The Holocaust and the Myth of the Past as History
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In a letter commenting on my paper, Judaism and the Group-Fantasy of Martyrdom: The Psycho-dynamic Paradox of Survival Through Persecution, Lewis Brandon [pen name of David McCalden, the first editor of this Journal] posed the question:
I wonder how far you would go along with our view that it is not just the history of the Holocaust which is sanctified, but that the very Holocaust itself is a group-fantasy?
This article is an attempt to reply to Brandons thoughtful question. My remarks are based on a decade of psychohistorical/anthropological research into ethnicity, nationalism, American culture, and Judaica.
My point of departure is the simple observation that between 1933 and 1945 some awesomely terrible things took place in Europe – to everyone. It is, however, another matter to view the entire sordid era through the eyes of a single group – the Jews – and to accept this interpretation as the only valid one. Yet the very essence of history is its ethnocentrism. One ubiquitous function and purpose of having a sense of history, both individual and group, is to replace the reality of the present and past with a defensive myth of the past through which distorting filter we perceive the past. Were it not ones need to falsify retrospectively by distorting, we would now have no need for a revision of sacred historical orthodoxies. Only by stepping outside the cozening ignorance of our tribal caves do we have that perspective which compels us to revise our cherished errors. Should we wonder why the Holocaust is excluded from open scholarly debate – save for those safe disputes within the boundary of the permissible – we need only note that the violation of any taboo in a primitive society is followed by censure, ostracism, punishment, or death. History is socially sacred knowledge. One is duty-bound to revere, and never to question, that knowledge.
But that presses us to other questions. What does each group select to enshroud in ineffable mystery? Why, for Jews, the Holocaust? What, in sanctifying the Holocaust, do Jews not want to know about that grim era? Whatever the facts of the Holocaust, it is experienced as a necessity, as part of a recurrent historic pattern. Reality must be made to conform to fantasy. Whatever did happen in the Holocaust must be made to conform to the group-fantasy of what ought to have happened. For the Jews, the term Holocaust does not simply denote a single catastrophic era in history, but is a grim metaphor for the meaning of Jewish history. The Holocaust lies at the heart of the Jewish experience of time itself. One is either anxiously awaiting persecution, experiencing persecution, recovering from it, or living in a period that is a temporary reprieve from it.
Holocaust is thus the timeless fabric into which the 1933–1945 period is woven. Enslavement in Egypt under Pharaoh Ramses II, the two Exiles in Biblical times, pursuit by the Amalekites in the desert on the journey to the Promised Land, the medieval Crusades, expulsion from Spain during the Christian reconquista from the Moors, the uprising of the Ukrainian and Polish peasants in 1648 under Bogdan Chmielnicki, are all inseparable parts of the chain in Jewish history from which perspective the National Socialist period is perceived. Thus the reality of the Holocaust is inextricably part of the myth in which it is woven – and for which myth it serves as further confirmatory evidence for the timeless Jewish theme that the world is in conspiracy to annihilate them, one way or another, at least eventually.
The tormented and phantasmagoric Franz Kafka is perhaps this centurys most pure distillation of the Jewish persecutory world. Every obstacle smashes me, he writes to Max Brod. His is a world ruled by an inaccessible, implacable High Command; his is a godless theology of father-Gods, personified by the Bureaucracy, who are remote, unappeasable, overbearing, capricious, formidable. There is No Exit from history; there is No Respite. Philip Rahv writes hauntingly:
… The clue to The Trial is in the reflection that only our concept of time makes it possible for us to speak of the Day of Judgment by that name; in reality it is a summary court in perpetual session. And in the same sequence of reflection we find the perfectly typical sentence: The hunting dogs are playing in the courtyard, but the hare will not escape them, no matter how fast it may be flying already through the woods. The identification here is plainly with the hare; and with the hunting dogs, too, insofar as they represent the hares longing for self-punishment, his inner wish to be cornered, to be hurt, to be torn to pieces so as to atone for the guilt that fills him from top to bottom. In this one short sentence about the hare and the hunting dogs you have the gist of the typical Kafkan narrative, the obsessive theme, the nuclear fable concerning the victim of an unappeasable power to which he returns again and again, varying and complicating its structure with astonishing resourcefulness, and erecting on so slender a foundation such marvelous superstructures as that of the myth of the Old Commander in In the Penal Colony, the myth of the Law in The Trial, and of the celestial bureaucracy in The Castle.
Here, art is both history and prophecy about what would become history in World War II.
Myth truly generates reality in its own image. History is more than a group projective myth of the past, a screen on which we see what we need to see in order not to encounter reality. The sense of history not only dictates perception of the past, but is a template for the future which will repeat the past. Not unexpectedly, Yasir Arafat is often referred to by Israelis as a contemporary exterminationist-Hitler, the Palestine Liberation Organization and El Fatah as Nazis, Brownshirts, SS, and the like. If past, present, and future merge into gauzy sameness, no authentic change can be expected (even though it might be fervently wished): holocausts, walls, ghettos, trials, judgments, punishment are part of the plight of the spectral Ahashueras who is condemned to wander the earth, to be redeemed from history only by death. Now as in the past, historical partners will be found who will only too willingly complement the suicidal wishes of Jews or Israelis. Projected self-hatred returns as provoked hatred. The unofficial Israeli policy of resettlement of Jews on the West Bank; the fanaticism of the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) who have zealously occupied the West Bank; the Israeli claim to the entire city of Jerusalem; the Israeli claim to the West Bank based on historical entitlement (Judea/Samaria Biblically – one can manipulate history such that one can justify virtually any claim!); and the overseas financial and moral support given to these adventures by American diaspora Jewry: these together are unconscious provocations against the Arabs for the war of annihilation which Israelis not only expect but seek in order that the masochistic fantasy come true. Both in the Jewish religious tradition and in secular Israeli nationalism, any awaited-for redemption and resurrection will be heralded by a preceding era of unfathomable cataclysm and bereavement.
Journalist Martin Woollacott writes of the Israelis that: Refuge is taken in the future, a future in which new outbreaks of anti-Semitism will blast the diaspora. A young and able official, a supporter of the Begin government, knowledgeable and even liberal, said: There will be another disaster in world Jewry. It could come in South Africa. It could come in America itself … In the same essay, another Israeli is quoted as saying that America is the Jewish national home … Israel is the Jewish national graveyard. These fears of inevitable death are not the product of lone voices, but the litany of Jewish tradition that traces biblically to the prophetic threat of imminent Yahwistic punishment for the commission of sins. But what sins? As Gonen has observed, these sins are in fact wishes for the possession of the land (mother), Zion, which is gods Biblical bride. Psychohistorically, Zionism and Israeli nationalism have achieved in reality what is taboo: usurpation of the power of the father-God, the claim upon the mother-land by the son. What remains is the group-fantasy of retribution in which history replays in this third Zionade (return to Zion) the drama of Jewish guilt and punishment.
It turns out that in group history, just as in individual history, an overblown fear camouflages an underlying wish (a point made by Freud eight decades ago). Wim van Leer, an insightful retired Israeli industrialist, writes: Hatred became an indispensable prop for the maintenance of Jewish cohesion and identity, for whenever the cold eye of ostracism was mellowed by a kindly glint, whenever humanism and liberalism reared their ugly heads, Jewish identity melted away in the warm bath of assimilation. Furthermore, Provoking this hatred for Israel is one of the few areas where Prime Minister Menachem Begins government has been a resounding success. A useful tool had been the Gush Emunim … We revel in our ostracism and, instead of advancing arguments to justify our actions, we reply to criticism with ever more provocative and oppressive actions. Van Leers article repeatedly uses provocation, defiance, fanaticism, dogmatic determinism, and intransigence to characterize Israeli actions that once again make Jews into an isolated, emotionally ghettoized people, and which will once again occasion the very (next) Holocaust that is as much expected as it is dreaded. We are thus face to face with the terrible psychohistorical truth that Jews must survive in order that they be persecuted.
The scientific discipline of history – indeed, of all behavioral science – ought rightfully to occupy itself with the search for the facts. Correcting facts is one thing. But to understand the intractable need to edit reality and thereby distort the facts is an equally important matter. Historical myth is one type of fact that must be decoded as well as courageously doubted. For, as we know only too well, the myth of the Holocaust has for forty years been more compelling – not only for Jews – than reality. It is this resistance to testing and accepting reality that we must also explain.
Thus, while we constantly struggle to separate myth from fact, we need also to accept the fact that people adhere tenaciously to their mythic world-views in order that they not be compelled to come painfully face to face with the world as it is and the repressed world of their childhood. Collectively as well as individually, we remember in order to forget. In the process, our defenses remove us even further from reality so that the world to which we adapt is hopelessly tangled by our projections and displacements. Jews cling to their history of persecution so that they need not look at their own role in the process (both the act of persecution and the perception of the act). Greatly simplifying what I have written at length elsewhere, this is to say that so central is the Holocaust in that condensation of Jewish history/folklore/myth/world-view, and the like, that it is unimaginable to be a Jew (or even an ideologically anti-Jewish Israeli) without it. I would go so far as to say that one who comprehends the Jewish meaning of Holocaust (and I encompass some five thousand years here) has understood the Jewish experience of life: fear of punishment, expectation of punishment, inevitability of punishment, and, finally, unconscious conviction that punishment is deserved (from Yahweh through Hitler through Arafat). Of course, all this is massively defended against – not unsurprisingly, by projecting and displacing the wish and fear onto outer sources of rejection and extermination, and by distorting the reality of history so that it conforms with the myth of history. It is utterly catastrophic for reality-testing when a group-myth, fueled by narcissistic trauma of childhood, family, and unresolved past, finds mirroring confirmation in current events.
It is precisely at this point that the Holocaust as sacred symbol collides with a scientific approach to the Holocaust as a fact to be analyzed. The magic of numbers has long played an almost hypnotic role in any discussion of the 1933–1945 period. To most Jews, and to many non-Jews, the Holocaust is defined exclusively in terms of the six million Jews who perished. Little mention is made of non-Jewish Slavic peoples, or non-Axis peoples of western Europe, who perished. To Jews, the Holocaust, it must be remembered, interweaves two elements of the doctrine of Chosenness: (a) election as moral superiority, and (b) election to suffer. What ethnocentric persecution mania accomplishes is to omit the suffering of non-Jewish victims. It is to say in essence: Our suffering has more meaning than yours.
At present, one can notice the same process at work in the Mideast negotiations on the Palestinian problem or on the political status of Jerusalem. Those two to three million Palestinian refugees and their children living in Arab lands are, from the point of view of pure fact, exiles in no sense different than were the Jews in Europe and Islamic lands who emigrated to Palestine/Israel. Yet, in religious Zionist and secular Israeli nationalist ideology, Arab exiles are an Arab problem, not an Israeli one; secondly, because Palestine/Israel was envisioned from the outset as a Jewish state and homeland (Der Judenstaat, published in 1896, the title of Theodor Herzls manifesto), Arabs would either have to accommodate to the new ethno-nationalist hegemony or leave; and finally, although Jerusalem is a holy city to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic faiths alike, Israelis rationalize their greater entitlement to the whole of it because of ancient historic precedent.
Narcissistic self-preoccupation knows no empathy for others outside the self or group-self. This has been the fate both of primitive ethnocentrism and rabid nationalism. We (Jews) are good; they (Gentiles) are evil. What is more, because we are Chosen (if not by God, then at least by the duty-bound guilt of the worlds nations), the fate of our people is of greater consequence than that of those who oppose us. With the same taunting arrogance of those whom they fled in Europe, Israelis assert, in essence, that The future belongs to us. What matters, in ethno-nationalist terms, is not the enormity of the numbers, but whose they are: who counts and who is discountable. The expansive claim by Jews and Israelis on land in the Mideast as atonement exacted from the world for historic injustices visited upon them is one powerful expression of the narcissistic principle of entitlement. Vengeful demand for restitution underlies the seemingly idealistic contemporary principles of human rights based on ethnic, national, or religious grounds.
Let me take this a step further. If Jews feel that their suffering is more significant and historically memorable than that which was afflicted on non-Jewish victims of the Nazis, what then, are we to make of the suffering of the Germans during the same period? How are we to understand their role in modern European history? Do we not need also to revise the great mythology of the West (one held by Russia as well) which holds that psychogeographically, Germany is the perpetual bad boy and menacing nemesis of the West, a people who must be kept under vigilant watch (although their economy supported!), and who must remain divided (symbolized by that simple yet sinister wall in Berlin) lest their inherent evil be once again unleashed?
Part of the Wests myth of Germany is its denial of flagrant atrocities committed against Germany in the name of democracy. The infamous bombing of Dresden is the most conspicuous example in Europe. (The use of the atomic bomb on Japan is the parallel on the Asian front.) In warfare there is invariably a double-standard: what we do against the enemy is justified, what they do against us is criminal, barbaric, and the like. Not the deed itself, but who perpetrated it, is our fatuous relativistic argument! Psychologically, the process is disarmingly simple: we fight in our enemies what we hate in ourselves and conveniently locate in then. We fight a disowned part of ourselves in them; in killing them, as symbolic embodiments of our evil, we cleanse ourselves of that evil – at least temporarily, until the next need for purging through war arises.
The core of revisionism must be the re-humanization of all participants, whatever their role, in the Second World War. The consequence, I propose, will be a discovery of a systemic irrationality in which Germany cannot be singled out for blame. Holocaust will acquire a far more encompassing meaning in which the drama of the family of nations transcends any easy distinction between villains and victims. Let me cite a brief poignant example offered by Professor George Kren:
I vividly recall a trip in a bus from a psychohistory conference to the airport where I had suggested that I had considered learning to fly a light plane so that I could fly to the various conferences without the hassle of airports and reservations. One of the members of our party, a psychiatrist, indicated that he had been a pilot in the Second World War and described to us in detail his participation in the bombing of Dresden. He was clearly nostalgic. He analyzed the technical problems of getting that many planes into the air so that they would not collide, and then enthusiastically described how the American methods of coming over the target were so much more destructive than the British ones. There appeared an almost erotic infatuation with the technical destructive apparatus. Yet by contemporary psychiatric and for that matter social standards that person was and is totally normal.
A psychohistoric revisionism leads to a radically new interpretation not only of international conduct during the War, but of the very causes of the War itself. Psychohistorian Henry Ebel observes that Nazism was not only a German but a world event – and that to see the Nazi movement entirely within the German context is to distort its meaning. The regnant myth in the West is that xenophobic, paranoid, self-aggrandizing, anti-Semitic German nationalism was an exclusively indigenous event whose rabid, cancerous spread had to be stopped by nations allied to preserve freedom – nations free of the blemishes that tainted Germany.
Here, quite plainly, projection onto Germany plays a dominant role in the creation of the myth of German uncontrollably, invincibility, and the like. We fight the enemies we first make, enemies we need in order that we be complete – at a distance. As psychoanalyst and anthropologist George Devereux writes: A common defense against the thought that one is psychologically disturbed consists of an attempt to represent the disturbance as peripheral to the self. That is: my problem is you!
Until now, most students of World War II have focused on German projection onto Jews. Conspicuously absent have been studies of stereotypes about Germany which made Germans appear as monsters beyond the pale of humanity. What we are discerning, however, is a far more complex complementary system of projection in the international family, one in which the Jews were a single sub-system. What could not be tolerated in the democratic nations of the West was located exclusively in a supposedly venomous German national character that had its roots fifteen centuries earlier in the barbaric invasion by the Goths. If nations wanted Germany to act out aggressively, how then could they be expected to stop Germany before Germany was allowed first to wage war? In a process identical to that of a family with a deviant or sick member, likewise within the international family of nations, specific members take on specific roles that serve distinct roles for all the other members of the family. Indeed, one member of the family cannot change without threatening the stability of the entire family.
The emotional role of aggressor that the West assigned to Germany was first observed by British historian A. J. P. Taylor in The Origins of the Second World War – a work for which he incurred the odium theologicum of the scholarly community, not to mention the accusation of being a Fascist sympathizer. What this early Revisionist Taylor noted was simply that from the mid-1930s the statesmen of the West were giving Hitler cues to indulge his madness, giving him latitude to flex his muscles, turning away their heads as he continuously tested his limits and found no obstacle in his path.
Today we would say that the complementary pathology of those normal-appearing nations of the West was the very thing which permitted Hitler to dare even further. What is true for pathological family systems is equally true for pathological international (group) systems. The officially normal are able to mask their sickness and shore up their stability only as their designated deviants do their mischief for them.
Very briefly, for instance, consider the role of France in the late 1930s. According to the myth in the West, vulnerable France was victim to the unstoppable Blitzkrieg that Hitler unleashed mercilessly in 1939. Yet, in some recent psycho-historic work, Jacques Szaluta and Stephen Ryan turn this interpretation of the fall of France upside down (likewise, David Beisel reinterprets the Munich mistake as based on the Wests passivity and denial of reality, beneath which lay an encouragement for Germany to press even further).
Szaluta and Ryan link the fall of Republican France to a French fear of and wish for abandonment, expressed in fantasies of defeat, suicide, homosexual surrender, punishment, and the need to pay for pleasure with pain. How could a France which felt feminized possibly feel strong enough to repel Germanys penetration? Likewise, how could Marshall Pétain, leader of the Vichy government, resist the Germans when his own heightened conflicts over abandonment led him, like his countrymen who followed him, to abandon France to Germany? Psychologically, what the French felt they deserved they allowed to happen – with their passive complicity. Fantasy, in other words, so powerfully affected the perception of reality that it helped bring about the very reality which was as much sought as it was consciously repudiated.
It was the Wests fantasy about Hitlers and Germanys virility (masculinity) that gave the Nazis the time and space and practice to perfect their fantasy in reality. Were it not for this deadly combination of admiration, envy, passivity, and delegation of the aggressor role, the West would not have given such license to German impudence. Not only did Hitler believe his propaganda, but his later adversaries were paralyzed by it because they also wanted to believe it.
In fact, rather than fantasy, Hitler was ill-prepared for war in September 1939. Yet it was the shared, complementary, fantasy, rather than military fact that prevailed – and which allowed the Germans to translate their group-fantasy (reversal of the trauma of 1918; the resurrection of the betrayed Siegfried into superhuman heroism) into fact. Ebel notes that
Sixty percent of the German artillery, in 1939, was still being pulled by horses, and to accomplish the Blitzkrieg invasion of France he had to skim the armored units from a great number of divisions and fling them into the center of France. Had the French refused to panic at the sight of those flags moving across the map, and vigorously counterattacked, they might well have won. Instead, they could not bring themselves to believe that any world leader might be willing to bet on the potency of his theatrical fantasies – and they allowed themselves to be intimidated into surrendering. Afterward, there were French commentators who declared that defeat was inevitable in view of the greater virility of the German uniforms and the German military panache.
The Triumph of the Will was a joint venture between the victor and the vanquished. Ebel writes further:
The fact that the Western powers, before the Second World war, seemed to be sending out encouraging signals to Hitler – including encouragements for his anti-Semitic policies – is perfectly understandable, however, once we acknowledge the extent to which Hitler and Nazism were acting out their [the Western powers] own suppressed impulses; indeed, the extent to which they were able to suppress those impulses only because he was acting them out.
Finally, writes Ebel,
In its anger, its militarism, its aggressiveness, and its rituals of triumph and national purpose, Germany was serving as a delegate of all the other nations, acting out the materials [?] that their own citizens were not prepared to acknowledge – directly and openly – as being their own. The enemy, as always, was also oneself …
Viewed in this perspective, the Germans were every bit as much victims – both of their own national psychology, mythology, and of their role in the international family – as were the Jews. It was the fatal symbiosis of nations that resulted in a Holocaust in the wake of whose unprecedented fratricide (not reducible to genocide) only Death was victor. So long as we persist in viewing and debating the Holocaust as though it were primarily a Jewish or Jewish/German event, we will miss its tragic enormity for all who participated in it.
It is thus proper that a paper which began with a discussion of the Jewish myth of the Holocaust, concludes with the preliminary formulation of a revision of the entire Western myth of the 1933–1945 period. No single group can claim that period as its private property. In the earlier part of this paper, I briefly explored the meaning of the Jewish claim on the Holocaust. In the final section of the paper, I have argued that to over-focus on the fate of the Jews is to join rather than analyze the truly inter-national group-fantasy of World War II: it is to postpone insight into what was a Holocaust for all humanity.
|||Howard F. Stein, Judaism and the Group-Fantasy of Martyrdom: The Psychodynamic Paradox of Survival Through Persecution, The Journal of Psychohistory, Fall 1978 (Vol. 6, No. 2), pp. 151–210.|
|||Howard F. Stein, The binding of the Son: Psychoanalytic Reflections on the Symbiosis of Anti-Semitism and Anti-Gentilism, The Psychoanalytic Quarterly 46 (1977) pp. 650–683; American Judaism, Israel, and the New Ethnicity, Cross Currents 25 (1), Spring 1975, pp. 51–66; The Nazi Holocaust, History and Psychohistory, The Journal of Psychohistory 7 (2), Fall 1979, pp. 215–227; The White Ethnic Movement, Pan-Ism, and the Restoration of Early Symbiosis: The Psychohistory of a Group-Fantasy, The Journal of Psychohistory, Winter 1979 (Vol. 6, No. 3), pp. 319–359; Howard F. Stein and Robert F. Hill, The Ethnic Imperative: Exploring the New White Ethnic Movement (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1977).|
|||Howard F. Stein, Psychohistory and the Problem of Historical Understanding: Reflections on the Metapsychology of History, Invited paper presented at the annual meetings of the Western Social Science Association, Albuquerque, New Mexico, April 24, 1990.|
|||Philip Rahv, Introduction, Selected Short Stories of Franz Kafka (Random House, 1952), pp. x-xi.|
|||Jay Y. Gonen, A Psychohistory of Zionism (Mason Charter, N.Y.: 1975); The Israeli Illusion of Omnipotence Following the Six Day War, The Journal of Psychohistory, Fall 1978 (Vol. 6, No. 2), pp. 241–271; Resurrection and Bereavement: The Duality in Jewish History. Paper presented at the third annual convention of the International Psychohistorical Convention, New York City, June 12, 1980.|
|||Martin Woollacott, Waiting in Vain for Soviet Jewry, The Guardian, June 10, 1979.|
|||M. Woollacott, Article cited above, The Guardian, June 10, 1979.|
|||J. Y. Gonen, Resurrection and Bereavement (1980). Paper cited above.|
|||Wim van Leer, In Israel, We Revel in Our Ostracism, The New York Times, March 3, 1980.|
|||Wim van Leer (1980). Cited above.|
|||See works by Howard F. Stein from 1975, 1977, 1978. Cited above.|
|||George Kren, The Psychohistorical Interpretation of Nazism and the Social Construction of Evil. Paper presented at the annual meetings of the Western Social Science Association, Albuquerque, New Mexico, April 24, 1980.|
|||Henry Ebel, How Nations Use Each Other Psychologically. Manuscript, February 1980. Quoted with permission.|
|||George Devereux, The Works of George Devereux, in The Making of Psychological Anthropology. George D. Spindler, Ed. (University of California Press, 1978), p. 379.|
|||Henry Ebel, 1980. Manuscript cited above.|
|||A. J. P. Taylor, The Origins of the Second World War (Fawcett, 1978).|
|||Fred M. Sander, Individual and Family Therapy: Toward an Integration (New York: Jason Aronson, 1980).|
|||Jacques Szaluta, The Fall of Republican France: A Psychohistorical Examination. Paper presented at panel on France and Britain in the Development of the Second World War, Third annual convention of the International Psychohistorical Association, New York City, June 12, 1980; Ryan, Stephen. Pétain and Vichy. Paper presented at this same 1980 panel.|
|||David R. Beisel, Chamberlain and the Munich Crisis. Paper presented at this same 1980 panel (cited in Note 18).|
|||Henry Ebel, 1980. Manuscript cited above (in Note 13).|
|||Henry Ebel. Same source.|
|||H. Ebel. Same source.|
Additional information about this document
|Author(s):||Howard F. Stein|
|Title:||The Holocaust and the Myth of the Past as History|
|Sources:||The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 1, no. 4 (winter 1980), pp. 309-322; and again in vol. 14, no. 5 (September/October 1994), pp. 28-33|
|First posted on CODOH:||Sept. 29, 2012, 7 p.m.|
|Comments:||This paper was re-published in "The Journal of Historical Review," vol. 14, no. 5 (September/October 1994), pp. 28-33|