We often read about analogies of a nuclear Iran and the Third Reich, stating that if Hilter had been stopped earlier, the mass murder could have been prevented. This presents a Holocaust victim's point of view, which leads to concluding that Iran must be stopped early. But many Germans have a different perspective: in pre-war Europe in the early 20th century, strong tensions had developed between the Great Powers and many assumed that war was inevitable. Germany felt encircled by Russia and France and the military called for a quick strike, better sooner than later, to eliminate France in a fast campaign because it was the enemy that could never be trusted. We know where this military logic took us, but today we find it hard to imagine that France once was considered the archenemy.
Another example illustrates the critical role of psychology. The German military engagement in Afghanistan was intensely discussed in Germany when the Bundeswehr was involved in heavy civilian casualties after an air strike on fuel trucks. In one debate, an old man rose up very emotionally and critized, in his opinion, the totally irresponsible "Flächenbombardements der Amerikaner" (carpet bombings by the US) in Afghanistan. Although carpet bombings are not part of the ISAF mission, his reaction becomes understandable considering that as a young boy, he had been assigned to a "Schnellkommando" in late 1944 whose duty was clearing corpses from a part of his hometown that had been eradicated by Allied bomber attacks. This story is part of a larger reappearance of war memories in Germany: people of old age, the children of World War II, are increasingly unable to repress their war traumas, which has led to a new consideration in psychoanalysis for the mass psychoses caused by the World Wars.
Although the suffering of Holocaust
victims has been investigated earlier, a cloak of silence covered the
war history of most German families. The repression of war memories
might resemble a typical post traumatic stress disorder and it
appears that the psychological devastation due to war might have been
worse than the physical one. Traumatic stress disorders can strongy
affect emotions and are part of the collective subconscious in that
they are passed from one generation to the other.
They are connected with survivor myths who try assigning sense to otherwise senseless suffering and loss of loved ones by inventing personas, such as, in the case of World War I, an omnipresent, demonic evil (the "Jews"), and a morally superior good (the "Germanic race"). It also led to a stronger willingness to commit war crimes out of the conviction that World War I would have been won if German soldiers had just fought more ruthlessly against the enemy. Such myths often follow earlier historical patterns which can be explained by their connection with the collective subconscious of humanity.
Considering the confrontation between Israel and Iran in the present, we have a highly traumatized people on the one hand who are scared by the idea that their enemies might use an opportunity to annihilate as many of their group as possible. Taking the emotional perspective of the descendants of a Holocaust victim, it seems "natural" to assume that if the enemy acquires nuclear weapons, it will not miss the opportunity to eradicate Israel and as many Jews as possible, regardless of the consequences.
Considering Iranian psychology, we have a proud nation on the other hand that in the distant past ruled one of the greatest empires of the world but has suffered repeated humilitations from Alexander over the Romans to the colonial powers of the modern age. For many Muslims, the emergence of Israel resembles (at least emotionally) a resurrection of the Crusaders. Last but not least, the fact that Iran is mainly Shi'a means that Iranians are sometimes treated as underdogs in the Muslim world. In summary, many Iranians may feel they are being humilitated again although following all laws and staying on the path of justice. A matching survivor myth is present as well, as this time the Mahdi may finally return and restore justice after the armageddon.
The current situation in the Middle
East could be as dangerous as in pre-war Europe, and it is very
important not to let military logic, survival myths, or emotions that
are inherited from historic traumas dominate decision-making.
Politicians must seek to find common ground with "the enemy" and
be guided by ideas how enemies can reach agreements, build trust, or
perhaps some day even become friends. For this, it will certainly be
helpful to better understand the emotional patterns of the
Dr. Bernhard Lucke is a researcher at the Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg and has spent many years working in the Middle East.