Forms of Forgetting

Aleida Assmann

Forms of Forgetting

The Royal Dutch Academy of Sciences has awarded Prof. Assmann the 2014 Dr. A.H. Heinekenprijs for historical sciences. This text is her public lecture which she held for the occasion at Castrum Peregrini on 1 October.


amnorman-2815With the recent boom of the study of social and cultural memory, we have come to believe that remembering is something culturally valid and that there is even an ethical imperative of remembering. This point has been stressed by Jan Philipp Reemtsma who argues that

“We live with the consensus that we need to remember and that we must fight forgetting. (…) But what should be positive about remembering? Remembering and forgetting are human capacities that are neither positive nor negative per se, but are both needed for coping with life.“[1]

There is, indeed, no intrinsic reason why remembering should be given precedence over forgetting. The meaning and value of forgetting solely depends on the social and cultural frames within which it is constructed. For this reason, I will focus in my contribution on some of these frames, analyzing the dynamics of remembering and forgetting in specific socio-historical contexts, analyzing ‘seven types of forgetting’, hoping to thereby gain a deeper insight into its modes of functioning.


1. Automatic forgetting material, biological, technical- and its limit

Let me start with the observation of a basic asymmetry: not remembering, but forgetting is the default mode of humans and societies. Remembering is negation of and resistance to forgetting, usually involving a will and effort, a veto against the destructive power of time. Just like the cells in an organism, the objects, ideas and individuals of a society are periodically replaced. This slow process of (ex)change is considered natural and does not raise any alarm. Forgetting happens silently, inconspicuously and ubiquitously, while remembering is the unlikely exception from the rule, requiring conscious efforts and specific framework.

Generally speaking, it is only a minimal part of what has been experienced, communicated and produced that actually outlasts a human life and is handed on to future generations. A photo, a necklace, a piece of furniture, a proverb, a recipe, an anecdote – that is, at most – what grandchildren retain from the lives of their grandparents. In families whose homes were bombed during the war, who were forced to flee or just moved frequently, material remains are unlikely to accumulate.  Nor are the remains stored in cellars or attics likely to survive much longer; sooner or later they also end up in containers and heaps of rubbish. Individuals may be strongly affected by this ongoing destruction of material remains, but from the perspective of the society as a whole these everyday occurrences are perfectly normal and healthy, evolving smoothly and automatically,  attracting no attention whatsoever.

Two motors of forgetting are involved in this silent process. Social forgetting in the bio-rhythm of generational change depends on devaluating and dismissing the experiences of an older generation by a younger generation. In the modern time regime of Western societies, each new generation is eager to create its own defining memories, values and projects by means of which it aims to usurp the place of the former. The other powerful motor of continuous forgetting is disposal of material waste. The force of generational change and the economic acceleration of mass production are not naturally given universals, but consequences of the time regime of modernity in Western societies with its strong emphasis on technical and economic innovation. It is the flip side of this innovation is that commercial products have to be replaced in ever shorter intervals. This form of forgetting consists in the routinized replacement of the old by the new, which is an unchallenged and constituent part of cultural evolution in the domains of science, technology and economy. At the dawn of the industrial revolution in the 19th century, the American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson analyzed this process of modernization as a dynamics of innovation and obsolescence. He identified destruction and forgetting as two powerful factors of progress. In order to create something new, he claimed, many things have to disappear “in the inevitable pit which the creation of new thought opens for all that is old”.[2] In an influential essay published in 1841, Emerson enthusiastically described the modern time regime as driven by an irreversible and inexorable ‘fury of disappearance’[3]

“The Greek letters last a little longer, but are passing under the same sentence, and tumbling into the inevitable pit which the creation of new thought opens for all that is old.  The new continents are built out of the ruins of an old planet: the new races fed out of the decomposition of the foregoing.  New arts destroy the old.  See the investment of capital in aqueducts made useless by hydraulics; fortifications, by gunpowder; roads and canals, by railways; sails, by steam, by electricity.” [4]

As a strong supporter of evolution, progress and modernization, Emerson also became an advocate of forgetting. He testified to an exclusive orientation towards the future and described himself as “an endless seeker with no past at my back” (304). The emphatic orientation towards the future automatically withdraws value and attention from the past. As long as the future is the central resource for hope and progress, remembering the past must appear as an obstinate, backward and even pathological deviation from the norm. The limits and problems of this position become obvious as soon as we are dealing with a traumatic past. In 1918, for instance, the American poet Carl Sandburg wrote a poem about the great battlefields of the 19th and 20th century, from the perspective of the grass:[5]

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.

Shovel them under and let me work –

I am the grass; I cover all.

And pile them high at Gettysburg

And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.

Shovel them under and let me work.

Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:

What place is this?

Where are we now?

I am the grass. Let me work.

The cynical tone of the poem suggests that smooth transformation of history into ‘nature’ is unacceptable where human violence, suffering and massive losses are involved. It becomes even more scandalous if it plays into the hands of perpetrators who profit from automatic forgetting in the passage of time. In W.G. Sebald’s novel Austerlitz there is a passage in which he narrator muses

“how little is it that we can keep and hold fast in our memory, how much and how many things continuously slip into forgetting with every extinguished life, how does the world as it were empties itself out, shedding all the stories, that had been connected to innumerable places and objects, which are no longer heard, recorded or transmitted.”[6]

This quotation sounds like an accurate description of inevitable automatic forgetting: after each generation the world, as it were, empties itself spontaneously and stories and memories irrevocably disappear along with the deceased. This, however, is not what the Sebald’s narrator has in mind in this passage. The narrator, in this case, muses about the loss of stories connected to very particular traumatic places: the fortresses of Breendonk and Terezín, which the Nazis turned into a prison and a Jewish Ghetto. If we replace natural death with torture and murder, the context is drastically changed. In light of the suffering of the victims, the automatism of forgetting becomes morally scandalous. In order to separate himself from complicit forgetting, Sebald’s narrator returns to these places of trauma, searching for traces of a lost past and trying to recollect and remember some of the innumerable stories attached to objects and places in order to recover, acknowledge and transmit these stories. The grass of forgetting is not selective – it grows anywhere. Humans, on the other hand, are able to choose between forgetting and remembering which can involve an ethical decision, mobilizing cultural efforts to rescue historical experience from the general pit into which the past always tends to disappear.


2. Preservative forgetting – the entry into the archive  

Let us now focus on the unlikely case of something being retained and extracted from the ongoing stream of time and forgetting. Collectors and visitors of flea markets are agents of delay; they protect specific objects from decay by integrating them into their collections. The human urge to attach value to objects and to collect them is the foundation of many a library, gallery or museum. But it is only when the collection is given the protective roof of an institution, that an object has the solid chance of an extended existence. Institutions providing such a social guarantee for preservation include the archive, the library and the museum. Historical archives have evolved rather recently; they were introduced at the time of the French Revolution and have become a stronghold of Western democracies and historical thinking. The historical archive must not be confused with its predecessors, which it has supplanted but not annihilated: the political archives of the state, the church and other institutions of power. While these archives were used as instruments of claiming prestige, establishing legitimation and exerting power, historical archives are intended to serve the commonality: They preserve documents and relicts of the past that have lost their immediate function in the present. It is this form of maintaining elements of the past, cut off from immediate use, that I here refer to as ‘preservative forgetting’.[7] Material preservation of what was once thought or done makes possible its reentry into cultural memory. In this way, the archive creates a space of latency between passive forgetting and active remembering.

It is well known that Nietzsche slandered this institution of the historical archive with his scathing polemic, denouncing the mere storage and accumulation of historical knowledge as a dangerous burden for individual, society and culture. Intentionally or unintentionally, Nietzsche is invoked whenever the problem of data accumulation is addressed in terms of a ‘threatening flood of information’ that is uprooting the sense of identity and orientation. In modern societies, this overload of knowledge production cannot be solved by operations of deleting information, but only with the help of individually applied criteria of selection that separate the relevant from the irrelevant. While the media focus attention and highlight a certain canon of cultural products, it must be emphasized that individuals in Western democracies are no longer told what to remember and what to forget, but are encouraged to make their own choices and develop their own criteria for selection.

But of course they never do this in a void. Humans live in the ‘semiosphere’ (or semiotic ecosystem) of a culture that over a long-term period has gradually established a massive framework for remembering and forgetting. Cultural memory in Western societies relies on a dynamic exchange between two institutions, which I refer to as the canon and the archive. The canon here stands for a small number of cultural messages that are addressed to posterity and intended for continuous repetition and re-actualization. This active form of memory includes sacred texts of religion, important historical events and eminent works of art that future generations – to put it in the words of John Milton – “will not willingly let die”.[8] At the other end of the spectrum, there is the archive, a storehouse for cultural relicts. These relicts have become de-contextualized and disconnected from those frames, which had formerly authorized them or determined their meaning. Through this de-contextualization, these messages have lost their immediate addressees as well as their direct meaning and function. They are, however, not forgotten and thrown away. Instead, they are seen as a source of historical information and are therefore preserved for re-inspection.[9] As part of the archive, these documents exist in a state of latency or transitory forgetfulness, waiting to be rediscovered as fragments of relevant information, to be placed into new contexts and to be charged with new meaning through acts of interpretation. The archive provides the basis on which future historians will be able to reconstruct a past that was once the present.


3. Selective Forgetting – the power of framing

Not only the dynamics of cultural memory but also the dynamics of individual remembering are hinged on processes of selection. While storage space can be infinitely extended and supplemented, memory space remains a rare resource. While the external storage space of computers is growing exponentially, our brains will have to go on working on the more or less limited and invariant basis of their biological infrastructure. This accounts for the huge difference between storing and remembering: while storing provides a device against forgetting, remembering is always a co-product of remembering and forgetting. For this reason, all processes of remembering include various shades of forgetting such as neglecting, overlooking, ignoring. In other words: the gaps created by forgetting are an integral part of remembering, providing its contours.

What, then, are the selection criteria of the economy of memory? How is the relevant separated from the irrelevant, what is to be included or excluded? Nietzsche recommended forgetting from both a practical and moral point of view. To start with the practical perspective:  for him it is the aim of the ‘man of action’ to bring memory under the control of his will.  Men of action were admired by Nietzsche and Bergson for their capacity to call up only a small segment of relevant memories, which can serve as a motivational impetus towards an intended goal. Everything that cannot be used to achieve this goal has to be “forgotten,” as Nietzsche put it. [10] Today’s cognition psychologists speak of the ‘executive function’, emphasizing the cognitive capacity of ignoring all irrelevant associations in situations of processing information, decision-making and acting.[11] The following sentence in Nietzsche’s text shows that the cognitive and moral dimensions are not always easily separable: “Cheerfulness, a clear conscience, joyful action, trust in the future – all of that depends, in the individual as in a nation, on a line that divides the visible and bright from that which is dark and beyond illumination.”[12] The moral perspective comes to the fore in a famous aphorism, in which Nietzsche shows how memory can become the accomplice of forgetting. In this process, moral issues of guilt and responsibility are glossed over by the stronger socio-psychological norm of face-saving:

“I have done this, says my memory.

I cannot have done this says my pride and stays adamant.

Finally, memory gives in.”[13]

In contrast to Freud who developed a theory of repression, Nietzsche worked on an apology for forgetting which he considered to be an anthropological necessity. He legitimized forgetting from the point of view of the strong male ideal of a person who has to act, wield power and muster courage. All of these acts are based on a positive and confident self-image. Maurice Halbwachs transferred these selection criteria from a socio-psychological to a sociological level. He introduced the concept of ‘social frames’ into memory studies, emphasizing the fact that such selection criteria are in fact not defined ad hoc by individuals themselves but are imposed on them by the groups to which they belong.[14] It is thus the desire to belong that regulates the interaction between remembering and forgetting. Each social frame necessarily excludes a whole spectrum of memories which are either considered not relevant or not acceptable from the point of view of the group. It is only when one memory frame is replaced by another that excluded memories have a chance of being re-appropriated by the group (the same holds true for paradigm shifts in the sciences).[15]

In order to better understand current memory politics, we need to combine Halbwachs, who introduced the notion of social frames, with Nietzsche, who added a psychological dimension to the group-specific memories. National memory is usually organized by collective pride, which means that memories of guilt and responsibility have great difficulty entering the historical conscience and consciousness of a society. Next to pride – and this was not yet anticipated by Nietzsche – suffering has also gained a high priority in the construction of national memory. For a long time, West-German post war memory was selectively focused on the suffering of Germans. It took four decades to move from the Germans as victims to the victims of the Germans.[16] One memory frame functioned as a ‘shield’ eclipsing the other: if the national focus is on victimhood this makes it virtually impossible to also accept responsibility for historical crimes. The problem with national narratives is not so much ‘false memory’ but extremely selective and exclusive memory frames. It was only in the 1990s that we could witness a shift in the construction of national memories, moving from purely self-serving narratives to more complex configurations that also integrate negative and shameful aspects into the collective self-image. An obvious new feature of this shift is the ritual of public apologies, which has introduced world wide a new politics of accountability and regret. Rooted in human rights, it is designed to focus not only on a nation’s own suffering but acknowledges and integrates also ones victims into the national memory.


4. Damnatio memoriae – repressive forms of forgetting

In the case of damnatio memoriae forgetting takes on the form of punishment. If a culture values fame and notoriety, considering it a blessing to live on in the memory of posterity, the eradication of a name and other traces of an individual life is considered a serious punishment. In such a culture, ‘mnemocide’, the killing of a person’s memory, is inflicted as a symbolic destruction on an enemy who has fallen from favour. Many cultures share the Egyptian conviction that “a man lives if his name is being mentioned.”[17] Those whose names were erased from the annals or chiseled off from monuments are doomed to die a second death. This form of forgetting, however, is not always practicable, as it provides an instance of what Umberto Eco has described as a general paradox of intentional forgetting: you cannot erase something without at the same time highlighting it and directing attention to what is being rendered invisible.

Historical archives as part of a democratic culture that protects and values the alterity of the past in its own right are a recent institution dating back no later than the French Revolution. Political archives, on the other hand, housing the secret archive of the state as instrument of power and violence, have a much longer history continuing into the present. As long as archives remain sealed, past crimes cannot be historically investigated, as, for instance, the genocide perpetrated on the Armenians. In such a case the victims of violence are bereft of the right to their history. Such repressive forgetting and total control over the past are the topic of George Orwell’s novel 1984.The famous motto of the novel’s fictive state is:

‘Who controls the past, controls the future: who controls the present, controls the past.’[18]

Orwell’s text features an archivist whose job it is to constantly adapt the knowledge of the past to the demands of the present. Making the past disappear, however, is a very hard job. Orwell focuses on the enormous efforts that go into this form repressive forgetting. The strategies of manipulating and distorting the truth include the constant rewriting of documents, the retouching of photographs, as well as more casual forms of denial, such as hushing things up, lying and dissimulation. Though highlighted in a novel, these practices are for from being fictive. A famous historical example for such dissimulation is the film commissioned by the SS in 1944, presenting Theresienstadt, a Nazi ghetto for Jewish victims, as an ideal kibbuz. This film was created as an intentional deception to mislead the world about the repressive and lethal conditions of this ghetto. In this deception the genre of the ‘documentary’ was chosen to depict the ‘reality’ of the ghetto, creating the cynical illusion of an idyll. The cynicism of such repressive forgetting found a climax already in the 1930s with Hitler’ question: “Who today still remembers the Armenians?” Like the genocide of the Armenians that occurred under cover of the First World War, the genocide of the Jews occurred under cover of the Second World War and was meant to be forgotten. 

Repressive forgetting can also be enforced less directly through forms of ‘structural violence’ (Johan Galtung). In patriarchal societies, women had little or no access to writing and printing, which has led to their effective exclusion from archives and libraries. The following quotation comes not from the iconic essay A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1928) but from a novel by Jane Austen published in 1817. In Persuasion, the female protagonist remarks: “Men have every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands.”[19] The same holds true for religious or racial minorities and other oppressed social groups. ‘Structural violence’ creates a cultural frame of power that allows some voices to be heard while others are notoriously silenced. Chakravorty Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is an icon of postcolonial discourse; it shows how difficult it is for some members of society to claim a ‘voice’. Both the African Americans in the U.S.A. and the indigenous populations of colonial countries had similar experiences of an eradication and denial of their ‘history’. Groups that never had a chance to express themselves in writing and who are not equipped with documents collected in archives used to be considered as “void of history” in a Western perspective. Judged against the background of this normative standard, such ‘historical silence’ is today recognized as a manifestation of repressive forgetting. In order to break the silence and restore what has been forgotten to the realm of language and communication, both the structure of power and the cultural frames have to be changed. 


5. Defensive and complicit forgetting (protection of perpetrators)

As soon as it becomes obvious that the system of power protecting them is about to collapse, perpetrators of dictatorships and autocratic regimes engage in acts of destroying relics and erasing traces to cover up practices that will henceforth be classified as crimes. Towards the end of the war, the Nazi officials hastily destroyed archival documents of the mass murder of European Jews and material traces of the sites of theses crimes.[20] After 1945, high Nazi functionaries changed their names and identities to escape legal prosecution. It is estimated that up to 80.000 persons chose this under cover existence in post war Germany.[21] While still in power, perpetrators can rely on their laws to guarantee them impunity; but when the legal system changes, they protest against a retrospective application of the new law, opting for amnesty and amnesia. In Argentina, the military junta destroyed all documents of their regime of violence before transitioning to democracy in 1976, and in 1990, the functionaries of the South African Apartheid regime destroyed tons of archival material in the same situation, eliminating potential evidence to be used against them at court. Before the end of the Second World War, seven million membership cards of the NSDAP were brought to a paper-mill near Munich for immediate shredding. They were forgotten, however, in the last chaotic weeks of the war, and later confiscated by the American occupation army. Today they are preserved in the Berlin Document Center, where historians discovered them in 2003. Almost seventy years later, these cards ‘reminded’ a generation of prominent German intellectuals of their NSDAP–membership.[22]

Complicit silence also protects the perpetrators. The most conspicuous example publicly discussed in Germany throughout the year 2010 concerned the charges of sexual abuse brought against the institution of private schools and the Catholic Church. Charges had been made by the victims before, but the information was not passed on but hushed up in order to protect the officials and the respective institution. Those responsible reacted invariably by trivializing, postponing or ignoring the charges. They were confident that by turning a blind eye, this shameful problem could be made to automatically disappear. Taboos preserve a social status quo by exerting a strong conformist pressure. In addition, complicit forgetting is reinforced by the pressure of social taboos; it involves three forms of silence which mutually reinforce each other:

– defensive silence on the part of the perpetrators

– symptomatic silence on the part of the victims and

– complicit silence on the part of society.

When these three forms of silence reinforce each other, crimes can remain concealed for a long time. Nothing will really change as long as the victims are the only ones ready to break their silence and to claim their rights. It is the collective will of society alone which can change the situation and turn the tables. Only then will the testimony of the witnesses be heard and supported by the public media. In a similar way a change of values connected with the introduction of a new political notion of human rights in the 1980s created a new sensibility for the suffering of the victims of such traumatic histories of violence like the Holocaust, slavery, colonialism and dictatorships. After this global change of orientation, the response of the population was transformed from a protection shield for the perpetrators to a sounding board for the victims.


6. Constructive forgetting – tabula rasa for a new political biographical beginning

But forgetting is ambivalent and we must not forget its merits. Among those who The German poet Bertolt Brecht who wrote a poem “In Praise of Forgetting”. It ends with the following lines:

The weakness of memory is the source of human strentgh

(Die Schwäche des Gedächtnisses Verleiht den Menschen Stärke. )[23]

How otherwise could humans, bent down by experience and suffering as they are, ever find the courage to begin anew and to fight their daily battles against repressive conditions? Friedrich Nietzsche was also convinced that without forgetting, humans were unable to live a happy life and to face the challenge of the future: “Cheerfulness, a good conscience, the happy deed, trust in what is to come – all of this depends in the individual as in the nation on a clear line dividing the ordered and clear from the intransparent and dark.”[24] In contrast to repressive forgetting, which supports and maintains power, there is also a hopeful and constructive type of forgetting which supports a break and lays the ground for a new beginning. We can observe that in states that have undergone a political change, many things are speedily forgotten. The demolition of Lenin Statues and the changing of street names after the fall of the Berlin Wall are notorious examples. After the collapse of the GDR, history teachers asked their pupils to tear whole chapters form their textbooks in a spectacular collective act of organized forgetting. Jana Simon recalled such a scene of creating a tabula rasa in her memory novel:

“There is no place where they could retrace their childhood. Most of the clubs of their youth were closed, some of them, even the PW was burnt down, the streets had new names, as well as the schools. The furniture in their parents’ apartments had been exchanged, their houses were renovated, the products of their childhood (…) it was all gone. Their old schoolbooks lay in a heap besides the dustbins, books about the history of the proletariat parts of which they had had to memorize. The ‘rooms of tradition’ in their schools, the ‘groves of honor’, in which the senseless pledges of allegiance to the flag had taken place, all disappeared in memory.”[25]

… or, rather, in the great pit which the creation of a new state opens up for all that is old, to pick up Emerson’s phrase quoted above. In this case, however, we are dealing with a different form of forgetting; it is not caused by the driving force of modern technical innovation (Nr. 1), or instigated by a desire to efface traces in order to escape accountability (Nr. 5); rather, this form of forgetting is created by the strong desire to start over and to effectively adapt to new conditions.

In a recent book on forgetting Christian Meier reminded his readers of this positive and empowering quality of forgetting. He referred to historical cases when after civil wars forgetting was imposed as a means of ending wars and overcoming traumatic violence.[26] With his book he wanted to question a conventional argument that poses remembering as inherently beneficial. But in fact the opposite is closer to the truth, Meier argues, as remembering can perpetuate destructive energies by maintaining hatred and revenge, while forgetting can put an end to conflict and thus appease opposing parties. While it does not possess the power to prescribe individual remembering or forgetting, the state can pass laws that punish public discourse which re-opens old wounds by mobilizing old resentments and aggressions. Such laws of forgetting were frequently passed to end civil wars; examples for this practice include the Athenian polis after the Peleponnesian War, the edict of Nantes in 1598 and in the peace treaty of Münster-Osnabrück in 1648. In these cases, legislation imposing forgetting indeed promoted a political and social integration. The most recent example named by Meier is the First World War, which the Germans remembered much too accurately and persistently. This memory was in fact used to fuel the mobilization of Germans for the Second World War. After 1945 it was the weakness of their memory that gave the Germans that had survived the war the strength to start over. The therapy of forgetting was also applied by the former allies to overcome past hatred and to lay the foundation for a new Europe. Here is Winston Churchill’s plea for forgetting that he made in a speech in Zurich in 1946:

“We must all turn our backs upon the horrors of the past.  We must look to the future. We cannot afford to drag forward across the years that are to come the hatreds and revenges, which have sprung from the injuries of the past. If Europe is to be saved from infinite misery, and indeed from final doom, there must be an act of faith in the European family and an act of oblivion against all the crimes and follies of the past.”[27]


7. Therapeutic forgetting – leaving the burden of the past behind

Over the last three decades, constructive forgetting has been rivaled by a new positive form of forgetting, which I call ‘therapeutic forgetting’. On a global scale people could make the experience that traumatic pasts do not simply disappear but return and claim attention, recognition, restitution and remembrance. Forgetting, in this case, was replaced by new efforts at remembering as the preferred strategy.[28]  But, as I want to show, this form of remembering is also connected to forgetting and perhaps even directed towards it.

Therapeutic or transitional ‘remembering in order to forget’ is not a new discovery in Western culture. In the ritual framework of Christian confession, for instance, remembering is the gateway to forgetting: sins have first to be articulated and listed before they can be erased through the absolution of the priest. A similar logic is at work in the artistic concept of ‘catharsis’: through the re-presentation of a painful event on stage, a traumatic past can be collectively re-lived and overcome. According to the theory of Aristotle, the group that undergoes such a process is purged through this shared experience. Forgetting through remembering is essentially also the goal of Freudian psychotherapy: a painful past has to be raised to the level of language and consciousness to enable the patient to move forward and leave that past behind. This was also the aim of staging remembering in South Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission designed by Bishop Tutu and Alex Boraine created a new form of public ritual, which combined features of the tribunal, the cathartic drama and the Christian confession. In these public rituals a traumatic event had to be publicly narrated and shared; the victim had to relate his or her experience, which had to be witnessed and acknowledged by the perpetrator before it could be erased from social memory.



I started this survey with the observation of a basic asymmetry: forgetting, we had assumed, is always stronger than remembering because there is no ‘automatic mode of remembering’, which is the reason why ‘the greatest part’ of a former present is always ‘lost’. We had assumed that forgetting does its work silently and automatically, like a servant who is invisible, always on duty and doesn’t need to be paid. We had assumed that forgetting does its work silently and automatically, like a servant who is invisible, always on duty and doesn’t need to be paid. Recently, however, we had a wake up call, reminding us that in the Internet, we can no longer rely on ‘automatic forgetting’. The alarm came about with a judgment of the European Court in May 2014 enforcing ‘a right to be forgotten’, thus answering the demand of individuals to be protected against incriminating personal information by deleting it in the collective memory of the Internet. This new form of legislation made manifest that our new digital technology of writing, storing and circulating has overturned deeply rooted premises of our culture. One commenter has written: „Since the beginning of human history forgetting was the rule and remembering the exception. (…) Due to the invention and dissemination of digital technology forgetting must today be considered as the exception while remembering has become the rule.”[29] Until recently, it was far from clear whether forgetting or remembering took precedence in the information economy of the Internet. There were two theories competing with each other; the first being: „The net forgets nothing” and the second: „what is stored is forgotten“.[30] These contradictory approaches to the Internet teach us that we should not indulge in a technological determinism but rather seek to understand how the new media interact with human demands and their social, cultural and legal frames. The new legal frame answers a human demand in creating a personal protection shield relating to sensitive information that was hitherto within the reach of only very few and is now, in the virtual archive, publicly accessible and indiscriminately circulating. Generalizing, we may say that the Internet has introduced two dramatic changes into our economy of information, knowledge and communication. One is the function of easily storing, preserving and rendering searchable a hitherto unknown mass of data. Andrew Hoskins, specialist for digital memory and editor of the Journal Memory Studies is a proponent of the theory that the Internet forgets nothing (like Freud’s Unconscious, we may add). He has described this change as “the end of decay time”, which is to say that the Internet arrests the flow of time and suspends its erosive effects. The other dramatic change involves the indefinite enlarging of the public realm through radically new possibilities of access to and availability of information. Under these circumstances in which knowing has become a potential within (almost) everybody’s reach, not knowing has to be consciously produced under the auspices of legal supervision.



One thing should have become obvious in my overview, and that is the fact that remembering and forgetting cannot be neatly separated from each other. They interact in different ways, as I tried to show in the different forms of forgetting. Nor are remembering and forgetting inherently good or bad; their quality depends entirely on the uses to which they are put. Looking back at the various social frames and cultural contexts that I have analyzed, we may say that the first three forms of forgetting can be described as morally neutral; they are linked to the inbuilt temporal dynamics of consumer culture and technological innovation, to archival preservation and to the indispensible frames of selection in cognitive processes. Types 4 and 5 carry negative connotations; they show how forgetting is used as a weapon, as a means of maintaining power and as a protective shield for perpetrators. The last two forms of forgetting, on the other hand, have distinctly positive connotations. They represent two forms of marking a break in values and introducing a new beginning. The radical strategy of creating a tabula rasa, however, seems to be more and more given up in favor of a new form of rupture and forgetting. While in the first case, the page is simply turned over, in the second case, the page must be read before it is turned. Therapeutic forgetting thus invokes remembering as its first stage and is thus the result of a memory that has been reworked and processed. And one more general observation: forgetting is not necessarily final: much can be retrieved and reinterpreted after shorter or longer intervals. What can be recovered and used, however, always depends on cultural values inscribed into social frames of selection. As remembering can be re-inscribed into forgetting, remembering is always framed by forgetting. It was Francis Bacon who found a simple and striking image for this complex interaction: ‘When you carry the light into one corner, you darken the rest.’[31]


 [1]  Jan Philipp Reemtsma, Wozu Gedenkstätten? In: Zukunft der Erinnerung. Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 25-26 (2010), 3-9; 3.
 [2]  Ralph Waldo Emerson, Circles, in: Selected Writings, ed. William H. Gilman, New York/ London (1965), 295-306; 296. See also: Paul Connerton, How Modernity Forgets, Cambridge (2009) and Aleida Assmann, Ist die Zeit aus den Fugen? Aufstieg und Niedergang des Zeitregimes der Moderne, Munich: Hanser (2013).
 [3] Konrad Paul Liessmann (ed.), Die Furie des Verschwindens. Über das Schicksal des Alten im Zeitalter des Neuen, Wien (2000).
 [4] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Circles, in: Selected Writings, ed. William H. Gilman, New York/ London (1965), 296.
  [5] Carl Sandburg, Grass, in: Luis Untermeyer (ed.), Modern American Poetry, New York (1919), 205.
 [6] W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz, München (2001), 35: “wie wenig wir festhalten können, was alles und wie viel ständig in Vergessenheit gerät, mit jedem ausgelöschten Leben, wie die Welt sich sozusagen von selber ausleert, indem die Geschichten, die an ungezählten Orten und Gegenständen haften, von niemandem je gehört, aufgezeichnet oder weitererzählt werden […].”
 [7] Friedrich Georg Jünger, Gedächtnis und Erinnerung, Frankfurt a.M. (1957), 16-17. Jünger distinguishes between two forms of forgetting: one that is connected with a irreversible loss, and one the is premised on potential recovery. (With Avishai Margalit we dan also refer to these two forms of fortetting as ‚blotting out’ and ‚covering up’). Jünger’s concept of  ‚preservative forgetting’ (Verwahrensvergessen) assumes for the forgotten a state of latency that makes possible its return into the conscious present.
 [8]  John Milton spoke of “an inward prompting which now grew daily upon me, that by labour and intent study (which I take to be my portion in this life) joyn’d with the strong propensity of nature, I might perhaps leave something so written to aftertimes, as they should not willingly let die.  The Reason of Church-Government urged against Prelating (1641), Book II, Introduction. xxxx
 [9]  „Objekte können unwillkürliche Erinnerungsvorgänge auslösen, aber vor allem können Funktionen des Erinnerns an Gegenstände und Artefakte gleichsam „ausgelagert“ oder „delegiert“ werden. Dies steigert in der Regel das indivi- duelle wie kollektive Erinnerungsvermögen erheblich, kann aber gleichzeitig zu neuen, erweiterten Formen des Vergessens führen. Zugleich stellen sich damit politische Fragen des Zugangs zu und der Verfügung über die tech- nischen Medien von Erinnern und Vergessen.“ Peter Wehling, Workshop „Vergessen im Internet“ Hamburg, 16./17.1.2014
 [10]  Friedrich Nietzsche, Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben, in: Werke in 3 Bänden, ed. Karl Schlechta, München (1962), vol. 1, xx.
 [11]  D.A. Norman, T. Shallice, Attention to Action. Willed and Automatic Control of Behaviour, in: M.S. Gazzaniga (ed.), Cognitive Neuroscience: a Reader, Oxford (2000), 376-390.
 [12]  Friedrich Nietzsche, Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben, in: Werke in 3 Bänden, ed. Karl Schlechta, München (1962), vol. 1, 214.
 [13]  Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse, in: Sämtliche Werke, ed. Giorgio Colli, Mazzino Montinari, Berlin/ New York (1988), vol. V, 86.
 [14]  Maurice Halbwachs, Das Gedächtnis und seine sozialen Rahmen (1925), Frankfurt a.M. (1992).
 [15] Karl Schlögel writes on forgetting in the context of scientific paradigm shifts: “When such a shift happens, one frame of interpretation has come to an end, is eroded, discarded, and replaced by another one, without leaving a trace of former contestations. One chapter is closed, another one is opened.” Im Raume lesen wir die Zeit. Über Zivilisationsgeschichte und Geopolitik, München (2003), 60.
 [16]  Robert G. Moeller, War Stories. The Search for a Usable Past in the Federal Republic of Germany, Berkeley (2001).
 [17]  Jan Assmann, Tod und Jenseits im Alten Ägypten, Munich: Beck (2001), 54.
 [18]  George Orwell, 1984, London (1949), 32.
 [19]  Jane Austen, Persuasion (1817), Mineola, New York: Dover Publications 1997, ch. 23, 174.
 [20]  On the ‘Endlösung’ as a state secret see Georges Didi-Huberman, Bilder trotz allem, München (2007), 35-51 and Dirk Rupnow, Vernichten und Erinnern. Spuren nationalsozialistischer Gedächtnispolitik, Göttingen (2005).
 [21]  This group was referred to proverbially as ‚Braunschweiger’ and ‚U-Boote’ (going under cover). Norbert Frei, „Identitätswechsel, Die ‚Illegalen’ in der Nachkriegszeit“, in: Helmut König et al., Vertuschte Vergangenheit. Der Fall Sshwerte und die NS-Vergangenheit der deutschen Hochschulen, München 1997, 207-222.
 [22]  Tilman Jens, Vatermord. Wider einen Generalverdacht, Gütersloh (2010).
 [23] Bertolt Brecht, Lob der Vergesslichkeit, in: Die Gedichte von Bertolt Brecht in einem Band, Frankfurt a.M. (1999), xxxx.
 [24] Friedrich Nietzsche, Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie für das Leben, in: Werke in drei Bänden, ed. Karl Schlechta, München (1962), vol. 1, 214
 [25] Jana Simon, Denn wir sind anders. Die Geschichte des Felix S., Berlin (2002), 47-48.
 [26] Christian Meier, Das Gebot zu vergessen und die Unabweisbarkeit des Erinnerns. Vom öffentlichen Umgang mit schlimmer Vergangenheit, München (2010).
 [27] Winston Churchill, Speech to the Academic Youth (1946), in: Randolph S. Churchill, ed., The Sinews of Peace. Post-War Speeches by Winston S. Churchill, London 1948, 200.
 [28]  „Wenn das Ziel darin besteht, der Macht der Vergangenheit zu entkommen, ist die Frage, ob das eher durch Vergessen oder durch Erinnern geschehen kann, noch ganz offen.“ (Helmut König 2008, S. 33)
 [29]  „Seit Beginn der Menschheitsgeschichte war das Vergessen für uns Menschen die Regel und das Erinnern die Ausnahme (…) Aufgrund der weiten Verbreitung digitaler Techniken ist das Vergessen heute zur Ausnahme und das Erinnern zur Regel geworden.“ (Viktor Mayer-Schönberger 2010, S.11)
 [30]  Weinrich Lethe 1997; Osten, Das Veloziferische 2004.
 [31] Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Leaning (1605), „To The King“ IV, 6, in: Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning and New Atlantis, London: Oxford University Press 1974, 33.