The Inability to Mourn was a book that was referenced in My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me. It’s about the psychology of everyday German people, from the 1930s through the 1960s. From an obituary of one of the authors:
“The Inability to Mourn” was a polemic document and a key text that not much later jolted the country’s students into taking to the streets in protest not only of antiquated traditions at German universities but also to draw the attention of their parent’s generation to what had become a collective suppression of guilt in Germany, the non-existent coming to terms with the Nazi era and the false return to an ostensible normality.
The Mitscherlichs confronted Germany with a bitter testimonial that many found difficult to bear: Germans, they wrote, are indifferent and lethargic; they lack empathy for the victims of the Nazi genocide and are caught up in “nationalist self-centeredness.”
“The Inability to Mourn” was a signal, and the start of Germany’s coming to terms with its past, triggering what today is called a culture of remembrance: the painful and tough efforts spanning many years that have made Germany a model for other countries, efforts that command respect from many states worldwide.
It belongs to a genre that seems to be extinct: Freudian political theory. If only such a book were written about American race relations…it would probably have much less impact, because the trends they diagnosed in 1967 are worse, now. In another sense, people have been trying to write the book about America for quite some time, repeatedly. The only issue is that Freudianism has become taboo, ironically. America’s would-be Mitscherlichs talk about the same set of problems under the guise of “privilege.”
An interesting feature of the book is that it’s from the beginning of global consumer society. Economic and social changes have effects on family life, which affect emotional development and the capacity for empathy. Society produces various frustrations, and we need scapegoats for various reasons. Everything is connected, and there’s an awareness that things used to be different. 60 years have passed. It’s more difficult for anyone raised in consumer society to distance themselves from it.
It’s a good book to revisit, for that reason. It’s important to know that these things aren’t new, and it’s important to understand the emotional lives of assholes. And everybody. It frames things in terms of people’s natural anxieties, defenses, and aggressive impulses. For reference, the end of World War II was about as long ago as the first World Trade Center bombing, the Rodney King riots, or the original release of Doom:
Neither the millions of lives lost in the war nor the millions of Jews slaughtered can prevent most Germans from feeling that they have had enough of being reminded of the past. Above all, there is a total lack of any sense that an effort should be made–from kindergarten to the university–to incorporate the disasters of the past into the stock of experience of German young people, not just as a warning, but as a specific challenge to their national society to deal with the brutally aggressive proclivities these disasters revealed.
If this were so [Germans were really “over it”], the whole thing could indeed be considered a “closed chapter” of history.
Such an appearance is deceptive. Were it otherwise, the derisive term “atonement German” could never have been coined for the small group which has steadfastly resisted the illusion that guilt can be historically eliminated by denial. The hope is frequently expressed by leading German politicians that the postwar period is over. Such a hope is necessarily mistaken, because it is not up to the Germans to decide when enough has been leaned from a past that destroyed the lives and happiness of such vast numbers of people…We had occasion earlier to note that only the pressure of opinion outside Germany forced Germans to institute legal proceedings against Nazi criminals, to extend the statute of limitations, and to reconstruct the circumstances of mass crimes. Because of the difference between their own obstructed memory of their former adversaries and victims, Germans are compelled to maintain their psychic defense positions by a continued expenditure of energy.
This is how privilege looks to everybody else:
The defense against guilt, shame, and mourning over its losses that is being collectively carried out by the population of postwar Germany confronts us with the same technique of infantile self-protection, although here it is used not against infantile experiences of guilt but against real guilt on a massive scale. Indeed, it is terrifying to see the techniques of infantile self-protection being applied to the consequences of disastrous campaigns of conquest and to programs of mass extermination that could never have been started, let alone sustained until “five minutes past twelve,” without the enthusiastic support and involvement of the group. The attempts to cope with the past in this way strike the detached observer as grotesque. Over-sensitive though some such observers may be to even the slightest signs of German nationalism, unthinking infantile behavior of this kind cannot help but keep alive the fear that no surprise is impossible where the German people are involved and that acts of obedience which obliterate individual responsibility might once again become German policy.
On being angry, resentful, offended, hyper-sensitive…:
Let us brave group rejection and defy the taboo. We are sufficiently skeptical to realize the tremendous strength of the repetition compulsion in history. The alleged resentment felt by those upon whom Germans once imposed a taboo of untouchability corresponds to an irresponsible failure one the German side to understand the feelings left behind by their performance as the master race. Is it really nothing but resentment on the part of the Poles that make a rapprochement impossible? Or are there still not Germans who are aggrieved that there is no longer a master race to protect them, that they may no longer do what clan-conscience had once legitimized in Lidice and Auschwitz? The bombing of Rotterdam or London did not affect the self-esteem of the inhabitants of those cities, but the Poles have not been able to forget the systematic efforts that were made to humiliate them, both individually and nationally. Their impotence was a traumatic experience; and in their unsatisfactory position they are still afraid, even though this seems unintelligible to their now “reformed” former oppressors
One of our patients, who spent four years in a concentration camp, shakes with fear every time he sees a German policeman. He knows that this is senseless, but the signal that was once sent out by that uniform is too powerful to be extinguished by comparatively insignificant later experiences. The patient does not even bear “resentment” against the police as such, as his former “torturers”; he can distinguish clearly between the “after image,” and the present reality. But we must bear in mind that the inability to forget of those who were oppressed, horribly persecuted, and driven from their homes is anchored in inextinguishable memory traces that sound the alarm at the slightest touch. The perpetrators found it easy to justify their acts on grounds of military necessity. But today they do not like being reminded of them, as the State Prosecutor still in office indicated when he was recently reminded of a death sentence he once pronounced, and replied with the remark: “Why dish up that stale stuff?” Those who spent four years in the German armies of occupation were not under constant threat as were those held down by military power and political terror. Consequently, for the oppressors those years are not marked by deeply imprinted anxiety signals; they can forget.