Alice Miller on Birth Trauma

Readers of Alice Miller's For Your Own Good and Thou Shalt Not Be Aware may be familiar with the name of psychohistorian Lloyd deMause, who believes fetal dramas and birth trauma are restaged in wars and social violence. Apparently, he is influenced by the ideas of Arthur Janov, the founder of Primal Therapy, because deMause cites Janov in his writings.

Psychohistory is the study of psychological motivations behind cultural values and historical events. It first emerged as a discipline in its own right when Robert Jay Lifton formed a specialist study group in the early 1960s. In 1965, the group received sponsorship from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to establish psychohistory as a separate field. These psychohistorians mostly investigated early influences on notable individuals in history.

However, in the 1970s, Lloyd deMause, an anthropologist with postgraduate training in political science and psychoanalysis, established an independent Institute for Psychohistory based on the doctrine that child abuse and birth trauma were the source of dehumanizing cultural practices and wars.

In For Your Own Good Alice Miller expresses her disagreement with Lloyd deMause about birth trauma as a motivation for war. The quote below can be found at and comes from the chapter titled "Adolf Hitler's Childhood: From Hidden to Manifest Horror". The passage starts at the 5th paragraph from the top of that page. I've highlighted the phrases where Alice Miller expresses her disagreement:

"Lloyd de Mause, who as a psychohistorian is particularly interested in motivation and in describing the group fantasies underlying it, once did a study of the dominant fantasies among aggressor nations. Looking through his material, he noticed that again and again statements by the leaders of these nations employed images relating to the birth process. With striking frequency they speak of their nation as being strangled, a situation they hope the war will finally rectify. De Mause believes that this fantasy reflects the actual situation of the infant during birth, which results in a trauma for every human being and thus is subject to the repetition compulsion.

The observation can be made, in support of this thesis, that the feeling of being strangled and having to get free does not occur in nations that are genuinely threatened — as, for example, Poland was in 1939 — but in nations where this was not true — e.g., in Germany in 1914 and 1939 or in the United States during the Vietnam War. A declaration of war, therefore, is no doubt an attempt to escape fantasies of being threatened, constricted, and debased. On the basis of what I now know about childhood and what I am trying to demonstrate with the example of Adolf Hitler, I would definitely be inclined to draw the conclusion that it is not the birth trauma (as de Mause assumes) but other experiences that are reactivated in an eagerness for war. Even the most difficult birth is a unique, delimited trauma that, despite our smallness and weakness, we have usually overcome either on our own or with the help of a third party who comes to our rescue. In contrast to this, beatings, psychological humiliation, and other cruel treatment are recurrent experiences; there is no escape from them and there is no helping hand available, because no one considers this hell to be a hell. It is a continuous condition, or one that is repeatedly reencountered. There can be no ultimate liberating cry here, and these experiences can be forgotten only with the aid of splitting off and repression. Now, it is precisely those events that have never been come to terms with that must seek an outlet in the repetition compulsion. The jubilation characteristic of those who declare war is the expression of the revived hope of finally being able to avenge earlier debasement, and presumably also of relief at finally being permitted to hate and shout. The former child seizes the first opportunity to be active and to break its enforced silence. If the mourning process has not been possible, a person will use the repetition compulsion to try to undo the past and to banish former tragic passivity by means of activity in the present. Since this can't succeed, because of the impossibility of changing the past, wars of this kind do not bring liberation to the aggressor but ultimately lead to catastrophe, even when there are initial victories.

In spite of these considerations, it is possible to imagine that the birth fantasy does play a role here. For children who are beaten every day and must remain silent about it, birth may be the only childhood event where they emerged the victor, not only in fantasy but in actuality; otherwise, they would not have survived. They fought their way through a narrow passage and were allowed to scream afterwards, in spite of which they were taken care of by helping hands. Can this bliss be compared to what came later? It would not be surprising if we wanted to use this great triumph to help ourselves get over the defeats and loneliness of later years. Seen from this perspective, associations between the birth trauma and the declaration of war could be interpreted as a denial of the actual, hidden trauma, which is never taken seriously by society and therefore requires enactment. In Hitler's life, the “Boer wars” of his schooldays, Mein Kampf, and World War II belong to the visible tip of the iceberg. The hidden explanation for why he developed the way he did cannot be sought in the experience of emerging from the womb, an experience Hitler shares with all human beings. Not all human beings, on the other hand, were tormented the way he was as a child."
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