How will we remember 2020?

Professor Erll, 2020 turned out differently than we imagined in January. If we think back in twenty years: will 2020 be the year that the semester abroad was canceled and we couldn’t see the grandparents for a while? Or will our first thought be Corona?

Of course, nobody can predict that. Basically it can be said: people remember historical events in different frames. If I remember in an autobiographical context, 2020 is the year in which I did not see the grandparents, and could not celebrate my Abitur. I think this framework will certainly take effect, because the pandemic is going on for so long and bringing about such great changes that psychologists would probably speak of a “lifetime period”. But will the pandemic also be remembered in a different context in the long term? There are many scientists who don’t think so at this point.

You also don’t seem sure yet. In an essay you wrote that pandemics are recurring events – but not in the European consciousness. Why is that?

Because certain memory processes have not worked in previous pandemics. In order for this pandemic to be remembered as an international event, manifestations are needed, such as memorial days for the corona victims. Something like that stabilizes collective memory. Maybe there will also be feature films that a lot of people see. Or iconic images from hospitals. The Spanish flu shows us how fatal it is for the collective memory if these images are not available. Depending on who is calculating, it claimed between 50 and 100 million victims between 1918 and 1920, as much as the First and Second World Wars combined. This begs the question, why do we remember the wars but not the Spanish flu?


Astrid Erll is Professor of New English-Language Literatures and Cultures at the Goethe University in Frankfurt.
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Photo: Private

Do you know the answer?

One thing is clear: there is a kind of competition between events for inclusion in the collective memory of a society. The world wars clearly won this competition. Which events make it into the collective memory is above all a question of medialization: Are there important paintings, are there memoirs, is there the great modernist novel that revolves around the Spanish flu? No, this is not existing. But such media are needed so that memories can wander through the generations of a society. The other is the difficulty of telling pandemics. In our culture, it is much easier to tell a war because you can identify a cause, have perpetrators and victims and with a peace treaty usually a relatively clear ending. This is not the case with pandemics: you cannot find any human causers or culprits. And also no “moral of the story”, which is important for successful narratives.

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