Trauma without end: the Great War and its Aftermath

Read Offline:
Leslie Chapman

Introduction: a theatre of trauma

One hundred years on, the Great War still casts its shadow over our society, and in some ways, even more so over mainland Europe. The legacy of the war was not only the collapse of empires, but also the rise of new ones ‒ most notably the United States and the Soviet Union; it saw the rise and collapse of fledgling democracies across Europe, the rise and eventual collapse of fascism, the advent of the Second World War, the Cold War, the collapse of Communism, and finally the emergence of the post-Cold War. But there is another legacy, another shadow, and this is the psychical wound that the First World War has left us. And a key aspect of this psychical wound has been what might best be described as the traumatisation of history. What I mean by this is that it was not only individuals who were traumatised by the war, and not only a whole generation; rather, the notion of trauma itself entered historical and social discourse, and with it a different view of the self and subjectivity.

But first things first: if we are going to talk about the Great War as a historical event in relation to trauma, we need to have some idea what we are talking about. The fourth of August 2014 marked the centenary of the beginning of the Great War ‒ or did it? Actually, it marked the centenary of Britain’s declaration of war with Germany ‒ Germany having declared war on France a day earlier. And the eleventh of November 2018 marked the end of the Great War; except, of course, it didn’t actually officially end until the following year. But there is an even bigger problem here: ended for whom?

For Adolf Hitler and his comrades from the trenches, the Armistice simply marked a moment of betrayal, and the impetus to carry on the struggle. There is certainly a strong case for arguing that the Great War didn’t end in 1918 (or even 1919) but rather in 1945, and a number of historians make this point. On the other hand, why not simply argue that the war ended in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet empire. Then again, did the Cold War ever really end? With a resurgent Russia, its annexation of Crimea in 2014, and its role in supporting the Syria regime, such questions must surely now be taken seriously. And what about events in the Middle East ‒ all a direct legacy of decisions made towards the (official) end of the Great War? Furthermore, what about the beginning of the Great War? It didn’t actually “begin” in August 1914. Putting aside for the moment the events in Sarajevo at the end of June, isn’t there a good case for arguing that the war began sometime between the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 and the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913?

Although these are all fascinating questions for the historian, my purpose in asking them is somewhat different. What interests me is the question of boundaries ‒ and how these link to the question of trauma. The Great War is often portrayed as a moment of trauma, a rupture in the fabric of history ‒ and one that has left an enduring legacy. But in order to be portrayed as such the war needs to be circumscribed, to be given boundaries; in fact, it needs to have a beginning and an end (if not a middle, and to paraphrase Lacan, not necessarily in that order). To put it another way: the Great War needs to be constructed as both a historical and a traumatic event. In that way we can try to make sense of it, and to comfort ourselves that it was a long time ago and, surely, couldn’t happen again. There are some striking parallels here, in my view, with the notion of individual trauma. There is a shared view amongst psychotherapists, psychoanalysts, and psychiatrists that the way to treat trauma is to help the individual make sense of it, through some form of psychological or symbolic processing. An important part of this process is to help the individual construct a narrative around the traumatic event; for example, a narrative of childhood abuse. In this way the individual can start to make sense of what happened to him and to find a way to integrate the traumatic experiences into his life history (his own personal “metanarrative”, if you like).

In the same way, constructing a narrative of the Great War as trauma is an attempt to help us make sense of it, and to understand what has happened since. The problem, of course, is that it is not altogether clear what “it” is in the first place. If the war didn’t, in fact “begin” in August 1914 and didn’t, in fact, “end” in November 1918, then what exactly is this “it” that we are trying to understand? The problem then is that the traumatic event that is supposed to be “contained” within the narrative of “The Great War 1914-18” begins to “seep out” through the boundaries of such a narrative. Of course, there is the added complication in that “The Great War as trauma” is a narrative, a history, in itself. In fact, it is the “trauma narrative” writ large. And as with the case of historical abuse, one of the functions of such a narrative is to create a sense of “distance” between “then” and “now”, in the (vain) hope that somehow “we” in the “now” are different from “them” in the “then”. In other words, the construction of the Great War as trauma is a way to separate us from the Real of the Event, even if such an attempt failed, and continues to fail, miserably.

There has been a continuous outpouring of Great War history, almost since before it began, but it is perhaps more interesting and instructive to look at narratives of the war expressed in, for example, art, literature, and poetry, than at the more “conventional” historical narratives, that is, those written by academic historians and those in government or the military who were often trying to legitimate their own positions. These rather more “unconventional” or “alternative” narratives perhaps give us a better insight into the lived experience of the war and its aftermath, and especially in relation to the question of trauma. Samuel Hynes, in his book A War Imagined, explores these types of narratives in some detail.[1]

However, I would argue that even these “alternative” narratives in many ways serve the same function as the more “conventional” ones, in so far as they all feed into the “metanarrative” of the Great War. Such a “metanarrative” attempts to situate the war and its aftermath within a wider historical context, which in an almost perverse way “normalises” it. Yes, it was a terrible and traumatic event, which changed the course of European and world history, and yes, we still live with its legacy even today: but, at the end of the day it is still a historical event, and one which is rapidly receding into the mists of time. The Symbolic fabric of history is secured, and we can all “move on”. This task of “Symbolic restoration” is made even easier by the fact that, apart from some very elderly citizens who were infants at the time of the Great War, there is no one left to give a first-hand testimony, to be a living witness, to the Real of the war. Except, as we shall see later when looking at Holocaust survivors, it is not quite that simple.

Perhaps the real irony of the Great War is that, rather than being a “theatre of war”, it functions as a theatre of trauma. It provides a context within which to “contain” trauma, within which to circumscribe it. The problem is that, ultimately, this attempt at “containment” failed, because not only did the war continue well into the twentieth century, that is, at least up until 1945, but it also ushered in the era of total war, war without limits; one where we are all combatants, and no one is exempt from the killing. In many ways the Great War goes on today in the form of proxy wars, international terrorism, and simmering tensions between East and West, which never really went away, in spite of the official ending of the Cold War in the early 1990s.


The Great War and psychoanalysis: a missed encounter?

One of the enduring legacies of the Great War is the idea of combat stress, which started life as shell shock and over the next fifty years or so morphed into what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This is not to say that soldiers (and civilians) were not traumatised prior to 1914; rather, it is to argue that the idea that war profoundly affects the human psyche was not, I would argue, commonly accepted until after the war. Not that the military high commands, both in Britain and in other combatant nations, were keen to embrace the idea of psychological trauma. In fact, even in the Second World War the idea that combatants could be psychologically affected by the stress of war was still being resisted in many quarters. Perhaps one of the most (in)famous examples was that of “lack of moral fibre” ‒ a “diagnosis” that was given to RAF pilots and other crew members who were traumatised or stressed out by their experiences. In the Great War senior commanders were extremely sceptical about the notion of “shell shock” ‒ in spite of the fact that many officers were succumbing to psychological trauma.

Perhaps the most famous Great War encounter between doctor and trauma patient was that between Dr W. H. R. Rivers and the officer poet Siegfried Sassoon in 1917 at Craiglockhart Hospital. In spite of the mythology that has grown up around this encounter, this was not a case of a psychoanalytic treatment for shell shock. As Shephard points out in his excellent history of military psychiatry in the twentieth century, Rivers was no Freudian, even though he took a great interest in Freud’s ideas, and especially those relating to dreams.[2]  Like many psychiatrists of his time (and since) Rivers was sceptical of Freud’s insistence on the sexual aetiology of neurosis. In fact, we would probably now argue that his ideas were more in accord with Freud’s notion of the actual neuroses. Certainly his approach to shell shock was that its origins lay in the present or near past, rather than in childhood experiences. However, he did think it essential that his patients be given the opportunity to articulate their traumatic memories and dreams.

As for Sassoon, as Shephard also points out, he was hardly your typical shell shock patient. In fact, he had been sent to Craiglockhart in order to prevent him from publicising any more of his anti-war views, following his letter in The Times questioning the aims of the war. There were added complications, including Rivers’ repressed homosexual feelings towards Sassoon, and the fact that Rivers was struggling with his own pacifist views whilst trying to persuade his patients to return to the front.

Jay Winter argues that we should see shell shock as a form of what he calls “historical remembrance”, which is a way of interpreting the past that draws on both history and memories.[3] He makes particular reference to the photographs and film footage of shell- shocked soldiers taken in the Great War as training material for the medical profession. Many of these show otherwise unscathed soldier patients with various kinds of bodily contortions, shaking uncontrollably, suffering from muteness and various other forms of physical and behavioural problems. Winter argues that what these photographs and film footages convey are “embodied memories” in which the soldiers are repeating their combat experiences through their bodies; their wartime memories are “written” on their bodies.

However, Winter also reminds us that the term “shell shock” should be taken as a metaphor rather than as an accurate description of the effects of artillery fire, which is how doctors originally interpreted the symptoms. “Shell shock” covers a broad range of experiences, and as evidence from the Vietnam War suggests, the individual does not actually have to have experienced direct combat in order to suffer from the symptoms. In the Great War, it is certainly true that many soldiers did suffer horrendous experiences.  On the other hand ‒ and Winter cites the example of T. E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) to make this point ‒ many individuals came out of the war feeling totally lost and alienated. And this highlights another important aspect of shell shock: the way that it undermined a person’s sense of self and identity. An individual’s war experiences simply do not “fit” into his overall sense of self and subjectivity. Winter quotes E. E. Southard’s argument that shell shock “reflects the inability of a person’s mind to integrate into his life story the sense experience of combat”. [4]

Lawrence spent his whole life struggling with his sense of identity, of which he felt he had been robbed many times. He was the illegitimate child of an illegitimate mother, which one could argue set the scene for the rest of his life, and then in 1917, whilst in disguise in Syria (he was working as a liaison officer for the British) he was captured and raped by the Turks: an experience he never really recovered from (although one which has also been called into question in more recent times). Just after the war, at the Treaty of Versailles, he felt even more alienated and betrayed when it became clear that the Allies were going to renege on their promises to the Arabs. Later on he changed his name and joined the RAF, then the tank corps, and then back to the RAF (with another name change). Eventually he was to die in a motorcycle accident in 1935 at the age of forty-six. The irony was that riding fast motorbikes was one of the few ways that Lawrence found to escape his desperate feelings of alienation and loss of identity.

I think Lawrence’s story is instructive on a number of fronts. To start with, whilst it could be argued that, like Sassoon, he was hardly the archetypical shell shock victim (although, like Sassoon, he had been in active combat), this is precisely the point. In other words, what is the “archetypical” shell shock (or PTSD) victim? In many ways, those haunting photographs and film clips of shaking soldiers with contorted bodies portray a too graphic representation of shell shock; the reality was always far more complicated. As with its contemporary PTSD manifestation, shell shock often took years to appear in a recognisable and pathological form. And, as with PTSD, individuals struggled for years to repress or otherwise cover up their troubled memories, through drink, drugs, or social isolation.

But I think the Lawrence case also touches on another question, which might be best described as the subjective context of shell shock. By this I do not mean the psychological effects of shell shock, which are well-documented, but rather the more difficult question, which Winter also poses, regarding its (relatively) low prevalence. In other words, why didn’t every soldier, and civilian, who experienced at first hand the horrors of the war, suffer from the symptoms of shell shock? This then raises the more controversial question, which I touched on in the chapter on PTSD, as to whether there can be said to be a “predisposition” to shell shock/PTSD. Of course, with regard to victims of shell shock in the Great War this is now impossible to verify, but perhaps it is interesting to look at Lawrence as one particular example. I mentioned earlier that he was the illegitimate son of an illegitimate mother, and this is something that Winter picks up on. Regarding Lawrence’s further feelings of disillusionment and alienation following a brief spell as adviser on Arab affairs to Winston Churchill in 1921, he notes:

Here his war experience and his early life came together. He learned as a teenager that he was illegitimate, as indeed was his mother. Having “no name” in the Victorian sense of the term, he was free to shed the one by which the public knew him. He took a new name and built a new life, in the Royal Air Force, as Airman First Class John Hume Ross.[5]

But of course, the name by which the public knew him was “Lawrence of Arabia”, and this was the reason they were interested in him in the first place; this was another fabricated identity, based on Lawrence trying to disguise himself as an Arab as part of his work as a liaison officer. So here we have someone who is already alienated, already has “no name”, and who actively sought out a life based on false and multiple identities.

And this leads me to another, even more fundamental issue, and one which, in many ways represents another missed encounter between the Great War and psychoanalysis. I say “another” because although shell shock is sometimes cited as being the great opportunity for Freudian-inspired psychiatrists to develop their psychoanalytic interests, this was not, as I have already indicated, really the case, especially when it came to Freud’s basic premise regarding the sexual aetiology of the psychoneuroses. This was too much even for people like Rivers, who were otherwise favourably disposed to many of Freud’s ideas.

Interestingly enough though, the Great War did lead Freud to question his own theories, though not in terms of abandoning his theory of the sexual origins of neurosis. Rather, it led him to develop the concept of the death drive, which he described as being “beyond the pleasure principle”.[6]  Even many of Freud’s closest admirers struggled (and still struggle) with this concept, in spite of the fact that the death drive manifests itself all around us. As with many of Freud’s ideas, this is a complex one, and should not be reduced to the notion of a “killer instinct”. Much of it revolves around his theory of the “binding” and “unbinding” of psychical energy, and his theory of the drive as the reduction of tension. Later on, Lacan was to reformulate the idea of the death drive with his concept of jouissance.

However, the death drive is important in another way: not only does it force us to redefine the notion of the drive, and, related to this, human subjectivity; it also forces us to question the whole Humanist, and indeed the whole Enlightenment, project. Freud himself had already begun this deconstruction of the humanist subject with his theory of the unconscious, and the idea that the head does not rule the heart, that reason does not prevail. In fact, it might be more accurate to say that reason is a slave of the passions, a servant of desire. But when we talk about a death drive are we saying that human beings are driven towards destruction? Some analysts like to speak of a conflict between Eros (the life/sex drive) and Thanatos (the death drive), though Freud himself did not use this latter term. This implies an element of choice, that human beings are not “doomed” to destruction. Freud, on the other hand, was more pessimistic, and argued that, in the end, life is but a detour (albeit an important one!) towards the inevitable.

In many ways, the Great War could be seen as the embodiment of the death drive at a global level. Many people, including politicians, military leaders, artists, and intellectuals, as well as the more “rank and file” of the population, welcomed the war as a form of “purification”. They felt that the old order had become stale and corrupt. It was time for something new. This is something that Modris Eksteins, in his book Rites of Spring, explores in some depth.[7]  This attitude was particularly pronounced in Germany. As Eksteins points out, many Germans saw the onset of war as the realisation of the spiritual and physical unity that Bismarck had tried but failed to bring about:

Spirit and might would be reconciled in a state of surreal harmony, of Dionysian activity together with Apollonian tranquillity, in which means and ends, object and subject, would be fused. Archaism and modernity would become one. Technological innovation and industrial progress would, in a grand synthesis, combine with a spirit of pastoral simplicity. Society and culture would no longer be conflicting realms but an indissoluble whole.[8]

Perhaps it might be better to argue that technological innovation and industrial progress were the means by which a pastoral simplicity (which I will come to in a moment), a lost innocence, could be achieved. In other words, the desire for radical change, a new life, which was so prevalent (even prior to the war), was structured around a very ancient desire: the desire for the lost paradise ‒ even if it utilised the latest technology and science to try to find it. Of course, what transpired was a living nightmare; one that continued long after 1918, and one that, in many ways, we are still living in today. And perhaps this is the real paradox of the Great War and its legacy: the horror and the trauma ‒ both of the war itself and its enduring legacy ‒ were rooted in a desire for a better world, a new life. In Lacanian terms, we might formulate this in terms of the desire for the lost object: the object that appears at the very moment of its vanishing.


A generation traumatised?

The Great War is often presented as a schism, a fracture, a discontinuity, in the fabric of history. This gives rise to the idea of a “lost innocence”, that is, the pre-war (and in the case of Britain, the Edwardian) period. But was it that simple? As all historians will tell you, Europe was already in a state of flux well before 1914, and many of the old certainties and orders were already being called into question. Britain itself was in the grip of social and political unrest, both on the mainland and in Ireland, and things were bubbling away beneath many European countries, including Russia, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Be that as it may, what sticks in our minds, and what stands behind all the remembrance, all the reimagining, of the Great War are the twin motifs of tragedy and trauma; a whole generation wasted and psychically scarred for life. Except, of course, that this is one of the myths of the Great War. As I will explore in more detail shortly, writers such as Paul Fussell and Samuel Hynes point out that an important legacy of the war was its reimagining and eventual mythologisation, especially (but by no means exclusively) by the subaltern officer class, for example, Owen, Brooke, and Sassoon. Furthermore, as Hynes, in particular, emphasises, there was more than one version of this legacy, more than one version of the social and psychological impact of the Great War on British culture, and not everyone agreed with the idea of the war as schism, as discontinuity.

But isn’t it the case that a whole generation of young men (and women for that matter) was traumatised by the war, had their lives changed for ever? There is little doubt that the Great War was a traumatic experience: not only for all those affected by the horrors of trench warfare, but for the wider society as well. And it is important to note that part of that trauma was the scale of the loss that occurred ‒ not only on the Front itself but also back at home; for all those wives, mothers, girlfriends, sons, and daughters who would never see their loved ones again. This is something Juliet Nicolson chronicles in her moving book The Great Silence.[9]  Furthermore, this sense of loss carried on long after the Armistice of 1918, and in some ways, this loss still casts its long shadow today, a century after the war (officially) ended.

However, I think it is crucial to understand what we mean by the term “trauma” in this context, and this is where I think psychoanalysis can play an important role. Although it is tempting to think of “shell shock” or “war neurosis” as the main psychoanalytic legacy of the First World War, this would, in my view, be a serious mistake. To start with, as I have already pointed out, although a lot of the psychiatrists and doctors who encountered and treated shell shock were aware of psychoanalytic ideas, and in some cases, were prepared to use them, Freud’s discoveries were by no means universally welcomed or accepted. Even those doctors who were prepared to accept some aspects of Freudian thinking rejected others. For example, and as I noted earlier, W. H. R. Rivers was very interested in his patients’ dreams, but rejected the idea that his patients’ traumas were sexual in origin. In fact, Rivers argued that his patients’ traumas were rooted in the present or very recent past, that is, in their experiences in the trenches. The key point here is that psychoanalysis and psychoanalytic therapies have never held that much sway in the actual treatment of “shell shock”, “war neurosis”, and, later on, PTSD.

“Shell shock/war neurosis” does matter, however, in that it highlights the whole question of trauma, and especially trauma as a meaningless experience. Ultimately, for most people, the war, the endless carnage and suffering, made no sense at all. Hence the continuing attempts, even today, to try to make sense of it, to try to put it in some meaningful context and perspective. Perhaps the key question here is whether it makes sense to speak of the war itself as a trauma; or whether it is more the case that specific individuals were traumatised by their experiences in the war.

If it is a case of particular individuals being traumatised by their experiences, for example, those suffering from “shell shock”, then this suggests that even though the war was a terrible experience for everyone, and for some an experience they were never able to come to terms with, it is still possible to make sense of it, to be able to explain why it happened, and why all the suffering and carnage was, in some way, “necessary”. On the other hand, if the war itself can be seen as trauma then this suggests that there is something about it that escapes meaning. One of the problems with looking at shell shock in terms of individual trauma, that is, how individuals (combatants and non-combatants alike) were affected by the war, is that it essentially victimises such individuals, which in psychotherapeutic and analytic circles is always deeply problematic. Furthermore, it raises a more fundamental question: why not everyone? In other words, why wasn’t everyone who took part in the war, and especially those who experienced combat first hand, suffering from shell shock? This raises the very tricky question of whether there is some kind of “predisposition” to trauma in certain individuals.


Et in Arcadia ego

If the opposite of war is peace, the opposite of experiencing moments of war is proposing moments of peace. Since war takes place outdoors and always within nature, its symbolic status is that of ultimate anti-pastoral … it belongs to the demonic world, and no one engages in it or contemplates it without implicitly or explicitly bringing to bear the contrasting “model world” by which its demonism is measure. [10]

So writes Paul Fussell in his seminal work The Great War and Modern Memory. Although Fussell has been criticised on a number of counts since the initial publication of the book in 1975 (it was republished in 2000 and then again in 2013), he touches here on an aspect of the First World War that even today appears to have been largely ignored. This is the influence of the English pastoral tradition on writers and poets, including those who served in the trenches, in framing how they viewed and wrote about the war and its horrors.

Fussell talks about the “British model world” of an idealised (English) ruralism, which has become “codified” into the English (if not the British) psyche, and functions to preserve a mythical rural idyll, which in reality is long gone and may never have existed in the first place. Fussell also highlights the irony that such a mythical lost world is the result of early industrialisation in Britain, and that English ruralism was essentially a reaction to the effects of the industrial revolution. On this point Fussell quotes Raymond Williams:

… there was … a marked development of the idea of England as “home,” in that special sense in which home is a memory and an ideal. Some of the images of this “home” are of central London. … But many are of an ideal of rural England: its green peace contrasted with the tropical or arid places of actual work; its sense of belonging, of community, idealized by contrast with the tensions of colonial rule and the isolated alien settlement. The birds and trees and rivers of England; the natives speaking, more or less, one’s own language: these were the terms of many imagined and actual settlements. The country, now, was a place to retire to.[11]

With regard to the Great War, English pastoral was, according to Fussell, put to a number of uses. First, it was a way to gauge the horrors of war, and acted as an imaginary protection against them:

Pastoral reference, whether to literature or to actual rural localities and objects, is a way of invoking a code to hint by antithesis at the indescribable; at the same time, it is a comfort in itself, like rum, a deep dugout, or a woolly vest. The Golden Age posited by Classical and Renaissance literary pastoral now finds its counterpart in ideas of “home” and “the summer of 1914.”[12]

At the same time, there is great use of pastoral irony, for example, references to “hedges of (barbed) wire”, which are also referred to as examples of “war flora”. Irony serves to mark the distance between the actual experience of the war and what is most desired, although even here it can provide sanctuary because it can still invoke associations with the lost idyll.

But there is more to it: in fact, there is a much darker side to the notion of the English pastoral, which Fussell also explores. Take, for example, the fascination with flowers, which features strongly in many versions of the English pastoral. There are two particular flowers that are especially pertinent in this regard: roses and poppies. Both of these flowers were already associated with blood and sacrifice long before 1914. The rose especially had connotations with “England”, “loyalty”, and “sacrifice”. Also, there were sacramental connotations, with the rose as a communion symbol. With regard to poppies, which have become the floral representation of the Great War, Fussell points out that these flowers had already accumulated a traditional symbolism in English writing dating back to Chaucer:

Roses were indispensable to the work of the imagination during and after the Great War not because Belgium and France were full of them but because English poetry was, and because since the Middle Ages they had connoted “England” and “loyalty” and “sacrifice.”[13]

Fussell reminds us that there is a long tradition of the rose as a symbol of a soldier’s wounds, and also an equation of roses with sacrificial love. At this point he notes that the English translation of Et in Arcadia ego is “Even in Arcadia, I, Death, hold sway”, whereas the Continental version reads “And I have dwelt in Arcadia too”. Fussell links the English (and in his view the correct) translation with the English “insular” tradition, which also retains the idea of memento mori, that is, being reminded of one’s mortality, even at the moment of victory. This also links with the image of roses being juxtaposed with skulls as an emblem of the omnipotence of death.

Of course, the other great floral symbol of the Great War is the Flanders poppy. As Fussell points out, the poppy has a long tradition in English literature, again, like the rose, going back at least as far as Chaucer. Its conventional connotation has always been of sleep and oblivion, which can be taken to symbolise a (very much desired) mock death. However, in the late nineteenth century, the poppy started to develop another connotation, namely of homoeroticism. Fussell makes reference here to W. S. Gilbert’s poem “Patience”, and also to Lord Alfred Douglas’ “Two Loves”, which ends with the (in)famous line: “I am the love that dare not speak its name.” Fussell explores the whole question of homoeroticism and the Great War elsewhere in his book, and although it is not directly relevant to the subject of this chapter, it illustrates an important point regarding one of the many uses of English pastoral, which is that it provides a language, albeit in codified form, with which to articulate moral and social commentary.

And let’s not forget, of course, the other use of the poppy, or rather its paper or plastic counterpart, as a symbol of remembrance and, at the same time, of the agonising oblivion of the dead. Fussell even goes as far to describe such poppies as “little paper simulacra”.

This raises an interesting question in regard to the actual function of the English pastoral in the (re)imaginings of those writers and poets who wanted to convey their experiences of trench warfare. On the one hand, it could be argued that the idea (or rather fantasy) of the English pastoral kept them going in the midst of the horrors of that “ultimate anti-pastoral”. On the other hand it might not be stretching things too far to argue that it was precisely this fantasy of the (lost) Arcadia that perpetuated the war, and, ironically, ensured that the rural idyll would be well and truly destroyed forever.

However, I think there is more subtlety and nuance here than first meets the eye. To start with, I think there is a good argument for saying that the English pastoral, along with a whole range of art, literature, and poetry, helped to “manage” the trauma of the war. Essentially, English pastoral was used as part of a process to (re)construct the Great War as something meaningful, but part of this process was to try to “internalise” the very contradictions inherent in such a process. In many ways we could argue that its function was to reconcile the irreconcilable, which means that essentially it served an ideological function. Just to give an example: it could be argued that the war was presented to the British people as being fought to protect “freedom, democracy (of sorts), and the English way of life”. But one of the contradictions here is that, in the process, “the English way of life” was essentially destroyed ‒ or at least radically transformed. It could be argued that the idea of English pastoral was a major component of such a “way of life”, but it was actually being deployed in far more subtle and nuanced ways. And, in fact, the thrust of Fussell’s argument seems to be that the English pastoral tradition itself already recognises its own internal contradictions, for example, the equation of roses with blood and sacrifice, and, more generally, the idea of something always already lost.

However, it is not simply the case of such writers and poets longing for the tranquillity of the English countryside whilst they wallowed up to their necks in mud, blood, and filth. To start with, this was an imagined countryside, one which had to a large extent already been eradicated by industrialisation and urbanisation. And this is one of the great ironies (and tragedies) of the war: that this image, this fantasy of the English pastoral, this rural idyll, was itself a function of industrialisation, a romantic reaction to it. In other words, the war was being fought to preserve something that no longer existed (and, in many ways, never had).


A war (re)imagined

Fussell’s arguments regarding the English pastoral can be seen as part of a wider process of “reimagining” the Great War. And, as I pointed out earlier, an important aspect of this reimagining is the idea of a cultural or collective trauma. In this sense, the idea of “shell shock”, for example, becomes more of a cultural metaphor, rather than a psychiatric diagnosis. But couldn’t this simply be a case of mass traumatisation, of a mass hysteria, in the same sense that Freud explored in his paper on group psychology?[14]  But again, this flies in the face of the evidence, because many, if not most, people who lived through the war were not traumatised, as far as we can tell. This leads to another, more fundamental problem regarding the Myth of the Great War (to use Hynes’ phrase): a cornerstone of such a myth was that of a lost and traumatised generation. And, paradoxically perhaps, the myth of a lost and traumatised generation was precisely a way to “detraumatise” the war and its effects.

As Hynes points out, an important element in the construction of the Myth of the Great War, which was not finally completed until the early 1930s, just as another, even more catastrophic, war loomed on the horizon, was the idea of a “before” and “after” the war. This idea of a “before” and “after”, “pre-war” and “post-war”, operated on at least two different levels. First, in subjective terms it was a way to define how individuals experienced the war (although most of the accounts we have of this are of the articulate, officer class, rather than the “rank and file”). One of the key themes to emerge from such accounts was that of a “pre-war self” and a “post-war self”, and in-between lay an unfathomable void. Such “post-war selves” were totally changed from their “pre-war” predecessors, and in many cases, totally fractured. The war experience is often portrayed as a growing disillusionment and a form of “growing up” or “coming-of-age.”

At another level, that of social and cultural history, the Great War is often portrayed as a turning, or pivotal, point, and again there is a sharp distinction between “pre-war” and “post-war”. This gives rise to the myth of “lost innocence”, “Edwardian summer”, and so on. The “pre-war” world is “another place”, and, to refer back to Schiffman’s argument, an anachronism. One of the tragic ironies here is that, in the lead-up to the war, many of those who later lamented the “lost generation” were only too keen to see a destruction of the old order, had become tired and weary of the “Edwardian summer”, and could hardly wait for the “cleansing” apocalypse to come.

But an even greater irony, perhaps, is that in many ways the apocalypse failed to materialise, or at least not to the extent that many dreamed of. Yes, a great deal changed, but a great deal did not. Furthermore, as Hynes and many others have pointed out, things were by no means rosy in the Edwardian garden, and in many ways the Great War was simply an interruption of growing internal conflicts on the home front; in the case of Britain this included simmering class conflict, problems in Ireland, and an increasingly vocal (and violent) women’s movement. After the war (and to a certain degree, even during it) such conflicts continued. So in fact there is a good case to be made, in my view, for the Great War being not so much a “rupture” in the fabric of history, but rather part of a gradual and continuous “tearing” of such a fabric.

The point I am making is that the irony, cynicism, and disillusionment that developed during the war and continued apace in the aftermath does not equate with a loss of meaning or with trauma. Rather, such sentiments are all different ways to reshape the experience of the war, and, as I suggested earlier, to try to detraumatise it. Or perhaps it might be more helpful to think in terms of what lay behind or beneath (or even beyond) the war; in other words, “the Myth of the Trauma of the Great War” (for want of a better way to describe it) was (and still is) a way to circumvent the Real trauma of history itself.

I will come back to this point later, but first I want to look at another aspect of the Great War, and one which I have already explored in the context of historical abuse. This is what we might call the “Nachträglichkeit effect”. It is tempting, I think, to regard the whole process of constructing the Great War as myth as an exercise in retroactive history. And, of course, in many ways it was. As I pointed out earlier, many of the key texts, along with key works of art and films, which went to form the “canon” of the Myth of the Great War, did not appear until the late 1920s or even later. Hynes explores this process in some detail in the final chapter of his book, and I would argue that it is not clear that there is a “Nachträglichkeit effect” at work here, even though, superficially, it might appear to be the case. In fact, I would argue that in many ways such works are forms of self-analysis or therapy. In other words, whilst it may be true that writers such as Graves, Sassoon, Blunden, Remarque (just to give a few well-known examples), were deeply affected by the war, their “writing” of it should be seen in terms of a retrospective healing rather than as retrospective trauma. What is far more important, in relation to Nachträglichkeit, is the effect such representations had on other people, and especially those who had lived through the Great War. Were they traumatised by exposure to such material? The problem, of course, is that the Great War generation has now passed, so it becomes impossible to research such questions with any accuracy. However, there seems to be quite a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that many veterans of the Great War, including my own grandfather, found it deeply disturbing to read about or watch programmes about the Great War and subsequent conflicts, even decades later.

One of the functions of the Myth of the Great War (and here I’m developing Hynes’ argument on this subject), was to historicise it, to give it a place in history. It is also important to note that the context of such historicisation was the growing culture of pacifism, at least in Britain and France, and the deep desire that the Great War should indeed be the “war to end all wars”. In this context, the “after the war” idea takes on another meaning: not only has the world changed, but it has changed for the better, and in fact war itself is now history, an anachronism. And perhaps this is the real tragedy of the Great War: that its historicisation, its mythologisation, in fact, made it harder to recognise that war was not history in the sense of being “past”, but is rather the manifestation of something far more present and disturbing. Even as the “canon” of the Myth of the Great War was being completed, such present and disturbing forces were already making themselves felt all across Europe. Perhaps it might be going a bit far to argue that the Myth of the Great War paved the way to Auschwitz, but, on the other hand, it certainly did nothing to stop it. And at this point I think it is worth exploring in more detail where the unravelling of the myth did lead to.


Holocaust without end?

In his essay Memory’s Time: Chronology and Duration in Holocaust Testimonies, Lawrence Langer makes a distinction between “chronological” and “durational” time.[15] Chronological time presumes a “before, during, and after”, whereas in durational time there is only “now”, and therefore there can be no sense of “what next?” or an “afterwards”. Langer’s argument is that for Holocaust survivors, time was durational rather than chronological, even when decades later they were giving their testimonies. “Holocaust time” is “lost time”, which has no place in the psychical apparatus, and is a constantly re-experienced time.

Another important point that Langer highlights is the importance for many Holocaust survivors ‒ and the broader culture within which they are situated ‒ of giving a meaning to their experiences. This applies particularly to the deaths of the victims, and, to use Langer’s terminology, has given rise to the idea of the “Auschwitz death” as “sacrifice” or “martyrdom”. The reality, however, as Langer points out, was very different:

The idea of a “beautiful death” invoked by words like “sacrifice” and “martyrdom” awakens the consolations of chronological time, but the price one pays is fidelity to the durational moment: that is, the last gasp of life, followed by the literal annihilation of the remains, until no trace is left, in memory or fact, of what was once a human being. The language of chronology seeks to rescue the victim from that mute fate. [16]

In other words, the concept of a “beautiful death” invokes the idea of a meaningful death, which brings us back, paradoxically perhaps, into the land of the living: the world of “normal”, chronological time, of “history” as most people understand it. Langer also briefly touches upon another aspect of “Holocaust time”: he refers to the Auschwitz experience as a splitting, rather than a continuity, of time. However, we need to think of splitting in terms of a foreclosure of time, of memory, rather than Freud’s concept of a splitting of the ego, although Langer does make reference to this as well.

Finally, there is Langer’s reference to Nazis and Jews inhabiting different “universes of discourse”: “… it took the victims a long time to admit this; when they realized it, for most of them it was too late ….”[17]. Perhaps more disconcertingly, Langer also points out that our “universe of discourse” is totally different from that of Holocaust survivors. We simply have no comprehension of such a universe; the “best” (or worst?) we can do is to try to redefine the Holocaust experience in terms of our own discursive universe and give it a “history” and a “narrative”.

However, I think Langer is also hinting, perhaps unknowingly, at something else: something that might be best described as the “ideological kernel” that lies at the heart of both these “universes of discourse”. This “kernel” is itself traumatic; a Real around which the discursive formations of both Judaism and Nazism circulate. And perhaps this is another reason why it is so hard for anyone who was not directly touched by the Holocaust to even begin to get to grips with it: the worldview that made it possible in the first place is simply incomprehensible to most people. In a sense you could say that the worldview that led to Auschwitz was itself totally traumatised.

But going back to Langer’s basic argument regarding time, one of the things that struck me when reading his essay was how much his notion of “Holocaust time”, what he calls “durational time”, chimes with the idea of trauma in general. In other words, perhaps “Holocaust time” is a particular instance of trauma time. After all, is not the whole point about traumatic experiences that they are somehow “outside” of “normal”, chronological, and historical time? And is not one of the problems for those who have experienced trauma that it just won’t go away, that it just keeps repeating itself? In many ways, it doesn’t seem quite right to talk of “traumatic memories”, because this sounds like a contradiction in terms; nothing is remembered but rather, it is repeated. If it could be remembered, in the sense of being symbolically processed and transcribed, then it would no longer be traumatic.

I think this also raises a more delicate question regarding the Holocaust: is the Holocaust experience, from the point of view of the survivor, any different from any other traumatic experience? After all, many Holocaust survivors ‒ both first- and second-generation ‒ have exhibited symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems. These are the types of symptoms commonly found in anyone who has experienced great trauma.

However, I think at this point we need to differentiate between how the Holocaust affected those who lived through it and survived, and trying to situate the Holocaust as a world historical event. This then leads to the question: to what extent is the Holocaust a violation or traumatising of history itself; which would itself include the notion “world historical event”? In other words, if by “history” we mean some form of chronological narrative, then to what extent is this narrative ruptured, shredded, foreclosed? To put it another way: can there be history after Auschwitz?

Going back to the question of the Great War, with which I began this chapter, it would have been tempting to present it alongside the Holocaust as an example of trauma in history; or rather, trauma at the level of society and culture, as well as trauma at the level of the individual. However, as I hope to have shown in the preceding pages, things are not quite that simple. This is not to deny for one moment that the Great War was experienced by many who lived through it as deeply disturbing. And, equally, it is not to deny that many of those who fought in the war were severely traumatised, even if the precise mechanism of such traumatisation is open to question (that is, in terms of Nachträglichkeit and the idea of retroactive trauma).

However, I would argue that the Holocaust takes things to another level, and in so doing exposes something profoundly disturbing, not only regarding human nature and the depths to which human beings can sink, but also the nature of history itself. And by this I am not simply referring to the well-rehearsed argument that the Enlightenment leads straight to the concentration camps, because in many ways this is precisely what the propagators of the Myth of the Great War had already grasped. In other words, the disillusionment that followed the Great War was a recognition that history is not a one-way street from darkness to light, but rather something far more problematic. Perhaps yet another of the tragic ironies of the Myth of the Great War was that it was designed to forestall the descent into the abyss of the Holocaust. The critical point about the myth was that it included within itself the idea of trauma and disillusionment; there was nothing heroic about this story, but rather a frank and almost unendingly merciless confrontation with the follies and weaknesses of human nature, and the hypocrisies of “civilised” society.

And yet … the descent into the abyss happened anyway. Perhaps one of the reasons for this was that the Holocaust represented the epicentre of a very different kind of war; one might even say it was the Real kernel of Hitler’s dream (or rather nightmare). However destructive the Great War (in so far as it can be defined within any kind of historical parameters) may have been, it was, in essence, still a “conventional” war between nation states, with the aim of recalibrating the balance of the Great Powers across Europe. Hitler’s war was something else entirely: this was a war of annihilation. This was war and terror for its own sake, even if lebensraum could be seen as its ideological “legitimation”. Of course, it could easily be argued that the warning signs were there for all to see throughout the 1920s and 1930s – and I am not just referring to what was in Mein Kampf (although perhaps it might have helped if more people had read it), the “betrayal of Versailles”, and so on; but also to the general political, social, and ideological crises that were sweeping across Europe in the wake of the Great War. The interesting point here is that none of this was included in the Myth of the Great War – or at least, not in its English and French versions. Perhaps if the main authors of the myth had taken a closer look at the Russian Civil War, which began even before the guns had quietened on the Western Front, or at the (failed) revolution in Germany in the immediate wake of the war, they might have written it somewhat differently. In fact, they might not have written it at all, but rather have focused on trying to make sense of why the war was dragging endlessly on, albeit in a different form to the “Great War” of the history books.

And this leads me back to the beginning of this text, and the idea that the “Great War” can be historically circumscribed, “placed” within a particular chronological period. Interestingly, although many historians would nowadays question such a circumscription, the myth runs deep in our psyche. As I have already touched upon, one of the consequences of the myth is that it “contains” the Great War, and in doing so, “contains” its trauma. By “building into” the myth the disillusionment, the trauma, the whole idea of a “lost generation”, it effectively marked off, demarcated, the war, and in the process created another myth: the myth of the “inter-war”, the peace between the wars.


War without end?

But how are we to deal with the legacy of such horrors, the legacy of the Great War and its (enduring) aftermath? If myth-making doesn’t work, what are we left with? To end this writing I want to briefly examine whether there is any role for psychoanalysis and psychotherapy in helping survivors of such traumas to find a way to work through their experiences. And although I’m focusing here specifically on the legacy of the Jewish Holocaust (itself one of the legacies of the Great War), I would argue that many of the ideas and arguments that I explore apply equally to more recent traumas.

2015 marked the seventieth anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration/death camp by the Soviet Red Army, and also many other camps, including Belsen and Dachau. Although many of those who survived the horrors of their ordeal were able to rebuild their lives, which often included emigrating to either Israel or the United States, they were left with a psychical wound that, even for those who are now in old age, has never really healed. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that amongst Holocaust survivors there are higher than expected incidences of PTSD, anxiety, depression, phobias, and hypochondria.

What is perhaps less well-known and publicised is that these experiences seem to have affected both the survivors’ children and their grandchildren. So much so, in fact, that both the children and grandchildren are described in the Holocaust literature as “second- and third-generation survivors”. With regard to the second-generation survivors (the children of those who directly experienced the Holocaust) there is strong evidence to suggest that they not only appear to be more susceptible to PTSD than those whose parents did not experience the Holocaust, but also appear to “carry” the rage of their parents. As Kahane-Nissenbaum, who has extensively reviewed the literature on Holocaust survivors as part of her own research project on third-generation survivors, notes:

It is hypothesized that the first generation is afraid of its own rage and therefore is unable to express it, resulting in the dropping of subtle cues to their children who will then act out the aggression which will gratify the parents’ unmet needs.[18]

When it comes to third-generation survivors (the grandchildren) things are less clear-cut. There is some evidence of psychopathology that could be associated with having one or more grandparents who directly experienced the Holocaust, for example, depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, and hypochondria. On the other hand, there is also evidence to suggest that because the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are “further removed” (both historically and geographically) from the Holocaust than either their grandparents or parents, they are less likely to exhibit pathological symptoms. Instead, they are likely to see their grandparents as heroes rather than victims and feel obliged to keep the memory of the Holocaust alive. Ironically, they may still suffer feelings of guilt, but this is more likely to be “guilt by comparison”, that is, feeling guilty that their lives are so much better than those of their grandparents. In contrast, both their grandparents and their parents often experience “survivor guilt” or “death guilt” and will ask questions such as: “Why did I survive whilst so many perished?” and: “Do I really deserve to live?” For some reason this sense of guilt seems to have been “transmitted” from the first generation survivors, that is, from those who actually experienced the Holocaust first hand, to their children.

Whilst there seems to be plenty of evidence to suggest that both the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors are affected psychologically by the experiences of their parents or grandparents, it is still not clear why this should be the case. In other words, there is still no clear understanding of the “mechanism” of the transmission of the memories and experiences of the Holocaust from one generation to another. It should not necessarily be assumed that Holocaust survivors openly shared their memories of such horrors with their children or grandchildren, although many did and, unfortunately perhaps for their offspring who effectively “took on the guilt” of their parents, found this quite “therapeutic”. On the other hand, such transmission can operate in more subtle ways: what, for example, is a child to make of the deathly silences that he may encounter when asking one or both of his parents about their wartime experiences?

One psychoanalytic explanation of such a mechanism utilises the (non-Lacanian) theory of “projective identification” to show how first-generation Holocaust survivors “project” feelings of anxieties and other emotions related to their experiences of the Holocaust on to their children; the children in turn “introject”, take into themselves, such emotions, with the result they “experience” the concentration camps, the ghettos, and so on, as if they had actually been there themselves. However, because this “re-experiencing” takes place largely at an unconscious level, the result is that the child experiences a range of psychopathological symptoms, for example, unaccountable anxiety or depression, rather than directly “remembering” such experiences.

In many ways it is enough simply for the child to listen to his parents’ discourse, their talking to one another and to their children (and this would include the gaps in the discourse), for him to “introject”, that is, take as his own, his parents’ memories. This process of introjection is then subject to further interpretation and retranscription; in other words, the child or grandchild does not simply “absorb” the memories and feelings of his parent or grandparent, but truly “makes them his own”. Furthermore, as I indicated above, this process of introjection takes place at the level of the unconscious, so the child or grandchild may not have any conscious memories of his parents’ or grandparents’ discourse.

It could also be argued that, with regard to third-generation survivors, even if they are more likely to see their grandparents as heroes rather than victims, as some research suggests, this may not be the full story. Seeing their grandparents as heroes rather than victims could be seen as a form of idealisation; in other words, whereas it perhaps made more sense for the children of Holocaust survivors to see their parents (and in some cases themselves) as victims, with the grandchildren it might make more sense to see their grandparents as heroes, as remarkable people.

And it is this question of making sense that is key here: in many ways, what the survivors of the Holocaust experienced and endured made no sense at all. Over seventy years on, historians are still struggling to understand what happened. This was a truly traumatic event, one that is beyond meaning. At the same time, though, and perhaps precisely because of the horrific nature of this particular trauma, survivors (and the wider society) seem desperate to construct meaning, to try to understand what happened. This is something the psychotherapist Viktor Frankl, himself a first-generation Holocaust survivor, was astutely aware of: the importance of retaining some kind of meaning, even in the face of absolute horror and meaninglessness. This search for meaning formed the basis of Frankl’s therapeutic approach, logotherapy, which was about encouraging people to find meaning in their lives, whilst at the same time recognising that this is a never-ending process.

From a psychoanalytic position, however, perhaps it is equally as important to recognise the limits to such “meaning making”. Whilst it is helpful ‒ and perhaps essential ‒ for Holocaust survivors (of all generations) and the wider society to try to make sense of what happened over seventy years ago, and hopefully learn the lessons from that event, it is important to recognise the limits of such understanding; in other words, to recognise that the Holocaust, as both a personal and an historical experience, represented a deep wound in the fabric of the world, a rupturing of history itself. The challenge ‒ both for individual survivors of all generations and for society as a whole ‒ is to find a way to come to terms with this rupturing of meaning without giving up in despair.


[1] Hynes, S. 1990. A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture. London: The Bodley Head Ltd.

[2] Shephard, B. 2000. A War of Nerves. London: Jonathan Cape.

[3] Winter, J. 2006. Remembering War: The Great War Between Memory and History in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[4] Ibid p.68

[5] Ibid p.73

[6] Freud, S. 1920g. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In: The Standard Edition, vol.18. London: Hogarth Press, pp. 3–64.

[7] Eksteins, M. (2000) Rites of Spring  The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. London: Papermac.

[8] Ibid 192

[9] Nicolson, J. (2009) The Great Silence 1918-1920  Living in the Shadow of the Great War. London: John Murray.

[10] Fussell, P. 2013. The Great War and modern memory. New York: Oxford University Press, p.258

[11] Ibid p.252

[12] Ibid p.252

[13] Ibid p.265

[14] Freud, S. (1921) Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, in: The Standard Edition. London: Vintage/Hogarth Press,18, pp. 67–143.

[15] Langer, L.L. 1995. Memory’s Time: Chronology and Duration in Holocaust Testimonies InAdmitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 13–24.

[16] Ibid p.19

[17] Ibid p.20

[18] Kahane-Nissenbaum (2011) Exploring Intergenerational Transmission of Trauma in Third Generation Holocaust Survivors (Doctorate In Social Work). University of Pennsylvania.


Copyright Leslie Chapman and Therapeia Ltd 2019

Visit Touching the Real


Read Offline: