Splitting and Projection

Before, During and After World War Two

By Mary Katherine Armstrong

"In my practice as a psychotherapist, I frequently observe that the clients who first
appear the gentlest and most forgiving, often end up having the greatest anger.
Their anger burns so hot they have never felt safe even to feel it. While insisting
they are not angry, they are very afraid of other people’s anger."

This paper is about splitting and projection as witnessed historically, before, during and after World War II. I intend to begin with discussions of splitting and projection as psychological defences. Then I shall look at how splitting and projection served the psychological needs of those Germans who were raised in the harsh tradition of German child rearing and who also suffered terribly as children on the losing side during the First World War. I will be referring to this group, who later grew up to fill the ranks of the SA and other paramilitary party organizations such as the Hitler-Jugend and the Bund-Deutscher-Maedel, as “the cohort”, the term used by Peter Loewenberg to describe “individuals who have shared a significant common experience of a personal or historical event at the same time” (Loewenberg, Peter. Decoding the Past. New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1996, p.246).

It is my view that the abuse suffered by German speaking children thwarted the cohort’s social and emotional development. That is, instead of maturing into adults who had individuated and separated and who empathized with others’ pain, they remained stuck in the numbing rut of conformity and obedience.

Splitting is understood in this way: when we find a personality trait in ourselves which we consider unacceptable, we deny that we are like this. We split off ownership of this part of ourselves. As for projection, we attribute the hated quality to someone else and despise it in the other.

Splitting and projection allow us to think well of ourselves and to be comfortable with ourselves. We have all the self-righteous satisfaction of being “right thinking people”. We belong to the right side. We are one of the “good guys”. We are worthy of love and acceptance.

Peter Loewenberg gives us a psychoanalytical explanation of splitting and projection in his chapter called “The Psychohistorical Origins of the Nazi Youth Cohort”. Loewenberg explains splitting and projection this way:

An infant is totally dependent on the mother for comfort and love. Being so helpless, the child must struggle with intense fears of loss of love and this arouses feelings of hostility and aggression. But the child dares not express these feelings as he needs to preserve his love for the mother, in spite of fear and rage. If the mother’s love and acceptance for the child is not forthcoming, the child views himself as worthless and unlovable, an evil force which could drive the mother away. One way of coping with feelings of inner badness is to project these evil asocial parts of the self onto others (pp.261-262).

In my practice as a psychotherapist, I frequently observe that the clients who first appear the gentlest and most forgiving, often end up having the greatest anger. Their anger burns so hot they have never felt safe even to feel it. While insisting they are not angry, they are very afraid of other people’s anger.

One of the problems with splitting and projection is that it keeps us from struggling with life. If we settle for splitting and projecting, we avoid the developmental stage of individuation and separation. For, to separate is to give up the womb of belonging, of thinking as the others think and doing what the others do. To individuate is to take responsibility for our own lives. In order to become mature adults, we have to recognize our own emotions, act on our own consciences, and take responsibility for our own actions. But if we take the easy route and resort to splitting and projection, we remain simplistic in our thinking and unempathic in our emotions. The “bad guy” is not really a human who loves and feels pain. He is merely despicable, filled with all the characteristics we loathe most in ourselves.

At the end of the second World War, before the days of political correctness, the British historian E.A.P. Taylor described Germany this way. Germany has:

produced the most transcendental philosophers, the most spiritual musicians, and the most ruthless and unscrupulous politicians. ‘German’ has meant at one moment a being so sentimental, so trusting, so pious, as to be too good for this world; and at another a being so brutal, so unprincipled, so degraded, as to be not fit to live. Both descriptions are true: both types of Germans have existed not only at the same epoch, but in the same person (Taylor, A.J.P., The Course of German History. New York: Capricorn Books, 1962, p.13).

In his attempt to understand the split in the personality of “The German”, Taylor observes that Germany has always had two neighbours and has shown each a very different personality. To the west was the Roman Empire and its heir, French civilization. To the east, the Slavs, new barbarians pressing on the Germans as the Germans pressed on Rome. To the west, therefore, the Germans have always appeared as barbarians, but the most civilized of barbarians, eager to learn, anxious to imitate. To the Slavs of the east, however, the Germans have made a very different appearance. Onto the Slavs, the Germans have always projected their own socially unacceptable characteristics. Slavs were viewed as culturally inferior, dirty, and uncivilized. They needed to be wiped out. Extermination of Slavs became official policy.

“No one can understand the Germans who does not appreciate their anxiety to learn from, and to imitate, the West: but equally, no one can understand Germans who does not appreciate their determination to exterminate the East” (p.14).

Their determination to exterminate the East was motivated by their inability to accept their own perceived short comings. It was more comfortable to attribute the social crudeness they felt in themselves to their neighbours to the East. Clearly, harsh parental introjects were at work! Traditionally, German child rearing was very harsh and demanded total obedience from the child. Consider the advice of the respected 18th century pedagogue, J. Selzer, who instructed parents on how to nip in the bud the child’s normal developmental stages. Autonomy and individuation and separation were viewed as plots against parents and were to be beaten out of the child.

The major matter to which one must dedicate oneself beginning with the second and third years is a strict obedience to parents and superiors and a trusting acceptance of all they do. . . . A child who is used to obeying his parents will also willingly submit to the laws and rules of reason once he is his own master, since he is already accustomed not to act in accordance with his own will (J. Sulzer, “Versuch von der Erziehung und Unterweisung der Kinder” {“An Essay on the Education and Instruction of Children”}, quoted in Miller Alice, For Your Own Good: Hidden cruelty in child-rearing and the roots of violence. Toronto: Harper Collins, Canada, 1990, p.13).

The interested reader can learn more about German child rearing from Katharina Rutschky’s Deutsche Kinder-Chronik, a collection of excerpts from Germany’s tradition of schwarze pedagogik (black pedagogy). Rutschky has meticulously gathered the advice of German child rearing experts throughout the ages (Rutschky, Katharina, Deutsche Kinder-Chronik. Cologne: Verlag, Kiepenheuer and Witsch, 1983).

I will not spend more time talking about German child rearing as there is a great deal written about it. For me, the important point is that the Germans systematically and meticulously produced humans who were cut off from their own feelings and their own conscience, and who took their cues from whatever external authority was in charge.

Most German children were left to raise themselves during the First World War. Their fathers were away fighting. Their mothers were out working or busy scrounging bits of food for the children. Family life was non-existent. Schooling was in chaos as, finally, all the teachers were involved in the war effort. Child neglect and starvation was the common experience of these children.

Then when the fighting was over, when the heroic father returned, he was a defeated man who was alien to his sons. “But they were not only unknown men, they were feared and threatening strangers who claimed rights and control over the lives of their sons. They had become distant but powerful figures who could punish and exact a terrible price for disobedience and transgressions” (Loewenberg, p.274).

For the “cohort”, the First World War had actually provided some relief for the pent up, suppressed feelings of murderous hate and rage German children felt for their parents . As long as their country was at war, they had a legitimate outlet for this rage. The person struggling with his aggressive and destructive impulses could be distracted from the rage brewing within. He no longer had to deal with the rage and the hate all alone in his inner world, for he now lived in a society which sanctioned and validated these feelings by attributing them to the enemy’s evil nature. “The very murderous and destructive impulses that he had been trying to bury in himself were now nourished by the official ideology and mass media of a country at war” (p.236). However, the Great War ended and there was no longer an external enemy to hate. The feelings were still there inside, though, and as strong as ever. These feelings turned now with even greater vehemence onto the ancient enemy, the Jew.

It was the “cohort” who took Germany into the Second World War under Hitler. Loewenberg reminds us that what the youth cohort created was a repetition of their own childhoods. They gave to their children and to Europe in greater measure precisely the traumas they had suffered as children and adolescents a quarter of a century earlier” (p.280).

Following Germany’s defeat in 1918, new challenges faced German adults who had spent their childhoods in a feudal monarchy and now were forced to adapt in their adult years to a modern democracy. The leaders of postwar Germany’s Weimar Republic were newcomers to the political scene. They belonged to a psychosocial class which sought to lead Germany in a leap into modernity, out of the existing rigid status quo (DeMause, Lloyd, “War as Righteous Rape and Purification” in The Journal of Psychohistory, Vol.27,No.4, 2000). It was a time when German painting and German theatre threw off the old restraints. Jazz, cabaret life, going out to vote, women’s rights, sexual freedoms - all of this drove obedient, rule-bound Germans into a state of fretful angst.

In splitting and projection, we kill the thing in ourselves we are afraid to let out. Instead of allowing themselves to feel these inner forces associated with the struggle to growth and maturation, huge numbers of Germans attributed all those unacceptable urges to the Jews. Everything modern was Jewish. The new Weimar Republic was democratic and modern, therefore it was Jewish and therefore it was to be despised.

For Germans who had been bursting with unacceptable impulses to lash out at their parents, Jews provided a necessary repository for all the qualities Germans felt in themselves, but could not accept. It was the Jews who were full of rage, hate, greed and lust. Jews were untrustworthy, scheming, dishonest and physically repulsive. Jews wanted to overthrow the rightful authorities. Germans could hate those qualities outside themselves without ever having to deal with complex and disturbing feelings within.

When Hitler came to power he had only two platforms: the need for more Lebensraum and his intention to bring about racial purity, in other words, elimination of the Jews in Germany. Blaming Jews allowed the Germans to avoid looking within at their own shame and anger over their disastrous defeat, as well as their own rage and resentment over their abusive childhoods. By projecting their own “bad” thoughts and feelings onto Jews, they got emotional release through punishing this external “bad”.

Once the National Socialists were in power, Germans had an officially sanctioned outlet for the anger they could not allow themselves to feel. Jews were rounded up and rendered helpless, just as their self righteous perpetrators had been during childhood. Being dirty, needy, always begging, inferior, helpless - all those qualities were easily put onto the Jews once they were incarcerated in the concentration camps Germany was busy building. Then their German guards could hate them for being that way. Needless humiliation of Jews seemed to entertain and delight their guards.

Any army’s bootcamp forces its fighting men to split and project. Soldiers are always trained to hate the “enemy”. The enemy is presented as cruel, without morals or ethics - inhuman rapists and baby killers. Subhuman. There is always a process of dehumanizing the people on the other side. Armies trains soldiers to dissociate from their emotions. You cannot feel empathy or sympathy and kill at the same time. And you had better obey orders without checking in with your conscience or your morals - if you are going to survive in the heat of battle. “We” are just in our cause. “We” are defending all that is good. “They” want to destroy all that is worthwhile. Both sides found comfort and strength of purpose in splitting and projection during World War II.

Once World War II was over, the Allies dished out justice to the defeated nation of Germany with a peculiar sort of splitting and projecting. We, the Allies, were good. The Germans were bad. It was clear and simple. Few people seemed to struggle with the actual complex reality.

The Nuremberg Trials following the Second World War reflect dramatic splitting and projection. Take the example of Alfred Rosenberg’s hearing. Rosenberg was defending his wartime policy of clearing Poland for Germans by expelling Poles and sending Jews to death camps. The Nuremberg judgment unequivocally decided that mass deportations constituted both a war crime and a crime against humanity. That sounds reasonable until one considers that at the very time the Nuremberg Trials were making this decision, millions of Germans who had lived for generations in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary were being driven from their homelands by decrees or at least under the sanction of the same power whose prosecutors and judges were condemning the mass deportations perpetrated by the Nazis.

The story of mass deportations of Germans from the East is a terrible one. Alfred de Zayas, an expert on refugees, trained in history at Tuebingen and Goettingen, and in law at Harvard, gathered the expellees’ first-hand reports in his book (DeZayas, Alfred, A Terrible Revenge: The ethnic cleansing of the East European Germans, 1944-50. New York: St. Martin’s Press ). These Germans were civilians who had settled in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, mainly as farmers. Many had been there for several generations. Once the Germans were defeated, deportation orders were posted everywhere. Germans had to leave their homes within twenty four hours, taking with them only ten kilograms of personal belongings and leaving their households untouched.

Men, women and children set out on the road often with no transportation organized for them. In fact, there was frequently no plan at all for handling these refugees. For most, no food or shelter was provided. They were simply ordered to get out. And so, fifteen million Germans were displaced in what amounted to ethnic cleansing. As they made their way back to a shrunken and defeated Germany, these helpless people provided a perfect target for the wrath of Poles, Czechs and Hungarians who had suffered under the Germans during the war years. Women were brutally raped, often until they died of the injuries or were shot by their rapists. Children starved en masse. No one intervened on behalf of those people caught up in the horrific ethnic cleansing of Germans living in the eastern territories.

The unimaginable suffering of the expellees in those years was barely known outside of Germany. Very few foreigners paid any attention or made any effort to establish privately funded assistance. After all, those who were suffering were “bad guys”.

In the May 7, 2001 issue of Time Magazine, there is a piece by Stanley Karnow which begins: “Those of us who served in World War II were untroubled by ambiguities. We were the ‘good guys’, our cause was righteous, and our clear but difficult task was to push back the ‘bad guys’.”

Back in November 12, 1945 Time Magazine published a picture of three starving German children expelled from Danzig. Under the heading “Sins of the Fathers” the commentary read: “These three German children are paying for the sins their fathers may have committed. They are ‘displaced’ orphans, turned out of a Polish orphanage in Danzig and sent back to Germany in tightly packed cattle trucks, without medical care and almost without food..” The article goes on in a style familiar to Time readers to say: “The boy at the left is nine years old, weighs forty pounds, is too weak to stand. The boy in the centre is twelve, weighs forty-six pounds. His sister (right) is eight, weighs thirty-seven pounds”.

There were, thank goodness, a few more compassionate voices.

Earlier in that same year, on May 30, in the hope of arousing public support for the expellees, London’s Daily Mail reported on the wild expulsion of an estimated 30,000 Germans from Brno in Czechoslovakia. Here is that report.

Shortly before 9 p.m. young revolutionaries of the Czech National Guard marched through the streets calling on all German citizens to be standing outside their front doors at nine o’clock with one piece of hand luggage each, ready to leave the town forever. Women had ten minutes in which to wake and dress their children, bundle a few possessions into their suitcases, and come out on the pavement ... Once outside they had to surrender all jewellery, watches, furs and money to the guardsmen, retaining only their wedding rings. They were marched out of town at gun-point to the Austrian border.

It was pitch dark when they reached the border. The children were wailing, the women stumbling. The Czech border guards pushed them over the frontier towards the Austrian border guards. Then more trouble started. The Austrians refused to accept them: the Czechs refused to readmit them. They were pushed into a field for the night, and in the morning a few Romanians were sent to guard them. They are still in that field, which has since been turned into a concentration camp. They have only the food which the guards give them from time to time. They have no rations. ... A typhus epidemic now rages among them, and they are said to be dying at the rate of 100 a day. 25,000 men, women and children made this forced march from Brno, among them an Englishwoman who is married to a Nazi, an Austrian woman 70 years old, and an 86-year-old Italian woman.

Austria provides another stunning example of how we split and project. To this day, the public perception of Austria seems to be that of a people who were forced to endure Nazism under Hitler, following the Anschluss. The Nuremberg trials reflect this simplistic handling of complex issues. Austrian war criminals went free on the grounds that Austria was an invaded country. The facts reveal a very different reality. Austria was always more anti-Semitic than Germany. Austro-German participation in the holocaust was numerically higher and emotionally more vehement than that of the Germans in general. Austrians may have been responsible for as many as half of all the war crimes (Weiss, John, Ideology of Death: Why the Holocaust Happened in Germany. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Inc.Publisher, 1996, p. 380).

In 1938, when the Nazis marched into Vienna, Hitler’s troops were greeted by Austrians with wild enthusiasm while mobs spontaneously attacked the Jews. The percentage of Austrians who joined the Nazis was twice that of the Germans. Only eight percent of the population of the Third Reich, Austrians formed fourteen percent of the SS, forty percent of the staff of the death camps and seventy percent of Eichmann’s staff (p.173).

No less a figure than the Cardinal of Vienna led the citizens of Vienna to greet the Nazis. Austria was far too weak to conquer the Slavs and murder the Jews from the east, but given the chance, thousands eagerly helped Germany do both (p.330). Citizens ransacked Jewish homes and stores, threw Jews out of cafes and trolleys, and beat them in the streets. In rural Austria, racism was even stronger than in Vienna, but there were fewer Jews to torment. Three months after the Anschluss, the Jews had already been more thoroughly purged from the public life of Austria than in the five years following Hitler’s takeover of power in Germany. Austrian Nazis even complained that the public supported them only because of their anti-Semitism and not the rest of their programme. Some five thousand Berlin Jews survived the war, but only seven hundred Viennese Jews. And the Jewish population in 1938 had been more than twice that of Berlin (p.373).

I do not know anything about the childhood of General Dwight Eisenhower, but I do know that he brought needless death and suffering to the Germans once they had surrendered unconditionally and could not harm Allied troops. How many of us on the Allied side would feel comfortable with the General’s words following his meeting with Henry Morgenthau on how to reduce the military-industrial strength of the Germans forever, so that never again would they threaten peace. He said, “I am not interested in the German economy and personally would not like to bolster it if that will make it any easier for the Germans.” He thought the Germans had punishment coming to them. “The ringleaders and the SS troops should be given the death penalty without question, but punishment should not end there.” He felt the people were guilty of supporting the regime and that made them a party to the entire German project, and he personally would like to “see things made good and hard for them for a while” (Bacque, James, Crimes and Mercies: The Fate of German Civilians Under Allied Occupation, 1944-1950. Toronto: Little, Brown and Company (Canada) Limited, 1997, p.26).

He said further, that the “whole German population is a synthetic paranoid. All their life the people have been taught to be paranoid in their actions and thoughts, and they have to be snapped out of it. The only way to do that is to be good and hard on them. I certainly see no point in bolstering their economy or taking any other steps to help them” (p.26).

There was a deliberate policy of starving German prisoners of war after the fighting had ended and Germany had surrendered unconditionally. Between 1944 and 1946 more than 790,000 surrendered soldiers died from deliberate neglect as Prisoners of War in the camps of the French and American armies. Half a million more were missing or presumed dead in Soviet camps (Bacque, James, Other Losses: An investigation into the mass deaths of German prisoners at the hands of the French and Americans after World War II. Toronto: Stoddart Publishing Company, Ltd., 1999, xxiii).

On May 8, 1945, Eisenhower sent out an “urgent courier” throughout the huge area he commanded making it a crime punishable by death for German civilians to feed prisoners. The order was sent in German to provincial governments, ordering them to distribute it immediately to local governments. Copies of this order were discovered recently in several villages near the Rhine. The message reads:

Re: Food supplies for the Prisoners

The military government has requested me to make it known, that under no circumstances may food supplies be assembled among the local inhabitants, in order to deliver them to the prisoners of war. Those who violate this command and nevertheless try to circumvent this blockade to allow something to come to the prisoners, place themselves in danger of being shot {Sent to the Mayor’s office of Bad Kreuznach on May 15, 1945} (Other Losses, p.42).

There are countless examples of needless Allied brutality. At the camp at Bad Kreuznach, a German woman with her two children came toward the American guard carrying a bottle of wine. She asked the guard to give the bottle to her husband who was just inside the wire. The American took the bottle, tipped it down his own throat, dashed the bottle to the ground, then shot the woman’s husband with five shots from his revolver (p.45).

American prison camps under Eisenhower’s command in France were kept far below the standards set by the Geneva Convention. These camps were described by Lt. Col. Henry W. Allard, who was in charge of the US camps in France in 1945.

“The standards of prisoner of war camps in ComZ (the US army’s rear zone) in Europe compare as only slightly better or even worse than the living conditions of the Japanese POW camps our men tell us about, and unfavourably with the Germans”. To maintain such camps was a war crime punishable by death, according to the Americans after the war. They shot Japanese General Masaharu Homma in 1946 for maintaining camps in approximately the conditions described by Allard. After the German surrender on May 8, 1945, the American camps grew steadily worse (P.29).

Preparing this paper, I found myself being mired in a sense of bleakness about humanity’s sadism and cruelty. Then I came across a document that touched me very deeply. This is the Charter of the Expellees.

In 1949, the year the Federal Republic of Germany was born, the expellees began to organize politically. They drafted a remarkable “Magna Carta”. Alfred de Zayas describes the charter. Delegates from 30 leading groups gathered to sign it in August of 1950. It starts by saying: “The expellees renounce revenge and retaliation”. They “support with all their strength any effort aimed at the creation of a unified Europe where its people can live without fear or coercion”. The expellees “shall by hard, tireless effort contribute to the reconstruction of Germany and Europe” (deZayas, p. 130).

The expellees have lived by their charter. “Far from becoming terrorists in order to force the return of their homelands, the expellees preferred to take the path of peace and reconstruction. They successfully integrated themselves into the Federal Republic of Germany and contributed significantly to its economic revival (p.132 ).

Maybe there is hope for a world where men and women recognize complexities, take responsibility for the common good and rise above the wish for vengeance. Perhaps in our present conflict with middle eastern terrorism there is something to learn from the charter of the expellees’. The childhoods of those who are capable of terrorism, whether they are Nazis, Allies or Taliban, have been filled with cruelty, shaming and a lack of empathy. How far have we in the western world matured since The Second World War? Will we be able to avoid mindless splitting and projection? Will we be able to do what we need to do in order to protect ourselves, without falling into the abyss of attributing all that is evil to the “bad guys”? Will we remember as Alice Miller recently reminded us, that:

Whoever they are and however dreadful their crimes, deep down inside every dictator, mass murderer, terrorist cowers the humiliated child they once were, a child that has only survived through the complete and utter denial of its feelings of helplessness. But this complete denial of suffering once borne creates an inner void. Very many of these people will never develop a capacity for normal human compassion. Thus they have few if any qualms about destroying human life, neither that of others nor the void they carry around inside themselves. Today, we can actually see the lesions in the brains of beaten or badly neglected children on the screen of a computer. Numerous articles by brain specialists, notably Bruce D. Perry, have indicated these facts
-- (Miller, Alice, “The Wellspring of Horror in the Cradle”sent to the discussion list of the International Psychohistory Association, October 2001).

Mary Katherine Armstrong is a social work psychotherapist in private practice in Toronto, Canada. She specializes in treating adults and children suffering from childhood trauma. She teaches and presents her work in Canada, the United States and Europe.

This article originally appeared in the Winter, 2002 issue of
The Journal of Psychohistory

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