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Astrid Erll: “Nationalism is a nineteenth-century response to twenty-first century challenges”

Astrid Erll: “Nationalism is a nineteenth-century response to twenty-first century challenges”

Astrid Erll is professor of Anglophone Literatures and Cultures at Goethe University Frankfurt, where she also

directs the Frankfurt Memory Studies Platform (FMSP: Key publications:

“Travelling Narratives in Ecologies of Trauma: An Odyssey for Memory Scholars”. Special Issue on Cultural Trauma, ed. by William Hirst. Social Research 87.3 (2020): 533-563.

Ed. with Ann Rigney: Cultural Memory after the Transnational Turn. Special Issue of Memory Studies 11.3 (2018).

Ed. with Ann Rigney: Audiovisual Memory and the (Re-)Making of Europe. Special Issue Image [&] Narrative 18.1 (2017).

“Media and the Dynamics of Memory: From Cultural Paradigms to Transcultural Premediation.” The Oxford Handbook of Culture and Memory, ed. Brady Wagoner. Oxford: Oxford UP 2017. 305-324.

“Generation in Literary History: Three Constellations of Generationality, Genealogy, and Memory.” New Literary History45 (2014). 385–409.

Memory in Culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan 2011.

“Travelling Memory.” Parallax. Special Issue Transcultural Memory. Ed. Rick Crownshaw 17.4 (2011). 4-18.

“‘The Social Life of Texts’ – Erinnerungsliteratur als Gegenstand der Sozialgeschichte.” IASL 36.1 (2011). 255-259.

  1. Dear Prof. Erll, I believe it is common to ask a specialist in memory studies how many generations of his/her ancestors he/she remembers. How does your “space of experience” correspond to the concept of three generations span (80–100 years) of family memory, which is widely accepted in memory studies?

Right now, I can still talk to my 88-year-old mother in law whose memories go back to a childhood in rural Bavaria in the 1930s. If my eight-year-old daughter listens to and carries on grandma’s stories, then our family memory will soon exceed the conventional 80-100 years span. With the fact that people are having children later in life now (at least in Germany that’s the case) and with older people retaining their mental and physical health as well as their narrative abilities well beyond their eighties, ‘communicative memory’ seems to be stretching out like an accordion.

  1. Family memory usually plays an important role in the shaping of our personal identities including the choice of profession. A researcher in the field of memory studies is a particularly interesting case. Did your family memory impact on your involvement in memory studies or you were motivated by other reasons?

I suppose that quite a few memory scholars are driven to the field by their family memories – an early and fundamental frame of social remembering. But this wasn’t the case with me.

My interest in memory started with an inspirational history teacher. He told his class of 16-year-olds that engaging with ‘history’ doesn’t mean learning a body of dates and facts by heart (what a relief! I was never good at that), but involves understanding how people create meaning out of a messy mass of past happenings. So, metahistory from the very beginning. I had a group of friends then, and we were all very interested in the Weimar Republic and the puzzle of how a democratic system could be blown away so quickly, so utterly. (I am uncannily reminded of that question today.)

At university, I was academically socialized into a large interdisciplinary research centre called ‘memory cultures’, and my doctoral supervisor was an expert on theories of history and culture. I also hold a minor degree in psychology, and working towards my exam on the psychology of memory I sensed that ‘cultural memory’ might be more than just a metaphor.

The fascination with the 1920s remained. I wrote my dissertation on memories of the First World War in the literature of that time. And what a range of war memories I encountered! Anarchists, communists, democrats, Christians, the conservative revolution, fascists – they all told their stories and envisioned hugely different trajectories for their society into the future.

  1. Since eighteenth century Germans made a huge investment in Russian science, medicine and technologies. Unfortunately relations between our nations were overshadowed by two world wars. It would be very interesting for Russian academics to know if your family memory contains some evidence regarding Russia and Russians. Are they related only to the Second World War or maybe also to other historical periods?

As far as the ‘bloodlines’ of family memory are concerned, I just don’t know. Perhaps more importantly, the ‘intellectual lines’ of scholarship, or academic genealogies, definitely go back to Russia: I think that neither literary studies nor memory studies today would be possible without the work of, say, Mikhail Bakhtin and Jurij Lotman.

  1. In your publications you support an impressive concept of interdependence between collective representations of the past and the future. Both work under a common umbrella of imagination as a “remembering-imagining system”. François Hartog argues that interdependence of past and future thoughts is not symmetric: in the public domain we have now only representations of the close future (short term thinking), in the same time society is obsessed with its past. Could you clarify how “remembering-imagining system” works in current situation? Could you point out the transformations of current memory, which are able to stimulate regeneration of an optimistic imagination of the distant future inherent to Modernity or we are doomed to live without future?

I was never convinced by the jeremiads of those who miss modernity’s grand visions for the future. Most of these visions have cost many lives and livelihoods. Now, heritage industry, victim competitions, and naïve nostalgia aside – ‘a little obsession with the past’ does make sense if you want to address the recurrence of extreme forms of violence, the continued uneven distribution of wealth, or climate change. And this is exactly where we stand today: We need to understand troubling histories, because they do not remain sealed off in the past, but impact on our societies still today.

In speaking about the social ‘remembering-imagining system’ I adapt a term coined by psychologists Martin Conway et al. and connect it with historian Reinhart Koselleck’s distinction between ‘space of experience’ and ‘horizon of expectation’. I think that societies’ capacities for expectation and imagination rest to a large degree on their experience and memories. But much of collective memory remains implicit. People are not aware of it. I think that the deadlocks in many places (disarmament, climate targets, the fight against hunger, poverty, and diseases) result from how collective memory implicitly transmits, and drags on, problematic beliefs, habits, and anxieties that block us from advancing. Tracing that hidden power of implicit collective memory – and the way it impacts on the social remembering-imagining system – is one strategy of clearing the way for better and bolder imaginations of the future.

  1. You write: “The power of narrative in the construction of these memory worlds cannot be underestimated”. Does it mean that narrative based on the past experience inevitably distorts every new experience? Do we have any means to protect our real experience from those deformations?

This quote appears in my discussion of how people try to narrate the coronavirus pandemic. I do not think that there is ‘real experience’ on the one hand and ‘deforming narrative’ on the other. In order to become meaningful, shareable, and socially relevant any pre-narrative experience must be turned into narrative (this is what Hayden White and Paul Ricoeur have made clear). But the question is: What kind of narrative? In some parts of the world, stories about the coronavirus are spun that obviously distort facts, and jumble up sequences of events, pit good against evil, work with negative stereotyping, or feature hair-raising conspiracy theories. All quite useless if you want to confront a global pandemic. But such stories are like seeds for the future. If they become powerful, then coming generations will remember them, live by them, and possibly act upon them. Storytelling is a highly political and future-shaping act.

  1. Benedict Anderson demonstrates that imagination of nineteenth century academics, writers, artists and so on created the reality of nation-states. Today we have a sheer lack of collective imagination: global reality transcends every aspect of our life but public opinion is continuing to reflect the world inside the obsolete frameworks of nation-state. The growing popularity of European far right parties shows that they even managed to reverse the recent global trend. How do you explain that phenomenon from the perspective of memory studies? How do you think researchers should react to the nationalist challenge?

I think that the resurgence of populism is an effect of the hidden power of implicit collective memory as discussed above. In Germany, far-right thinking has continued to be part of the mnemonic repertoire (unbeknownst to many), and now it is re-emerging, because of a conducive social and political constellation. Possibly this is a response to the enormous transformative changes we are seeing across the world (in terms of technology, globalization, migration). Possibly, it is part of the dialectics of modernization. Nationalism is a nineteenth-century response to twenty-first century challenges. Memory research can expose the mechanisms behind that. It should do so in ways that can be understood by the broad public.

  1. And a standard question about your academic plans?

I want to finish a book on the ‘Odyssey’, and this will be about narrative and memory. I hope to study further the hidden world of implicit collective memory. I will surely observe how memories of Covid-19 emerge, travel, and are transformed. And my great hope is that the field of memory studies makes a new start on broad interdisciplinary collaboration. I think that it is now time to bring psychologists, neuroscientists, historians, sociologists, literature and media studies scholars (and many more) to collaborate more closely.

Thank you very much for your interview!


White H (1973) Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Conway M, Loveday C and Cole SN (2016) The remembering–imagining system. Memory Studies 9(3): 256–265.

Ricoeur P (1984) Time and Narrative Volume 1. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

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