Types, Definitions

In academic scholarship, the term "memory" is used in a variety of ways to describe how individuals and societies remember an event. Memories of the past are often far more revealing about contemporary concerns than the event itself. By examining the Holocaust, we can see the different and shifting ways it has been remembered over time.

In the academic field of memory studies, scholars have developed concepts which can help to explain these differences and shifts.

Personal Memory

Personal memory is how an individual remembers an event. This is a subjective memory – two people witnessing the same event at the same time may remember the event very differently.

Because personal memory is subjective, historians were traditionally suspicious of the academic value of personal memories. But personal memories have become an increasingly important source. They provide an insight into the different ways events were understood at the time they occurred. They also allow for a wider variety of experiences to be preserved in scholarship. People of different genders, ethnicities, ages and nationalities whose experiences might not be reflected in mainstream narratives of the past can find their voice through the examination of personal memories.

Collective Memory

Collective memory is a term developed by the French sociologist Maurice Halbwachs in the 1920s and is used to describe the way a society remembers the past. Each generation, Halbwachs argues, reconstructs the past “within its contemporary frame of reference”.

 Maurice Halbwachs (copyright: Medihal. CC0)

Collective memory is both stable and shifting. It is stable because it has a representative function: it represents the memories of a whole group or society. But it is shifting because how the past is remembered is dependent on political, social or economic events and concerns in the present.

Communicative Memory

“Communicative memory” is a term first introduced by the German cultural historians Jan Assmann and Aleida Assmann.

Jan Assmann describes communicative memory as “history in the frame of autobiographical memory”. It has its roots in personal memory. It is not supported by institutions or dependent upon specialists for its transmission or preservation.

 Jan Assmann (copyright: Rama. CC BY-SA 2.0 fr)

Its transmission is largely dependent on individuals talking about their past. As a result, it has a limited lifespan, usually no more than 80 years – i.e. the length of three interacting generations.

Cultural Memory

Cultural memory is different from communicative memory in three crucial ways: what is remembered, how it is remembered, and who tells it.

  • Cultural memory becomes ritualised. Certain days become highly symbolic. Ceremonies serve as public statements of how a group or nation remembers the past.
  • It has a stable narrative: although there will be changes in what is told and how, its basic form remains unchanged as it is transmitted from one generation to the next.
  • Cultural memory is preserved by institutions, not individuals. These institutions are normally countries, religious groups or international organisations.

In order for cultural memory to be maintained, groups and institutions rely, for instance, on films, literature, national days of remembrance, museums and memorials. 

Aleida Assmann (copyright: By Jussi Puikkonen/KNAWKNAW Koninklijke Nederlandse Akademie van Wetenschappen. CC BY 2.0)

 Prosthetic Memory

The term “prosthetic memory” was coined by the American cultural historian Alison Landsberg and was originally applied to media studies.

The word “prosthetic” means a substitute or artificial part and “prosthetic memory” describes how people might acquire a memory of an event they never experienced.

Landsberg defines prosthetic memory as “memories which do not come from a person’s lived experience in any strict sense”. Very few people today have a personal memory of the Holocaust. Yet many people have an image of the Holocaust – what concentration camps looked like, how the SS behaved – not because they witnessed this personally, but because they have acquired memories of images through films, photographs etc.

Multidirectional Memory

“Multidirectional memory” is a term introduced by the American scholar Michael Rothberg. This concept allows us to consider how discussion of the Holocaust has created new ways of engaging with other traumatic events from the past and present.

Rothberg argues this is a recent development in memory studies linked to decolonisation and new generations’ engagement with the Holocaust. Memories of traumatic pasts are not in competition with one another. Remembering one past does not mean you cannot remember another. Nor does it mean that one event is “more important” than another.


Marianne Hirsch’s concept of “postmemory” was first used in reference to the graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman in the 1990s. Postmemory is concerned with how traumatic memories are passed on from parents who experienced the Holocaust to their children. 

According to Hirsch, the term describes “the relationship that the ‘generation after’ bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before”. As a result, children of survivors often inherited a trauma of events they never personally experienced, but rather which they experienced through their parents’ difficulties dealing with the past.

The term has subsequently been applied to incorporate the transmission of the memories of the witness generation to postwar generations more broadly (i.e. not within one family). Diaries, letters, films and literature play a key role in this cross-generational transmission.

Cosmopolitan Memory

The sociologists Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider coined the term “cosmopolitan memory”. Levy and Sznaider argue that, in recent decades, there has been a significant shift from national to cosmopolitan memory cultures.

Memory of the Holocaust is now a global phenomenon, it is remembered transnationally.  Consequently, state Levy and Sznaider, shared memories of the Holocaust – cosmopolitan memory – have the potential to “become the cultural foundation for global human rights politics”. 

Further Reading

Aleida Assmann, Cultural Memory and Western Civilization: Functions, Media, Archives (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2012)

Jan Assmann, Cultural Memory and Early Civilization: Writing, Remembrance, and Political Imagination (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2011)

Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (University of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1992)

Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory. Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust (Columbia University Press: New York, 2012)

Alison Landsberg, Prosthetic Memory: The Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture (Columbia University Press: New York, 2004)

Daniel Levy and Natan Sznaider, The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age (Temple University Press: Philadelphia, 2005)

Michael Rothberg, Multidirectional Memory. Remembering the Holocaust in the Age of Decolonization (Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA, 2009)