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Back To OverviewPrice Winner 2018

Aleida and Jan Assmann

The Board of Trustees of the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade has chosen the Aleida and Jan Assmann to be the recipients of this year’s Peace Prize. The award ceremony will take place on Sunday, October 14, 2018, the final day of the Frankfurt Book Fair, at the Church of St. Paul in Frankfurt am Main. The ceremony will be broadcast live on German public television.

Aleida und Jan Assmann klein
© Amélie Losier

Statement of the Jury

"The German Publishers and Booksellers Association awards the 2018 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to

Aleida und Jan Assmann

In doing so, the association and its members have chosen to honour two exceptional scholars who have inspired and complemented each other’s work for decades.

As a scholar of literary and cultural studies, Aleida Assmann has displayed an unfaltering commitment to investigating the virulent and perennial themes of historical amnesia and memory culture. In view of the growing political instrumentalisation of these themes in recent German history, her scientifically grounded studies continue to provide much needed enlightenment on a broad range of issues relating to the cultural memory of nations. Time and again, her work has illustrated that an open and honest handling of the past is an essential precondition for peaceful coexistence.

As an Egyptologist and a scholar of cultural studies, Jan Assmann has launched international debates on fundamental questions relating to the cultural and religious conflicts of our time. His extensive scientific work has examined the relationship between religion and violence, the genesis of intolerance and the claim to absolute truth, all of which have made an indispensible contribution to our understanding of the willingness and capacity for peace held by religions in today’s global society.

The exhilarating and mutually enhancing unity created by the two voices of Aleida and Jan Assmann has generated a body of work that is of tremendous importance for contemporary debates and, above all, for sustainable peace and understanding among the peoples of the world."

Biography of Aleida Assmann

Aleida Assmann is a German scholar and professor of English and Cultural Studies. She was born on 22 March 1947 in Bethelnear Bielefeld to the New Testament scholar Günther Bornkamm and his wife Elisabeth. Before completing her studies in English and Egyptology in Heidelberg and Tübingen, she met her future husband, Jan Assmann, whom she accompanied on several excavations in Upper Egypt between 1968 and 1975. She earned her doctorate in English in 1977 in Heidelberg with a work on »Die Legitimation der Fiktion« (tr. The Legitimation of Fiction).

In 1978, she joined with her husband to found the research group known as »Archäologie der literarischen Kommunikation« (Archaeology of Literary Communication), which brought representatives of different academic fields and ‘cultural disciplines’ (Sumerology, Indology, African Studies, Sinology, etc.) together in a dialogue. At the first of these conferences (1979), the focus was on ‘Schrift und Gedächtnis’ (‘The Written Word and Memory’) and theories of how these media organise cultures. Aleida and Jan Assmann then used these initial approaches to formulate the concept of ‘cultural memory’, which they defined as an officially constructed and institutionalised form of collective memory in contrast to purely subjective individual memories. As a complement to the study of the history of facts – a form of investigation based on objectivity and committed to the scrutiny of sources –, they examined the influence of practices of collective memory on politics and the identity of societies. Today, they continue to take up subjects drawn from our present day – such as the question of the individual and collective memory of the Shoah – and seek to investigate literary history within these broad cultural scientific frameworks.

One year after receiving her Habilitation title in 1992 at the Neuphilosophische Fakultät in Heidelberg, Aleida Assmann became Chair of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Konstanz. She also held numerous visiting professorships and fellowships, which have taken her to Rice University Texas, Princeton and Yale as well as to the University of Vienna. Since the 1990s, in addition to several works on English literature and the archaeology of literary communication, she has dealt primarily with the subject of cultural memory, memory and forgetting.

For example, in her 2006 Buch »Der lange Schatten der Vergangenheit. Erinnerungskultur and Geschichtspolitik« (»Shadow of Trauma. Memory and Politics of Postwar Identity«, 2016), she highlights different paths that lead from individual constructions of the past to collective ones. She examines the tensions between personal experience and official commemoration, while also providing suggestions for an apposite culture of remembrance and arguing in favour of giving memory a »common memory space«, which could become tangible in a day of remembrance. Assmann distinguishes between individual memory, which the individual shares with family and friends, and national memory, which the residents of a country participate in by means of the public media as well as via monuments, museums and memorial days. In this memory, those parts of the past that are important for the self-understanding of the nation are kept alive in consciousness and can provide orientation for the present and the future.

In her latest book, »Menschenrechte und Menschenpflichten« (2017; tr. Human Rights and Human Duties), she identifies three aspects that are essential to facilitating a new and urgently needed social contract, especially in light of the current debate over refugees: the political assertion of human rights as a vital modern historical achievement, society-wide support for these rights drawing on ancient values such as empathy and solidarity, and a canon of rules for the fair and respectful coexistence of existing residents and immigrants, for which she coined the term »Menschenpflichten« or human duties.

Aleida Assmann lives with her husband Jan Assmann in Constance. The couple has five children (Vincent, David, Marlene, Valerie and Corinna).


2017 Balzan Prize (together with Jan Assmann)
2017 Karl Jaspers Prize (together with Jan Assmann)
2016 Theological Prize of the Salzburg University Weeks (together with Jan Assmann)
2014 A.H. Heineken Prize for History
2011 Ernst Robert Curtius Prize for Essay Writing
2009 Max Planck Award for Research: History and Memory
2009 Paul Watzlawick Honorary Ring, Vienna
2008 Honorary Doctorate from the Theological Faculty, Oslo
1999 Research Prize for the Humanities from the Philip Morris Foundation  


Biography of Jan Assmann

The German Egyptologist, religious scholar and cultural scientist Jan Assmann was born on 7 July 1938 in Langelsheim (Harz) to the architect Hans Assmann and his wife Charlotte. A music enthusiast from a very early age, Assmann decided against a career in music, although he would later publish numerous essays on music theory. He attended university in Heidelberg, first to pursue Classical Archaeology and Greek Studies, before then turning to Egyptology. In 1965, after studying in Munich, Göttingen and Paris, Assmann received his doctorate in Heidelberg on the subject of »Liturgische Lieder an den Sonnengott« (»Liturgical Songs to the Sun God«).

After a one-year journey through Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Asia Minor (Anatolia) on a travel grant from the German Archaeological Institute, Assmann worked from 1967 onwards for the German Archaeological Institute in Cairo. There, he began archaeological field work in the necropolis of Thebes near Luxor, where he focused on inscriptions (epigraphy). In 1978, he became head of the excavations in Luxor and began publishing works on tombs and gravesites of the Ramesside period. After receiving his Habilitation title in 1971 with a work on the grave of a late-period official (»Das Grab des Basa (Nr.389) in der thebanischen Nekropole«) (The Grave of Basa (Nr.389) in Necropolis in Thebes), Assmann became Chair of Egyptology in Heidelberg, a position he held until his retirement as an emeritus professor in 2003. He also held numerous visiting professorships and fellowships, which took him to Berlin, Munich, the US, Paris and Jerusalem. In 2005, he received an Honorary Professorship in Cultural Studies and Religious Theory at the University of Konstanz.

Throughout the course of his scholarly work, Jan Assmann has made fundamental contributions to the development, editing and interpretation of sources relating to Egyptian religion (hymns, liturgies of the dead, rituals). From the very beginning, he pursued interdisciplinary approaches, for example by connecting philological interpretations of texts with archaeological findings, as well as by taking into account cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Unlike traditional historiography, he sees literature – and thus fiction – as a relevant source of facts. By analysing cults of the dead, Assmann also spotlights the issue of which particular self-conceptions a culture seeks to impart about itself to future generations. In 1978, he joined with his wife Aleida Assmann to found the research group »Archäologie der literarischen Kommunikation« (Archaeology of Literary Communication, see biography of Aleida Assmann).

In his work on Egypt and cultural science, Assmann revises the biblical image of Ancient Egypt as an enslaved society under the rule of the Pharaohs and instead portrays it as a civilisation guided by concepts of order and justice (Ma'at). Above all else, he argues, these concepts contain norms that are designed to foster coexistence, such as justice, responsibility and an awareness of injustice. In »Der Tod als Thema der Kulturtheorie« (2000, tr. Death as a Theme in Cultural Theory), he argues that death is the centre of meaning in every culture and that humankind creates culture in order to endure the knowledge of death and finitude.  

Jan Assmann became known to a wider audience with his works on the emergence of monotheism, which he sees as having its beginnings in the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, for example in »Moses der Ägypter« (1998; »Moses the Egyptian«, 1998) and »Die Mosaische Unterscheidung oder Der Preis des Monotheismus« (2003; »The Price of Monotheism«, 2009). According to Assmann, every form of monotheism is based on the distinction between true and false religion – something that is completely alien to polytheistic religions. Their gods were able to be translated and carried across cultures, a process that was rendered impossible by the new, revelation-based concept of absolute truth provided by monotheism. Assmann connects this theological shift from polytheism to monotheism with the rejection of the pagan past of the Israelites and interprets the ardent hatred of the Canaanites as a “retrospective self-hatred, a hatred of the past from which one wishes to free oneself”. He thus argues that monotheism contains a structural intolerance that can repeatedly lead to religious, cultural and political disputes.

In »Exodus. Die Revolution der Alten Welt« (2015; tr. Exodus. The Revolution of the Ancient World), Jan Assmann traces the Exodus narrative back to ancient Egypt and forward into the 20th century. Here, he adds to his previous analyses by placing the focus on the concept of the covenant, on the »monotheism of loyalty«. The result is not the dissolution of a propensity to violence motivated by monotheism; in fact, according to a review by Micha Brumlik (Frankfurter Rundschau, 5 June 2015), Assmann simply relocates the rationale to the more complex relationship between loyalty and disloyalty that repeatedly appears in the revolutionary, world-historical consequences of the Exodus from Egypt.

In his 2016 book »Totale Religion. Ursprünge and Formen puritanischer Verschärfung« (tr. Total Religion. Origins and Forms of Puritanical Intensification), Jan Assmann spans an arc to the current discussions regarding the potential for violence held by societies shaped by monotheism. In doing so, he does not focus on the question of whether monotheism prevailed in history by means of force; instead, he seek to examine why it recollects and portrays the history of its enforcement in biblical texts in such brutal forms of violence and under what historical conditions this language of violence leads to real-life actions.

Jan Assmann lives with his wife Aleida Assmann in Constance. The couple has five children (Vincent, David, Marlene, Valerie and Corinna).


2017 Balzan Prize (together with Aleida Assmann)
2017 Karl Jaspers Prize (together with Aleida Assmann)
2016 Sigmund Freud Prize for Scientific Prose
2016 Theological Prize of the Salzburg University Weeks (together with Aleida Assmann)
2011 Thomas Mann Prize
2007 European Essay Prize Charles Veillon for his Life’s Work
2006 Alfried Krupp Science Prize
2006 Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, First Class
2005 Honorary Doctorate, Hebrew University Jerusalem
2004 Honorary Doctorate, Yale University, New Haven, USA
1998 Honorary Doctorate, Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster
1998 German Historians’ Prize
1996 Max Planck Award for Research