History and Memory

It has sometimes been assumed in the literature that the academic study of the past is epistemologically superior to popular notions of the past, as they are reflected in folklore or in other expressions of memory.

One example is provided by Maurice Halbwachs—the grand old theoretician of social memory, who, ironically, had until recently been almost completely forgotten (Assmann 1992: 45). In his seminal study, The Collective Memory (1980: chapter 2), he contrasted memory and history as two contradictory ways of dealing with the past. In Halbwachs's view, history starts when social memory and continuous tradition stop operating and dissolve. Furthermore, history is scholarship and as such only for very few, while the collective memory of the past is shared by the whole community. There is only one history, but there are as many collective memories as there are human communities. According to Halbwachs, historians aim at writing an objective and impartial universal history, whereas collective memories are normally restricted to the most recent past (not more than a lifetime's length), and limited in their validity to members of a particular community.

Similarly, Pierre Nora argued in his study of les lieux de mémoire that memory and history are two very different phenomena, but his preference was opposed to that of Halbwachs. Nora distinguished (1989: 8) true memory from artificial history:

"Memory is life, borne by living societies founded in its name. ... History, on the other hand, is the reconstruction, always problematic and incomplete, of what is no longer."

Nora goes on to discuss at length "the terrorism of historicized memory" (1989: 14 and passim), leaving no doubt that, for him, history holds nothing desirable.

Both authors assume a fundamental split between history and memory. A similar position has also been adopted by others, e.g. by Paul Ricoeur (1997: 439–445). But recently this split between history and memory has been challenged fundamentally, and a more fluid transition between memory and history proposed instead (e.g. by Nerone 1989; Thelen 1989; Burke 1989; Samuel 1994; cf. Kohli-Kunz 1973). For Jörn Rüsen, memory and history are phenomena parallel to each other, each equally being an expression of history culture. Patrick Geary (1994: 12) made the important point that all memory, whether collective or historical, is "memory for something": this political (in a broad sense) purpose cannot be ignored. In relation to academic history, this means that

"[i]f the writing of modern historians appears analytic, critical, and rational, the reason is that these are the rhetorical tools that promise the best chance of influencing the collective memory of our age." (1994: 12)

John Barrett (1994: 96) noted that "history's only claim to an authenticity with the past is that it employs the same antique fragments in its modern discourse." The same is true for most kinds of memory.

In this work, which aims at making epistemology superfluous, I take the view that history and archaeology are special cases of social and cultural memory. This is also Jan Assmann's position (1992: note 24). Lutz Niethammer also argued that academic history is one form of memory, since academic history could be described as 'collective memory in the age of science' (1993: 45, my translation). Doing archaeology means to recognise, and treat, certain things as 'evidence' for the past. This practice is, as Julian Thomas pointed out (1996: 63), not categorically different from how people engage with the past in their everyday lives. History and archaeology, like all memory, give meanings to the past and its remains. Monuments are sites of memory where retrospective memory and history culture become articulated in different ways, some academic, some not.


Assmann, Jan (1992) Das kulturelle Gedächtnis. Schrift, Erinnerung und politische Identität in frühen Hochkulturen. München: Beck.

Barrett, John (1994) Fragments from Antiquity. An Archaeology of Social Life in Britain, 2900–1200 BC. Oxford: Blackwell.

Burke, Peter (1989) History as Social Memory. In T. Butler (ed.) Memory: history, culture and the mind, pp. 97-113. Oxford: Blackwell.

Geary, Patrick (1994) Phantoms of Remembrance. Memory and Oblivion at the end of the first millennium. Princeton: Preinceton University Press.

Halbwachs, Maurice (1980) The Collective Memory [1950]. New York and London: Harper and Row.

Kohli-Kunz, Alice (1973) Erinnern und Vergessen. Das Gegenwärtigsein des Vergangenen als Grundproblem historischer Wissenschaft. Erfahrung und Denken, vol. 40. Berlin: Duncker & Humblot.

Nerone, John (1989) Professional History and Social Memory. Communication 11, 89-104.

Niethammer, Lutz (1993) Die postmoderne Herausforderung: Geschichte als Gedächtnis im Zeitalter der Wissenschaft. In: W.Küttler, J.Rüsen, and E.Schulin (eds) Geschichtsdiskurs, vol. 1: Grundlagen und Methoden der Historiographiegeschichte, pp. 31-49. Frankfurt/M.: Fischer.

Nora, Pierre (1989) Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoire [1984]. Representations 26, Spring 1989, 7-25.

Ricoeur, Paul (1997) Gedächtnis—Vergessen—Geschichte. In: K.E.Müller and J.Rüsen (eds) Historische Sinnbildung. Problemstellungen, Zeitkonzepte, Wahrnehmungshorizonte, Darstellungsstrategien, pp. 433-454. Reinbek: Rowohlt.

Samuel, Raphael (1994) Theatres of Memory, vol. 1: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture. London: Verso.

Thelen, David (1989). Memory and American History. The Journal of American History 75, 1117-1129.

Thomas, Julian (1996) Time, Culture and Identity. An interpretive archaeology. London: Routledge.

© Cornelius Holtorf