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University of Basel

Can memory be shared?

Text: Samuel Schlaefli

We often hear about a society’s “collective memory”. It is a concept that doesn’t sit well with Basel historian Erik Petry, who enjoys confronting conventional wisdom on the subject – and invokes Jewish history to make his point.

Star of David
The Star of David with Blossoms on a fruit tree in spring. (Symbolic image: David Holifield, unsplash)

“Wir schaffen das” (we can do this) – these three words will go down in the history books as Angela Merkel’s legacy. On 31 August 2015, in the midst of the refugee crisis, the federal chancellor called on her nation to show solidarity with those who had lost everything. Days later, the borders were opened. Thousands of refugees, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, promptly set out for Germany, drawn by Merkel’s three words and the hope of a dignifyed life in safety that they implied.

Later, Merkel’s courageous words would often be attributed to the “collective memory” of the German people, the implication being that the experience of World War II and the Shoah had been engraved on this collective memory as a kind of historical responsibility. This is a claim that historian Erik Petry has little time for, however: “If Merkel’s decision had arisen from a ‘collective memory’, then the entire population would still be united in their support for it today,” the Deputy Head of Basel University’s Center for Jewish Studies remarks.

Recent developments show that this is not the case, however: The ascendancy of the right-wing party AfD, the vilification of migrants in the media and among the general public, the racist riots in Chemnitz in 2018 and the antisemitic murders in Halle in 2019 – all of this flies in the face of Merkel’s “We can do this”, Petry argues.

Collective memory – what does it even mean?

In his postdoctoral habilitation thesis and various essays, Petry takes issue with the ideas of “collective” and “cultural” memory, which he considers too nebulous to be useful. He illustrates the point with an example from his own life story: He is originally from Germany, and has lived in Basel for 23 years. “Am I, as a person, already a part of the collective memory of Switzerland – or at least of Basel? And is the ‘Bebbi-Sagg’, the Basel garbage bag, that I regularly leave on my doorstep, also a part of this memory?,” he asks provocatively, and roars with laughter. It is quickly apparent that this is someone who enjoys a bit of rhetorical rivalry, and likes to question notions that many others take for granted.

Petry’s ideas pit him against some prominent voices in social and cultural studies. The idea of a “collective memory” was first popularized by the sociologist and philosopher Maurice Halbwachs. In his first publication on the topic – “Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire” – in 1925, Halbwachs wrote that all memory is influenced by environmental factors, and therefore exists within a social framework. He posited that each recollection becomes a collective phenomenon, and the collective memory is a repertoire of narratives about the past that is shared by different social groups. Along with the lesser-known cultural theorist Aby Warburg, Halbwachs sparked an interest in remembrance culture that endures to this day.

In the 1990s, the cultural theorist and Egyptologist Jan Assmann revived the idea pioneered by Halbwachs and developed it further under the label “cultural memory” with the literary scholar Aleida Assmann. They argued that while nations, states, the church or companies have no memory of their own, they forge one from signs, symbols, texts, images, rites and monuments.

For Jan Assmann, the collective memory is a social network that gives its members a sense of identity, promoting connections within the group and contributing to a sense of “us”. His wife Aleida Assmann later added the concept of a “national memory”: According to her theory, shared history gives rise to a national identity, which can be deliberately leveraged by politicians. This is done by highlighting historical points of reference that reinforce the positive self-image and are consistent with particular goals, while events with negative connotations are deliberately suppressed.

Jewish history as a counter-argument

Petry likes to compare Jan Assmann’s notion of “cultural memory” with Christianity’s Holy Spirit – an intangible presence, floating above everything, that no one really knows anything about. “It has no explanatory power whatsoever, so the concept is useless to me as a historian,” he complains.

For Petry, the assumption of a shared consciousness is just too simplistic. In one of his essays, he explains his efforts to “step into the shoes of the individual, to see things from their perspective”. In a nod to the retired Basel historian Heiko Haumann, Petry calls this the “life-world view”, which he pursues in his own research and seeks to convey to his students – for instance by means of oral history projects documenting the actions and recollections of Shoah survivors and their descendants.

Petry’s intellectual crusade against the concept of collective memory is all the more surprising considering that the emergence of Zionism and the foundation of the State of Israel are often ascribed to precisely such an idea. Nevertheless, the historian believes that Jewish history corroborates his stance. “During the founding period, Holocaust survivors from Poland came face to face with Jewish scholars from Baghdad, for instance,” he explains. “Both were without a doubt Jewish – this was what united them. But the two groups had little in common, and I’m quite sure they didn’t feel connected by a collective memory in the sense proposed by Assmann.”

Oral traditions

There is no question that the experience of oppression is shared by the entire Jewish community, and has given rise to a collective need for security, Petry says: “But this unity was imposed on the Jews from the outside, and has nothing to do with a shared identity.” For the most part, diversity within the Jewish community is severely underestimated, he argues. “I have a good friend in Israel who comes from a long line of Rabbis,” he recounts. “She is fond of saying she is 120 percent Jewish, even though she doesn’t give two hoots about religion.”

So does the historian reject the notion of shared memory entirely? “No, I believe it exists in the form of oral traditions, understood as an individual learning process,” Petry explains, adding that the concept of tradition is much more precise – and fruitful in terms of historical research – than that of collective memory. “When Angela Merkel proclaimed that ’we can do this’, she wasn’t simply following a common narrative,” Petry believes. “Rather, she was drawing conclusions from her own personal history, and acting on them.” The fact that her actions did not meet with “collective” approval shows, among other things, that racism and antisemitism are once again on the rise in large parts of Europe.


Erik Petry is Professor of Modern General and Jewish History as well as deputy head of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Basel.


More articles in the current issue of UNI NOVA.

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