“Europe’s Many Souls
Exploring Cultural Complexes and Identities”
Edited by: Joerg Rasche and Thomas Singer
Publ: Spring Journal Books 435 p Price: £23.95
Can we make any sense of the political and cultural turmoil that has engulfed Europe during the past few years: the rise of ultra right-wing movements, quasi dictatorships, ultra nationalism? Editors and commentators in the media have no shortage of theories as to what is going on. Meanwhile Joerg Rasche and Thomas Singer published this compilation of essays, where they look at each country through the lens of depth psychology. Jung often said that the forces that move nations are deeply rooted in a collective, national psyche. Most people are unaware of those forces, and end up joining political movements without understanding what makes them do it. Whereas those unconscious forces are in many cases benign — feelings of cultural or national identity for example, in other cases those unconscious forces behave as independent entities that overwhelm the consciousness of the people, with destructive consequences. Such cultural complexes, and each country has more than one, often manifest as ultra-nationalist sentiments, xenophobia, and eventually war. In 1930, Jung published a paper, “Wotan” in which he predicted the rise of Nazism, and the disaster that was to follow, based on the dreams of many of his German patients.
Let’s start with the UK. Jules Cashford entitles her chapter, “Autonomy and Insularity in an Island Race.” While she does not mention the Brexit vote, her analysis of the British psyche makes it clear why the country’s separation from Europe had to happen sooner or later. Britain is an island.
This royal throne of kings, this sceptre’s isle…
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea… Shakespeare, Richard II
Insularity pervades the thinking of Britons. They are uncomfortable with too many people of different races, who speak a different language. “Bloody foreigners!”, a typically British epithet is not commonly used in other European countries. Because the sea defines the British border, it’s very clear as to who is in and who is out. Another issue not often appreciated is that until recently Britain had an empire. Its loss left a deep wound in the British psyche, resulting in a selective reading of history, a forgetting of the suffering inflicted by that empire on the natives. It’s a past that British people have never come to terms with. Our attitudes towards refugees and people of other races were formed generations ago, during the heyday of the empire, and such attitudes constellated into a cultural complex, that parents still pass on to their children. It may explain why the immigration argument resonated so strongly with Brexit voters. Just as you can’t argue with a complex, no logical argument could counter the assertion that they were all coming here!
Malgorzata Kalinowska discusses Polish cultural complexes of “The suffering hero, and messianism”. Much of Poland’s present day politics can be understood in this light. Deep down, many Poles feel that they are a “chosen people”. That God has a special destiny for them, to save the world from total decadence. A common epithet among Poles for the Western World is “the rotten West”. Messianism leads to a cultural isolation, evidenced by the government’s refusal to take in any refugees for fear of diluting, or diversifying Polish culture. Where a country’s identity feels threatened, a complex appears, to protect the collective ego. The Suffering Hero complex, on the other hand, is a belief that Poland must suffer just as Christ suffered. Entering a Polish church one is struck by the degree to which pain and suffering are depicted. No one questions that Poland has suffered a lot — 200 years of foreign domination, World War II, German and Soviet occupation, the Holocaust, and then fifty years of communism. The complex arises because the psyche tries to make sense of historical trauma, to put a buffer between itself and the painful events. But when one is unaware of the complex, it behaves as an autonomous entity, giving rise to ultra nationalism, paranoia or xenophobia. The country’s overwhelming grief to the Smolensk air disaster, and a general refusal to accept that it was an accident rather than a conspiracy, is a typical case of how a cultural complex works.
Gert Sauer discusses a German cultural complex of superiority, the view that Germans are better organized and superior to others. Its most destructive manifestation was during WWII when the Nazis set out on a mission “to make the world a better place”. Sauer presents evidence, that the plans to colonize Eastern Europe and to create a mono-racial society by eliminating the Jews, were already being discussed before 1918, long before Hitler appeared on the political scene. Is that complex still active today? Sauer believes that it is. Mercifully it appears most often mainly in sports, the way that commentators describe their team and other teams, and in pop culture.
Russians, according to Sauer, see themselves as surrounded by threatening barbarians and respond with violence to any threat. Other countries are viewed as ready to invade “the motherland”. The collapse of the Soviet Unions, losing the cold war, only exacerbated that feeling of vulnerability. Its most recent manifestation is the war with the Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. Neither event came out of the blue, but followed political events where the West was seen by Russians as gaining a toehold in the Ukraine. When such a complex is activated, no rational argument can hold sway. Russians cannot be persuaded that a European missile shield based in Poland is not directed against Russia.
The book also discusses the history of anti-Semitism and the role of the Jewish culture in the European psyche. Jewish culture was greatly influential in Europe until World War II and the Holocaust. Its absence left a certain yearning, not to mention feelings of guilt.
Other countries discussed in depth are Greece, Czech Republic, Denmark, Spain, Switzerland, Italy, Austria and Serbia.
What about Europe’s relationship to Islam? What lies behind the present day war that makes daily headlines where scores of innocent lives are claimed by a jihadist? According to Joerg Rasche, we’re dealing with cultural complexes, both European and Muslim whose origin lies in hundreds of years of history, in wars of conquest and crusades. Those complexes were recently activated in the Muslim world by the West’s need for cheap oil, the US support of the Saudi princes, and various wars that the West fought to secure their oil supply. Many Muslims fear the West, and western values will triumph, obliterating Muslim culture. Such fears, rooted in a cultural complex hold sway no matter what the counter-argument.
The book is scholarly, but most readable. The authors are Jungian psycho-analysts or experts in the field. A background in depth psychology is helpful to follow the authors’ arguments. The book is unique, in that it offers a psychological perspective on Europe’s present day situation, absent in political commentaries or in the media. Until we take into account history, and cultural complexes as outlined in this book, we are likely to only have a limited understanding of why nations behave in ways that seem to us so incomprehensible. Psychology is not the only answer, but it is certainly worth listening to.