving that World War II and its memory was and continues to be a topic of global debate.
Assmann’s visit left us with a number of lingering questions for further discussion. How do different generations deal with a common traumatic past? How might we envision communities of memory other than along national lines? Who is included and excluded from rituals of remembrance? Is it possible to use one event as a model for deal with others? How are memories mediated?
– by Lisa Jacobson and Cara Tovey (on behalf of the seminar group “Cultural Memory Reloaded”)