A Nazi Legacy: The Transgenerational Inheritance of Trauma, by Vamık D. Volkan

Depositing, Transgenerational Transmission, Dissociation  and Remembering through Action


As a psychoanalyst, I have been actively involved in international relations since 1979 and have visited many areas where wars and war-like situations existed just prior to my visits or even during my visits. I observed children with or without parents in such locations, places like South Ossetia and Kuwait. I also participated in projects designed to help children traumatized by wars or war-like conditions, and last year I was invited to a meeting in France to deliver a paper on the children of war with whom I had worked.

While preparing my presentation I had a dream in which I returned to my childhood in Nicosia, Cyprus. I was born there to Turkish Cypriot parents. World War II started when I was seven years old. During those days Cyprus was a British colony, and thousands of Cypriot Greeks and Cypriot Turks had joined the British military. Now and then German or Italian war planes would fly over Cyprus and bomb the British bases on the island. Especially after the Nazis conquered Crete in May, 1941, when I was eight and a half years old, there was great anxiety among Cypriots who lived with the expectation that the Nazis would try to capture Cyprus next. We were taught how to wear gas masks and eat tasteless black bread. Sikh soldiers from India who had joined the British military forces roamed the streets wearing their turbans.  We dug a bomb shelter in our garden, and when alarms went off, day or night, rain or shine, my parents, sisters and I would take refuge there until the all-clear sounded to tell us that the danger was past.

729e9caf754dd3f0416f825a5042eb12When expectations that Nazis would come to Cyprus was high, my father found and bought a German dictionary. His idea was that if Nazis came to harm his family he would try to talk to them and ask them not to hurt us.  My father put this dictionary in a huge wooden storage chest and locked it. As I recall, buying such a book was forbidden. Now, I am not sure if this was true or not, but in my child’s mind, my father had done something “forbidden.” This “secret” also indicated to me that the Nazis would definitely come to Cyprus and do horrible things to us.  I lived with chronic anxiety. A most vivid memory of my childhood was witnessing an Italian war plane explode above my elementary school in Nicosia after it was shot by a British fighter plane, a Spitfire, and then watching the Italian pilot parachuting down.

My parents decided that my mother should take my two older sisters and me to a village about 20 miles from Nicosia where they believed we would be safe since the Nazis were unlikely to bomb a small village. We stayed in this village, if I recollect correctly, about seven to eight months. My father, a teacher, had to remain in Nicosia. Sure enough, the Nazis began bombing places near Nicosia. Before reaching the city, small Nazi planes would fly very low over the village where we were staying. To this day I vividly recall standing on a hill near the village and seeing the Nazi pilots in their planes, sometimes waving down at me as they flew overhead. Today I am not sure if the waving Nazi pilots were a reality or a fantasy. After each bombing I would imagine that my father was hurt or dead. There were no telephones in the village, so I would wait until the weekends to see if my father got off the old bus that brought him to visit us. Each week I experienced the anxiety of thinking of my father’s death, and every weekend he would come back to “life.” You can imagine how this war trauma influenced my oedipal issues.

ae484411795e8da6ab3742e09e6fee7bIn my dream, I was in our hand-dug bomb shelter in the garden of my childhood house. At the beginning of my dream, I was alone there and scared, and then more and more children entered the bomb shelter, which became bigger and bigger, an unending muddy hallway. I was lost behind them. I noticed that the children spoke different languages and belonged to different races. They looked horrified. I woke up perspiring, a very unusual experience for me since I could not recall the last time I woke up from a dream in such a state.

The influence of war in my childhood probably would have been tamed after I started my new life in the United States in 1957 if ethnic problems between Cypriot Greeks and Cypriot Turks had not become critical. Three months after I arrived, I learned that my roommate during my last two years as a medical student in Turkey, who had been like a younger brother to me, had been gunned down. He had gone to Cyprus to visit his ailing mother, and when he went to a pharmacy to purchase medicine for her, a Cypriot Greek terrorist shot him seven times. Also significant in my life, I am married to an American woman whose father was shot by the Nazis when she was only six months old. She is an active member of the American World War II Orphans Network (AWON), through which I know hundreds of individuals who, because of the war, were raised without their fathers.

The morning after visiting my childhood bomb shelter in my sleep I kept visualizing and thinking about the children of this dream from different countries and races. Wars or warlike situations have existed from the beginning of human history. Even persons who have no actual war experiences are influenced to one degree or another by mental images of wars or warlike conditions, due to identifications, transgenerational transmissions, and psychological links to their parents’ or ancestors’ history. I did not need to go far away, to Kuwait and South Ossetia, to find children of war. They are also around me. I rewrote my paper and changed its title from “Children of War” to “We Are All Children of War.”


“We Are All Children of War”

A good friend of mine, a psychoanalyst who is Jewish, was also presenting a paper during the meeting in France. As a child he had escaped from a concentration camp, but his parents and most his relatives perished. He was not able to talk about his tragic story until he was sixty years old. When the time came for me to make my presentation I felt embarrassed. In comparison to my good friend’s moving recollections, my war experiences seemed unimportant. This event made me fully aware of why, while we often read psychoanalytic literature about victims’ and their offspring’s creative responses to life-long repercussions of war, very seldom do we hear detailed accounts of the psychological impact of the Third Reich on perpetrators’ children and their offspring. Embarrassment, as well as guilt and shame, I believe, are the reasons for this.

A Nazi Legacy: Depositing, Transgenerational Transmission, Dissociation, and Remembering through Action tells the total psychoanalytic story of Victor, the grandson of a high-level Nazi perpetrator. I did not personally treat this man, but I was a consultant to his German analyst, Dr. Adeline. Victor, in his thirties when he came for treatment, had a peculiar symptom. He would wake up in the early hours of the morning and feel danger around him. Sometimes he would break his bedroom window. The next day he would not remember his dissociated state. Partly because of Dr. Adeline’s own background, it took three years for analyst and analysand to recognize fully the meaning of Victor’s symptom: His parents had deposited his grandfather’s Nazi mental image in him.

fd82eac73e1f2df320ba182b30c090dcOnly during his analysis did Victor recognize that his grandfather had been an important Nazi figure who participated in a murderous program,  gassing “unwanted” persons locked in a bus. Prior to this knowledge Victor’s conscious perception of his grandfather was that the older man had been a hero killed during the war. In the morning hours Victor behaved like one of his grandfather’s victims in a locked bus. His feeling danger, breaking windows, and attempting to save himself and a girlfriend who was sleeping with him were linked to his wish to remove guilt feelings associated with his grandfather’s murderous behavior. At the same time however, he wanted to keep his grandfather’s grandiosity. This created “chaos.” In his daydreams Victor would walked with an egg under his arm filled with “chaos.” The egg represented his dissociated state. When, through analytic work, he began disowning the image of his grandfather that had been deposited in him, he became involved in a business connected with raising trees that increase oxygen in the air, reversing his grandfather’s task, and further ridding himself of guilt.

While working with Dr. Adeline I experienced various emotions and thought about human aggression.  I concluded that psychoanalysts and other mental health workers should study further and inform the public more about malignant prejudice and what we can offer to tame it. I also appreciated Dr. Adeline’s efforts to keep her psychoanalytic identity while working with a patient like Victor. I dedicate this book to her.

37575Vamik D. Volkan is an Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, an Emeritus Training and Supervising Analyst at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute, and the Senior Erik Erikson Scholar at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He is the president of the International Dialogue Initiative and a former president of the International Society of Political Psychology, the Virginia Psychoanalytic Society, and the American College of Psychoanalysts. He received the Sigmund Freud Award given by the city of Vienna in collaboration with the World Council of Psychotherapy.

His latest book, A Nazi Legacy: Depositing, Transgenerational Transmission, Dissociation, and Remembering through Action, is published this week by Karnac Books.


Reviews and Endorsements

‘This book is an absolute gem! Vamik Volkan has distilled his many decades of wisdom into this absolutely riveting study of the treatment of the grandson of a high-ranking participant in the Nazi killing machine. In his role as supervisor, Professor Volkan demonstrates the essential importance of creating a larger holding environment to enable the analyst to grow with the patient, and how he also serves as a container of the analyst’s intolerable affects. He narrates the process with clarity, precision and deep understanding. The complexities of intergenerational transmission of trauma and disavowed family secrets are viewed as encapsulations of dissociated memories and affects, which have an insidious, pathogenic influence on character formation. This book is a must for clinicians at all levels and for anyone else interested in the study of the continuing, multigenerational effects of genocidal persecution.’
— Ira Brenner, MD, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Jefferson Medical College, Pennsylvania, and author of Injured Men: Trauma, Healing, and the Masculine Self and Dark Matters: Exploring the Realm of Psychic Devastation

‘This fascinating book shows the impact of transgenerational transmission of a murderous history on the character structure of a grandson of a Nazi perpetrator. The book includes a detailed account of a progression from the interpretation of fragmentary, defensive re-enactments to an awareness of the reality of the trauma, thus allowing a separate, better integrated self to be born. The important insights revealed in the book and its clear theoretical conceptualizations can inform us not only in the realm of this particular group of patients, but of all those whose lives are touched by the reality of war, violence and trauma.’
— Ilany Kogan, Training Analyst, Israel Psychoanalytic Society, and author of The Cry of Mute Children and Canvas of Change: Analysis Through the Prism of Creativity


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