“The Inability to Mourn” (A. and M. Mitscherlich).
Psychic coping with the situation in Germany after 1945.


The International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA) has been working for several years toward establishing an Asian-Pacific region in addition to the existing psychoanalytic regions of Europe, North and South America, which is to support and develop scientific exchange between the psychoanalytic groups in this region. In order to promote contacts among psychoanalysts in this region, it is necessary to overcome decades of prejudices and images of former enemies. These remain very effective in the background if they are not consciously made the subject and object of common reflection.

The 51st Congress of the IPA in London in summer 2019 offered the opportunity to reflect on the nationalism that led to WWII and its further processing after the war, using the example of the two main perpetrators of the Second World War, Germany and Japan. Tomas Plänkers (Frankfurt) and Kai Ogimoto (Tokyo) gave two lectures in the panel: “The Inability to Mourn” (A. and M. Mitscherlich). Dealing with nationalism that led to World War II in Germany and Japan.” The panel was chaired by Maria Teresa Savio Hooke (Sydney).

The two lecturers are aware that their reflections on their own nation are only exemplary for a work that psychoanalysts of all nations have to do: namely the investigation of the respective historical legacy of violence, trauma and war crimes with their tragic consequences for the lives of the citizens of their country. Psychoanalysis can contribute to the understanding not only of the individual but also of the social trauma that exists in every nation by exploring the truth that is submerged in the unconscious.

Of course, much more could be said about the topic of our national past and present from a psychoanalytical point of view. But with these two contributions we hope to initiate further contributions from other psychoanalytic groups in the Asia-Pacific region, so that we can increasingly exchange ideas and make friendly contacts.

“The Inability to Mourn” (A. and M. Mitscherlich).
Psychic coping with the situation in Germany after 1945.

Tomas Plaenkers
IPAC London 2019.07.27

Soon after the Second World War questions emerged: how could it happen at all, that a civilized country like Germany, which had long been considered the land of poets and thinkers, which was developed culturally and scientifically, had followed a man like Hitler? That there had been no successful protest against the abolition of democracy, against the rule of untruth, lies and propaganda, against the establishment of a one-party system, against the violation of human rights, against the persecution of the Jews and the war plans of the Nazis? In particular the question arose of how could it happen that an industrial mass murder of the Jews had been planned and carried out? Of course, all this could not be attributed to a man like Hitler or his party alone: it was clear that all of this could have happened only with the participation and acquiescence of a large part of the population.

After 1933

When the Nazi Party came into power 1933 the social development in Germany was characterized by an impressive “forcible co-ordination”. The Nazi term in German was “Gleichschaltung” meaning to unify every social activity according to Nazi ideology. This was exemplified very vividly by the constant mass marches. Whether small or large crowds of people: they marched in formation and in lockstep, whether with a spade or rifle over their shoulder or with flags. And their clothes were also uniform, according to the different social areas they belonged to.

All opposition and opposing opinions were fought and oppressed. Especially the media became the mouthpiece for an incredible twist of reality and lies. Dissenting opinions were despised or not even allowed to arise.

The intended de-individualization served to create a uniform mass, including in its thinking and feeling towards its idealized leaders. And it was not only the leaders of the party, but also the masses themselves, who sought obedience, submission and followership. Through this, German society increasingly regressed from a certain level of normality and maturity into a mass. This development can only be explained – so the thesis of Ralph Giordano (1989) – “that National Socialism was prepared from the depths of German Imperial history” (p. 11, my translation T.P.).

After WW1

Indeed, the development towards National Socialism in Germany cannot be understood without considering the country’s defeat in the First World War and its socio-psychological consequences. The abdication of the German Emperor in 1918 and the attempt to build a society with a democratic constitution was accompanied by massive attacks by both right-wing and left-wing political parties. This was an expression of a lack of social consensus on the political structure. The idea of a democratic constitution was clearly in competition with the desire for a strong leader: on the one hand the idea of restoring imperial rule, on the other the desire for a communist revolution with a revolutionary leader as in Russia.

If we take Bion’s group-psychological models as an example, we can say that there were marked tendencies to establish a society by the basic assumption of dependency. The democratic constitution finally collapsed in 1933 under these regressive tendencies, the NSDAP1 came to power and with it the establishment of a principle of leadership at all levels of society. “Leader, command, we will follow you!” (Führer befiel, wir folgen Dir!) was now the slogan endorsed by the masses.


This can be clearly seen in the Germans of the Nazi era: more and more of them became fanatical Nazis, who – due to an increasing enthusiasm for their leader – dispensed with all individual inhibitions and became ready to commit atrocities against the Jews, against their fellow citizens and other nations, atrocities which were previously unimaginable. Objections to Nazi policies grew weaker and weaker. The moral depravity was legitimized by the regime with the idea of moving towards a glorious future; this is what was promised to the German people after the final victory. The motto was: Germany first and foremost! And indeed, the idea of a glorious future, the goal of a Greater Germanic empire, seemed to be initially confirmed by the reality of successful warfare in 1939-1942. The German Blitz victories over the neighbouring states led to a true euphoria among the population. At that time there was the greatest unity between the majority of the German population and the Nazi leadership. The ministries in Berlin worked hard on plans for the domination of the whole of Europe, the Germanization of Eastern Europe, the extermination of the Jews, the slavery, assassination, or resettlement of Slavic peoples behind the Urals (a second, non-Jewish Holocaust), and the creation of a large colonial empire in Africa – all of this as building blocks for the planned final battle against the USA for world domination (Giordano 1989). The architecture of the Third Reich reflected these megalomaniac fantasies. The plans for Berlin’s transformation into Germania went beyond all previous standards: everything had to be gigantic and intimidating. Hitler said of his new Reich Chancellery that visitors should feel they are facing the Lord of the World (ibid. p. 96). As Giordano (1989, p. 233) puts it, Germany was to become the “drone nation above the graded rest of the other nations”, the metropolis of power. Giordano (ibid. p. 241) speaks of a “Fata Morgana of unlimited power” and of a “deep identification between leaders and led, rulers and ruled, government and people, as it was unique in the history of the Germans” (translation T.P.).

The downfall

The course of history is known: the series of military defeats, which finally led to the complete downfall of Nazi Germany after a good two years. The situation in 1945 after the end of the Second World War in Europe was disastrous: approximately 6 million Jews from across Europe fell victim of the German extermination policies. About 55-60 million soldiers and civilians had been killed. Of these, about 16 million people in the former Soviet Union and China. Germany alone accounted for almost 6 million dead soldiers and civilians, including about 170,000 Jews.

In Germany at the end of the war almost all major cities were destroyed, the infrastructure had collapsed, most of the population was suffering from hunger and disease. There were also lots of refugees from eastern Germany which was occupied by Soviet troops.

The defeat of Germany and its occupation by American, British, French and Russian troops led to the well-known division of the country (1949-1989) into a West and an East German state with opposing political systems. The occupation of both parts lasted for 40 years.

After the War

No society functions only by the laws given by a government. These are important, but for the functioning of a society, it is equally important that the majority of the population has a positive attitude towards the law, that there is a general belief in moral and ethical values shared by most people. Societies can fall to bits when this space of morality shared by the majority does not exist.  Then they enter into a so-called anomic state, i.e. a state of disorderliness and lawlessness. This important area, which determines the behaviour of all in society, was permanently damaged by the disaster of the Nazi era. Attitudes of authority, respect for parents, teachers and politicians, were shaken in the Nazi era. Germany after 1945 was not anomic, as the country was structured by the rules of the victors, who controlled the country. But beyond the obsequious obedience, many people felt an inner aversion and lack of interest. One can simply say that a wide public debate on the Nazi period was initially and for a long time missing and that it started for the first time at the end of the 1960s, but most extensively with the early 1980s.

The period of the split nation2

In East Germany (GDR),3 was established under Soviet supremacy, which claimed to be socialist. Like a mantra the GDR claimed to belong to the “victors of history”. Thus, the just experienced defeat was replaced by a new victory mentality. And the more the ideologists in the GDR fancied themselves on the road to a communist paradise in keeping with this promise, the more strongly the capitalist camp in West Germany turned into the enemy. Idealization of one’s own world and debasement of the other went hand in hand.

“It is in the nature of splitting mechanisms that they keep diametrically opposed states separate. Thus, in this idealization of the GDR’s social make-up, one line of interpretation sees the defence of its own entanglement with the Third Reich – a mechanism that also took hold in West Germany in its identification with the victorious western powers. In East and West alike, new clothes were donned, so to speak, intended to make the formerly brown attire unrecognizable (cf. Mitscherlich and Mitscherlich Nielsen 1967; Koenen 2010). Linked to this is the view that both sides sought to dispose of their guilt after World War II and the Holocaust in projective externalization: in either case, the other side – still barely perceived in its reality – was then the one in which the Nazi period was seen to be living on: in the East, in the form of a dictatorship with single-party supremacy, censorship, persecution and oppression of dissenters; in the West, in the sovereignty of capital, from which the escape to safety was through the Antifascist Protective Barricade, as the Berlin wall  was known.

Each ideology, justifying its own respective state, created two camps of such contradictory nature, their own being good, the other evil, i.e. socio-psychologically: two splitting poles. During the Cold War, each system viewed the other as existentially threatening to its own foundation, so that both amassed the potential for destruction against the other. Each of the two socio-economic systems collectively asserted it was fighting something in the other that was alien to it: that did not belong to it. Yet that alien element was covering up for something all too well known: the catastrophic German past.” (Plaenkers 2015, p. 158f.)


West Germany, however, which was occupied by the Western powers, adopted their political system, which basically allowed criticism and freedom of public expression. Thus, in the decades following the war, different attitudes developed towards the 12 years of Nazi rule (see Wirth 1997). In retrospect, one can say that they addressed the question of guilt and therefore the responsibility of German society. This question related on the one hand directly to the adult generation during the Nazi era, and on the other hand to the subsequent generations. It is about the exploration of a mental disposition which in German society created support for war and genocide. The focus was again and again on the monstrosity of the Holocaust, the industrial extermination of the Jews.

Soon after the end of Nazi rule there appeared the first eyewitness accounts of the concentration camps, in which the Jews were imprisoned and murdered. There were psychological reports on the victims who had sued in court for at least financial reparation. There were a number of scientific articles and lectures, but altogether they did not seem to persuade the public very much. Beyond these issues, the population was engaged in rebuilding their cities and restarting the devastated economy. And this they did so successfully that already in the 1950s people were speaking about a so-called German economic miracle. It seemed that most of the population was interested only in their own lives and livelihoods and increasing their own prosperity. This was partly understandable, because the living conditions after 1945 required significant efforts by all in order to restore at least some normal conditions.

On the other hand, some observers of this situation noticed a failure to deal with one’s own past. For example, as early as 1950, the philosopher Hannah Arendt (1950, p 342) said of the Germans after the war “that being busy is their main defence against reality”, a reality of inflicted and suffered disasters.

In 1951, Roger Money-Kyrle published his often-quoted paper on state and character in Germany. He had conducted over five months of interviews, which were the basis for his assessments. He was particularly interested in the structure of two contrasting types of consciousness (ibid., p. 233). He called them the authoritarians and the humanists. The authoritarians occurred about five times as often as the others. The authoritarians had a strong paternal superego, were compulsively conscientious and overexact in their work, and their sense of duty to authority dominated all other feelings. Their highest moral value was unquestioning obedience.

Both groups exhibited two different types of guilt. Money-Kyrle refers here to Melanie Klein’s distinction between depressive and persecutory anxiety. The stricter the superego is, the more persecutory the guilt anxiety associated with it becomes. This guilt anxiety is activated above all when the external representation of a feared internal object is called into question, i.e. in any case of non-conformist behaviour.

The manic psychotic state of mind

All these considerations revolve around the subject of guilt and its psychic processing. On the one hand, this emphasis is understandable in view of the tremendous guilt that Germans took upon themselves during the Nazi era. On the other hand, however, the manic-psychotic constitution, which was so characteristic of a Nazi rule out of touch with reality, was marginalized. For the psychic understanding of this aspect, one book has become especially famous. It was first published more than 50 years ago in 1967, and was translated into many languages: it is the book by the two German psychoanalysts Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich, titled The inability to mourn. Foundations of collective behaviour.

Today the phrase “the inability to mourn” has become a well-known formulation when it comes to dealing with the disaster of the Nazi era, but it also has become one of the most misunderstood idioms.

The main thesis of the Mitscherlichs was about the German national character: they acknowledged the Germans as having a pronounced tendency to idealize authority figures, thereby regulating their own, weak self-esteem (ibid., p. 79). This idealization is the psychic counterpart to the manic constitution of the Nazi leaders. The leader Adolf Hitler in the Nazi era had become a god-like person who was allowed to be above the law. At the same time, the masses could feel a brotherly connection, since they all could identify in their infantile admiration for the leader (ibid., p. 73). He seemed to promise satisfaction of infantile needs for omnipotence in order to keep apart depressive states of mind. Mitscherlich considered this narcissistic form of love to be part of the German national character (ibid., pp. 79f.). Now, if such an idealized object fails and is extinguished – and with this object the manic state of mind – and if one realizes the full extent of the massive crimes committed by the Germans, actually – according to Mitscherlich – one would expect a collective melancholy, something like a collective depression of the Germans (Mitscherlich and Mitscherlich 1967, pp. 58, 79). After all, until 1945 – as mentioned above – more than a few Germans considered themselves members of a master race and entertained fantasies of global dominance. All that had now collapsed: the master race now was the most despised nation on earth, and had lost its political unity and independence; it had to live in miserable conditions and had to face the truth about the Holocaust. But the emotional reactions to this downfall, to this collapse of German omnipotence, to the military defeat and the collapse of society, however, were seemingly lacking. Instead, the Germans rebuilt their ravaged country and were economically busy so that by the early 1960s the country was experiencing relative prosperity.

The manic denial (ibid., 40) of the catastrophic past caused by manic overestimation and denial of reality now reversed and was used in an industrious way for the economic development of the country. The Nazi delusions of grandeur at the time could be transformed into the fantasy of becoming Europe’s No. 1 economic power.

Of course, the question arises of whether it is possible to relate psychoanalytic concepts, based on individual patients, to a whole society, to millions of Germans after 1945. This is a very important question. Both of the Mitscherlichs were not so naive to believe that they could consider all the Germans as if they were an individual patient. However, a group of millions consists of individuals, whose psychic mechanisms we know from psychoanalysis. And these mechanisms certainly control the behaviour of large groups. When psychoanalysts like the Mitscherlichs therefore applied psychoanalytic insights to the Germans after 1945, it was clear to them that this only resulted in some hypotheses, meaning carefully formulated assumptions which need to be discussed publicly. And this discussion really happened when they published their book. It seemed as if in 1967 they touched on something that many might have been thinking, but could not formulate so succinctly.

The manic defence preserves like an undigested foreign object whatever necessitated the defence in the first place. Then there is no debate about it, why the Germans really needed such megalomania, why their collective self-esteem was so poorly developed, why in the past they had been raging so monstrously and aggressively against the Jews and their neighbours. And then there could be no real mourning at the loss of Hitler, who symbolized and satisfied infantile needs for omnipotence.

I think Melanie Klein’s distinction between a paranoid-schizoid and a depressive level of psychic functioning allows us to understand that real mourning on a broader social scale could only take place when, within society, the feeling of contact with the destructive consequences of the manic Nazi period and the humiliation of one’s own self-esteem became gradually bearable in broad sections of the population. The paranoid-schizoid level of the Nazi era – and its implicit inability to mourn – had not simply disappeared after the collapse of 1945. Rather, it prevailed for a long time. The result was, amongst others, a widespread insensitivity to the victims of the Nazi era, which resulted from a refusal to empathize with their situation. So, after 1945, it was the unconscious adherence to the manic state of mind as part of a pathological organization that cut off most of the Germans from learning by experience, as Bion (1961) maintained. Obviously only after the reconstruction of the externally destroyed world was the fear of being completely lost in the manically defended inner destruction somewhat lessened (see Riviere 1936). The unconscious collusion with a pathological organization and its dominating cruel internal objects made it impossible for a long time to begin facing responsibility and guilt and start being able to mourn (Steiner 1990). Mourning processes after a death have been described many times (starting with Freud 1917; Klein 1940). In Germany, however, the abandonment of omnipotence also meant the confrontation with millions of murders and the loss of relatives. The pathological state of mind on the national level had to be abandoned and at the same time it had to be recognized that the destructive inner objects had also, along with murdering the Jews, exterminated something of the collective self. It obviously took several decades and a post-war generation until it became possible to confront oneself with the devastating consequences of the manic Nazi era and feelings of regret and guilt, and until the desire for reparation came to the fore. At the same time, the fear of persecution lost its dominance and gave way to a rather depressive fear, in which mourning for the unleashed destructiveness prevailed, along with the fear of a repetition.

In the 1980s, after the film “Holocaust” was broadcast on television in the US in 1978, greater parts of the German population came into emotional contact with the extermination of the Jews. Many people responded “emotionally disturbed … Discussions followed after the movie, thousands called the TV station, asking question after question.” (Wirth 1997, p. 16). This and other films (“Schindler’s List” by Steven Spielberg, “Shoah” by Claude Lanzmann) reached – unlike many scholarly books – people’s hearts, producing collective concern, which in turn stimulated a broad public discussion in the 1980s. But this obviously was only possible after the reconstruction of the destroyed German cities had been completed and the economic situation consolidated. The ability to mourn about what had happened in the Nazi era now seemed to be possible, without completely overrunning the self.

The founder of the Frankfurt psychoanalytic research institute, Alexander Mitscherlich (1908–1982), wrote about the inability to mourn: “Only after working through its past is a nation able to learn from its history, to break the pressure to repeat and perform necessary social change and innovation.” (Mitscherlich and Mitscherlich, 1967, p. 348).

1 NSDAP = Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (English: National Socialist German Labor Party)
2 The following paragraph is taken from a former paper of mine (Plaenkers 2015).
3 GDR = German Democratic Republic


Arendt, H. (1950). The Aftermath of Nazi Rule. In: Commentary 10 (1950), pp. 342-353

Freud, S. (1917). Mourning and Melancholia. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. XIV, 237-258

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