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Recensioni bibliografiche 2003  


by Werner Bohleber
  Recensioni bibliografiche 2004 


This paper has been presented by the author at the Congress "Civilizations and their discontents"   (Rome, 12-13 February 2005). An italian version of the paper shall be published in the "Frenis Zero" review as soon as possible. Our thanks to the author for the permission.
Recensioni dalla stampa 2003



                 Rivista Frenis Zero




                  Maitres à dispenser

In Civilization and Its Discontents Sigmund Freud describes how human civilization develops through restrictions placed upon libido and aggression. This is a process set in motion by the generation of feelings of guilt that are subject to an ever increasing reinforcement as civilization advances, accompanied by a forfeiture of individual happiness. Within this process, the human inclination toward aggression represents a particular threat. Civilization must therefore mobilize whatever it can in order to restrain it, seeking to do so primarily through identifications with others and intimate relationships. Should the restraints come undone, however, aggression unmasks mankind to reveal the wild beast within. Freud points to the horrors of history up to World War I as evidence for the factual existence of this notion and the presence of a destructive drive. The fateful question for the human species seems to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human drive for aggression and self-destruction. In addition, Freud remarks that mankind has advanced to the point that “they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man”(1930, 145). This, he observes, largely helps explain humans’ unease, unhappiness, and sense of anxiety.

He does not comment, however, on how people will continue to be shaped by the traumatic effects of the misery, unrest, and anxiety that existed ten years after the end of World War I, the ur-catastrophe of the 20th Century.  Freud was concerned with the anthropological foundations of civilization, the battle between Eros and the death drive. He does not address collective traumatizations and their consequences for cultural development. At one point, however, he briefly touches upon the issue, though only to depart from it soon thereafter: “No matter how much we may shrink with horror from certain situations – of a galley-slave in antiquity, of a peasant during the Thirty Years’ War, of a victim of the Holy Inquisition, of a Jew awaiting a pogrom- it is nevertheless impossible for us to feel our way into such people – to divine the changes which original obtuseness of mind, a gradual stupefying process, the cessation of expectations, and cruder or more refined methods of narcotization have produced upon their receptivity to sensations of pleasure and unpleasure. Moreover, in the case of the most extreme possibility of suffering, special mental protective devices are brought into operation. It seems to me unprofitable to pursue this aspect of the problem any further” (1930, 89).

We can only speculate about how Freud would have written his work Civilization and Its Discontents in the wake of the catastrophes of the Holocaust and World War II. It took the psychoanalytic community a long time before it was in a position to describe and examine the extremely traumatic consequences of these catastrophes. Analysts joined other scholars in their persistent state of bewilderment regarding the crimes of the Holocaust, the factory-like mass murder of the Jewish people and other minorities. For this reason historians needed a long time to be able to adequately identify and outline the core of National Socialism: the mass destruction of human beings. The historian Dan Diner writes of this: “What at first glance appears to be a pure moral state of bewilderment, upon closer examination proves to be a much more deeply rooted fundamental rupture. The historical event Auschwitz touches layers of civilized certainty about the primary basic requirements for interpersonal relations. The bureaucratically administered and industrially executed mass destruction was a refutation of a civilization whose thoughts and actions are guided by a rationality that assumes a minimum of anticipatory trust ... A socially expanding trust in the social regularity of life and survival was transformed into its opposite: Mass-destruction was certain – survival, however, was left to chance” (Diner 1988, 7).

Historical thinking had to open itself up to the traumatic aspect of this experience of the collapse of civilization. Embedded in the extreme trauma is the power of the destruction of meaning, which has bearing on the nature of historical thought itself. Generally speaking,  historiography is a cultural strategy used to lend events historical significance and to order them into the larger meaningful temporal context of past and present. In regard to the Holocaust and other genocidal catastrophes, however, historians are occupied with the question of how the authentic collective experience can be adequately recorded, such that the horror of the experience and the shockingly brutal and senseless historical fact of the trauma not be subsumed by historical categories in which the traumatic character of the event dissolves. How can the transformation of the past from the mode of remembrance and memory into that of scientific insight take place at a time when access to direct witness testimony is dying along with the generation of victims and perpetrators?  How can the danger be encountered that the traumatic is thereby normalized and that the specific nature of the experience of National Socialism falls victim?

These are questions to which historians seek answers and to which psychoanalysts can make a substantial contribution. The threat posed by normalization is fostered by specific defense mechanisms that we are all subjected to when we come into contact with such massive traumata – as victims, bystanders, listeners, or as scholars.

In the following I would like to therefore briefly summarize what we know within psychoanalysis about traumatizations and their after-effects:


1. The traumatic reality overruns the defense of the ego and its adaptive resources and inevitably causes a sense of helplessness, automatic anxiety, and a regression to archaic ego-functions. The anxiety ruptures the psychic shield and floods the organism with unmanageable quantities of stimuli, plunging the ego into a state of complete helplessness. The horrific fact bursts into human life. The extreme stimulus overwhelms the psychic structure of meaning,  and yields a nameless automatic anxiety. The trauma has the tendency to be repeated in flashbacks, nightmares, and symptoms. This repetition bears the character of that which is not understood and breaks in, but it also is the attempt of the ego to get a grasp on and come to terms with the incomprehensible. The traumatized individual seeks to tame and mitigate the pure trauma by giving it a name and inserting it into a comprehensible causal system of action. It is paradoxical that the trauma is actually incidental and strange, yet as long as it remains strange, it will be revived and returns in sudden repetitions without being understood. Because, generally speaking, humans cannot live without explanations, they seek to ascribe the trauma with an individual meaning and to historicize it accordingly. These retroactive historicizations are most commonly screen memories. If these screen memories can be recognized as such and the authentic or truer history reconstructed, then temporality can be re-opened and future, present, and past dimensions can interact dialectically (Baranger u.a. 1988).

2. We now know that in cases of extreme traumatization this process of integration and historicization of the trauma often fails. So-called “man made disasters”, such as Holocaust, war, ethnic persecution, and torture, seek to annihilate the historical and social existence of the human being. Integrating the traumatic experience in a superordinate narrative is therefore not possible in an idiosyncratic act; instead, it needs in addition to an empathetic listener also a societal discourse about the historical truth of the traumatic events as well as of its denial and the shielding defenses against it. The victims are at the same time witnesses to a particular historical reality. The acknowledgement of causation and guilt is primarily responsible for restoring the interpersonal framework and brings with it the possibility of adequately understanding the trauma. Only in this way can the undermined understanding of the self and the world be regenerated. If defensive tendencies dominate in the social confrontation with a traumatic event, victims often feel isolated and blocked out, which again undermines their sense of security, makes them susceptible to retraumatizations, or condemns them to silence because they cannot expect any understanding.

Here we encounter the complex relation between traumatic experience and knowing. Laub and Auerhahn (1993) have described that it is in the nature of trauma to shield the psyche from knowing, because it exceeds and damages the human capacity to integrate it. The traumatized individual raises a defense against knowing the trauma, because it threatens the re-established, yet fragile psychic integration. The memories communicated about the trauma are in many cases not the actually disturbing experiences themselves, in which the terror, an unspeakable disgust and horror, overpowering fear, powerlessness and helplessness are housed. Coming into contact with them threatens the traumatized individual with being overwhelmed yet again. Often other aspects of the total event take their place, functioning as screen memories for the actual traumatic experience. This avoidance of the confrontation with traumatic experience takes place not only among those directly traumatized, but also among all those who took part in the trauma – as perpetrators, bystanders, or rather more removed historical witnesses. In all of them the retroactive confrontation with the trauma produces massive feelings of fear, pain, rage, shame, and guilt, against which a defense is raised in order to avoid contact with it. In order to shield ourselves from the confrontation with these affects, we avoid knowing. Not wanting to know is not only a passive closing off of perception, but also an active repudiation. In this way remembering and forgetting are repeatedly and dynamically interwoven. In addition, the memory of particular events can be used in order to repress other traumatic aspects of reality. Hence, multiple mixtures of defense and memory result, which range from active suppression and complete forgetting to deferred knowing, screen memories, and re-enactments. In this way, affective encapsulation, processing fantasies, and the acknowledgment of the historical reality of collective catastrophes are interwoven not only in individual memory, but also in collective memory and the political confrontation with it. The willingness and ability to remember intermingles with the resistance to it.

3. Extreme traumatizations exceed the traumatized individual’s psychic capacity to process them mentally, leading them to intrude into the lives of their children and thereby creating specific generational conflicts. This was studied more closely primarily through the psychoanalytic treatment of children of Holocaust survivors. Among parents who sought defenses against their massive traumatization, in that they denied or derealized their traumatic experiences, their children unconsciously registered what was suffered, processed indications with their imagination, and acted out these fantasies in the outside world. The children lived in two realities: their own and that of their parents’ traumatic history. These identification processes of the second generation of Holocaust survivors have been intensively studied and described. I will now summarize their most important features:

a.)    The identification does not take place solely with the figure or qualities of the father or mother, but is instead a type of identification with a history that predates the children. Faimberg (1986) characterizes this type of identification as “télescopage”, a telescoping of three generations.

b.)   The child identifies itself in a total way with its parents, but this identification also is forced upon him or her by the parents when they need the child for regulation of their precarious narcissistic balance. In so far as the history of another is projected onto the child and he or she identifies with it, the child experiences a feeling of alienation in part of its self. These identifications cannot be assimilated into the self and instead come to form a foreign body. Abraham und Torok refer to this as “endocryptic identification” (1979).

c.)    It is an unconscious identification, which, however, does not stem from repression, but rather from direct empathy with the unconscious, or silenced experiences of a parental object. One can characterize it either as a secret or a “phantom” (Abraham 1991) that has implanted itself within the child’s dynamic unconscious. His or her own feelings and actions reveal themselves as being borrowed and are actually part of the history of the parents.


4. In the psychoanalytic treatment of children of the generation of National-Socialist perpetrators in Germany we have seen that similar mechanisms of the transgenerational transmission of historical traumatizations are likewise at work. The children of perpetrators have also become bearers of a secret, stemming from the pact of silence that they sensed and unconsciously entered into through identification. But in this case other secrets and a different history pervaded silently, yet tyrannically the offsprings’ psychic reality. The untold, silenced stories give rise to the greatest intergenerational effect. The bond between children and their parents often necessitated that they did not question their parents’ taboo and instead respected it. The consequence was a schism between the childhood image of the father and that of the father as perpetrator. The latter was denied or derealized, resulting in compromising of the ego-ideal and the super-ego. The inability to question damaged the transgenerational formation of identity as well as the capacity of these children to critically internalize ideals and values and, in turn, for them later in life to be able to critically and openly discuss the Nazi era and values and ideals with their own children (the third generation).

Primarily after 1968 is when members of the second generation in Germany began to launch heavy attacks against the generation of their fathers and to uncover their involvement with the Nazi regime. The lifelong illusion of this generation, which often fashioned itself as victims, was to be made apparent and the actual victims and the crimes perpetrated upon them were to be saved from being forgotten. This involved the intermingling of memory work and defense mechanisms. Here, as well, a divide often became visible: The public confrontation with the father’s generation often stopped at one’s own family, whose taboos were respected. What this generation lost sight of was the reflection upon its own history, which was not completely absorbed within the identifications with the parents’ generation. The history of this generation who actually experienced National Socialism and the war as children has remained a terra incognita scotomized until today. There are certainly several reasons why this generation was hardly able to give voice to their own experiences. The silence and the refusal of the generation of perpetrators to take responsibility for and to speak out about their deeds has led many members of the following generation to identify with this task: Hence, there a deferral emerged in generational tasks. In view of the suffering of the actual victims, however, many members of the second generation have kept quiet about their own experiences, such that they have not been able to talk about their own history and their own traumatizations. This generation is still having difficulties stepping out of its parents’ shadows and to assimilate its own experience into an individual and generationally specific identity. Not until quite recently have the members of this generation, who today are between 60 and 70 years old, begun to remember and talk about their own experiences as children during the war.


I have outlined here some of the important findings in the study of trauma, remembrance, and collective memory –  as well as of the particular generational conflicts involved – in order to demonstrate how long collective catastrophes shape a civilization and how they often do so in a particular manner more beneath the surface than in open discourse for generations to come. The reconstruction of a collective trauma and the uncovering of repression and denial do not take place along a straight line, instead running its course more in waves with highs and lows. The willingness and ability to remember and the defenses against such memories are intertwined. Through the repeated and sudden surfacing of facts the collective history must be worked through discursively and publicly again and again, until the truth is recognized. At work here we find a complex structure of relations between often competing individual and collective memories of various social groups and those memories that are officially sanctioned by the state. They can mutually reinforce each other, but collective resistance or state suppression can also hinder – if not distort, or even destroy – the individual’s or social minorities’ capacity for remembering.








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