The Third Reich in the Unconscious (Book Review)

Author:  Volkan, Vamik D., Garbiele Ast and William F. Greer, Jr.
Publisher: New York: Brunner-Routledge, 2002
Reviewed By: Nancy Caro Hollander, Spring 2004, pp. 41-44

We live in a period of escalating politically organized violence that increasingly affects civilian populations. The experience of violent confrontations throughout the world imposes on groups that are directly as well as indirectly affected meaning-laden images of perpetrator/victim that too often become associated with self-representations and object relations, unconscious fantasy and affective experience. There could be no better moment for the publication of The Third Reich in the Unconscious. This important study of the legacy of the large group traumatic experience of the Holocaust provides a brilliant analysis of the transgenerational transmission of trauma that has global implications in today’s world. The book’s authors — Vamik Volkan, Professor of Psychiatry and the founding Director of the Center for the Study of the Mind and Human Interaction at the University of Virginia; Gabriele Ast, a psychoanalyst and family practice physician in private practice in Munich, Germany; and William F. Greer, Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences and faculty member of the Center of Psychoanalytic Studies at Eastern Virginia Medical School — have deftly co-written an insightful analysis of how socially-shared images of the Third Reich have survived as mental representations within succeeding generations as “deposited representations” that are entangled with individual unconscious and conscious dynamics. The book includes theoretical explorations on a variety of themes with respect to large group trauma and history-related transgenerationally transmitted unconscious fantasies as well as chapters organized around in-depth clinical cases from both Germany and the United States that clearly illustrate the psychodynamics of inherited trauma and how they unfold through psychoanalytic treatment within the context of the transference-countertransference relationship.

The book’s introduction is by Ira Brenner, who foreshadows the authors’ discussion by including a moving personal account of an experience he had as an American Jew traveling in Germany, which was colored by his own transgenerationally transmitted images of the Third Reich that he refers to as “the shadows of the past” (p. xv). He underscores one of the arguments of the book, namely, that the symbols and images of the third Reich have become a part of global consciousness, in his evocative description of how his otherwise pleasurable trip was suddenly altered when he observed several unpleasant examples of German group behavior that mobilized disconcerting associations to the Nazi past. This experience occurred in 1998, during the week before Brenner was due to participate in a unique conference organized by a group of adult children of Holocaust survivors and children of ethnic Germans, for whom Vamik Volkan had served as a group facilitator during its planning stages. The conference’s participants included historians, psychoanalysts and politicians and it represented one of the first endeavors to break the interpersonal and intrapsychic silence in Germany with respect to the Nazi past. As Brenner suggests in his introduction and as it becomes clear in the book’s chapter devoted to a description of the year-long preparation of this conference, Vamik Volkan played an integral role in its coming to fruition. The organizing group’s members had not previously been able to acknowledge their own individual versions of transgenerationally inherited silences, and they benefited significantly from periodic meetings with Volkin, during which he facilitated their capacity to confront and work through unconscious resistances to knowing about and acknowledging internal images of their own ethnic identification and history as Jews or ethnic Germans and their mutually projected fantasies about one another. Volkan’s facilitation permitted these colleagues to achieve a genuine working relationship that resulted in their organization of a successful conference.

The Third Reich in the Unconscious begins with chapters devoted to an exploration of the mental representation of history, in which the authors analyze the difference between PTSD and transgenerational transmission and explain their understanding of the meanings and functions of history-related unconscious fantasies. They point out that while much of the Holocaust literature has focused on the pathology related to the traumatic experience and its transmission from survivor parents to their children, their effort is aimed at the delineation of the mechanisms by which images of the Nazi era are transmitted from generation to generation within large groups affected by the Third Reich. These images, they argue, become in subsequent generations unconscious fantasies attached to self-representations of perpetrator and victim within the personal worlds of each member of the large group. The authors are interested in highlighting how these images are developed within the second generation as a reflection of their large group membership, independent of the specific experiences of their own parents or grandparents during the period of the Third Reich. Their objective is to illuminate how images associated with the Third Reich and the Holocaust become an important component of the developing core identity and self-representation of individuals in subsequent generations and how they are significant aspects of unconscious fantasies, affects, wishes and defenses.

While the authors’ clinical case studies reveal how their patients’ incorporation of images of the Third Reich are related to their parents’ experiences during the Holocaust, they show how the simple fact of membership in the large group that has suffered the trauma of the Holocaust inevitably produces meaning-laden images associated with that experience that become part of their patients’ intrapsychic world. In fact, they show that, given the global significance of the Third Reich, the psychological use of images that carry victimizer/victim meanings from that historical experience can occur among individuals even when the parental generation has not been directly affected by the Holocaust. Perhaps most interesting, they explain how even among people living in the United States, their large group identity includes a legacy of culturally-constructed victimizer/victim images associated with the Third Reich that can be utilized in the unconscious mind as signifiers of self and object relations.

The authors point out that they are not talking about identification, which refers to the subject’s unconscious internalization of another individual’s self-image as the result of direct interaction with that individual. Identification, they argue, is a process that takes place following the subject’s separation of his/her self-representations from the representations of others and is characterized by the subject’s active participation. They prefer the concept of “deposited representation” to describe the phenomenon they write about, which focuses on the role played by the objects [parents] who unconsciously and sometimes consciously project aspects of themselves into the self-representation of children:

In the process of deposited representation, the active partner is the other person, not the child (or regressed adult) whose self-representation functions as a reservoir... The “deposited image” (Volkan, 1987) becomes like a psychological “gene” that influences the child’s identity and self-representation, initiating certain tasks that the child is obliged to perform — though, again, without the parent or other caregiver ever verbalizing the demand. (p. 36)

They go on to add that the history-related unconscious fantasies transmitted to the descendents of those individuals belonging to the survivors of large group trauma are related to the obligation of the descendents to carry out “tasks of reparation,” including the need to deal with the shame, rage, helplessness, entitlement and guilt that the original generation has not been able to work through.

This approach is related to Vamik Volkan’s well-known theory of “chosen trauma”, which is defined as “the mental representation of an event that has caused a large group to face drastic losses, to feel helpless and victimized by another group, and to share a humiliating injury” (pp. 41-42). Just as with individuals, large groups that have been traumatized need to do the significant work of mourning and of reparation for the humiliation and injury suffered, or their experience jells into a “chosen trauma” that can organize current and future group identity around ongoing hatred and resentment toward the other large group held responsible for the damage to group esteem. Such sentiments are passed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years and repeatedly organize hostile interactions with the group that has been identified as the perpetrator of the historical trauma. It is interesting to note that the authors argue that the transgenerational trauma associated with the Holocaust has not yet crystallized completely into a “chosen trauma” because it is still “hot,” i.e., relatively recent. Their detailed case studies, they suggest, provide the raw material for learning about the nature of the initial stages in the gradual formation of “chosen trauma” because they shed light on how generally shared history-related unconscious fantasies draw the progeny of a victimized generation together in profound identification with one another, a process that impacts on the individual and large-group identities of future generations. Indeed, a central part of the work of Volkan has been to understand the role played by “chosen trauma” in sustaining large group antipathies that provoke wars and other hostile interactions repeatedly over many generations. It is easy to see in the clinical work described in the book how psychoanalytic insights into the unconscious dynamics of such processes have the potential to interrupt generational cycles of violence.

I will briefly mention several of the fascinating and complex clinical cases that are described at length in the book. They include Dr. Volkan’s patient, Jacob, a German-born son of Jewish survivors whose own inability to mourn was transmitted to him and then shaped by his wishes, fantasies, affects and defenses against them. Jacob, who suffered from a self-representation that was a reservoir for his parents’ traumatized images as victims of the Third Reich, coexisted with paradoxical intermittent identification with the Nazis, also inherited from his mother’s identification with the aggressor. Jacob defeated everyone who tried to help him, and his negative therapeutic reaction reflected his terror of being dependent or abandoned. Dr. Volkan concluded that Jacob had the unconscious need to remain a memorial candle to all that his parents and he had suffered, a need profoundly connected to his self-representation that included identities of both the Jews and the Nazis. He left treatment because he would not mourn, a process that could have facilitated his psychological development, because it threatened to remove his sense of belonging to his large group as a living memorial.

Dr. Ast’s patient, German-born Uta, is the adult daughter of a family of Travelers, a migrant population within Europe much like the Gypsies, many of whom were victims of the Third Reich. In Nazi-occupied Europe, an estimated 250,000 to 500,000 out of a total of 950,000 nomadic peoples were exterminated. Uta, whose case “exemplifies how individual and large group identities become inextricably intertwined,” had a history of having been an abused child in addition to a number of traumatic developmental experiences, but her fantasies were permeated by images from the Third Reich as well. She grew up with her Traveler parents and extended family, none of whom spoke about their ethnic identity or their experiences during the Third Reich. When Uta entered treatment, she knew and “did not know” her nomadic heritage. Uta’s identification with her mother’s obsessive need to keep clean (good, German) elements separated from dirty (bad, Traveler) elements was reflected in her wish that the therapy could make her into a “clean German” at the same time she feared that by so doing the treatment would take away her (Traveler) ability to laugh and enjoy life. Uta’s early object relations and psychosexual and aggressive impulses revealed themselves to be profoundly saturated with mental representations of Third Reich images that were related to her nomadic identity and the Nazi persecution of her people. Ultimately, in the treatment with Dr. Ast, Uta was able to work through her feelings of inferiority, the product of her personal history and her large group identity, as well as the many manifestations in her self-image and object relations of her identification with the aggressor. She ultimately achieved the development of a new identity flexible enough to incorporate attributes associated with both German ethnic culture and her own Traveler culture.

Another case involves the self-analysis of Sabine, a German psychoanalyst who, with periodic consultations with Dr. Volkan, underwent a six-year post-analytic journal of self-exploration. This case shows how the mental representation of the Third Reich settled in Sabine’s mind, although both her parents had been essentially silent about their experiences during the Third Reich. In the course of her self-analysis, Sabine had to struggle with her shame at having a Nazi father, and to revisit how her fantasies of his participation in Nazi atrocities had motivated her to rebel and develop her own life project in opposition to her parents’ value system. During her self-analysis, Sabine came for the first time to know more directly about her father’s experiences during the Third Reich and to see him not only as a perpetrator but a victim of traumatizing situations. She came to understand how the own death anxieties from which she had suffered since childhood were the result of her having become a reservoir for her father’s unwanted self-images, especially those traumatized by his actual experience during the war of waiting for imminent death. As Sabine was able to free herself from this unconscious connection to her father, she was able to develop an authentically loving and individuated relationship with him.

I found this book to be relevant to my own work on the legacy of politically-induced trauma in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, the result of the experience during the 1970s and ‘80s of extremely repressive military dictatorships whose state terrorist policies included disappearing, torturing and murdering tens of thousands of men, women and children. Like the authors of The Third Reich in the Unconscious, I have found evidence of transgenerational transmissions of large group traumatic experience in which the offspring of the victimized generation become the reservoir for unresolved mourning and “deposited representations.” For example, one of the pathogenic aspects of state terror was that in its unleashing of extraordinary violence upon the civilian population; it problematized within its victims the healthy development of aggression. In a culture where torture and persecution were widespread, the victim generation tended to experience aggressive impulses as equivalent to destruction and thus to equate normal aggressive feelings within a relationship as the very real death of oneself and the other. In such cases, what gets transmitted to the next generation is the task of maintaining an illusory conflict-free object relationship within the family. This condition can reinforce omnipotent defenses and feelings of unreality that dominate the internal world and the perception of external reality. Within families who were persecuted during the dictatorships, other aspects of unconscious dynamics, which can often appear to be independent of the larger social world, are in fact the transgenerational transmission of deposited representations. For example, offspring of the generation who lived under state terror often become reservoirs for their parents’ inability to mourn — called “frozen grief” in Argentina — manifested by the unspoken demands that they stay closely connected to their families, lest their normal urges toward separation rekindle anxieties around the involuntary losses suffered during the original traumatic experiences. Children are also under pressure to replace the lost and always idealized objects (those who were disappeared or murdered), representing them in their attitudes and behavior. Perhaps the most dramatic manifestation of this socially-induced family pathology is that children are sometimes called upon to make the past disappear by living out their parents’ aspirations that were cut off when disaster struck through state terror.

The Third Reich in the Unconscious takes up the theme of German silence in the context of the discussion of the conference I referred to at the beginning of this review. The authors are not referring to the German government’s acknowledgement of the crimes of the Nazis nor to all of the cultural and artistic works that are reflections on the meanings of the legacy of the Third Reich. They are concerned with the silence that has interpersonal and transgenerationally intrapsychic meanings. They are interesting in “individuals’ use of psychological mechanisms — ranging from intellectualization and rationalization to slitting and denial—that protect self-esteem by establishing emotional distance from aspects of the Third Reich that induce shame and guilt. The collective effect of these individual “silences” tends to keep intellectual understandings segregated from affective responses to the Holocaust as a trauma.” (p. 145) This important concept of “silence” guided the work of many psychoanalysts in Argentina and Uruguay following the return to constitutional government as they strove to articulate amongst themselves and with their patients and the public the importance of dealing immediately with the traumatizing effects of state terror. They participated in the national discourse in which the forces that supported the importance of memory and of working through the traumatic social experience confronted those who wanted to forget about the past and endorse policies of impunity. Some psychoanalysts developed research teams devoted to a comparative exploration of the psychological effects of the repression of memory in various societies in periods following the liberation from political tyranny. In this regard, in 1995, Marcelo Viñar, then President of the Uruguayan Psychoanalytic Association, attended an international conference in Dachau, The Concentration Camp and the Carefree World. where participants explored themes related to social trauma in Germany and its impact on historical memory. Colleagues spoke about how several generations of Germans lived in a culture of social amnesia before the youth of the 1990s finally developed the capacity to search for the truth of what had happened during the Nazi era. They congratulated Viñar on the fact that in the Southern Cone countries, psychoanalysts were already actively engaged in eliminating silences among their populations, allying themselves with social movements that opposed their governments’ official policies of social amnesia.

A final comment: this study of one example of social trauma and how it can become part of the intrapsychic world and interpersonal relationships suggests, from my perspective, the importance of our having a general appreciation of the significant role played by what psychoanalysts often refer to as “external reality” in the formation of the subject. As British analyst Andrew Samuels argues (in The Political Psyche. London: Routledge, 1993), we psychoanalysts need to integrate our clinical knowledge with an interest in understanding the constituents of the social order and our patients’ particular insertion into it. Especially in our contemporary period, when the social world seems to be pressing itself ever more profoundly and even traumatically into our psyches, we do well to consider British group psychoanalyst Earl Hopper’s words: “An analyst who is unaware of the effect of social facts and forces…will not be able to provide a space for patients to imagine how their identities have been formed at particular historical and political junctures, and how this continues to affect them throughout their lives.” And, as Hopper goes on to warn, such an analyst “cannot be sensitive to the unconscious recreation of [these social facts and forces] within the therapeutic situation.“

Reviewer Note

Nancy Hollander is in private practice in Los Angeles and is the author of Love in a Time of Hate: Liberation Psychology in Latin America (New York: The Other Press, 1997). She currently serves as president of Section IX: Psychoanalysis for Social Responsibility.

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