PSYCHOHISTORIAN DAVID BEISEL

Bob Lentz

CP: Professor Beisel, your book will be published next year?

DB: Yes. The title is The Suicidal Embrace: Hitler, the Allies, and the Origins of World War II. I’ve immersed myself in the docu­ments – the diplomatic documents, the media coverage of the time, diaries, letters, quotes of the major participants – and looked for fantasy language, for patterns in the fantasy language. What I’ve discovered is an under-lying pattern of unconscious fantasy that is being acted out in the pathological family system – the family of nations notion, but for real. They’re encouraging Hitler, as the out-of-control raging child, and vicariously experiencing their own aggression through him. That’s one of the reasons that they don’t restrain through military action, or build the grand coalition that Churchill calls for.

CP: How do you recall your term as editor of the Journal of Psychohistory from 1978-1987?

DB: It was one of the most difficult and rewarding parts of my life. It was a very tough job to do because you can’t help but, in the name of helping people’s scholarship and the field, ruffle feathers. I’m sorry to say that I lost friendships. I learned that you cannot push people too far to gain insight – it’s counterproductive. Some people will stay at the level of cognitive psychology and not want to go into deeper, unconscious analyses, more regressive kinds of things. Some good papers never found their way into print because they were withdrawn. People got turned off from psychohistory because of that. That was something I learned that was a negative. But, overall, I’m proud of what I accomplished as editor.

CP: Any forthcoming articles in the Journal?

DB: I’m working on a lead article for the Summer 1994 issue right now: “In Search of Enemies, 1990-1994”. It’s theme is “peace has broken out all over and we’re going crazy”. The world – each national group – is looking for a place to put its aggression – desperately trying to find an enemy. And we express that in many ways, including rhetoric. Trying to establish a Fourth Reich somewhere – in the Soviet Union or in contemporary united Germany. Trying to return to a World War II fantasy like the Axis (Germany-Japan) enemy or Bosnia being genocide and war crimes.

CP: In the Journal, Summer 1978, you wrote the landmark article “From History to Psy­chohistory: A Personal Journey.” Where has your path brought you in the sixteen years since?

DB: I’d write a different article today. It was, I think, something that every psychohistorian has to do, convincing him or herself that the enterprise is worthwhile, and do-able. For the last ten years I have felt much more comfortable, much less defensive, about what we do. I think we should just try to do our work and not be pugnacious, argumentative or defensive in our writings. Simply put forward our findings on the basis of the best logic and the best psychology.

CP: You also discussed the “academic group-fantasy.” What do you think of academia today.

DB: Well, I think that part of the way we’re trying to find enemies is to divide up into those who oppose “political correctness” and those who favor multiculturalism. I would refer to David Rieff’s article [‘Multicultural­ism’s Silent Partner”] in the August, 1993, Harper’s, that’s where we are at the moment.

CP: You also mentioned “the split” in psychohistory between the Group for the Use of Psychohistory (GUPH) and its publication, The Psychohistory Review, and the IPA and the Journal. How do you see “the split” today?

DB: I don’t think there is a split. That was a desperate time of identity – we were trying to credential ourselves, and validate ourselves. I’m friendly with the leaders of the “other group”. I respect the work of Robert Jay Lifton, Peter Gay, Charles Strozier and Larry Friedman. I think we’re all just engaged in the work of trying to push psychological under-standing forward.

CP: How do you assess the field of teaching psychohistory today?

DB: It’s hard to make a general assessment because people at various universities give courses in psychohistory and they don’t always call them that. The courses that are transfer-red from here at Rockland College to where students have gone – Yale, Harvard, wherever – there’s never been a problem with transferring credit. I think psychohistory is fairly well-established.

CP: We hear that Psychohistory I is a very popular course.

DB: I have about 100 students in Psychohis­tory I every semester. The first part is introductory, looking at some of the ways the mind works, mainly in defense of the ego, and seeing defenses at work in history – examples of denial, regression and repression from individuals and groups. For example, Ger­many in 1918: the rationalization that they didn’t lose the war, they were stabbed in the back. The second part is in-depth history of childhood, from ancient times to the present. The third part is psychobiography examples. There’s a little bit on Young Man Luther, as a breakthrough work by Erikson in the Fifties. But mainly psychobiographies of Nixon, Carter, Reagan and now Clinton. The fourth part is group psychohistory. We look at small group, [W.R.] Bion, group think, and then large groups in fantasy theory. The fifth and last part tries to tie the second, third and fourth parts together through a two-to-three week look at Hitler’s psychobiography, the history of childhood in Germany, and German fantasies to explain Nazism, World War II and the Holocaust.

CP: How do you see psychohistory developing over the next ten years?

DB: I’d like to see a lot of history of childhood work. We had hoped in the early days that there’d be much more. But it’s proven to be extremely difficult for people to do – with their resistances, with so little reward in academic advancement for it.

The second thing I’d like to see is us publish in more mainstream places, such as the New York Review of Books Howard Stein, for example, had a piece on the op-ed page in the New York Times several years ago. I think a reason for Howard’s success, besides his being brilliant and a genius, is that he didn’t use the word “psychohistory”. If we simply stay away from “psychology” and “psychohistory” and simply provide our ana­lyses, I think we’ll have a much better chance to publish in mainstream places.

And I’d like to see us do some documentary films to reach larger audiences. Public Television recently did a special on the U.S.’s reaction, or lack of reaction, to the Holocaust based on David S. Wyman’s book, The Abandonment of the Jews which was published in the mid-Eighties [1984]. People won’t read the book, unless they’re profes­sional scholars who are interested in the Holocaust, but they will be watching PBS.

CP: Finally, what advice would you give to a newcomer to psychohistory today?

DB: My advice would be to read every back issue of the Journal and immerse oneself in the sources and let the documents tell us what they have to say. If it contradicts what Freud said in 1899, so be it. We’re really all historians trying to enlarge human under-standing rather than dogmatic psychologists trying to advance a pseudoscience.

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