In Memoriam: Jan Assmann (1938-2024)

The field of memory studies has lost a charismatic founding figure. Jan Assmann died on Monday 19 February 2024. He was 85.

Jan Assmann’s landmark study of cultural memory, Das kulturelle Gedächtnis, was published in 1992 and immediately welcomed across German academia as a new ‘paradigm’ of studying culture. The book has been translated into many languages including Italian (1997); Hungarian (2000), Turkish (2001), Arabic (2003), Russian (2004), Polish (2008), and French (2010) and helped establish memory studies as an interdisciplinary and transnational field of study. It took almost twenty years for the book to be translated into English (2011, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization). Until then, anglophone readers relied on Assmann’s short essay “Cultural Memory and Collective Identity” (1995, New German Critique) for an introduction to a pathbreaking theory of cultural memory, which he had developed together with his wife Aleida Assmann and a group of Heidelberg-based scholars during the 1980s.

Jan Assmann’s concepts are household terms in the field of memory studies. The distinction between communicative and cultural memory remains a guiding principle and is currently inspiring psychologists in their studies of social memory processes. In addition, Assmann’s work highlights the strong interdependencies between cultural memory, collective identity, and political legitimization (helping us, for instance, to understand the rationale informing Putin’s rewriting of Russian history). Finally, paying close attention to the mnemonic consequences of orality and literacy, Cultural Memory and Ancient Civilizations laid the foundation for media memory studies, which is now turning to the study of algorithmic memories and memories generated by AI.

Again and again, Jan Assmann demonstrated the significance of the study of memory in ancient civilizations for our efforts to understand modern memory processes (a legacy that the MSA working group “Memories of Antiquity” is taking up). Assmann’s Religion and Cultural Memory (2000) is for example a treasure trove not only for the insights it provides into diverse ancient memory practices, but also for its authoritative discussion of the memory theories of Halbwachs, Warburg, and Freud. And Moses the Egyptian (1997) remains unsurpassed in the way it follows a memory trace across a timespan of more than three thousand years.

Last but not least, as an Egyptologist Jan Assmann was always engaged in a dialogue with different academic disciplines. He communicated his findings clearly and inspiringly across the humanities and the social sciences. He exemplified the pursuit of memory studies as a rigorously interdisciplinary endeavor. Our field has lost its polymath.