- Shadows of Trauma: Memory and the Politics of Postwar Identity by Aleida Assmann
A photograph of the Brandenburg Gate, one of Berlin’s most recognizable landmarks, graces the cover of Shadows of Trauma. Completed in 1791 to commemorate peace, the gate has, over the centuries, been the site of several landmark moments in German history. In 1806, Napoleon marched through the gate to signal his triumph over the Prussians, even taking the quadriga with him back to Paris. In 1813, after Napoleon’s defeat at Leipzig, the quadriga was brought back to Berlin in a triumphant procession. In 1933, Hitler’s ascent to power was celebrated in front of the gate and became a symbol of party pride. And in 1989, the fall of the Berlin Wall was most widely experienced by Berliners in front of the gate. Therefore, the Brandenburg Gate serves as a complex mnemonic for peace, defeat, triumph, nationalism, and freedom in German cultural memory. But the particular photograph of the Brandenburg Gate on the cover of Aleida Assmann’s work comes from the one-night light installation by artist Horst Hoheisel on January 27, 1997, one year after the International Holocaust Remembrance Day was established by the United Nations. The image of the gate leading to Auschwitz is projected upon the gate, blending together moments of German “triumph and trauma”; this image serves as an artistic springboard for Assmann’s discussion of memory and trauma seventy years after the end of the Second World War.
Shadows of Trauma is a study, not of the Holocaust or the events of World War Two, but rather, of “the belated reception of those events, [an] inquir[y] into the ways those events are remembered individually, how they are passed on or silenced as collective experience, how they are publicly recognized, and in what forms of media and ritualized commemorations they are being continually reconstructed” (4). Assmann provides an exploration of how memory, at the individual and collective levels, has emerged, collided, and evolved over the past seventy years in Germany. The work, divided into two parts—the first laying down the theoretical premise and the second providing context through case studies—particularly emphasizes the “dynamics of individual and collective memory in the shadow of a traumatic past” (6). She addresses memory formation for victims and perpetrators, the power of repression, forgetting, and false memory, as well as intersections of Germany’s historical memories as perpetrators and victims; the work is intentionally and effectively interdisciplinary. One of the work’s most exciting undertakings is the exploration of collective memory, especially the consideration of external mnemonics in the context of a cultural narrative. [End Page 929]
Any foray into collective memory or experience requires venturing into a controversial arena and Assmann capably addresses this head-on when she points out that “the criticism of the concept of collective memory . . . has nothing to do its supposedly mystical or metaphorical premises, but solely with its vagueness” (43). To that end, instead of considering individual and collective memory as a dyad, Assmann divides collective memory into three additional categories: social, political, and cultural memory. Furthermore, individual, social, political, and cultural memory are all considered in terms of biological and symbolic carriers. While social memory is closely related to individual memory in that it is largely biologically mediated, and therefore short-term, it is also processed generationally through living interactions and communication. Political and cultural memory, on the other hand, are symbolically mediated through material carriers and are more long-term. Whereas political (or national) memory relies on historical information to create a unified and instrumental collective identity, cultural memory “resists such reductionism due to its inclusive media-oriented and material character” (41). Physical and media objects such as photography and film, and landmarks such as memorials evoke the larger collective memory. It is a continuation of Proust’s contemplation of the madeleine but on a much larger scale.
Collective memory is, in many ways, embedded in the media of the age...