When our politicians negotiated a peaceful transition from the horrors of the apartheid era to the genuinely free South Africa that so many of us had, over the long years, argued, prayed, struggled, fought, and laid down our lives for, the joy in our hearts knew no bounds. At last our beautiful land – a land so richly endowed by God with wonderful natural resources, wide expanses, rolling mountains, singing birds, bright shining stars, and blue skies filled with radiant, golden sunshine – would be there for all God’s people to share and enjoy. For us this had been so precious a dream that we hardly dared hope it would come true, and yet here, in our own lifetimes, that moment finally arrived. Years of pain, hardship and suffering were giving way to joy, freedom and justice. Nelson Mandela, so long a living symbol of the chains imprisoning our country, was free at last and, as he had vowed, his freedom and that of our country went hand in hand. The magnitude of joy in our hearts that we should be alive at such a moment could only be a gift from God.
Our happiness, however, was tempered by one small but nagging worry: what if the atrocities of the apartheid era continued to live on subconsciously in people’s minds? What if these were to fester and breed, and lead in time to demands for revenge and retribution, unleashing once again the dark and destructive forces associated with the apartheid era, turned now on the former apartheid masters, their offspring or their perceived collaborators or beneficiaries? When we looked to precedents in the wider world around us we realised that we had to take seriously the danger of such a grave and worrying outcome, even though it seemed so out of keeping with the generosity of spirit that characterised our new dawn, and try to do something about this.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which I had the honour of chairing, was set up to address this concern. It was based on the hope that if the truth were faced openly, squarely and honestly, this might have the power to heal the wounds of the past and thus to help to bring closure to past atrocities. In the sessions of the Commission we witnessed again and again what a powerful instrument facing the truth is. It brought to life most powerfully the pain and anguish of the victims of atrocities carried out by the apartheid regime (and also sometimes by members of the liberation movement) and by being there we, the commissioners and committee members, could experience something of the cruel and unbearable burden our fellow citizens had been carrying. And we were encouraged by the fact that in many cases, even when the atrocities concerned were so horrific that a wish for revenge might be entirely understandable, the experience of having their stories heard and fully acknowledged seemed to open up a process by which anger and hatred could be mitigated and stilled, helping many victims to find closure, which often involved forgiving the perpetrators and moving on. On the side of the perpetrators, too, one could sometimes see that facing the truth of what they had done brought forth the terrible pain of guilt and remorse. I felt privileged and humbled to be in the presence of such profoundly moving and transformative emotional experiences.
This book reports on the beginning stages of a project that I believe has much in common with the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It began when a group of German and Israeli psychoanalysts and psychotherapists recognised that lurking beneath a polite and courteous exterior was a deep sense of unease and suspicion in the way they related to each other. This was based not on their own qualities as individuals, but was a general stereotype connected to the Holocaust: Jews could, quite simply, not be expected to trust Germans, etc. It is ironic that psychoanalysts – even German ones – should be stereotyped in this way, since Hitler had branded theirs as a “Jewish science” which he set out to exterminate, burning psychoanalytic texts and driving Freud and most of his contemporaries from continental Europe. If German psychoanalysts of the past could not be uniformly stereotyped as Nazi-collaborators or sympathisers, the accusation against the present generation was even more irrational. It was a true legacy of the past. In the course of their training, psychoanalysts and psychotherapists are required to scrutinise unconscious forces within in order to be less subject to the influence of the irrational, so the existence of these stereotypes in this group suggested that they were very stubbornly entrenched in the mind.
The book describes the systematic attempt of this courageous group to address this legacy of the Holocaust. They refined a psychoanalytic method that relies not on rational argument and debate, but on trying to engage the irrational feelings that underpin prejudice. To do so they create a special “conference” setting, away from the pressures of everyday life, in which each group can face its own most deeply held prejudices, assumptions and beliefs in the presence of the other group. In the TRC I was always deeply impressed with how, when victims and perpetrators came face to face, the reality of past atrocities stored in the mind were powerfully brought to life in front of us so that we shared in feelings that were often quite overwhelming. The written record, no matter how faithful and accurate, cannot possibly convey the full, three dimensional texture of these events as they unfold, and I believe that it is one's willingness to be fully involved that carries the potential for healing. Who can fail to appreciate, for example, the sheer depth of feeling and thoughtfulness that lies behind the simple words from a German woman, “I have an ordinary Nazi mother” – reported, incidentally, by an admiring Israeli colleague? How poignant to be able to acknowledge that the tender loving care – the very care that allowed a child to grow into a beautiful human being – coexisted with something more sinister that involved the extermination of others. What unspeakable pain, shame and humiliation must have been faced in recognising the truth that this was indeed part of her inner legacy? I find it tremendously reassuring that she must have felt safe enough in the conference setting for this important work to take place, for, in the words of another participant, “tears are better than blood and words are better than tears”.
Being present in these meetings must have been deeply moving, and from my experience in the TRC I can quite see how such involvement may be life-changing, as many of the participants indicate. The process of confronting the truth of how the atrocities of the past live on in the mind helps to bring closure, laying the atrocity to rest. To help even a single individual to achieve this and to normalise their relationship with members of a group that previously oppressed them is an important achievement. Left unattended, it is these very ghosts of the past that can be exploited by unscrupulous politicians for their own cynical gain, as we saw in the 1990’s following the breakup of Yugoslavia, and also in the Rwandan genocide. There are quite simply too many wars that build on grievances and prejudices passed down through the generations, and every known method by which they might be effectively laid to rest deserves to be made widely known. This is one reason to welcome the publication of this important book, which I hope will be widely read.
There is a further reason that I am especially pleased to be associated with this work. Since the three conferences reported on in the book there have been significant developments that I very much welcome. First, the membership was expanded from Germans and Israelis to include other groupings affected by the Holocaust, and in the most recent conference (September 2008) work was also begun on the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. This not only brings in work on atrocities still current in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but also opens up the possibility of finding genuine meeting points in a world where enmity between groups is so often the norm. I am thinking, for example, of how polarised not only the relationship between Arabs and Israelis has become, but also those between Jews, Christians and Muslims in general, and what powder kegs they are in our world today. Would it not be wonderful if we found that facing the truth of what lies within can help to normalise these troubled relationships, helping to create a world in which our differences are celebrated rather than being a cause of conflict?
The second development is related to this, in that the group working on these conferences has now set up a new organisation, Partners in Confronting Collective Atrocities (PCCA), whose specific aim is to apply what has been learnt from work that focused on the Holocaust to other atrocities that live on in people’s minds. I particularly welcome the fact that what has been learnt from work on the aftermath of the most widely-documented atrocity in human history will be made available for helping others who, though their suffering may be less well known, are equally deserving of our help.
Cape Town, South Africa.