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Politics of Victimhood

A Perpetual Cycle of Abuse

May 09, 1999|Peter Wolson | Peter Wolson, a clinical psychologist, is director of training at the Los Angeles Institute and Society for Psychoanalytic Studies

When Serbs discuss their motivation to retain exclusive control over Kosovo, they recount a long, painful history of horrific victimization by foreign powers extending back to the Middle Ages. One would think that this history of national abuse would engender a feeling of humiliation in the Serbian psyche. But, on the contrary, Serbs typically display their victimhood with intense nationalistic pride. How can we explain this surprising correlation, and how does it relate to committing atrocities against ethnic Albanians?

Psychoanalytically, when a nation's collective psyche is wounded through humiliating military defeats and the abuse of its people, it is in danger of fragmentation and loss of identity. In order to survive, the national psyche must compensate for its devastated self-esteem by restoring its pride. The greater the narcissistic wound, the more defensively grandiose it must become, believing it is superior to other nations and sometimes even concluding its inhabitants are God's "chosen people." Mortifying national shame is unconsciously transformed into glorified victimhood associated with intense nationalistic fervor.

This psychodynamic has obviously been a powerful organizing principle for the Serbian people. Over the centuries, after being abused and subjected by Ottoman Turks, Albanian Muslims, Austrians and Nazis, the Serbs inflated their national pride with the belief that they were a "chosen people" of God. Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic rose to power vowing to avenge Serbia's wounds by returning their mystical Holy Land, Kosovo, to its people.

We see the same transformation from victimhood to grandiose collective pride in the Old Testament, where the Egyptian persecution of God's "chosen people," the ancient Israelites, is celebrated in the Passover Seder with the vow, "Never again."

Similarly, Germany's humiliation following the forced payment of excessive World War I reparations to its Western conquerors was transformed into a grandiose nationalistic triumph by Adolf Hitler, who proclaimed that the German people were a superior Aryan race.

Such psychological compensation for national victimhood is understandable, but how do "ethnic cleansing," genocide and other forms of abuse relate to this? One would think the last thing a victimized nation would do is victimize another, especially in the fashion it has been abused. But this does not hold true.

Psychologically, we know that adult victims of childhood physical and sexual abuse are inclined to perpetuate the same abuse with their children. This is because of a principle known as "identification with the aggressor." To protect himself, the abused individual unconsciously identifies with his victimizer and so seeks to overcome the feeling of being abused. We see this psychological defense operating in victims of kidnapping, like Patty Hearst in 1974, who start to identify with their kidnappers.

The relationship between victim and victimizer is unconsciously internalized in the abused individual's psyche. This internalization also occurs in a nation's collective unconscious when it has experienced traumatic abuse. Nations overcome humiliation by defeating their enemies: in the case of Serbia, the ethnic Muslim Albanians, their ancient nemesis.

The former victim seeks revenge by forcing the victimizer to experience the same abuse he perpetrated. Thus, the Serbs under Milosevic are repossessing their national spiritual home by subjecting ethnic Albanians to the same "ethnic cleansing" the latter perpetrated against them during the Middle Ages.

The problem with overcoming one's victimization by victimizing the abuser is that the cycle never ends. As long as the victim-victimizer dynamic exists in a nation's psyche, the nation will be unconsciously motivated to seek out other victimizers to triumph over.

This self-destructive cycle can only stop when the nation achieves a strong, stable and secure national identity. Thus, the Marshall Plan, which facilitated Germany's recovery after World War II, in contrast with the humiliating reparations of World War I, led to the development of a healthy, democratic German psyche.

NATO's policy of bombing Yugoslavia is likely to fuel the Serbs' nationalistic pride and determination to overcome another shameful defeat. The critical but perplexing question remains, how can the Serbs become geopolitically strong and secure enough to cut the pathological link between victimhood and national pride and end their need for a "victim-victimizer" psychology?*

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