Online Publication Date: 10-Feb-2005.
Psychoanalysis expands the scope of its mission by focusing not only on events occurring within the clinical situation, but also upon events occurring outside the clinical situation—in social reality. In this paper, I introduce methods and concepts for a systematic, psychoanalytic approach to the study of culture, society and history, and present a case study. Freud called dreams the “royal road to the (individual) unconscious.” I view political ideology as the royal road to the cultural unconscious.
An ideology is a system of belief held in common by a group of people within a society. Anthropologists explore the cultural sources of ideologies and their meanings for the people who embrace them. I pose the question why. Why are certain ideologies or beliefs systems—among all the ideas put forth and available within a society—embraced and perpetuated?
I theorize ideologies from the perspective of what they do—psychologically—for people. According to this view, ideologies exist and persist—are embraced and perpetuated-to the extent that they perform psychic functions for individuals within a population. To study a particular ideology, therefore, is to reveal its psychic meaning—the needs, desires, fantasies, conflicts and human dilemmas to which the ideology responds.
Norman O. Brown in his book Life against Death: the Psychoanalytic Meaning of History put forth a paradigm for the psychoanalytic study of culture and history. The unconscious can become conscious, Brown suggests, through projection into the external world. Human culture, he said, represents a “set of projections of the repressed unconscious” and functions as a form of transference, created by the repetition compulsion and constantly producing “new editions of the infantile conflicts.” Human culture, Brown theorizes, exists in order to “project the infantile complexes into concrete reality, where they can be seen and mastered."
In my monograph, Hitler's Ideology: A Study in Psychoanalytic Sociology, I develop a systematic methodology for analyzing ideology. I observe how specific images and metaphors are bound to central terms of Hitler's ideology (e.g.,“nation,” “Jew,” “the people,” etc.). Through analysis of images and metaphors contained within his writing and speeches, I uncovered the central fantasies that were the source of Hitler's ideology. Hitler projected his fantasies into Nazi ideology. Political acts represented the acting out of fantasies contained within the ideology.
In this paper—in order to demonstrate the potential of a psychoanalytic approach to the study of culture—I examine a case study of the relationship between fantasy and ideology. I focus upon one element of Hitler's ideology, namely his wish to unite the nations of Austria and Germany. I show that Hitler's political aspiration was rooted in a fantasy that he projected into reality. In order to understand why Hitler embraced this idea so fanatically—why the union of Austria and Germany meant so much to him—it is necessary to discover the meaning of this ideology, that is, the nature and shape of the fantasy that Hitler projected into it.
Hitler's place of birth was in Austria—on the frontier near the boundary of Germany. One of his earliest political aspirations was to re-unite the two separate nations—Austria and Germany—in order to create a “greater German Reich.” He passionately wished to break down the boundaries separating Austria and Germany so that they could merge to become 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, Hitler set forth his project for uniting Austria and Germany. It was providential, Hitler said, that “Fate should have chosen Braunau on the Inn” as his birthplace, for this town lies on the boundary between “two German states which we of the younger generation at least 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. “No, and again no,” he said—even if such a union were unimportant or harmful from an economic point of view—it must nevertheless take place because “one blood demands one Reich.”
Hitler wrote that the destiny of Austria was so much bound up with the life and development of all Germans 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” that was the result of a longing that slumbered in the heart of the entire people—a longing to “return to the never-forgotten ancestral home.”
Hitler identified with the country in which he was born—Austria. His deeper identification, however, was with Germany. More precisely, Hitler sought to bring into being and to identify with a more inclusive political unit-the “Greater German Reich”—that would encompass both Austria and the mother country, Germany. Hitler dreamt of breaking down the boundaries separating Austria and Germany so that the two nations could fuse into a single entity.
Based on thirty-five years of research on the psychological sources of politics, I have found that the fantasy of symbiosis or “oneness” is a central motive compelling people to project their desires and lives into the political arena. People seek to “identify” with nations, cultures and ideologies. They aspire toward a sense of omnipotence through the fantasy that it is possible to fuse their bodies and selves with a “body politic.”
Margaret Mahler theorizes “symbiosis” as a central dimension of human development and 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.”
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 suggests 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.”
Hitler projected symbiotic fantasy into political units. Austria symbolized Hitler's body and Germany the body of his mother. Hitler's political ideology pointed toward destroying the boundaries separating Austria and Germany so that the two separate bodies politic could fuse into a single body politic. The actualization of this fantasy would mean that henceforth the “twofold destinies of Austria and Germany” would become “eternally one;” there would be "no separation of history into Germany and Austria.”
Images and metaphors in Hitler's writings and speeches reveal a regressive desire for union with the mother as the source of his ideology. In Mein Kampf, he wrote of the elemental cry of the German-Austrian people for “union with the German mother country” that represented a longing to “return to the never-forgotten ancestral home." He stated that the heart and memory of German Austrians never ceased to “feel for the common mother country.”
Through the vehicle of his ideology, Hitler played out in the political arena his experiences, fantasies and conflicts surrounding union and separateness. Projecting the trauma of separation into political units, he 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 said, 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 bringing about a return to that from which he had become separated. Hitler's transferred his fantasy of reunion—of the restoration of narcissistic omnipotence—into his political ideology. Hitler projected the drama of union and separation—of separation and reunion—into the symbolic domain of politics, and acted out 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, nevertheless Austria 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's sought to annul the trauma of separation by enacting the fantasy of symbiotic union in relationship to political entities. Austria—once part of Germany—subsequently had separated from her. Hitler declared that separation was intolerable; that Austria and Germany could not remain separate. He insisted that Austria must return to the mother (country).
It would appear, then, that the ideology put forth by Hitler derived its shape from the fantasy contained within it. Further, the fantasy contained within Hitler's ideology provided the fuel or psychic energy that drove Hitler's politic agenda. Hitler's ideology allowed him to share his fantasies with others, and became the modus operandi for political action and the creation of history.
People assume that political ideas or calls to action stem from conditions or situations in the world. What this case study suggests is that one cannot separate political aspirations from unconscious desires or fantasies. If Hitler had not externalized his symbiotic fantasy into politics, the idea of uniting Austria and Germany would have been of no interest to him. Hitler's interest in and attachment to his political ideology derived from the fantasy that he projected into it.
Hitler is appropriate as a case study because the texts—his writings and speeches—are infused with primary process imagery. When Hitler writes of the 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 witness the astonishing directness with which he projects fantasies into his ideology. We are amazed to see primal fantasies expressed so blatantly and to realize that these fantasies were the source of history.
If a patient expressed similar fantasies in the clinical situation we would not, however, be amazed. Why do we imagine that fantasies observed within the clinical setting are not being expressed and acted out by other human beings at all times and in all places? Herman Nunberg states that, “Transference is a projection,” meaning that the patient's “inner and unconscious relations with his first libidinal objects are externalized.” Nunberg goes on to say that the patient “displaces 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 (with few exceptions) 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, Nunberg asserts, is “undeniable.” Nunberg suggests that projection helps to “find the lost object in the outside world.”
Rudolf Hess often introduced Hitler at mass-rallies, declaring, “Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler.” The fantasy of symbiotic union or identification with an omnipotent object had been transferred into “external reality.” The dream of dual-unity was replicated or recreated in relation to a cultural object. In Hitler's fantasy, his own body was co-extensive with the German body politic.
Ideologies, I theorize, constitute transference vehicles that act as a centrifugal force, sequestering libido or psychic energy bound to an infantile fantasy; making this energy available for reality-oriented action. Only a small fraction of people in the history of the human race has had the privilege of developing a transference within the psychoanalytic situation. It may be that culture itself functions in a manner analogous to the transference, enabling infantile fantasies and conflicts to be projected into symbolic structures.
Norman O. Brown states that repressed unconscious energies must “go out into external reality before they can be perceived by consciousness.” The repressed impulses, he says, 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 method—consistent with Brown's theory—enables us to apprehend unconscious fantasies. By observing how images and metaphors link to central terms of an ideology—how fantasies attach to “real objects in the external world”—it is possible to uncover the “unconscious of the text” (Ruth Stein).
Brown declares, “Human culture is one vast arena in which the logic of the transference works itself out.” The infantile 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 shared fantasy is both theoretical and clinical. In the Twentieth Century, approximately two-hundred million people have been killed because of violent political conflicts initiated by societies. Most of this violence has been 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 that, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The history of the Twentieth Century with its horrendous episodes of brutality and mass-slaughter resembles a waking nightmare—a bad dream that many people are having at once. By becoming conscious of the unconscious fantasies that generate collective violence, is it possible to “awakening from the nightmare of history?” The psychoanalytic interpretation of ideology is an extension of Freud's project of interpreting dreams. We turn to the interpretation of collective dreams.