Perpetrators and Victims –Then and Now

by Dorothee v. Tippelskirch-Eissing back to Newsletter 2-2015

First of all I want to thank those who have brought me here, especially Barabra Williams and Kas Tutors, who have been so kind to coordinate this workshop in such a generous and courageous way.

It is a great honour for me having been invited to the Toronto Psychoanalytic Society & Institute – and it is as well a great pleasure having the chance to share with you a part of my work and experience, namely of the project that PCCA (Partners in Confronting Collective Atrocities) has continued organizing since it has been founded in 2007. You may find the notion of “pleasure” euphemistic. But even if we are going to confront “atrocities” as they continue to happen all over the world, i.e. very difficult and painful issues today, it is at least carried by the hope that the unbearable feelings related to this kind of experience in our life, feelings of hatred, guilt, and shame might find a container in form of these conferences, that they might find a place where they can be borne and eventually be transformed, so that they may not dominate the life of the following generations. In this sense it might be important for us not to stay alone but being able to share our thoughts and feelings and fantasies in this context.

I have come here to talk to you about a project, to apply the group relations methodology to a series of conferences, that have started in the 1990ies, and which can be seen under the main title of:  “The Past in the Present”. 

The first three conferences were dedicated to bringing together Germans and Israelis, in Israel and Germany. After the first three conferences the venue was moved again to Cyprus, and the project underwent a process of opening up towards “Affected Others” (in 2004), Palestinians (in 2008), and – again together with a move, to Poland -, to “European Perpetrators and Victims” in general (in 2012), where also our next conference will be held.

This fact, I think, has been decisive for the broader interest in our work, that it can be understood as a model of working with different kind of groups in deep conflict.

„The Past in the Present“ is a concept very familiar to Psychoanalysts, since it belongs to one of Freud’s early descriptions of neurosis, that the neurotic person is suffering from “reminiscences”, from a past that can not become transformed into “past”, but is activated in the presence. Maybe you remind his image of the person who sees the monument in remembrance of the black death and starts crying as if death had carried away it’s victims not centuries ago, but only yesterday.

You will see with the material that I am going to present to you, is exactly this kind of experience that is at the same time one of the reasons why this kind of work is necessary – in order to make us capable to live in the present and to prepare for a future life, and not remain each one of us imprisoned in his or her version of the past.

And at the same time, it is this kind of experience that the Group relations conferences offer to the participants, to learn from the experience, that we do act in the here and now as if we were meeting then and there – for example as Jews and Germans in the 1940ies, maybe in a German town, where Jews are persecuted and deported, maybe in a camp.

I give you an example for this kind of defence, taking refuge into the past, even a devastating past, right from the beginning of the first conference, which took place in Nazareth in 1994 under the title: Germans and Israelis – the Past in the Present.

„’I am so disappointed – why are there so few Israelis here?’ This question of a German analyst opened the first Nazareth Conference. An immediate answer came from an elderly Israeli woman: ‚If you had not killed so many of us, there would have been more here.“

And I give you another example from the third conference, the first that took place in Germany, in order to show you, how our work can function. These examples have been published in a book over these first three conferences, under the title: “Fed with Tears – Poisoned with Milk”, and the following example explains the title of the book, where it comes from:

An Israeli member of the staff, who’s mother learnt at the time of her birth in Palestine in 1944, that all her family had been murdered in Poland, said in one of the Plenaries: „I was milked with tears“. This remark made an impact on a German analyst, who spent a restless night and entered a process of self-analysis. The following day in her Small Study Group the consultant and a Jewish member of the group encouraged her to speak: Her first reaction to this invitation to speak was the question: Do you want to share a poison? And then she continued:

„She told about her experience of coming to the conference with the conviction that all Jews would be the same. But then, she came to realize that Jews as individuals are as different as one would find individuals in any other group of people. Then she questioned herself as to why she needed so much work to find out what she had always known, that people are different. Step by step she ‚deconstructed’ the idea that all Jews are the same ‚as a symbol of the fantasy of killing them’. Now she had found the answer she had been looking for. For the first time in her life, she dared to share this truth about herself with others. The answer was, „I was ‚milked’ with the poison of the Nazi-idea’.

There will be three parts in my presentation:

1. Brief history of the project

2. Method and Theory of Group Relations Conferences

3. Experiences / Vignettes and Comments

1. Brief history of the Project

The founding members of the project, who were psychoanalysts and others interested in the group relations approach, underwent considerable group relations training prior to the first conference, and formed a core group that remained quite constant over the years, setting itself the task of learning from the experience as the conference processes unfolded. Other staff members came and went, and this mix provided stability and continuity of the project, as well as leaving room for fresh input.

There have been eight conferences between 1994 and 2012, the next one being scheduled for this year.

As I mentioned it before, in the beginning, the conferences addressed the German-Israeli dyad, the two nationalities, Germans and Israelis, which carried in it the legacy of the holocaust, two groups being linked through the history without being able to get away from it , and - if confronted with one another - seeking protection in a defence characterized by enmity and high anxiety. The anxiety belonged of course also to those, who prepared for the conference, it was even to be seen in the conference design: These first three conferences worked without a Large Study Group, probably because of the anxiety, a large group being “notoriously volatile” and “posing serious and risky issues of containment”. 

The German way to the conferences

Different Processes in the German and in the Israeli Psychoanalytic communities had led to the idea of the necessity for such a work.

Let me give you some elements for the German way to these conferences:

It is possible to describe three different phases in German Society concerning the attitude towards the holocaust, as the historian Jörn Rüsen has proposed it:

  • right after the war the silence, “concealing knowledge and extra-territorialization”
  • in the second generation a “moral distancing” from the parents’ generation;
  • only in a third phase (after 1989) signs of a process of “historization and acknowledgement” of the holocaust as beginning of a German integration of identity: “We were the perpetrators”.

Concerning the German Psychoanalytic community I want to mention two aspects: The “inability to mourn” and the history of the German Psychoanalytic Groups and their split, after the war.

First the “inability to mourn” - that had been diagnosed by A. and M. Mitscherlich in the post-war German Society. The painful acknowledgement had to be realized: this “inability to mourn was applicable also to the German Psychoanalysts as a group. As group members, the Psychoanalysts shared the “collective paralysis”, the collective “inability to feel the own entanglement in the expulsion, dehumanization, and killing of the Jewish population”, of their own Jewish members who once had been so important for the founding of our Psychoanalytic Society and Institute.

The preparation for the first Nazareth conference was marked therefore by the “strange experience that the individual process is always dependent on collectively held unconscious defensive attitudes.”

Second the collective of the German Psychoanalysts had split into two groups after the war: both groups were suffering unconscious feelings of guilt, and denied “an incredible depression, marked by the imputations of having betrayed Freud and having adapted to Nazi ideology during the twelve years of dictatorship”.

The split, and the recognition of one of the two Societies, the Association (DPV), by the IPA in 1951 - I am a member of the DPV -, and the non-recognition of the Society (DPG, only a component society of the IPA again since 2009), allowed the illusion of the DPV being on the “side of persecuted psychoanalysis, and therefore almost belonging to the persecuted ones”.

This illusion collapsed when at the IPA congress in Jerusalem in 1977 the German invitation to the IPA to come to Berlin was rejected. The first congress of the IPA held in Germany took place in 1985 in Hamburg. For this conference an exposition was prepared showing the history of the Psychoanalytic Society in Germany under Hitler, the shared past of our two psychoanalytic groups that we have in common. This experience (and a Group Relations Conference of the two groups, in 1996, Seeon, Director: Ross Lazar) became an important element in the very slowly rapprochement of these two groups. The acknowledgement of the shared past and the process of assuming responsibility have been central for this move. In the Nazareth conferences, members of the two groups have cooperated from the beginning in the staff and membership.

In fact the series of the eight conferences, “The Past in the Present”, began at the second attempt. The first had been scheduled for 1993, but in the event only six psychoanalysts registered, so it was cancelled.

In 1994 and 1996 the first two conferences could take place in Israel, in Nazareth – hence the name of the conferences for several years: “Nazareth” conferences – and the third conference was held in 2000 in Bad Segeberg, Germany. These first three conferences worked under the title of “Germans and Israelis, the past in the present”.

For those of you interested especially in these conferences I can refer you to the book, which I have already mentioned.

Not long after the third conference in 2000, Rafael Moses, one of the founders of the project, and Eric Miller, director of the first three Conferences, died.

Mira Erlich-Ginor, in contributing to this brief history has described their deaths acting symbolically as “death of the fathers” which required a long period of mourning until the next move could be made. The next conference would take place four years later in 2004.

A new director had to be appointed, a rethinking was in place.

Anton Obholzer was to direct the next four conferences, and he brought in new staff members – Louisa Brunner, a Diaspora Jew, and Fakhry Davids, a Muslim “other” – concretely representing the wish to move on and open up. This reflected a degree of security about the method developed in the series. A new venue was found in Cyprus, “the interface of many social migrations and conflicts” (Conference Brochure, 2008).

The title of the next two conferences, in 2004 and 2006 respectively, was “Shaping the future by confronting the past: Germans, Jews and affected Others”. Including a group of affected Others led, organically, to the Palestinians appearing as symbolically in the fifth Conference, and this led directly to their inclusion in the title of the sixth one. This step, which was understood within the core group as an organic development, brought into sharp focus the question of who held authority for carrying forward and modifying the project from the original German-Israeli.

In 2007, Partners in Confronting Collective Atrocities, a charity based in Germany, was formed to take responsibility for taking the Nazareth conference project forward.

This turning point in the project was again marked by a new title under which the next two conferences were held in 2008 and 2010. It was “Repeating, reflecting, moving on: Germans, Jews, Israelis, Palestinians & Others today”. Three new members of staff were invited in 2008 − Eliat Aram (a British-Israeli Jew), Adib Jarrar (a Palestinian who lives in Paris and Ramallah), and myself (Dorothee C. von Tippelskirch-Eissing).

After the conference in 2008 the director of the last four conferences, Anton Obholzer, thought that time was ready for a next step, the next conference should be under a new directorate: Fakhry Davids and Mira Erlich-Ginor co-directed the conference in 2010, working under the same title.

One of the new elements in these two conferences was the decision to confront an ongoing conflict that did not belong to the past, including Israelis and Palestinians. The role of the Germans could change; the group of the Germans could appear as a third party. Nevertheless the experience turned out to be difficult to contain, and PCCA has started to look for a new way to address the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and is planning another conference.

After this conference PCCA decided again for this series of conferences “The Past in the Present” a shift of membership, a changed venue, and title, under a new director:

In 2012 the conference director was Shmuel Erlich, one of the co-founders of the project, and the conference moved to central Europe, to a little village in the Western part of Poland, before the war belonging to Germany, and again another membership was invite with the title:

“European Perpetrators and Victims – Then and Now”.

The next conference is planned under nearly the same title, shifting to “European Perpetrators and Victims – Now and Then”, it will take place again in Kliczkòw at the end of August this year.

2. The Method and Theory of Group Relations Conferences

Group Relations Conferences combine psychoanalytic understanding and systemic theory. Several fundamental psychoanalytic notions have formed the theoretical foundations of the group relations approach, mainly from the object relation theory of M. Klein and W. R. Bion: such as the dynamic unconscious, complemented by the dual drives of sexuality and aggression; the concept of defence, especially splitting, projection, and projective identification, and Bion’s concept of valency – “the individual’s readiness to enter into combination with the group in making and acting on the basic assumption”. The basic assumptions, being another important notion, that Bion has developed in relation to “experiences in groups”, they are of great importance for our work, since the emphasis is always on the group and not the individual. Bion has differentiated between three basic assumptions: ba dependency, ba fight-flight and ba pairing, two more have been added later: ba Oneness by Turquet and ba Me-ness by Lawrence, Bain & Gould.

Concepts of the open system theory have proved useful tools for approaching and assessing what people experience in groups. Group relations conferences are constructed in a way that they offer a safe container through a combination of clear boundaries and interpretations.

The conferences have a primary task, defined space, time and role boundaries. These strong boundaries are a necessary condition for the work, for a certain regression that happens when personal boundaries are loosened, defence mechanisms are lessened and group members make the experience to enter a new, yet unknown psychic space. It is a special state of mind accompanied by anxieties and incorporating the potential for discoveries and creativity.

Staff members have a multiplicity of tasks: collectively they form the management, taking the responsibility for the maintenance of the boundary conditions, and they offer themselves for all sorts of projections and their interpretations. The interpretations refer to the here and now, they are grounded in the countertransference and the understanding of processes of projective identification. There is a further differentiation of roles and authorities within the staff, such as director, associate director, administrator, consultant and so on. Each member of the staff works in different group settings.

The staff itself works as a group, which has the task to understand, what is happening in the conference as a whole. This work - as well a part of the learning from experience - can be highly emotional.

In fact, exercising authority in the conferences of the series I am talking about is an extraordinarily complex matter – how can it not carry shades of meaning with a loaded history of fascism and Nazism, national exclusivity and murderous intolerance of the other, racial oppression and occupation, and totalitarian leadership, all of which led to the final solution of genocide. To exercise authority in such an atmosphere is therefore fraught with difficulty.

In our preparatory work as a staff group we try to focus on what each of us brings that is relevant to the forthcoming work. It is not unusual for such contributions to elicit powerful responses, thereby opening up an engagement with emotionally charged, painful, and “hot” topics. It is this work, alongside their basic familiarity with the group relations method, that prepares the staff group for the work that is to follow in the conference itself.

The group relation approach that we apply in our work, has several working hypotheses:

  • Everybody present in the conference is part of the field of experience and dynamic, no one remains outside; this is valuable for members and staff alike.
  • Everybody brings in his / her personal factors, such as his / her history, identity, and his / her formal and informal, manifest and latent roles.
  • Staff members carry the responsibility to move constantly between the different levels of experiencing and reflecting, wording, and interpreting. These changes are very difficult to handle, as the power of projections is strong. Projections may be persecuting or idealizing or something in between.

The conference as a whole has a primary task.

For example I give you the defined “aim” of the sixth conference in 2008, Repeating, Reflecting, Moving On: Germans, Jews, Israelis, Palestinians & Others Today:

„The aim of the conference is to provide a setting  ..., in which participants can experience and begin to interpret some of the unconscious and not-quite-conscious factors in the relatedness of the various groupings present at the conference.  Living and working together ... will make it possible to examine previous and ongoing psychic and social processes from different perspectives, to become aware of attitudes, feelings, reactions and fantasies, to reconsider one’s identity as a member of a group, to express and explore existing ideas as well as new ones, to apply and test these within the conference itself, and subsequently to take them home for future application in professional and other roles.“

The design of the conference is such that every member of the conference is participating at several group settings:

Plenaries, Large Group - LG, Small Study Group - SSG, Review and Application Group – RAG, and a System Event – SE.

Each of these groups has a specific task, mostly to work in the here and now.

As I mentioned before, the design has undergone a change over the years. I told you that the conferences started without a LSG, which was only added in 2004, 10 years ago and after 10 years of working together. It reflected a degree of security about the method developed in the series. Each changing was accompanied by a raise of anxiety.

For example in the last “European” Conference, we did bring in a new element, a social dreaming matrix, which was to take place every morning.

As all that I am presenting to you, can only be an example, wich I am choosing out of the material that has come together over a period of 20 years, I am showing to you now the program from the Conference in 2008.

(Explications about the composition of the groups, Plenaries, LSG – everybody plus 3 to 4 consultants, SSG – up to 10, mixed groups with a consultant, RAG – up to 5 or 6, groups based on a similar background), SE, for example: starting with a group of the same national identity, and with the task of getting into contact with the other groups, and of forming groups in a self choosing way)

Some core issues:

Let me give you some key concepts, before we will go to the experiential material. It might help you, to think about the material, which I shall present, and eventually to think while listening to my material to the conflicts, you might be dealing with – how these experiences could be dealt with in this kind of perspective.

1. The presence of the other

As we are focussing on the personal identity and the group identity of the involved groups and their members, and the changing that the conferences want to enable, we have come to realize “the unique meaning and importance of the other to one’s own efforts to change”.
The “other” (for example the Germans for the Israelis, the Israelis for the Germans) is “a necessary though not sufficient condition” to “do the personal inner work needed in order to get out from the imprisonment of the past”. He is necessary for the work on the border between inner and outer reality.

Shmuel Erlich has described the difference of working “with” the other and “in the presence” of the other, claiming that “our methodology of working is neither confrontational nor conciliatory”.

The aim remains strictly being able to do one’s own, personal inner work, which might have a side effect of a greater understanding of the other, but the strength of the work lies in the fact, that this is not the first aim!

2. As far as aims were concerned, it has been recognized early on that “the power of this work lies in that it does not aim at rapprochement or exoneration”, or, as Anton Obholzer put it later in his director’s report: “The focus of the conference as intended and achieved was not essentially on reconciliation and forgiveness but on learning about the dynamics of enmity”.

3. Experiences / Vignettes and Comments

Working on a paper like the one I am presenting to you today, I realise how difficult my German legacy makes it for me to express myself freely. Easily I am feeling anxious and disabled, and find it hard to imagine myself speaking to you as a German. I realize that I do not want to be visible personally in this way.

Building on his experience of the Nazareth conferences, Hermann Beland, one of the co-founders of the project, has described this difficulty on the part of German psychoanalysts in taking up Freud’s heritage – to speak and contribute to an exchange of thoughts and ideas in an international context. He suggests that this expresses a “typical German, paranoid complex of guilt” that is a legacy of the Holocaust. It is such phenomena that we try to grapple with in these Conferences.

At some moments, preparing for such an occasion of public speaking I can feel a tremendous amount of loneliness and anxiety, which I could only understand step by step as a repetition of being left utterly alone by my “German” parents, and later by my broader professional groups of colleagues and compatriots, so many of whom remained silent in confronting these difficult and painful issues. The anxiety was also related to rage and hatred on my part towards them.

However, being involved with the work of such conferences also carries such destructive loadings that one might well wish to be elsewhere. 

Now, I want to give you some examples of my own conference experiences. I shall talk about my experience having been a member in the conference in 2004, and then about three further incidents that happened in the conference in 2008, the first one, to which Palestinians had been formally invited. I will give you some material, and some comments. Mainly this material can serve us to enter in a discussion afterwards.

A. Being a member (2004) – here and now?

When I attended the first conference of this series in Cyprus in 2004, I found myself sitting in a group of “Germans” at the beginning of the System Event. The SE had started the second day, after we had already worked together in the mixed SSG and in the equally mixed LSG. Now the SE started in three sub-groups, as Germans – Israelis – and Others with the task to explore our “German-ness”, “Israeli-ness” and “Other-ness”, and to get in contact with the other groups.

After a short while an Israeli colleague entered our “German group”, she wanted to join and to explore her “German-ness”.

In this session I should make an experience of great importance to me and my ongoing involvement in this kind of work.

I became a member of a group of Germans, in which a discussion started and went on for endless 40 Minutes about two questions:

- first about her presence, whether “she” could stay in our group or whether “she” would have to leave, since “she” was not German;

- second about the language. The conference language being English, unless everybody in the room has another language in common, the situation was formally clear: as long as we were all Germans, we could speak German, the moment a non German speaking person entered the room, the language should have switched into English. But the question was raised, whether we would have to speak English, “only because of ‘her’”.

In the quite chaotic extremely excited situation no argument could be heard, no thinking was possible, and I felt more and more helpless. I could not influence the further development and I could not end the absurd discussion.

The situation ended, when the Israeli colleague, who had remained silent observing us, finally got up and said: “By the way I have a name, my name is …” Then she left crying, returning to “her” group, the Israeli colleagues.

After this had happened I could not remember the name of any conference member any more. Constantly I went around, asking people for their name, even another Israeli woman, with whom I had discovered on the first day of the conference that we had somehow the same name, her name being the Hebrew version of my Greek rooted name, Dorothee.

Only when I realized this, I could make the connection to the group-event that had caused such confusion within me. As if I had become a member within a national-socialist German group with no place for Jews and where my own identity had dissolved.

The raised language question continued to be present in the conference; it became a problem without solution.

Some German colleagues had had the feeling that the Israeli colleagues were attacking the German group in sending members who could not speak German, while it might have been so easy to send another colleague who could have spoken German.

In the next session a group of Israeli colleagues had asked for an inter-group meeting. They entered the room designated for this purpose in quite an excited state of mind. I felt their extreme anxiety.

Also this meeting could not clarify the situation between the German and the Israeli group members, it ended again with the leaving of the Israeli delegation. I had the feeling that they had left in a horror, as if expulsed from the German country  - as if the difference in time and space had been dissolved -, while some of my German colleagues believed, that they had heard the Israeli colleagues laugh outside – and the interpretation was made immediately: “they” had laughed at “us”.

On that evening I entered in a state of despair, the German-Jewish misery seemed to be in endless repetition without a way out.

You may ask, why and how such an experience can be important, what is it good for?


Indeed this is quite a frightening experience, but an experience, that in the frame of such a conference can be born – with the help of the other members and the consultants. In the containing conference setting this event does not lead to the catastrophe of expulsion or annihilation, it does not lead to a scandal, where people have to separate and leave one another.

In the safe environment of the conference it is possible to stay together and accept that each member of the group is a necessary part of the effort to understand what has happened to the group as a whole. It is a very painful process but one that can lead to further integration of the own history, the realization and acknowledgement that we are who we are, and that history has been as it has been, the facts can not be changed, but they can be acknowledged and don’t have to be denied.

I think, this kind of experience demonstrates how the position of the knowing subject can be suspended. The conference opens a possibility to another kind of understanding, a social understanding process, to which all group members belong. Each one has his / her part in it.

Sometimes another person might say something horrible, but in the conference context, there might be a possibility to understand that even the “worst” contribution is made on behalf of the group. It does not help the process of understanding if the individual is excluded or punished or condemned, but it furthers our understanding if we try to understand that this group member has expressed an unconscious attitude that is present in the group, and that this element is important and a challenge for each one who is present.

For me this kind of experience has become the ground for my understanding of Bion’s concept of the group mentality, where by the way he speak of the concept of collective guilt:

„Germans are told that they are responsible for the behaviour of all; of the Nazi government; silence, it is said, gives consent. Nobody is very happy about insisting on collective responsibility in this way, but I shall assume nevertheless, that unless a group activity disavows its leader it is, in fact, following him. In short, I shall insist that I am quite justified in saying that the group feels such and such when, in fact, perhaps only one or two people would seem to provide by their behaviour warrant for such a statement, if, at the time of behaving like this, the group show no outward sign of repudiating the lead they are given.”

I think it is important to keep this question open, keeping in mind that Bion is struggling here with the technical – and may be ethical - question of an interpretation given to a group.

In Cyprus I could learn how this attitude can strengthen tolerance and liberate from feelings of envy:

Strengthen Tolerance, because it can be experienced how the terrible things said by another person, belong to the group and its members, that is also to myself. The valency of the other might have put him in the situation not to withhold an unconscious thought or attitude or phantasy anymore, and to give it an expression, so that it is out there. But it belongs to the group, to “us”, it is not a “not me”.

Liberation from feelings of envy, when it comes to the moment, where you can feel, that the desire to be the most bright participant, bringing the most significant expressions or important insights is lowered by the experience that it is of less importance who says what – that it is definitely a social process that opens towards the possibility that an unconscious content finds an expression, no matter through whom, but as a result of a group process. Equally it is possible to make the experience that a consultant gives an interpretation to one of the group members that I do not need to hear with an envious feeling as the interpretation is at the same time given to everybody present in the group and inviting further processing.

In short: the method incorporates the condition for the possibility to make the very happy experience of being part in a learning process, where many contribute and each one is a significant part of it that can not be removed or replaced.