Political Violence as Collective Psychopathology
by Richard A. Koenigsberg
Hitler's Ideology: A Study in Psychoanalytic Sociology
by Richard Koenigsberg
“When political figures refer to national crises as "cancers," Richard Koenigsberg feels it's no accident. Such expressions echo a nation's hidden belief systems. If you can understand the fantasies that provide politicians with such rhetoric, then you can understand the country. This book presents an ingenious technique for identifying the psychological origins of political and social events.”
—The Village Voice
“The best critical analysis in English of Hitler s thought.”
“Koenigsberg's genius has unlocked the secrets of a timeless drama.”
—Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology
From Hitler’s Ideology
“How may we account for the shape and form of specific cultural ideas and ideologies? Why are certain ideas ‘passed along,’ and not others? How may we account for the intensity of affect that is attached to certain ideas?
“We have not dealt adequately with the problem of the causes of the popularity of an ideology within a given culture. Once an ideology has attained a degree of power, conventional explanations may come into play as a means of explaining the continuing power of this ideology.
“These modes of explanation, however, cannot tell us why a given ideology has gained currency within a culture. They cannot explain why some ideas, among all the ideas present within a culture, have been “selected out” and, consequently, ‘passed along’.”
- Hitler, Germany and Masochistic Group Death
- Jim Jones and Joseph Goebbels: Drinking the Kool-Aid
- The Cult of the Nation
- The Psychopathology of Civilization
- Why Social Anxiety Disorder and no Genocidal Disorder?
I. Hitler, Germany and Masochistic Group Death
Well over 200 million people were killed in the twentieth century as a result of political violence generated by nations. Episodes of mass slaughter are given names like war, genocide, democide, social annihilation and murder by government. It seems as though the world has been living through an epidemic, or malignant disease.
Former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski states that the 20th century was dominated by the “politics of organized insanity.” Yet nowhere does one find a systematic concept of psychopathology to characterize the monumentally destructive, often bizarre events of political history.
In the privacy of a movie theater—witnessing the carnage, absurdity and futility of battle—people often think to themselves, “War is insane.” But what happens when people leave the theater? Where are studies of the “war disorder”?
Freud in 1930 proposed a “pathology of cultural communities.” Chapter I of Norman O. Brown’s classic _Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History_ (1959) is entitled “The Disease Called Man” and Chapter II, “Neurosis and History.” Neurosis, Brown says, is not an occasional aberration and not just in other people. Rather, neurosis is an “essential consequence of civilization or culture” and therefore is “in us, and in us all the time.”
Roger Griffin, an authority on Fascism, summarizes his conclusions about Nazi destructiveness on his website: “Since so many millions were involved in Nazism and the Holocaust, this can’t be explained in terms of madness or pathology: Something more basic had to be involved.” Why the a priori assumption that just because millions of people are involved, a social movement cannot be characterized as a form of madness or pathology?
In this paper, I discuss the concept of collective psychopathology. I begin by focusing on the case-study of Adolf Hitler and Nazism, specifically the behavior of Hitler and Germany during the final years of the Second World War. I will show how Hitler acted to bring about the destruction of Germany. What occurred may be understood as a form of psychopathology enacted upon the stage of society.
Hitler fought in the First World War, in which two million German men were killed and millions more maimed. In spite of the immense suffering that he and his comrades endured, Hitler refused to renounce the idea of warfare. Rather, he glorified the death of the German soldier in battle.
In Mein Kampf, Hitler wrote that in 1914 his young volunteer regiment had received its baptism of fire. With “Fatherland love in our heart and songs on our lips,” Hitler wrote, they had gone into battle “as to a dance.” The most precious blood, he said, “sacrificed itself joyfully.”
Upon assuming power as Chancellor in 1933, Hitler immediately began fantasizing about the Second World War—which would necessitate the death of millions more German men. In one of a series of conversations with Herman Rauschning in the mid-30s, he stated that he would be prepared for the “blood sacrifice of another German generation;” that he would not hesitate to take the deaths of 2 or 3 million German soldiers on his conscience “fully aware of the heaviness of sacrifice.”
In another conversation with Rauschning, Hitler said, “We all know what world war means. We must shake off sentimentality and be hard.” He declared that when he took Germany to war, he would not hesitate because of the “10 million men I shall be sending to their deaths.” In planning for war, Hitler was preparing for the slaughter of German soldiers.
I am going to cite during the course of this paper an article written by psychiatrist Stuart Twemlow and psychologist George Hough published in the journal Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy. Looking at group dynamics from a clinical perspective, the authors develop the concept of a “psychotic fantasy of masochistic group death” and show how a leader can be both the “victim and perpetrator of a large group’s masochistic unconscious wishes and yearnings for death and martyrdom.”
Hitler declared war on September 1, 1939. Speaking before the Reichstag as Germany invaded Poland, he said nothing about world conquest or victory. Rather, he stated that in the coming war he would ask every German to do what he was prepared to do at any moment: To be ready to “lay down his life for his people and his country.”
The Nazi movement was highly effective in preparing young Germans for the Holocaust that Hitler had in store for them. Each Nazi organization was required to declare an “oath of allegiance.” At age ten, Hitler Youth members swore that they were ready and willing to “give up their lives” for Adolf Hitler. Soldiers upon joining the army vowed that they were prepared to “offer their lives at any time.” The SS-man famously pledged that he would be “obedient unto death.” The essence of being a Nazi, in short, was the promise to die when Hitler asked one to.
As the attack against Russia began, German General von Rundstedt (see Baird, 1975) admonished his soldiers to emulate the examples of their First World War brothers and to die in the same way, to be as “strong, unswerving and obedient, to go happily and as a matter of course to his death.” As war on the Eastern Front progressed, Goebbels was satisfied to note that German soldiers “go into battle with devotion, like congregations going into service.” German soldiers did not rebel: they went like sheep to the slaughter.
Historian Michael Geyer informs us that German casualties increased as the war progressed. According to Geyer, the number of German soldiers killed in 1940 amounted to 63,000 and increased to 191,000 in 1941 in the wake of the attack on the Soviet Union. The following years saw a rapid increase in casualties: 443,000 in 1942; 449,000 in 1943 and 458,800 in 1944.
Historians agree that the tide of war had shifted irrevocably against Germany in the fall of 1942 at the latest with the Battle of Stalingrad and, what’s more, that the German military and Nazi leadership were perfectly aware of this situation. One of the last entries in the war diary of General Alfred Jodl, chief of the Armed Forces General Staff, states that when the catastrophe of the winter of 1941-1942 broke, it became clear to the Fuehrer that victory could no longer be achieved.
The military effort in summer 1942 to reverse this fate failed and hence the war was lost. In his Nuremberg memorandum, Jodl summed up: “Earlier than any other person in the world, Hitler sensed and knew that the war was lost.” Hitler was unwilling, however, to negotiate, preferring rather a “fight unto death.” Geyer concludes that the German machinery of destruction and annihilation went into high gear “at the very moment the war was lost.”
In short, the German nation mobilized in a total war effort and the Wehrmacht fought for three additional years—despite the knowledge that this effort would make no difference to the war’s eventual outcome.
In the last four months of the war in 1945, nearly 500,000 German soldiers died per month. This was probably the most concentrated incidence of mass-slaughter in the history of the human race. It would appear that by the end of the Second World War, Hitler had actualized the fantasy he set forth in the mid-30s when he declared that he would not shrink from the sacrifice of millions of German men.
Articulating a sequence of stages that link group members to leaders, Twemblow and Hough suggest that a social movement’s momentum derives from the fantasy of masochistic submission to a leader. The ultimate behavioral enactment of the fantasy of masochistic submission is group death. Let us briefly examine how Hitler and Goebbels motivated the German people.
German soldiers were prepared for what occurred, having vowed to offer their lives at any time for Adolf Hitler. More was required to persuade the civilian population to embrace death. On September 26, 1938, Hitler spoke in Berlin’s Sportpalast after giving the Czechs an ultimatum to accept German occupation of the Sudetenland. The mob of 15,000 in the hall interrupted every sentence of Hitler’s speech with fanatic applause, shouting, cheering and chanting “Fuehrer command, we will follow!”
Joseph Goebbels delivered his most famous speech at the same Sportpalast before a packed crowd on February 18, 1943. After the defeat at Stalingrad in 1942, the seriousness of the war began to come home to the German people. Acknowledging that the Stalingrad debacle had been a great “alarm call of destiny,” Goebbels incited the audience to a high pitch of excitement, challenging Germans to carry on.
He asked the hysterical crowd whether they believed in their Fuehrer and the total victory of German arms. An ear-splitting “_Ja!_”—“Yes!”—was the reply. Goebbels screamed, “Do you want total war? Do you want it, if necessary, more total and more radical than we could ever imagine today?” Whereupon pandemonium broke out. “Now, Volk,” Goebbels screamed, “arise and storm, break loose.”
Michael Geyer notes that the sad progression of mass death in the years 1943-1945—turning Europe into a vast zone of destruction—hinged on the unflagging German pursuit of war. German society, soldiers and civilians, Geyer says, fought on long after the war was effectively lost and long after it had become apparent to everyone that the war could not but end in disastrous defeat.
Twemblow and Hough claim that a charismatic leader can inspire his followers to actualize a psychotic and co-created fantasy of masochistic group death. Group members heroically choose to die rather than be crushed by enemy forces closing in. The leader is like a pied piper who leads the community of the faithful precisely where they have “unconsciously directed him to lead them.”
In a speech on June 5, 1943, Goebbels declared, “Millions of German soldiers today have to be ready to die on the battlefield for their people.” On Hitler’s 56th birthday on April 20, 1945—just before the end of the war—Goebbels stated that the German people would remain loyal to their Fuehrer no matter what: “We will never desert him, no matter how desperate and dangerous the hour. We stand with him, as he stands with us—in Germanic loyalty as we have sworn. We do not need to tell him, for he knows and must know: Fuehrer command! We will follow.”
Attempting to compel German soldiers and civilians to fight to the death, Nazi military leaders appealed to family values: If women and children withstood the terror of bombings, soldiers could not possibly show weakness. Death was talked up, Geyer says, as “the only way for soldiers to redeem themselves.” In the cruel metaphysics of the Third Reich, the only way to be a man “was to be dead.”
Geyer concludes that collective death as a deliberate gambit was “very much at the heart of the Nazi politics of self-destruction.” The SS newspaper Das Schwarze Korps extolled the heroic death of the soldiers at Stalingrad and asked civilians to follow their example: “Their passage is like the path into a land from which there is no return. This is their call: that we all proceed into the land in which they dwell.”
The war led to the collapse of German society. In Nazism and War (2004), historian Richard Bessel reports that by the end of March 1945, there were an estimated 19 million Germans who were refugees. By the end of the war, one-quarter of the German population had been uprooted. The disaster reached such proportions that one could speak, Bessel says, of the “destruction of German society.”
Bessel observes that the chaos and extreme violence of the Second World War turned Europe into a gigantic prison and sea of blood. The distillation of Nazism, he says, lay in the “senseless destruction of human life.” Geyer states that Goebbels and Hitler “deliberately prepared for death—their own and that of the nation.” Their strategy of ideologization and mobilization during the war served the purpose of “preparing the soldier to die.”
The end of this massive project of national self-destruction occurred only with the suicides of those who had orchestrated it. On April 30, 1945, Hitler poisoned his dog, gave a cyanide tablet to his wife Eva Braun, and then killed himself. The next day, Joseph Goebbels’ wife, Magda, crushed cyanide capsules into the mouths of her six children, killing them all. Then, Joseph and Magda Goebbels committed suicide.
II. Jim Jones and Joseph Goebbels: Drinking the Kool-Aid
This narrative of the final days of the Third Reich brings to mind another social movement that had a tragic ending, namely the mass murder-suicide of Jim Jones and his followers of the Peoples Temple on November 18, 1978 in Guyana, South America. Approximately 900 men, women and children perished after drinking grape Kool-Aid mixed with poison.
The article I cited above in my discussion of the mass death that occurred at the end of the Second World War is entitled “The Cult Leader as Agent of a Psychotic Fantasy of Masochistic Group Death: The ‘Revolutionary Suicide’ in Jonestown.” The passages cited do not refer to what happened during the last days of Nazi Germany, but rather illuminate the final days of the Peoples Temple movement and mass suicide at Jonestown.
Another article examining the Jonestown mass suicide from a clinical psychology perspective is entitled “The Group Psychology of Mass Madness.” The authors propose the concept of “collective pathological regression within a charismatically led mass movement.” Their analysis of the Reverend Jim Jones shows how his actions triggered the “mass madness that engulfed the inhabitants of Jonestown.”
The following terms, then, were used by the mental health professionals I have cited in their analysis of the mass suicide at Jonestown: psychotic fantasy, masochistic group death, revolutionary suicide, mass madness and collective psychological regression.
We witness in the final days of the Third Reich a case of mass slaughter on a scale that dwarfs what occurred at Jonestown. During the last year of the war, 1945, nearly 900 Germans died every two hours, every day, for four consecutive months. Certainly terms like “masochistic group death,” “revolutionary suicide” and “mass madness” are applicable to the Nazi case.
Yet in 45 years of research, I do not recall having come across a clinical study of the mass death in Germany at the end of the Second World comparable to the ones I have cited on the Jonestown suicide. Studies of Hitler’s psychopathology are common, but rarely does one find studies addressing the pathology of the entire German society.
Why do we find it so easy to pathologize individuals and “cults,” but so difficult to conceptualize large-scale social and political movements as forms of psychopathology—however bizarre and massively destructive they may be?
Because of radical Islam, people have begun to look more closely at the relationship between psychopathology and politics. Paul Berman in Terrorism and Liberalism (2003) compares suicidal violence in the Middle East with the suicidal violence of the Nazis, observing that Nazis were victimizers, but also the “boldest, greatest and most sublime of death’s victims.” Just as Nazis died for Hitler and Germany, so suicide bombers at the World Trade Center died for Bin Laden and Allah.
Addressing the issue of collective psychopathology, Berman struggles to embrace his conclusions. It is very odd, he writes, to think that millions or tens of millions of people might end up “joining a pathological political movement.”
Individual madmen might step forward, Berman states, but surely “millions of people are not going to choose death, and the Jonestowns of this world are not going to take over entire societies.” Looking at the historical record, however, one is compelled to conclude that indeed millions of people have chosen death and Jonestowns have taken over entire societies on many occasions.
I’ve noted that over 200 million people died in the 20th century as a result of political violence initiated by nations and ideological movements. Some of the best-known cases of political slaughter occurred in Stalin’s Soviet Union, in Mao’s China, in Pol Pot’s Cambodia and of course in Nazi Germany.
Where are clinical studies of these enormous cultural events that brought death and injury to millions of human beings? Why do people find it easy to speak of psychopathology when analyzing the case of Jonestown, yet difficult to apply this language to episodes like the last days of Nazism—even though the magnitude and lethality of what occurred in Germany was so far greater?
The most obvious difference is that the Peoples Temple constituted a fringe group, whereas Nazism represented a political movement within a major Western nation. The Peoples Temple consisted of a small number of people, whereas Nazism constituted a mass movement with tens of millions of adherents. When this many people embrace a movement, we don’t ordinarily call it a cult.
Producing ample evidence to support his concept of political psychopathology, Berman still scratches his head as if befuddled. “Is the world truly a place,” he asks, “where mass movements bedeck themselves in shrouds and march to the cemetery?” It is time to embrace the reality that the world is indeed in such a place. During the course of the 20th century, political leaders created mass movements that persuaded people to march to the cemetery.
I propose a concept of collective psychopathology that is contained within the normal structures of society. Typical forms of historical writing do not allow for this. Historians function primarily to report and record what happened. The nature of the historical craft is to normalize whatever has occurred, however destructive, strange or bizarre the events may seem.
What is the meaning of civilizational psychopathology—our tendency toward collective self-destruction? The concept of “masochistic group death”—the phrase used by Twemblow and Hough to describe what occurred at Jonestown—is an entirely appropriate characterization of the Nazi case. Drumming up support for the war, Goebbels instructed Germans that it was their duty to die for Germany, proclaiming: “Fuehrer command! We will follow.” The German people followed Hitler and Goebbels into the valley of death.
Nazi leaders—like Jim Jones—seduced their people to die in the name of the movement that they embraced, embodied and promoted. They asked German soldiers to be obedient unto death. When told that 30,000 German officers had died in a futile effort to defend Berlin, Hitler declared, “But that’s what young men are for.”
Hitler and Goebbels promoted national suicide and eventually committed suicide themselves. They too “drank the Kool-Aid”. With the suicides of Hitler, Goebbels and their families, the Nazi movement reached its fulfillment and climax. Hitler’s death was the ultimate Final Solution. When Hitler died and the war ended, the German people began to awaken from the fantasy of self-destruction that they had shared and enacted.
III. The Cult of the Nation
Still, something in us rebels against the term “masochistic group death”—equating what occurred at the end of World War II to what happened to Jim Jones’ followers. Why do we hesitate to conceive of Nazi Germany as a vast, pathological cult? Perhaps because Nazism is a subset of a wider cult in which we all participate: the cult of the nation.
Nazism represented the most profound, extreme instantiation of the ideology of nationalism. Nazism revolved around worshipping the German nation. Hitler declared to his people, “We want to have no other God, only Germany.” Everything Hitler did, he did in the name of his country.
Moving into the domain of nationalism, our inclination to use the language of psychopathology weakens. We hesitate, for example, to characterize a soldier’s willingness to go into battle (when his national leaders ask him to) as “masochistic submission.” We prefer to say that the soldier who goes off to war does so out of a patriotic impulse: his willingness to defend his nation (and to sacrifice his life if necessary).
The success of Hitler and Goebbels was based on their use of the language of patriotism and national honor. Of course, they did not ask Germans to “submit” to Germany. Rather, they asked soldiers and civilians to sacrifice their lives in the name of defending their country. Death in warfare was positioned as it always has been: a beautiful, praiseworthy and noble act.
As long as we view death on the battlefield as noble, it is difficult to view warfare through the lens of psychopathology. We do not empathize with Jim Jones and have barely a clue what the “Peoples Temple Movement” was. Therefore, when we analyze Jones and his movement—the mass deaths that occurred at Jonestown—we have no trouble using terms like psychotic fantasy, mass madness and masochistic group death.
But while we are horrified by the destruction that Hitler brought about, we nevertheless empathize with concepts such as national self-sacrifice and dying to defend one’s country. This is the language of an ideology that has dominated political life throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
Though recurring political violence produces massive destruction, we hesitate to use terms like psychotic fantasy and mass madness. If we use these terms to characterize our political culture, then we have to acknowledge that we ourselves are living within a psychotic fantasy; that madness permeates our world.
Love of country and willingness to sacrifice for one’s nation remain among civilization’s highest ideals. Yet it was precisely these ideals that generated destruction and self-destruction in Nazi Germany. Warfare is not separate from civilization’s highest ideals. If we wish to diagnose the disease that gave rise to the epidemic of mass murder in the 20th century, we need to acknowledge the links among societal ideals, collective forms of violence—and political self-destruction.
IV. The Psychopathology of Civilization
What is the nature of this disease contained within human societies? In Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), Hannah Arendt argues that Adolf Eichmann—who planned and organized the murder of millions of Jews—was not a pathological murder. Arendt accepts Eichmann’s claim that he was an ordinary, banal man who simply followed orders.
Perhaps it is just this tendency to submit to leaders and the groups they represent that lies at the heart of the pathology of human social life. With their ideology revolving around obedience unto death, the Nazis enacted this tendency to submit to the group and blindly follow orders.
Willingness to be obedient unto death—to sacrifice one’s life for Germany—was the Nazi’s highest virtue. Willingness to become obedient—to sacrifice one’s life for Germany—simultaneously defined the essence of Nazi pathology. Hitler declared to the German people, “You are nothing, your nation is everything.” Nazism meant self-negation in the name of the glorification of Germany. For the Nazis, their highest ideal and deepest pathology were one and the same.
We begin to understand why people hesitate to use the language of psychopathology in relationship to political movements. At the heart of Nazi ideology were the ideals of respect for leaders, honor, loyalty, and a sense of duty: qualities most of us consider virtues. The ideology of nationalism is within each one of us. Each of us believes—on some level—that it is good to love one’s country and be willing to sacrifice one’s life if one’s nation demands we do so.
But it was the Nazis’ espousal of these virtues that led to the group death discussed in this paper. Germany’s sacred ideals and its disease were one and the same. Willingness to sacrifice for Germany became abject submission and suicidal self-destruction.
This is the crux of our difficulty: our unwillingness to say that the most highly acclaimed political virtue generates the most profound forms of political pathology.
Hitler fought in the First World War and witnessed the death and dismemberment of hundreds of his comrades. He knew—but could not say—that war was awful. In Mein Kampf, he declared that it would be a “sin to complain” about the death of so many German soldiers because, after all, “were they not dying for Germany?”
Something within each of us says that sacrificing one’s life for one’s nation is not a bad thing. Something says that it is a virtue to be willing to die for one’s country.
Masochism describes the psychic tendency to place oneself into a situation that may result in physical and/or psychological damage. The job of a soldier—more than any other job—may lead to severe and permanent physical and/or mental damage. Within the discourse of psychotherapy, what could be more masochistic than the willingness to become a soldier?
Yet the ideology of nationalism forbids us to call soldiers masochists. We admire a soldier’s willingness to place himself in situations of extreme danger. His willingness to sacrifice his life for his nation lies at the core of an ideology that most of us share.
Most of us feel that we belong to a national community. We say that we love our country. How can one speak of masochistic submission in the same breath as love of country? Within the framework of the cult of nationalism, it is not appropriate to say this: that a willingness to die for one’s country represents a form of psychopathology.
Perhaps Hitler’s true legacy is to compel us to consider the possibility that contained within the ideology of nationalism is a severe form of psychopathology. Hitler and Nazism force us to question the claim that willingness to sacrifice one’s life for one’s nation is a noble, beautiful idea.
Over 60 million people—of whom nearly 9 million were German—died in the Second World War. As if this were not enough, Hitler required that Jews too forfeit their lives.
The monumental destructiveness of the 20th century—continuing into the 21st—grows out of the human attachment to ideals conceived as more significant than actual human beings. People are willing to submit to these ideologies, which are imagined to be greater than the self.
Human beings die and kill in the name of political doctrines like Communism, nations like Germany, or Gods like Allah. Attachment to ideologies conceived as absolutes—and willingness to commit violent acts for their sake—constitute a significant dimension of the historical process. History, as Ernest Becker might say, reflects a series of competing immortality ideologies.
The attachment to omnipotent ideologies structures the course of “normal” political history. Wars, revolutions, acts of genocide and terror seek to glorify, promote and propagate an ideology with which individuals identify. Within this domain of politics—the competition between sacred ideologies—anything and everything is permitted. Sacred ideologies release human beings from moral structures and strictures that govern other dimensions of societal existence.
Within this political realm—the struggle between competing absolute ideologies—no allowance is made for the language of psychopathology. This is a space or domain into which psychiatry cannot enter. The historical record is an endless story of political violence, conceived as normal. Political history is imagined as occurring within a domain separate from—transcending—ordinary human existence. Within this “special place,” things occur that cannot occur within other domains of human existence. Standards that apply in our “everyday life” do not apply to what occurs in this domain.
V. Why Social Anxiety Disorder and no Genocidal Disorder?
I suggest that we abandon the fantasy of politics and political history as domains separate from ordinary existence—governed by principles or laws that do not govern ordinary existence. What occurs in politics and history is not privileged. We are within our rights to judge what occurs in this domain according to the same standards and values that we judge what occurs in other spheres of existence.
This means that it is appropriate to use the language of psychopathology in relationship to political events. Psychiatrists give names to each and every anomaly of human behavior: anything that seems to deviate from the norm. The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 2013)—now identifies personal shyness as a “social anxiety disorder.” Yet nowhere in the DSM-5 do we find the description of a “war disorder,” or a “genocidal disorder.”
Upon reflection, isn’t this extraordinary? Human beings are willing to identify hundreds of form of behavior that deviate slightly from some norm as manifesting a “disorder.” Yet we hesitate to identify as disordered forms of behaviors that have been monumentally destructive and that threaten the survival of the human race. How strange.
When nations wage war or commit acts of genocide, it is as if human beings have gone berserk. People become hysterical and engage in extreme forms of behavior: murder, bombing, torture, etc. There are thousands of examples in the historical record of “insane” forms of behavior. One case that occurred during the Holocaust stands out in my mind (see Aroneau/Whissen, 1996)
An SS-man was standing at his post at the entrance to a death camp. A Jewish mother holding her baby in her arms entered the camp and walked toward the SS-man, apparently innocent of what the camps were for. Her baby smiled at the SS-man. The mother released her baby and handed him to the SS-man, thinking he would protect her child.
The SS-man grasped the baby by the ankle, swung him around in a circular motion, and smashed the child’s head against a cement wall. This is an extreme case, but similarly brutal actions were performed by the Nazis hundreds of thousands of times.
Psychiatrists insist that we cannot speak of a “disorder” when a form of behavior is accepted or acceptable within a given society. According to this conception, one could not say that the SS-man who smashed a baby’s head against a cement wall was suffering from a mental disorder. He was behaving according to norms governing behavior in the concentration camps. By gentleman’s agreement, psychiatrists—like most of us—have agreed that only individuals can suffer from psychopathology—not entire societies.
What is the nature of the political domain that makes it immune from ordinary standards of judgment? Why do we hesitate to speak the language of psychopathology in relationship to events occurring in this domain? What prevents us from identifying events that occur within this domain as pathological? I offer the following speculations.
Perhaps human beings have created the sphere of political history precisely to establish a domain in which people are released from ordinary laws and forms of human behavior. Within this privileged place, strange and crazy things can occur—but people don’t call them strange and crazy. Within this split-off dimension of human existence, shooting, bombing, killing, torture, etc.—are rendered normative.
The discipline of “history” records behavior that occurs in this privileged domain, waiving judgment. Massive acts of destruction and self-destruction occur; bizarre forms of behavior take place but are not defined as pathological. Within this sphere, we agree not to speak of psychopathology.
“History” constitutes a domain where human beings—acting in the name of groups or collectives—enact fantasies. People collectively release their anger, violence, self-destructiveness and despair—knowing that behavior in this realm will not be labeled pathological. The political sphere simultaneously manifests severe psychopathology and denies that what occurs is pathological.
Everything in this dimension is by definition normal. The craft of history normalizes the pathological. When people discovered that Jeffrey Dahmer murdered and dismembered 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991, it seemed natural to call him a psychopathic killer suffering from a mental disorder. When people murder and dismember other human beings in the political domain, it seems just as natural to say that these forms of behavior are normal. This is what warriors, genocidal actors and terrorists do: murder and dismember.
Within the historical process, human beings shoot one another, blow each other up, torture one another other, drop bombs on cities, and murder tens of thousands of people. These acts are reported in newspapers and recorded in history books. By virtue of having been reported and recorded, these forms of behavior are rendered normal.
How dare one claim that the norm constitutes a form of pathology? A character in a James Joyce novel famously spoke about the “nightmare of history.” We live within this nightmare. We’ve grown accustomed to it. Since we partake of or participate in the pathology, we are paralyzed.
The nature of the psychopathology that infuses the historical process is that of a pathology that we are unable or unwilling to recognize as pathology. What is happening stares us in the face—we can’t help but notice what is always going on. But we hesitate to say that what is going on is abnormal. The very writing of “history” contains denial.
A concept of collective psychopathology emerges at the moment we begin to disengage from the assumption that it is normal or natural for thousands of people to die in the name of political ideologies. This means becoming aware of the massive cult in which we participate: the cult of the nation.
Nationalism is a cult that we do not recognize as a cult—because everyone participates. When millions of people embrace a cult, it becomes “culture.”
In the domain of politics, mass murder and destruction are rendered normative. Normative, yes, but also profoundly pathological. We find it difficult to acknowledge that pathology is contained within the very fabric of civilization or society.
We live within a nightmare, and therefore are unable to separate ourselves from the nightmare. We are dreaming the nightmare together. Culture constitutes a dream or fantasy that many people are having at the same time.
We live within the pathology, and the pathology lives within us. Once we are able to perceive or conceive of our nation or society as something other than our self—we begin to recognize the pathology in which we are immersed. At that moment, diagnosis begins—the first step in awakening from the nightmare.