The Diplomacy of Vamik Volkan

Peter Petschauer, Appalachian State University

PP: What do you define yourself as professionally?

VV: I am a physician.  All my professional life, after I trained in psychiatry, I have worked in university medical schools as a professor.  Now I wear different hats.  I am a professor and practitioner of psychoanalysis, a theory-builder and practitioner in the psychopolitical arena, and a writer on psychohistorical and psychopolitical topics.  Recently, most of my work has focused on psychopolitics.

PP: You seem to be using your medical and psychoanalytic training to find solutions to ethnic conflicts.

VV: “Solutions” is a strong word.  What we are really interested in is reducing ethnic tensions.  If you want to use a medical model, you could say we are trying to vaccinate the process to prevent the spread of further disease.  Because of past historical markers, the psychological dimensions involved in ethnic or other large-group conflicts tend to promote rigid barriers.  If we can somehow modify these barriers, we can “immunize” against future conflict and open doors to communication between opposing groups by eliminating the poison in their respective relationships

PP: How do you define psychohistory?

VV: For me, psychohistory is a comprehensive way to find out how historical events have become mental representations for a person or group.  In the clinical setting we learn about the individual’s mind, which doesn’t necessarily correspond with the psychology of large groups, but does give us some clues.  And psychoanalysis, while there is very important work in it on the psychology of small groups, also falls short of illuminating the psychology of large groups.  So, for psychohistorical or psychopolitical works, the psychoanalyst has to cooperate with others, such as historians and political scientists, because no one discipline can have the answer.

PP: In what way does psychohistory play a role in theory-building in psychopolitics?

VV: In my international work, there are two major focus areas.  The first one focuses on the rituals between two large groups that guide them in peace and war.  What are these rituals?  What are the principles that govern them?  The second one focuses on the leader-follower relationship.

Imagine many individuals under a tent representing an ethnic group.  Each individual wears his or her individualized garment that fits him or her snugly (their personal identity).  All individuals under the tent are linked by the tent’s canvas (their group identity) which envelopes them and serves as a caregiver, a mother.  For a tent to stand up, however, it has to have a pole, the leadership.  Now imagine two tents side by side, two neighbors.  There is a ritualistic relationship between the peoples in these two tents that governs their behavior.  The psychology of international relationships comes from the psychology of neighbors, and in the psychology of international relationships, two phenomena converge: tent-to-tent and leader-follower interactions.

However, to understand an ethnic group and its motivations we need to know what the canvas of the tent is made of, and this is where reliance on other disciplines is required.  The canvas itself is covered with cultural and religious symbols: songs, language, dances, foods, and tools.  These are observable things that are painted on the canvas, and they are important, but what is more so is what they are painted on.  What is the fabric of the canvas made of?  Is its texture tight and coarse or smooth and loose?  To know this, you have to know the story of the tent (its history) and, more importantly, its version of history: the shared mental representations of history which pass from generation to generation and become ethnic markers within the fabric.  I call them “chosen traumas” and “chosen glories,” and this is where history becomes psychohistory.

Chosen glories are those historical references that bring glory to an ethnic group, such as a victorious battle or a famous leader.  They serve to bolster a group’s self-esteem, but in large-group psychology, they are not as important as chosen traumas.  When an event occurs in an ethnic or large-group’s history in which a severe loss of people, prestige, or land is suffered, the extreme humiliation associated with the event prevents the group from successfully mourning its losses and resolving conflicts associated with the trauma.  Because they cannot be mourned, they are passed on from generation to generation in many different ways, not just through story-telling, in an unconscious fashion.  Chosen traumas are one of the cornerstones of psychopolitical theory, inasmuch as they are the main barrier to successful negotiations between opposing groups.

PP: I know this very well from Austria and Italy.  I grew up in South Tyrol.  There was the conflict between German-speakers and Italian-speakers.  Every time we got together, and the question came to ethnicity, the same things were repeated over and over.  One of those markers was Andreas Hofer, a significant figure during the Napoleonic wars, who the French were able to capture and execute.  But since the 1950s the economy has been very good in the area.  Maybe more importantly, the Italians decided to leave the Germans alone.  In the ethnic consciousness Hofer has ceased to be a significant person.

VV: The ethnic poison in South Tyrol is going down then.  It is important to note how this has been achieved.  At other places in the world chosen traumas are reactivated to poison ethnic relationships.  A good example comes from the former Yugoslavia.  When the big Yugoslavian tent disappeared, groups under the smaller tents, i.e., Serbs, Croatians, and Bosnian Muslims, asked, “Who are we now?”  “How are we different from our neighbors?”  Slobodan Milosevic took advantage of the uncertainty, went to Kosova, and gave an inflammatory speech about the Serbs’ major chosen trauma: six hundred years ago, Serbian King Lazar’s army was defeated by the Ottoman Turks at Kosova and King Lazar was killed.  Now, six hundred years later, the Serbian leadership dug up King Lazar’s grave and put his remains — whatever was left — into a coffin, and the coffin made a year-long pilgrimage to Serbian villages.  Serbs then began to call the Bosnian Muslims “Turks” since they had converted to Islam during the Ottoman period.  In effect, the time span between the defeat in Kosova and the present day collapsed for the Serbs, and protection of their “new” ethnic identity became more important than maintaining their individualized identity.  Psychohistory allows us to understand how these historical events became mental representations for large groups which should help us to explain and understand their collective behavior.

I am not involved in the Yugoslavia of today.  But I hear from some good friends who have been involved.  When things are so hot and bleeding, you need to create a power which we do not have.  My methodology requires power.  Power is what you need in Yugoslavia, and I don’t mean military power.  There is no power in Europe or in America to say to these guys, “Stop it!”  Nobody made a moral issue of it and got support for intervention.  There is a constant helplessness and the Serbs, step-by-step, get away with their aggression.  Even now, war atrocities!  It has been three years and just last week they decided to have a trial.  If they had done it in two weeks, it would have shown power.

PP: What led you to study and work in this field?

VV: Being from Cyprus!  In 1969 the Brookings Institution held a meeting for government officials and scholars in Washington, DC, that was convened to study the political situation in Cyprus.  They wanted to know why the Turks and Greeks on the island could not get together as one nation, and I was invited to offer my views.  A young psychoanalyst at the time, I went to Washington to talk with this group, and all I could offer was stories from my childhood that underscored how I was different than my Greek neighbors.  This is how my career in the psychopolitical and psychohistorical fields began.

PP: So, you had to reveal yourself — your past — in public, and then analyze it.

VV: Yes.  Soon after and because of it, I was asked to become a member of a task force on psychiatry and foreign affairs of the American Psychiatric Association (APA).  At the time, it was a small group of American psychiatrists who were interested in international conflict; but none of us knew much about it.  One committee member had worked with a Presidential candidate and was supposed to think politically and inform the committee.  But from 1969 to 1977 we met every six months for cocktails, but did no substantial work whatsoever.  Then in 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat went to the Israeli Knesset and said, “70% of the trouble between Arabs and Israelis is psychological.”  Because of his political prominence, we suddenly received funds to study his statement.  We went to Egypt and Israel, interviewed influential Egyptians and Israelis, and brought them to Washington to start a series of meetings between the two groups.  For the next six years, we conducted some of the first unofficial meetings between Egyptians, Palestinians and Israelis —  way before the events in Norway.

PP: Did you meet in Washington?

VV: Yes, but we also met in Switzerland, Egypt, and Austria.  We had six major meetings and many, many minor ones.  They were highly noted in the Arab and Israeli worlds.   I just had a call from General Shlomo Gazit, an Israeli hero who masterminded the Entebbe raid.  He told me that he wants to raise some funds, after all these years, for the veterans of the Arab-Israeli meetings to have a reunion in May.

PP: So, the committee is still functioning in a way?

VV: Not formally, but I still see many people from this group every now and then at various functions.  Upon reflection, it was in these meetings that I had the opportunity to observe and to formulate many of the theories that I explained in my book, The Need to Have Enemies and Allies, which, in part, recounts the Arab-Israeli relationship.

PP: More recently you’ve been involved in the former Soviet Union?

VV: Well, we originally went to discuss the larger problem of Soviet-American relations.  (That is how I eventualy met Mikhail Gorbachev.)  When the Soviet Union collapsed, our Center here in Charlottesville became involved in reducing tensions in the newly-independent Baltic Republics.  Because of their history, we felt that they would be able to separate from the Soviet Union in a more effective and adaptive way than other former Soviet Republics.  But problems do exist there, such as the fact that large parts of these republics consist of Russian-speaking communities that need to be integrated into the Baltic societies.  Needless to say, there is a great deal of friction in the integration process.

PP: I have read that some Baltic individuals have made genuine breakthroughs by recognizing that their parents or they themselves had done something very specific that could be interpreted as an atrocity.

VV: Yes, in the Baltic communities, at various times in history, there were German sympathizers, Soviet sympathizers, and ultra-nationalists, and now that the ethnic tent has been shaken they are asking, “Who are we now?”  In Estonia there was an anniversary celebration, the rescue of Tallinn, or something like that, and former Soviet sympathizers and former German sympathizers could not get together.  As recently as a year-and-a-half ago, most Estonians were literally turning purple when they talked about Russians in Estonia.  The general wish, though unspoken perhaps, was to get rid of them.  But just this past month we had a meeting in Estonia among Estonians, Russians, and Russian-speakers in Estonia, and the Estonians were able to talk about their present fears of integration (of the Russian-speakers in Estonia with Estonians) instead of their desire to deport the Russians.  Estonians are much better than Latvians in that respect.  They’re doing a lot of soul-searching.  I’ve seen dramatic changes in Estonia in the past two years.  I think they’re going to make it.

PP: Latvia is different?

VV: In Estonia about 35% of the population is Russian-speaking.  However, in Latvia the percentage is even higher.  In every large city in Latvia, including the capital of Riga, the percentage of Russian-speakers is higher than Latvian-speakers.  The Russian-speakers seem to have no incentive to learn the Latvian language.  So the Latvians in the major cities are in the minority in their own country.  There is greater fragmentation within Latvian society in spite of the physical changes within Latvia — they are making Riga beautiful and building hotels.  But again you have the emotional problems which are not settled.  There has been no initiation of in-depth discussion on ethnic plurality in Latvia.  The issue seems to be avoided through the creation of more and more legal requirements for issues such as Latvian citizenship.

PP: Do you think an outsider can play a moderating role much more easily than an insider?

VV: There is always initial distrust of outsiders, but a third and neutral party helps to facilitate dialogue and can serve as a positive catalyst.  They say, “Why do you do this?”  There was no community service in the Communist world.  In Russia this time, just before our farewell dinner, the Russians — the highest one was the Vice Chairman of the Committee on CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) Affairs — called me and said, “Let’s have a secret talk.”  So, three Russian parliamentarians and I went to a sauna — you know, Russian-style — because we could not get another place.  We had four hours and talked; everybody sat in front of me.  They had gone to see the Estonian president and he had told them that we were okay.  Now, the Russians in turn wanted to make sure that we were okay.  Again, personal contact!  This was an extremely important meeting to have the Russians commit to what we were doing. PP:  What comments do you have about the other Eastern European nations or other ethnically-divided areas, such as South Africa?

VV: I think it would be interesting to study the peaceful separation of Czechoslovakia into the Czech and Slovak states.  I hear, however, there is still a lot of negative feelings between the two groups.  But they succeeded in accomplishing something without bloodshed.  If one were to study how they did this, I suspect you would find out that a lot of it is based on personal relationships.

I have never worked in South Africa.  My experience in Africa, in general, comes from traveling to Senegal with former President Jimmy Carter and his International Negotiation Network (INN) a few years ago and getting some firsthand information from a lot of people from Zaire, Senegal, South Africa, and Nigeria.  I met and traveled with an Afrikaner who secretly initiated the dialogue between Mandela and deKlerk when Mandela was in jail.  In South Africa they did not force “togetherness.”  Most of the illusion in conflict resolution is that we force “togetherness” and that creates a mess sometimes.  What Mandela said, in a sense, is, “We’re black and they’re white, we’re not the same; but we want to live under the same tent with separate identities.”  That has helped so far; at least as long as Mandela is the leader.  What happens when he is gone remains to be seen.

PP: I have just written a book about human space.  What do you think about the spatial aspects of ethnicity?

VV: The two principles that govern ethnic relationships are:  number one, thou shall not be identical to your neighbor and, number two, — and they are related — thou shall have a border (a psychological space) between you and your neighbor.  All ethnic rituals are based on these two principles.  If I am identical to you I cannot project things onto you in a stable fashion because the same things will simply come back to me.  Borders help to maintain these differences.  In this respect, there are spatial aspects to ethnicity, psychologically speaking.

PP: What has been your most surprising finding?

VV: The most surprising finding was something that I probably knew, but hadn’t realized: international relations include the most primitive mental mechanisms.  Clinically, I’ve worked with some very regressed individuals, such as schizophrenics, and interestingly, those experiences have added a lot to my understanding of international relations.  For instance, projections play a significant role in political decision-making.  Even major decisions, especially those made in crises, are often made because of either realistic or fantasized personal beliefs or relationships among decision-makers of opposing groups.

PP: Let’s turn to some more personal questions.  Bill Niederland — he was your mentor?

VV: Oh, Bill.  Bill was a poet of psychoanalysis.  He was a German Jew who had no country during the Nazi period and because of this lived on a boat for a long time.  Eventually he came to the United States.  Early in my career, he took me seriously and was very kind.  When we, Norman Itzkowitz and I, were writing the Immortal Atatürk book, I sent him some manuscript pages.  He actually took the time to respond.  I met him many times and thought very highly of him.  I would not call him a mentor, however, because I never studied under him, but I would call him an older brother who took me seriously.  It meant a lot to me.

PP: What influence did Erik Erikson have on you?

VV: Some years ago, I was awarded a six-year grant to meet Erikson and others in annual, week-long sessions at the Esalen Institute in California.  There were about 20 of us.  Most were well-known people in their respective fields, i.e., political science, diplomacy, philosophy, and psychoanalysis.  We met with Erikson and his wife, Joan, but during this period he was slowly developing  what was probably Alzheimer’s disease.  So in a sense Erik could not contribute to these meetings because of his condition, but getting to know him as a person and witnessing the enormous amount of respect and adoration from those around him made me appreciate and study his writings carefully.

PP: None of us is safe from disease.  Of which of your psychohistorical works are you most proud?

VV: Oh, I don’t know about being “proud.”  Writing about Atatürk had the most impact on me.  It was an emotional experience because I had to analyze my idealized father representation in Atatürk.  When historian Norman Itzkowitz and I finished writing the book, the dean here at the medical school gave a big party to celebrate the publication of the book as a way of congratulation.  That night I had a dream.  In it there were newspeople from many different countries: Germany, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey — as if I knew all the languages!  I distinctly remember hearing, “Atatürk el morte.”  In a sense, I had finished that part of my life and Atatürk died after the celebration for the book’s publication.

PP: I wrote my first book about Northern Italy and when I finished with it, there was somehow an ease, a release.

VV: A release, yes!  There is a danger in writing psychohistory.  The danger is that you have transference toward your subject.  Then, if you are not careful, fantasy and reality merge and you write bad psychobiography.  So it’s important to check your transference reactions.  A good way is to work with a co-author so you have someone to talk with about personal feelings who can help to dissolve the fantasies.

PP: I had always thought that my group, the German-speaking South Tyrolians, were much better than the other group, the Italian-speaking residents of the area.  Supposedly, they drank more, raped our women, and did all sorts of terrible things.  When I wrote my first book, I did some statistics.  What we said was not true!  My group drank more and was just as “bad” as the other.  Once I realized this, I realized also that all the hostility was justS

VV: Projection.  Some of it may have been real, but not to the degree you had believed it to be.

PP: Have all the travels and negotiations sidetracked you from your writings?

VV: Well, I’ve published many books.  Writing is part of my life.  When I was a teenager I wrote journals by hand, even illustrated them.  It became my hobby.  Writing is very personal.  I write almost every day, even when I travel.  My newest book is coming out this week.  It is on schizophrenia and related clinical topics.  But because I have been involved in psychohistorical and psychopolitical activity, I write a lot that is outside the field of clinical psychoanalysis, even though most of my books deal with clinical issues.

PP: What is your journal, Mind and Human Interaction, all about?

VV: It is envisioned as a window for interdisciplinary communication and has a psychohistorical bent.  While we deal in theory, we try to avoid jargon in order to make it accessible to a wide audience.  It is a quarterly journal, and because of a grant, we are able to mail about 2,000 copies around the globe, some to  high-level  officials  in  20  different countries.

PP: Can you tell me a bit about strategies for funding applied psychohistory?

VV: The Center for the Study of Mind and Human Interaction is lucky in the respect that it has now attained a level of reputation where some key foundations communicate with us without our going to them.

PP: Did you ever teach psychohistory?

VV: No, but I lecture on it.  I’ve also developed a methodology on writing psychohistory which I hope to publish.

PP: One of the great weaknesses of the field seems to be that there is not enough training.

VV: Yes, we must also come up with standards and a methodology of psychohistory.  The difficulty is that the field includes contributors from various disciplines with their various professional languages.  Itzkowitz is an historian, and since we’ve been working together now for almost twenty years we’ve learned each other’s language.  Because there is competition between the disciplines, in order to develop a working relationship you have to break down the professional borders to some extent.  This takes time.

PP: What do you see as psychohistory’s future?

VV: We need more psychohistorians who are making names for themselves and getting attention because of the seriousness of their work.  This would protect the field from “wild psychoanalysis.”  We need a journal, an organization, and a spokesperson.  Those three will be a winning combination.  And we need prominent academic centers to lend their prestige to psychohistory’s serious work.

PP: How can we recruit new people to the field?

VV: By doing good work, we attract others to it.

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