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Chapter X: The Psychological Interpretation of Culture and History

“Austria must return to the German Mother Country”:
Politics as Symbiotic Fantasy
Richard A. Koenigsberg



An ideology may be defined is a system of beliefs held in common by a group of people within a given society. Once having identified a society’s “dominant discourses”—its prevailing narratives—the question remains: Why are certain ideologies or beliefs systems present within a given society? Why have certain ideas—among all ideas put forth—been embraced and perpetuated? A psychological approach to the study of culture poses and seeks to answer the question, “Why?”

I theorize that ideologies exist and are perpetuated to the extent that they do something for human beings. Ideas and beliefs contain psychological meaning. From this perspective, ideologies persist to the extent that they perform psychological functions for individuals within a population. To study a particular ideology, therefore, is to uncover or discover the desires, fantasies, conflicts and human dilemmas to which the ideology responds.

In Life against Death: The Psychoanalytic Meaning of History (1959), Norman O. Brown presents a paradigm for the psychological study of culture and history. The unconscious can become conscious, Brown suggests, through projection into the external world. Human culture, he says, represents a “set of projections of the repressed unconscious,” and functions as a form of transference. Culture exists to “project the infantile complexes into concrete reality, where they can be seen and mastered.”

The phrase “in order to” suggests that cultural forms exist for a purpose—to enable human beings to perceive and master various psychological issues and conflicts. Whatever exists “out there” in our cultural world—exists because it has meaning—performs a psychological function for human beings. For any particular cultural form, therefore, the question is: What (psychological) function is this institution, idea or ideology performing for individuals within the society?

In Hitler's Ideology: A Study in Psychoanalytic Sociology (1975), I present a systematic methodology for analyzing ideology. I focus on observing how specific images and metaphors are bound to the central terms of Hitler's ideology (e.g., “Germany”, “Jew”, “the people”, etc.). By identifying recurring metaphors in Hitler’s rhetoric and writing, I uncovered the central fantasies that were the source of his ideology.

Hitler projected his fantasies into Nazi ideology. Cultural forms (e.g., “German anti-Semitism”) provided a “screen” that allowed Hitler to project his fantasies into the world. Hitler embraced these cultural ideas (e.g., anti-Semitism) because they provided an outlet for his fantasies—the vehicle that allowed him to express and articulate his fantasies.


One of the most astonishing examples of the relationship between fantasy and political ideology was Hitler’s desire to unite the nations of Austria and Germany—to create a “Greater German Reich.” The images and metaphors used by Hitler allow us to perceive how ideological desires or political aspirations grow out of a fantasy.

Why did the idea of uniting Austria with Germany mean so much to Hitler? Why did he work so fanatically to bring about the Anschluss of these two nations? To understand Hitler’s ideological fixation, it is necessary to reveal the nature or shape of the fantasies that Hitler projected into this aspiration.

Hitler was born in Austria—near the border with Germany. One of his earliest political aspirations was to re-unite the two separate nations—to create a “greater German Reich.” He passionately desired to break down the boundaries separating Austria and Germany—so the two separate nations could merge into a single nation. As one historian put it, Hitler became obsessed that there should be “no border between these two German-speaking people.”

In the first pages of Mein Kampf (1923), Hitler set forth his project of uniting Austria and Germany. It was providential, Hitler declared, that “fate should have chosen Braunau on the Inn (the Austrian town in which Hitler was born) as his birthplace,” for this town lies on the border between two German states which “we of the younger generation have made it our life work to reunite by every means at our disposal.”

Austria, Hitler declared, must "return to the great German mother country.” The desire for union, Hitler insisted, had “nothing to do with economic considerations.” The union must take place because “one blood demands one Reich.” Hitler’s aspiration was to unite the Austrian body politic with the German body politic: to fuse two bodies into one body.

Austria’s destiny was so bound up with the life and development of all Germans, Hitler wrote, that a “separation of history into Germany and Austria does not seem conceivable.” He described the desire for political reunification as the “elemental cry of the German-Austrian people for union with the German mother country.” This desire for re-union was the result of a “longing that slumbered in the heart of the entire people to return to the never-forgotten ancestral home.”

Hitler identified himself with the country of his birth—Austria. His deeper identification, however, was with Germany. Hitler’s political desire was to merge the two nations with which he identified into one nation—to bring into being a more inclusive political unit—the “Greater German Reich.” The Reich would incorporate Austria and the mother country, Germany. Hitler dreamt of breaking down the boundaries separating Austria and Germany—so that these two nations could fuse into a single entity.


Margaret Mahler theorizes “symbiosis” as a central dimension of psychic life. Mahler defines symbiosis as that state of “undifferentiation, of fusion with mother" in which “the ‘I’ is not yet differentiated from the 'not I'.” The essential feature of symbiosis, according to Mahler, is “hallucinatory or delusional, somatopsychic omnipotent fusion with the representation of the mother” and, in particular, the delusion of a “common boundary of the two actually and physically separate individuals.”

In the symbiotic state, human beings imagine that there is no boundary separating two objects. The psychic state of symbiosis revolves around the longing for “oneness.” Under the spell of symbiotic fantasy, distinctions between self and other blur.

Norman O. Brown states that the primal act of the human ego is a negative one— “not to accept reality, specifically the separation of the child's body from the mother's body.” Symbiotic fantasy functions to deny separateness. Instead of conceiving of oneself as a singularity, one imagines that one is contained within an “omnipotent system—a dual unity within one common boundary.” Symbiosis is the fantasy of two fused together as one.

What occurred in the case of Hitler was that he projected his own symbiotic fantasy into political units. Austria symbolized Hitler's body, and Germany the body of his mother. His political ideology aimed to destroy the boundaries separating Austria and Germany—so that the two separate bodies politic could fuse into one.

The actualization of this fantasy would mean that henceforth the “twofold destinies of Austria and Germany would be eternally one.” If Hitler had his way—fulfilled his dream—there would be "no separation of history into Germany and Austria.”


Images and metaphors contained within Mein Kampf reveal Hitler’s regressive desire for union with a symbolic mother—Germany—as the source of his ideology. Hitler played out—enacted in the political arena—fantasies and conflicts surrounding union and separateness.

Projecting separation anxiety into politics, Hitler insisted that Austria “did not want to be separated from the Reich.” Only one who had felt in his own skin what it meant to be German, Hitler declared, could measure the deep longing that “burns at all times in the heart of children separated from their mother-country.”

The pain of separation elicited within Hitler the desire to abolish this pain by returning to that from which he had been separated. Hitler transferred his fantasy of reunion—the restoration of narcissistic omnipotence through union with the mother—into his political ideology. He projected the drama of union and separation—of separation and reunion—into the symbolic domain of politics, and enacted this drama on the stage of history.

Although Germany had been defeated in the First World War in 1918 and was in a sorry state, Austria nevertheless, Hitler insisted, desired to “return to the Reich forthwith.” Hitler addressed himself to those who—detached from their mother country— “now, with poignant emotion, long for the hour which will permit them to return to the heart of their faithful mother.”

Hitler sought to annul the trauma of separation by enacting the fantasy of symbiotic re-union in relationship to political entities. Hitler declared that separation was intolerable: Austria and Germany could not remain separate. He insisted that Austria must return to the mother (country).

The ideology espoused by Hitler—revolving around the union of Austria and Germany—derived from the fantasy contained within it. This fantasy provided the fuel driving Hitler's political agenda. Without the energy contained within the fantasy, the union of Austria and Germany would have been of no interest to Hitler. Political units served as container for the fantasy, allowing Hitler to enact his unconscious desires in the external world.

People assume that political ideas or calls to action stem from conditions or situations in the external world. What this case study suggests is that one cannot separate political aspirations from unconscious desires or fantasies. Hitler wished to unite the Austrian and German nations because of what each nation symbolized. Hitler's attachment to his political ideology derived from the fantasy that he projected into it.

When Hitler writes of his desire to reunite Austria and Germany as a “longing that burns in the hearts of children separated from their mother country,” and as a wish to “return to the heart of their faithful mother,” we are amazed at the directness—the nakedness—with which Hitler projects his fantasies into his ideology. Primal fantasies were woven deeply into the fabric of Hitler’s political ideas.


Fantasies observed within patients in clinical settings, we may suggest, are expressed and enacted by human beings at all times and in all places. According to Herman Nunberg, “Transference is a projection,” meaning that the patient's “inner and unconscious relations with his first libidinal objects are externalized.” Nunberg says that patients “displace emotions belonging to an unconscious representation of a repressed object to a mental representation of an object in the external world.”

Freud maintained that processes within the ego can be perceived only with the help of projection. Nunberg observes that the tendency to transfer infantile experiences into reality—and to act them out—can be observed not only in the transference situation, “but also independently of it.” An urge to establish identity of perception through repetition of past experience is “undeniable.” Projection helps to “find the lost object in the outside world.”

Ideologies, I theorize, constitute transference vehicles acting as a centrifugal force, sequestering libido or psychic energy bound to infantile fantasies—making this energy available for reality-oriented action. Only a small fraction of people in history have developed a transference within the psychoanalytic situation. It may be that culture itself functions in a manner analogous to the transference, working to allow fantasies, anxieties and conflicts to be projected into symbolic structures.


Brown states that repressed unconscious energies must “go out into external reality before they can be perceived by consciousness.” The repressed impulses must first find “real objects in the external world and attach themselves to real objects—before their nature can become manifest to the subject.”

My methodology allows us to apprehend unconscious fantasies that are contained within “real objects in the external world.” By observing how images and metaphors link to central terms of an ideology, it is possible to uncover the unconscious within the text.

Brown declares, “Human culture is one vast arena in which the logic of the transference works itself out.” The fantasies that create the human neurosis cannot themselves be directly apprehended or mastered, but “their derivatives in human culture can.” Thus, Brown concludes, “culture actually does for all mankind what the transference phenomena were supposed to do for the individual.”

The project of studying ideology as a container for unconscious fantasy is both theoretical and clinical. In the 20th century, more than 200 million people were killed because of violent political conflicts initiated by societies. Most of this violence was generated by ideologies embraced as absolutes and defended fanatically. Why do human beings attach to ideologies so passionately? What is the relationship between passionate attachment to an ideology and societal violence?

A character in James Joyce's novel, Ulysses, said, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The history of the 20th century with its horrendous episodes of brutality and mass slaughter resembles a waking nightmare—bad dreams that many people had at once. By becoming conscious of the unconscious fantasies that generate collective violence, is it possible to “awaken from the nightmare of history?” My project, The Psychological Interpretation of Culture and History, is an extension of Freud's project of analyzing individual dreams. We turn to interpreting collective dreaming.