Collective Mourning Who or What Frees a Collective to Mourn?

by Hermann Beland, Oct 2008 back to Articles

1.     Approach to the Grief of Loss of Self via a Comparison with Freud’s Empiricism and the History of the Theory of Mourning

I would like to speak to you about collective mourning as someone who himself would like to learn something about his personal share in the German collective grief and about whether one can hope that it can become more of a reality and if so, how. As someone who himself would like to move forward, alone, but even better together with many, in this work for which Freud famously coined the term “work of mourning”. The question, indeed, is whether, individually or as a collective one can work on the current past – grieving, understanding, and reflecting. In Studien über Hysterie (Studies of Hysteria), Laplanche and Pontalis found a sentence of Freud’s on this particular kind of work, one that prevents the mystifications that later arose, especially theoretically, around the term. In 1895, Freud wrote of Ms. Frau Emmy von R.: “But a short time after the death of the ill person begins in her [the mourner] the work of reproduction [of grief] that brings the scenes of the disease and the dying to her eyes once more. Every day she endures each impression anew, weeps about it, and consoles herself for it – one would like to say: at her leisure.” (GW vol. 1, p. 299) So that was grief for Freud at that time: the work of reproduction.

Weeping about it – that is the wish behind the idea of collective mourning as reproduction work. We would like to weep about the Holocaust, about the loss of our goodness as Germans, and about the loss of the endless value of the many individuals who were annihilated as persons and physically. If the pain of the loss can dissolve in tears, then the mourner can give himself up to work of mourning; he knows that the process will continue, by its nature. It is then this particular form of work on pain that begins with the consciousness of the particular situation of loss and that, as emotional pain, lasts as long as this consciousness demands, sometimes ending and, in the case of a collective, perhaps sometimes lasting forever.

Is there really such a thing as an inability to grieve? Not really. That’s why, in my opinion, the organizers of this DPG working conference acted wisely to proclaim the “possibility of mourning” and placed the  “im”  [-possibillity] in brackets. The mourning process itself is adult emotional nature. The pain of loss extends deep into the history of life. Anyone who has heard the cry of a bird robbed of its nest will not doubt the similarity between this pain and the pain of loss felt by humans. Sophocles evokes this cry when he presents Antigone’s cry of pain on the discovery that the rescue of her brother Polyneices has been undone. The work of dealing with pain does not consist in inventing the process of the entire course of events, but in enduring specific pains that the loss calls forth. This is very probably true also of the pain of the many. But today I would like to speak of the particular kind of pains that make themselves felt in mourning the loss of one’s own normality and one’s own goodness. These are particular pains of grief that, as pains of ambivalence, make up a part of every normal grief work. But there is also a difference – hard to define and probably even categorial in nature – between death wishes, resentment, and hostile thoughts toward the dead, which must be worked through in every mourning process, and the grief of a person who has killed or murdered innocent people in a paranoid delusion. The latter is the issue with us Germans as collective. We feel ourselves to be the heirs of the genocide committed by Germans and feel that the peoples of the world see us that way, too. Can this heritage be mourned? I suspect that, in our case, the pain about the loss of our own collective humanity must first be accepted and endured before we can devote ourselves to an objectal grief.

I would like to approach grief as the loss of one’s own valuable identity via the comparison with objectal grief and will take Freud as an example. Freud himself, in the judgment of those who knew him well, but also in his own self-appraisal, was a mourner who suffered severely from the pain of loss, probably because he was strongly attached in love or hate. Although personally quite familiar with the phenomenon, he found some aspects of the pain of mourning enigmatic, as is well known. I have the impression that what he meant was theoretical riddles that he could not yet solve with the psychological knowledge available to him in 1917. And it really isn’t theoretically understandable why detaching libido as detaching cathexes from a cathected representation should cause pain. These abstract terms were still too coarse and, in their scientific metaphorics, do not fit the form of experiencing real pains. But Freud’s descriptions of his pain are imperishable testimony. One especially impressive description of his grief after the death of his grandson Heinerle is found in the letter to Katja and Lajos Levy (June 11, 1923), to whom Freud described the course of the 4 ½-year-old’s disease. He then summarized an observation of himself: “He was a charming guy, and I myself knew that I have hardly ever loved a person, certainly never a child, as much as him. ... I endure this loss so poorly, I think I have never experienced anything more severe, perhaps the shock of my own disease is part of the effect. I carry on my work by necessity, but basically everything has lost its value to me.” (Freud, S. 1968, p. 361) Six years later, he returned to the death of his daughter Sophie nine years earlier to console Binswanger who had just told him of the death of his, Binswanger’s, 20-year-old son. “One knows that the acute mourning after such a loss will run its course, but one will remain unconsoled and never find a substitute. Everything that takes its place, even if it should fill that place entirely, remains something else. And actually, it’s good that way. It is the only way to continue the love, which after all one does not want to give up.” (Letter of April 11, 1929, op. cit. p. 222-223).

Freud’s grief was objectal grief. The intention to continue a love that one does not want to give up fails, initially, if one must give up one’s own goodness as part of the narcissistic grief.

Comparing Freud’s reflections on work of mourning over the decades reveals that his understanding became ever more complex. If one adds the contributions of Karl Abraham and Melanie Klein, one can summarize that the idea of a natural somato-psychological course increasingly retreats behind the retrospective working through of all experiences of separation and exclusion, beginning with birth and through all losses of love on the threshold of new phases of development to the present. Everything that was gained from growth and mourning is put into question again and again, from the beginning of alpha function and the anchoring of experience in time and space, as we would say today, through the integration of ambivalence, the introjection of the good internal object and the pain at its loss, from the modifications of the superego and the partings in childhood and youth to the young adult’s identity formation. Everything, the entire psychological organization of object relations and thinking must be retroactively partially dissolved with every loss, dissolved for the object and re-established for the self, because the loved and/or hated person had a part in one’s entire psychological organization. In his analysis of Freud’s theories of mourning, Joshua Durban (2007) pointed out that Freud’s alterations of his theory of work of mourning themselves correspond to a process of grief, away from a simple natural process with a beginning and end to a lasting work of pain, in which, for major losses, the retrospective working through of all essential connections with the indispensable person, from the beginning of life on, must be taken up and carried out anew again and again.

Grief work includes, above all, the anchoring of the self and the object in time and space and in symbolic thinking, including all dreams and coming to terms with them. Identifications were a great relief in the relations  to the object. Separating the living index of time from the lost object is therefore a central psychological work: a person who has died will have no more future and no more memory. There will be no new common fate with him. One cannot make real amends anymore. The recognition of reality leads to a crucial questioning of all self-determinations that are connected with the object and that were valid in the same way for the self and for the object. This requires a decision whether one wants to die, too, or whether one will endure the privations of a lonely life. The pains of disruption relate to a real psychological disruption. The person so necessary to life and who no longer exists is present only in memory. He remains lovable and loved after grief work has already buried him as a real existence.

It was daring and must remain thought-provoking that Freud called this and other psychological processes “psychological work”. The ability to work is attributed to every psyche as an essential function inherent to it. Presumed is a knowledge of a psychological process, i.e., an insight into the activity of the subject, which, actively working psychologically, takes one step after another and, in grief, musters toleration for the incremental work of pain at the recollection of the other. Laplanche und Pontalis (1973) elucidate the Freudian term “work of mourning” in greater detail when they write: “The term ‘work of mourning’ must be seen together with the more general term “psychological processing”, which is grasped as the psychological apparatus’ necessity to bind the traumatizing impressions.” (italics H.B.) If we add Freud’s other two work terms, dream work, whose original counter-term was analysis work (interpretation work), we can say that, in all three different modes of work, we strive for the same psychological goal, “to bind the traumatizing impressions”.

Can the grief reaction be halted, inhibited, or derailed? Very easily, as we know. Defense mechanisms hinder the work of mourning when the loss is not yet imaginable and therefore not yet recognized; if the pain is judged unbearable and the entry to grief work is therefore hindered as long as it is judged a state threatening to life. During the process there are also several obstacles at which the mourner wants to break off the work. In particular in ambivalence conflicts, as we know, a sense of guilt can refuse us the internal right to grief, to the transformation of pain into tears. In such a case, the rule of emptiness can remain and the grief work does not continue. It stagnates as pathological grief or worsens, turning into melancholy. “The fear that the inner void will spread threatens, because it could become the actual core of the personality and damage it or render it superficial.” (Joshua Durban 2007, p. 64).


2. The Mutual Dependence Between Individual and Collective Mourning

In the following, I will speak about personal experiences in the five preceding Nazareth Conferences (1994-2006). The Seeon Conference of 1996, that played a role in the reconciliation of the DPV and the DPG, was a child of the first Nazareth Conference and for me is associated with those conferences  as a source of experience.

First I would like to recall our Israeli friends, who in 1988 made us the magnanimous, helpful offer to apply the principle of the Leicester-Tavistock group conferences jointly to them and us: Germans and Israelis/Jews – The Past in the Present. Rafael and Rena Moses, Shmuel and Mira Erlich, and Jona Rosenfeld made the offer. As Director, Eric Miller of London accepted the challenge of containing the future, still unknown collective emotions; without this the experiment would not have been possible. Rafael Moses and Eric Miller both died in 2002 and Rena Moses-Hrushovski in 2006. I would also like to recall the Weekend Conference of 1985, after the Hamburg IPA Congress, which the British Psychoanalytic Society held on the topic “Guilt Bearable and Unbearable”, which addressed the German collective situation in an unforgettable way. The conviction that unbearable pains of loss, fears, and states of guilt cannot be borne if they must be borne alone has been adopted from this conference into the preamble of the Nazareth Conferences.

Continuing to feel my way to the interrelationship between individual and collective grief, I would like to remind you of the three eras of German dealing with German war crimes, as Jörn Rüsen (2000) formulated them in Holocaust-Erfahrung und deutsche Identität (Holocaust experience and German identity). In the context of what he calls the third phase, I would like to place the grief content that today seems to me the most important work requirement for the individual and for our groups: the grief content of the loss of one’s own goodness.[1] In my opinion, without recognizing this loss there can be no collective pain about the murder of our Jewish neighbors and their loss.

According to Rüsen, the first mentality of the Germans after the war (1945-1968) was the maintenance of collective silence and an exterritorialization, as he called it, an outward projection of Nazi crimes and the Holocaust onto the large “not-us” groups of perpetrators and their victims. One turned oneself into a victim of Hitler and of a small group of his fanatic adherents and perpetrators. One’s own war dead, war prisoners, expellees, and refugees and one’s own losses of homeland and property were seen as offsetting the Holocaust victims. The destructive core of annihilating everything humane was not yet recognized as the essence of the Third Reich. The destruction of national identity could not yet be felt. It could not be psychologically accepted. Maintaining silence about the knowledge of the genocide made it possible, as a counter-movement, to integrate the larger part of the elite of the Nazi system into leading functions in the emerging Federal Republic. The historian Ulrich Herbert wrote in 1992, “...considering the millions of victims of National Socialist policy, that the majority of the perpetrators should get off scot-free was a process so fundamentally contradicting all ideas of morality that it was impossible for it to remain without serious consequences for the society.” (translated from Herbert, U. 1992, p. 15)

The second mentality of dealing with the Nazi era (1968-1989) was molded by the book by Alexander and Margarethe Mitscherlich: Die Unfähigkeit zu Trauer (The Inability to Mourn). In this era, moralizing and distancing themselves, people brought the Nazi era to the forefront, deposing and distancing themselves from guilty fathers and identifying with the genealogical victims, the children of the victims of the Holocaust. “In the eyes of the children, the fathers more or less fell under suspicion of being perpetrators. In opposition and counter-identification, the children turned to the victims of this generation of fathers and perpetrators.” (Bohleber 2007)

The third mentality of dealing with the Nazi era (1989-today) finally meant: for reasons of collective continuity, and despite all inner revolt against this assertion, the idealized destructive spirit of the Third Reich is the German spirit of my spirit. We find ourselves in this third period of “working through”. We can subsume this period under Freud’s terms Recollection, Repetition, Working Through, but in another sense and relation: repetition of recollection, working through what we do not want to remember, deepened repetition of recollection, the growth of tolerance for the pain of the loss of our own collective good identity, regretful recollection of the victims, and the intense wish never to repeat what Germans did.

According to Jörn Rüsen, all three epochs describe both individual and collective mentalities. Independently of the collective pace, individual analysts oriented themselves toward the collective, were pioneers, and demonstrated what we as a collective could then accomplish in our majority. But it could be that these individuals merely set off on the collective path a little earlier, like young parents who think they are freely choosing a name for their first child, only to discover three-quarters of a year later that the beautiful name, uniquely selected from many, was also chosen by many, and that they therefore were part of a collective trend without realizing it.

Historical collectives behave like the procession caterpillar: many individuals move in the same direction, head to tail. One can view the large group or the individual; from either perspective, the collective moves in the same direction, and it is not wrong to assert that they move in the same direction because the individual is primary; in turn, it is equally valid to assert that they do so because a collective mentality is present primarily and effectively in all individuals.

Shall we achieve Rüsen’s phase III? The theme that I suggested to myself and to you expresses such a hope, a hope for the possibility of a collective grief that, in my opinion, begins with grief at the loss of one’s own goodness.

I think the question “Who or what liberates a collective to engage in its grief?” can be empirically answered at this point. The answer to the question “Who liberates?” is: many individuals liberate themselves and their collective to engage in their grief; and the answer to the question “What liberates?” must be: we, as the many, consisting of many similarly disposed individuals who recognize the loss of our own goodness, liberate ourselves (and are thereby a large group).

At the end of Nazareth I, after a long time passing through paranoid fear based in guilt, I formulated for myself what is for me the most important, my German, anti-melancholic experience: My Israeli friends want me to live – and to stay on task. They want me to live.

3. The Collective Grief Over the Loss of the Germans’ Normal Good Identity

So what grief is meant? In my opinion, the first priority is the grief over the loss of our own humaneness toward the peoples of the earth, as a humaneness collectively lost in the Nazi crimes. This loss of self must first be painfully surveyed and painfully acknowledged before the loss of the object, of the murdered Jewish neighbors, can hurt. In my opinion, the grief over belonging to the genocidal nation has three aspects that must be first and repeatedly worked through.

1.     The first aspect has to do with the loss of one’s own average good normality through the awareness of the real murderous excesses. The shadow of eliminatory anti-Semitism, of the genocide, lies upon us as a collective and will remain unforgotten by the nations of the earth as long as our nation exists. (Cf. how the nations have preserved the memory of the senseless destruction of culture by the Huns and, after the Vandals plundered Rome, eternalized them in the word “vandalism”.)

2.                  The second aspect has to do with investigating the historical reasons that led to delusional anti-Semitism, which must be acknowledged and understood. The point here is to grasp a collective history of mentality that ended in genocide. The current grappling with historically actually existing Christianity and the anti-Semitism it collectively induced over a period of two millennia can lead, for the individual, to the painful loss of Christianity as the central good object of the historical identity of the European nations.

3.     The third aspect of loss of the prior German identity has to do with the grasping, acknowledgement, and penetration of a collective psychotic mentality in the enforcement and toleration of eliminatory anti-Semitism.


3.1 The First Aspect of the Loss of Normality in Relation to the Peoples of the Earth

What we want to collectively acknowledge are the depressing facts of our own people’s crimes. Klaus von Dohnanyi is easiest to listen to when he formulates the task that I believe lies before us of recognizing the loss of our own goodness as members of the German historical community: “He who in these days truly wants to belong to this country with its tragedy and its whole history, he who really understands his Germanness seriously and sincerely must be able to say: we took racism to the point of genocide, we committed the Holocaust, we waged a war of annihilation in Russia. To speak with Walser, these crimes are therefore our own personal disgrace. Not Germany, the abstract nation; not the German Reich, the state organization; not the other Germans; no, it was we ourselves. ... German identity today is defined by nothing else so clearly as by our common descent from this disgraceful period...” (v. Dohnanyi, 1998; quoted after Rüsen op. cit., p. 103, translated by Mitch Cohen)

There may be no models for the special kind of pain that arises with the loss of one’s own goodness. As far as I know, the classic analytical texts have not yet described grief work focused on the loss of a collective normality. People who have done severe damage to others or who have killed must have experience with how the loss of one’s own goodness feels. I haven’t researched this. When reading, thinking through, and exposing oneself to the feeling of the excesses in the concentration camps, when visiting a concentration camp like Mauthausen, the feeling arises that, as a German, one loses one’s right to life. In the presence of groups with other nationalities, another typical German paranoid state of guilt is noticeable in which one experiences the collective equating of German and genocide as a palpable loss of one’s own goodness, for example as the loss of the right to live together, discuss, and reflect on the same level of competence with others.

The mental and active community of eliminatory anti-Semitism is then subjectively palpable through the presence of the other nations. The German community of action exists indissolubly, has had an endlessly painful effect, and has ruined everything. This is a miserable loss, and one cannot strive to receive sympathy from the other peoples. And so we often feel internationally paralyzed and trigger uncomprehending vexation in others when we can’t collaborate in a normal way.

I remember the farewell evening toward the end of the 2nd Nazareth Conference, when the staff members loosened their abstinence a bit and, after the greatest part of the joint work had been done, joined the members. I felt an enormous pressure from the group to sit down between two members where the sole empty seat was. But I didn’t want to sit there at any price. The seat seemed to be a publicizing and a public condemnation of a destructive perversion, a public revelation of a depravity that had been concealed until then. I am fairly certain that no one but me noticed what I was experiencing. It was a collective pressure, unnoticed by the others, that I must feel myself concretely and publicly German and bad, a badness with no clear content but enormously deep-seated: Nazi-bad, so to speak. One’s own superego has collective dimensions. I was supposed to acknowledge this judgment, had to think it through at the time and afterward. I was able to report it only in private talks, not publicly. Then one needs other people to arrive at the recognition that “my friends want me to live”. One regains life when one has accepted the loss of German goodness.

Although a mourning work addressed to the loss of one’s own goodness as a German seems to others and could be criticized as an almost intolerable narcissistic navel-gazing, I am fairly sure that this loss must be accepted and tolerated before the victims’ loss can be regretfully felt.

One work task can be fulfilled, when what is at issue is the loss of value of one’s own German identity: one can acknowledge what knowledge there is. One can read widely and, for example, gain clarity on the details of all the methods of annihilation in the camps, as Wolfgang Sofsky (1992), for example, described them. One can gain clarity about the goal of active cruelty. One can recognize that there was an inventive cruelty in the camps whose intention did not have to be formulated in words as the intention of a collective, a constant, precise goal in all the methods in the way the Jews, in particular, were to be tortured to death. The goal was the systematic annihilation of the personally organized, individual humanity of each individual. That’s why no one in the camps was allowed to kill himself to escape the incremental physical and psychological destruction. One was supposed to suffer precisely this: to be a witness oneself to the step-by-step destruction of one’s own humanity. One was supposed to die of oneself through the laws of one’s own starving, freezing, soiled, diseased, and exhausted body and through the psychological laws of the incremental loss of one’s own identity. The goal was killing, but before that the production of a “Mussulman” existence, of the living dead who, because psychologically and physically they had already lost everything that constitutes humanity, had psychologically and physically become a burden to almost everyone else who still persevered and exemplified their own future.

If one makes clear to oneself this intentional goal of annihilation by means of million-fold, forced, naturally-proceeding self-destruction, one can more easily understand why, increasingly since the end of the war and further increasing since the fall of communism and the end of German partition, there has been an unconscious collective current, a deep German conviction as a feeling of identity in relation to humanity, that one has lost normal human goodness, that one no longer possesses the normal goodness of the nations. Some people have this consciousness so intensely that they believe they have forfeited the right to live. We Germans have become, for centuries or forever, the nation that wanted to cruelly and insanely annihilate humanity in every Jew.

I think since the end of the war there has been a deep process of grief work in relation to the loss of one’s own goodness and that the Germans, in part, have made collective progress. Many people understood and I would also like to regard the joyful hospitality of the soccer world championship, the euphoria of flags, as the Germans’ gratitude for the visit of the nations, who, like the German critics, paid keen attention to false, for example nationalistic tones, but who, when these were lacking, gladly recognized that this nation, in part, can make a distinction between acknowledging the loss of its own normality and a grateful hospitality in the context of the concealed consciousness of ruptured normality. The soccer world championship could be seen as cheerful thankfulness to the visitors from all over the world, gratitude that we could participate and because they wanted us to contribute our paradoxical normality as a normality overlaying a broken normality, without talking about it. Cain should live, remember, understand himself, and achieve a depressive position of his own. He should individually dissolve his collective paranoia and transform it into collaboration and regret. The first step of recompense in thinking is the non-paranoid act of acknowledging the loss of German normality.

I always found a remark of Freud’s in Moses and Monotheism to be socio-psychologically astonishingly acute. In the context of what he suspects to be the murder of Moses, which he draws from the works of the Old Testament scholar Sellin, Freud speaks of a latency of two or three generations, 60 to 100 years, which are psychologically necessary to reducing guilt feelings to the point that the passions of the act of murder can be acknowledged. No one really knows about such things, and certainly not after a genocide. The acknowledgment of the loss of the Germans’ formerly normal identity in the community of nations may also be supported by a temporal latency, a mitigation through time. Today we as individuals and as groups are probably more able to acknowledge the massively painful content of the committed genocide than the wartime and postwar generations were.


3.2.1 The Second Aspect of the Loss of Normality, the Historical Roots of the Anti-Semitic Delusion

If one feels one’s way socio-psychologically into the mentalities of the twelve years of the Third Reich, the years of the Weimar Republic before it, and the postwar years, one can only hold one’s breath when one notes the collective belief in the national propaganda lies, the belief in the hoped-for national greatness, the collective enthusiasm in the illusory idealization of the leading persons of the state, in conforming in anti-Semitism as licensed inhumanity, and in the glorification of violence. Much of this was ancient and accustomed for centuries, like the idealization of authorities and hierarchies, the self-obligation of state-loyal families to believe in the idealism of the leading personalities of the state and in the always good intentions and always honest strivings of the elites. For centuries, there was a ban on discovering the inhumane intentions of one’s parents or of authorities, there was a willing belief in the propaganda of Christian idealizations, and there was a ban on discovering the objective hypocrisy in Christian society or systematic political lies. Above all, for two thousand years there was the habit of anti-Semitism, a blindness to the projection of Christians’ guilt onto the Jews by the leading personalities of the Churches; later people closed their eyes to the eliminatory laws to maintain the purity of Aryan blood, and there was the intention not to realize that the old Church anti-Semitism had increased into an eliminatory anti-Semitism. There was and still is the lack of depression about abysmally deep damage to the heart of actually existing Christianity, about Church anti-Semitism, which began as early as the Gospels, in particular the Gospel of John. For those who regard the humaneness of lived Christianity as the best heritage of German identity, misgivings about the justification for continuing to regard this legacy as good are among the most painful losses of a collective, historically good identity.


3.2.2 The Loss of Collective Good Normality as a Result of a Collective Psychotic History of Christian Groups

It is possible that the catastrophe of the anti-Semitism delusion began with the first Christians’ belief in the resurrection as a hallucinated defense against a denied catastrophic grief. The damage of denying the grief, the damage of idealizing the collective hallucination, the damage of idealizing the hierarchy and organization of the Church may already have begun here. All three forms of damage would explain the projection of the Christians’ guilt and their envy of a collective, the Jews, whom they secretly believed were better. I won’t ignore the counter-evidence of a successful Christian grief, for example Michelangelo’s Pietá, which expresses the grief after the crucifixion, lovingly holding the corpse while nevertheless letting it go, living through one’s own grief. What is good in Christianity, which one could call the internationalization of Judaism, is historically always simultaneously present with the deluded prejudices and also effective. This goodness is expressed in this work of art by the Renaissance artist.

Nonetheless, one must dare to formulate the painful facts that, historically viewed, finally led to the loss of one’s own value: the Christian groups and nations have lived since the 1st century in a history of reformulated delusion. Perhaps this must be formulated more precisely: since the Crucifixion, the Christian groups have lived in a history of delusion. The adherents of the Crucified One could not grieve over the Crucifixion; instead, they hallucinatorily denied it and transformed it into divine life. Not much later, I suspect, the denied grief tipped over into hatred of Jews.

I now leave behind these entirely unfinished considerations, although they are concerned with extremely important legacies of our mentality history that have molded all Western societies, and move on to one of the historical forms of Christian anti-Semitic delusion – one that is no longer a mere suspicion. (I am leaving aside the distinction between Church anti-Judaism and racist anti-Semitism because I think this distinction is socio-psychologically uninteresting, clings to historical externalities of words and changes of symbols, and, where it is overemphasized, may defensively, historicizingly veil the identity of deluded hatred of Jews in all forms of anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism.) The writings of Saint Augustine provide the manifest example of the rise of the centuries-long indoctrination of hatred and exclusion of Jews, the license to socially and legally persecute them, and the repeatedly actualized agonizing frightening of them, canonized by the highest offices as a doctrinal obligation, i.e., as the obligation to delusion. This example can teach us how the Christian peoples were drawn into a deluded conviction whose worst embodiment was ultimately Hitler’s hatred of Jews and the complete paralysis of the German population’s outrage against it or dull or willing participation in it.

It is well known that Augustine of Hippo (354-430) had tremendous influence on Western theology and philosophy. In his polemic Tract Against the Jews, he declared that the Jews were evil, wild, and cruel. One can observe that Augustine’s anti-Semitic assertions immediately make sense if one reads them as the projective expressions of the author’s unconscious self-judgment. Augustine’s stance and intention in publishing this tract was evil, wild, and cruel. He compares the Jews to wolves (which also fits directly with his own predatory intentions to tear up the normality of the Jews), calls them “sinners, murderers, the wine of the prophets turned into vinegar” (as the writer’s self-judgment), “a stirred up dirt” (which Augustine here stirs up after he has produced it), “guilty of the monstrous crime of godlessness”, which Augustine makes himself guilty of in the act of writing this. He denies their status as a people chosen by God and denies their right to call themselves Jews. Augustine was the first theologian who blamed the Jews of his own time for Jesus’ death 400 years earlier and who determined their punishment, the perpetua servitus, the Jews’ never-ending thralldom under Christendom. In 1205, Innocence III adopted this idea as a legal stipulation. In 1234, it was included in Gregory IX’s collection of decrees, thereby becoming ecclesiastical law.

Augustine’s assertions all make sense as projective statements about himself. As canonized assertions, they permit the Christians of the following 1,500 years to project onto the Jews all their own states of guilt, which all stem from the same etiological source, and thus have to do with one’s own godlessness and inhumanity.

In the dogmatized texts that, since Augustine, have defined the role of the Jews in Christian salvatory history, the projection that always seems to have been the decisive unconscious mechanism for anti-Semitism was made in exactly the same collectively formative way as it had earlier been formative in an individual. The distorting induction of the dogma calls forth a complementary projective identification among the faithful. (On this socio-psychological mechanism, cf. Beland 1999.) What is projected is a guilt; this is evident from Augustine’s text and the text as destructive deed. If a collective then turns such a projection of guilt into dogma, i.e., raises it as an exemplary process toward the collective’s valid self-understanding as a group, then it is methodologically correct to treat the collective’s dogmatized text like an individual’s text. The projection is to be read as a statement about the projector, i.e., every individual of the entire collective. Here an etiological equating actually takes place. The functional identity of the same psychotic mechanism and its pathogenic application is effective as the collective’s lasting identity-forming conviction for all members of the collective. A collective delusion is thereby formed. But there must always be a desire to project on the part of many individuals. This is the case for disbelief in salvation (through the Crucifixion) as well as for the Christians’ preached and felt guilt (for the Crucifixion). Because of this, the Christians’ double guilt, the Jews are guilty of it, the Crucifixion as the murder of God. The Jews are to blame for the unchanged cruelty of the new Christians, who were supposed to represent the New Israel. In this way, a prejudice arises as a collective delusion; it is offered anew to all members of the Church collective in every generation, who repeat it, guilt-free, to make Christians projectively guilt-free. Anti-Semitic Christians no longer need to have guilt feelings; they employ anti-Semitic projections.

Blaise Pascal, for example, the famous French religious philosopher and mathematician (1623-1662), whom historical judgment generally regards as an especially intelligent, independently thinking man of moral integrity, planned on adopting Augustine’s assertions in his book Apology for the Christian Religion, Proofs of Jesus Christ. Thus, he noted in his Pensées: “...and it [the Jewish people] must continue to exist, in order to prove Him [Jesus], and it must be in misery, because it has crucified Him.” He might have judged differently if the Reformation had rejected the anti-Semitic delusion as an unchristian heresy. But the reverse happened. And once again it was the thinking of an influential single individual who reestablished and solidified the projective thinking out of personal motives. Toward the end of his life, Martin Luther exacerbated Church anti-Semitism. Veneration for him had an identity-forming effect in the Churches of the Reformation. They became or remained anti-Semitic. The Confessing Church, under the influence of Karl Barth, was the first to distance itself from the inhumanity of this way of thinking; but the numerous Lutheran state Churches did not.

On December 17, 1941, seven Lutheran state Churches (Saxony, Nassau-Hessen, Mecklenburg, Schleswig-Holstein, Anhalt, Thuringia, and Lübeck) took a position on the law that went into effect on September 1, 1941 stipulating that all Jews within the territory of the German Reich were required to wear a yellow star. They proclaimed the following: “As organs of the German national community, the undersigned German Lutheran state Churches and heads of Churches stand at the front of the historic defensive battle that, among other things, necessitated the Reich Police Ordinance on the marking of the Jews as born enemies of the world and the Reich, just as Dr. Martin Luther, after bitter experience, made the demand to take the severest measures against the Jews and to expel them from German lands. From the Crucifixion of Christ to the present day, the Jews have combated Christianity or abused and falsified it to achieve their own self-serving goals. The Christian baptism changes nothing about the racial character of a Jew, his ethnicity, and his biological being.” (Church Yearbook for the Lutheran Church of Germany, 60th-71st year, 1976, p. 460). If we take back the projection and read, From the Crucifixion of Christ to the present day, we Christians have combated Christianity or abused and falsified it to achieve our own self-serving goals. The Christian baptism changes nothing about the racial character of a German Christian, his ethnicity, and his biological being...” (i.e., baptism is completely ineffective, the German Christian remains as destructive as he ever was), then the senseless term “born enemies of the world and the Reich” can also be examined as a projection and loses its nonsense as a concept, in that it is a preconscious self-judgment of the Christian Nazis as born enemies of the world and the Reich.

With that, I would like to end my elucidations about the roots in the history of mentality that led to the Holocaust. For many, what I have said will be nothing new, but for some I will have painfully attacked something they cherish as their own. I can only say for myself that, by acknowledging them, I feel the historical Christian mixture of the Sermon on the Mount and anti-Semitism as very painful.


3.3.2. Current Acknowledgment of the Past Collective Psychosis of the Germans

The task of acknowledging the past collective psychosis became especially clear to me in a Small Study Group during the 4th Nazareth Conference on Cyprus. I have already reported on that in other contexts. Two young Israelis drew my attention to a need directed toward the Germans.

I owe something to the two of the new Conference participants who were members of my Small Study Group, something that I always expected at all the earlier Conferences but did not find: another, perhaps for many crucial reason for the participation of the Jewish/Israeli members in the Nazareth Conferences on “The Past in the Present”. It was always more than clear why we Germans took part. We needed the presence of the Jews to realize our own unconscious entanglements. But the Israelis? The Jewish analysts who live in Germany? The Jews from the Western Diaspora? I had no adequate idea. I thought I knew some of the reasons for my Israeli colleagues on the staff: their never explicitly spoken willingness to help us German colleagues; their interest in the utility of the group instrument to bring into consciousness unconscious and oppositely defended mentalities; their German roots that exerted a strong pressure for integration and that, on the other hand, created tearing tensions due to the irreconcilability of positive memories and memories of contempt and the threat of annihilation, like their native tongue that had been corrupted by the Nazis; their first years of life in Berlin, Frankfurt, Hamburg, or Vienna, or the earlier generations of their own families who had lived, worked, married, had children, and died in Germany; the murder of relatives, the agony of millions of individuals. But perhaps the Jewish members of the Conferences wanted something else for themselves, something only the Germans possessed. “I want to meet your horror.” “You Germans are monsters! You must be monsters. You did monstrous acts. What does it feel like?” These were key sentences for me in Platres. It was Israelis from the younger generation who said that in the little group. I think that can be translated as: “I need and seek the encounter with the murderous delusion of German anti-Semitism for me, not for you, in order to be able to understand something about the Holocaust, about your goal of annihilation, about your insane, merciless cruelty.” “How does it feel that you, all together, wanted and did something so insane and murderous?” “I am afraid that it is still present and could come to power at any moment. I want to know from you what it consists of. You must know this.” At that time I answered that I could not (not yet) answer. But that I thought I understood that we owed an answer to this request. I think the task is justified, but I don’t want to fulfill it. I don’t want to experience the murderous delusion as my own, but I thought we must approach this task as well as we could. Perhaps we do not need to experience this murderous delusion as our own, but we must be able to understand it from the inside. I have an inkling that for many individuals it is necessary for us to be able to answer, out of introjected identification with the German deeds, insane deeds that are accessible to us and that we can feel our way into.

We can’t expect there to be representative, non-German psychoanalytical reflections on our collective German case and on our emotional situation and our dangers. We have to work them out ourselves. One source will lie in the psychoanalysis of crime. What we can learn there indicates rather unambiguously that crimes are usually committed in psychotic, projective, and identificatory states of delusion.

And so Herbert Rosenfeld’s hypotheses became concrete for me in Platres as a practical task. When Rosenfeld held his lecture on Narcissism and Aggression in Wiesbaden in 1984, in which he compared the psychotic rule of a destructive, narcissistic organization within the overall personality to the rule of the Hitler regime over the German nation, hardly any of his listeners could understand him or grasp the importance of his hypotheses. Rosenfeld concluded at that time with the words, “If the psychotic, all-powerful structure overwhelms an entire nation, then it is very difficult to completely acknowledge insight into this insanity. Perhaps it is only now possible to study the deeper psychological elements that overpowered the German nation more than fifty years ago. I am afraid that a complete cure for this dangerous disease will still cost a great deal of time and demand active support.” (tr. M.C., p. 391)

I don’t want to go into Rosenfeld’s description of destructive narcissism at this time. What we can learn from Rosenfeld’s analogy between the murderous center of a psychotic pathology and the German governmental structure and mentality is the deluded character of the whole. The industrial logistics of the annihilation of the Jews of Europe and the world, the waging of war with the goal of world domination, and the intention of complete self-annihilation as unconscious background were based on a mixture of deluded fury and rational calculation. What in my opinion Rosenfeld’s analogy fails to achieve is a satisfactory insight into the mentality-historical genesis of the collective subordination, the susceptibility to seduction by propaganda, and the internal terrorism of the power apparatus. The destructive narcissism of the individual has an individual genesis in an infantile catastrophe for which there is probably no collective equivalent. The collective genesis is best understood so far through the psychoanalysis of anti-Semitism as the projection of what Christians repress; and the genesis of the paralysis of outrage over political cruelty is best explained by the mental ban on de-idealizing hierarchy through the centuries.

We surely agree that the unsolved developmental and systematic epistemological problems are oppressively large in dimension and number. For example, it is as yet unknown whether the terrors of the infantile catastrophe and later destructive narcissism and the traumatic threat to a collective can be set in analogy with the absolute cruelty of a narcissistically deluded political center.

In my opinion, the most precise psychoanalysis of a system of absolute eliminatory cruelty is that of Wilfried Bion, who makes it conceivable and has described it as the psychotic experience of a doubled regressive movement. Bion expresses the problem of the existence of an absolutely cruel power in analogy to existing objects as follows: “[It] is violent, greedy and envious, ruthless, murderous and predatory, without respect for truth, persons, or things.” (Bion 1965, esp. p. 111, here p. 102) I believe Bion’s attempts at description refer to his views on Thanatos, the death wish. They are an unexploited, systematic treasure of psychoanalytical clinical instruction and refer to the horror we were all subjected to as individuals and groups.

Let me conclude by recalling Michelangelo’s Pietá again. I am grateful to Joshua Durban for pointing out this work of art of successful, humane grief. In contrast to this grief stands the unsuccessful, denied grief. The loss of one’s own goodness and normality can also be mourned on the model of the Pietá. If many German individuals and if our collectives can tie the acknowledgment of the loss of their own goodness to the experience that “they, the nations, want the Germans to live”, then these individuals and their collectives will be able to respond more easily to the request: I want to meet your horror. The sentence has intentions in two directions. We can regretfully repeat the second, meaning it about ourselves as well, and speaking it to each other.



(Translation: Mitch Cohen, Berlin)





Beland, H. (1999): Die Angst vor Denken und Tun (Oblomows Retreat). In: Heinz Weiß (ed.), Ödipuskomplex und Symbolbildung. Tübingen, edition diskord, p. 119-141.

Bion, W. R. (1965): Transformations. London, Karnac (books).

Bohleber, W. (2007): Remembrance, trauma and collective memory. Int. J. Psychoanal. 2007, Nr. 88, p. 329- 52.

Durban, J. (2007): Vom “Schrei” zur “Pietá” - Thanatos im Trauerprozeß. In: Eros und Thanatos. Herbsttagung DPV 2006. Frankfurt am Main, p. 57-74, Kongreßorganisation Geber & Reusch.


Freud, S. (1968): Briefe 1873-1939. Frankfurt am Main, Fischer.

Herbert, U. (1992): Zweierlei Bewältigung. In: Herbert, U. u. Groehler, O. (ed.): Zweierlei Bewältigung. Vier Beiträge über den Umgang mit der NS-Vergangenheit in den beiden deutschen Staaten. Hamburg, Ergebnisse-Verlag.


Laplanche, J. & Pontalis, J.-B. (1973): Das Vokabular der Psychoanalyse. Frankfurt am Main, suhrkamp taschenbuch wissenschaft 7.


Rosenfeld, H. (1988):  Narzißmus und Aggression. In: Kutter, P., Paramo-Ortega, R., Zagermann, P. (ed): Die psychoanalytische Haltung. München-Wien, Internationale Psychoanalyse, p. 375-392.


Rüsen, J. (2000): Holocaust-Erfahrung und deutsche Identität. Ideen zu einer Typologie der Generationen. In: Bohleber, J. und Drews, S. (ed): Die Gegenwart der Psychoanalyse – die Psychoanalyse der Gegenwart. Stuttgart 2001, Klett-Cotta, p. 95-106.


Sofsky, W. (1993): Die Ordnung des Terrors: Das KonzentrationslagerFrankfurt am Main, Fischer.




Address oft he author:

Hermann Beland

Weddigenweg 11

12205 Berlin


[1] For lack of a better one, I use this term to designate participation in a collective experience of loss of bonitas, and I use it synonymously with the loss of collective normality, loss of good collective identity, and loss of humaneness collectively. It is meant as an emotional correlate of a sociological notion for relations of peoples; cf. the Indo-European root meaning of “good”: “fitting [within a construction, a human community]” (translated from the Duden, Etymologie).

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