Re-Imagining the Past – A Conference Report

Last week the Centre had the pleasure of hosting a diverse group of international scholars at the conference Re-Imagining the Past. A joint effort between the Centre for Global Cooperation Research, members of the Humanities and Social Science Faculties, and the Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS) at the University of Ottawa, Canada, the conference sought to explore a certain ‘desire to return to seemingly better times’, which is often a reaction to perceived loss caused global forces out of one’s control.

Organizers Katja Freistein, Frank Gadinger, Birgit Mersmann, Christine Unrau and Taylan Yildiz of University Duisburg-Essen, as well as Centre Fellows Rita Abrahamsen and Michael Williams of CIPS have defined the concept of Re-Imaginging the Past (Rückbesinnung) as a‘process by which the past, often interpreted as a national past, is retroactively charged with meaning’. The process explains how vague fantasies and imaginations as well as spiritual or quasi-religious veneration of sites, policies or persons, are often imbued with a mythical character.

Re-imagining, in this context, does not merely stand for the representation of what belongs to the past. Rather, it is a cultural activity, which, as a lynchpin for a transformation of political order, is always also oriented towards the future’.

Interventions on the topic included explorations of material culture, complex narratives, myth, images, and media representations. These are imbued with the symbolic and metaphorical power to evoke augmented imaginations of the past and can ‘provide legitimation for contested decisions and policies’.

We start from the assumption that this performative effect of symbols can be observed in political forms of re-imaginations. We know from research on nation building that symbols and symbolic politics form communities and create identities which unite but at the same time also exclude’.

Presenters at the conference were encouraged to engage with one (or more) of the following areas of symbolic re-imagination: gender relations, sites such as monuments or historicized localities, cultural-ideological underpinnings of home and nation, the realm of nature, the politics of remembrance, religion and the sacred.

Re-Imagining the Past also featured two public sessions which engaged with the same foundational ideas. First,  Aleida Assmann presented ‘Remembrance between Retrieval and Retro-projection’ for our 45th Käte Hamburger Lecture. Second, Eiko Grimberg performed his visual essay ‘Rückschaufehler / Hindsight Bias’ in a special artist intervention.

Aleida Assmann, Professor Emerita of British Literature and Literary Studies, University Konstanz spoke of remembering and forgetting as they are ‘intertwined in the dynamics of our memory’. The talk prompted a consideration both of how imagination and memory are linked, as well as the interplay between material culture and (re)imagining. Assmann also offered a compelling exploration of how the power of art can make the processes of remembrance and forgetting visible.

Also in the vein of material culture, Eiko Grimberg’s visual essay presented architecture as a means for reimagining the past. For example, citing the destruction and rebuilding efforts of the Berlin Palace, Grimberg’s work assigned a complex significance to how building materials are used, and re-used both literally and symbolically. The palace was the long-time residence of the ruling Hohenzollern family, beginning in the 15th century. The building was damaged by allied bombing in the Second World War, and finally demolished by the government of East Germany. Following demolition, some pieces of the palace were reallocated to other structures, allegedlythe famous Tiergarten in Berlin. Reconstruction of the palace began in 2013 and was completed last year. According to Grimberg, the new structure is a “dead-serious” and entirely unironic reconstruction of the former building. Notably, the longing to have the Palace “back”, had been actively produced, not least via the display of the historic façade on the scaffolding of the construction site. 

One focus of the conference was an engagement with the radical right. Populist governance benefits a great deal from its own version of re-imagining the past. Deploying imagery and rhetoric which invokes a return to an idealised past presents a danger for the present (and future) of policy making and legislation. Disenfranchised voters can easily fall victim to the immediate, vivid callback to ‘simpler times’, times when an imagined political situation befitted this or that group. Obvious modern examples highlighted in the conference were those of Donald Trump in the US and the AfD party in Germany. However, as several contributions pointed out, re-imaginings of the past are also powerfully deployed by progressive movements. 

Through diverse contributions, a certain structural guide for addressing re-imagining the past became discernable. The effects of a (mis)remembered past on the present and future constellations of politics, gender, victimhood, reconciliation, power relations, even of how museums and memorials are experienced, are certainly difficult to process as a whole. Despite grappling with this difficulty, the conference, its organizers, as well as its presenters provided something like a roadmap for navigating the complex interplay of symbolism, psychology, individual and collective goals, and material culture as they are embodied and narrated through re-imaginings of the past.

Several conference speakers will share their insights and perspectives on the topic in contributions to the CIPS blog ( and in short video interviews.