Collective Psychosis

Gertrud Hardtmann is a psychoanalyst. She is Emeritus Professor at the Institute for Social Pedagogy at the Technical University in Berlin. She has worked on aspects on self-mutilation, among them politically motivated self-mutilation.

Frau Hardtmann, in an interview for the taz1 you use the term “collective psychosis” in connection with several cases of Kurdish migrants who had set fire to themselves. Why “collective psychosis”?
Because “psychosis” implies a loss of reality and in cases of self-immolation by fire like these we can speak of a partial loss of reality, in that the Kurds acted on opinions and assumptions which weren’t proved, such as, for example, that the Israeli secret service was involved in the abduction of Öcalan. A group determined to act, once it has assembled, often doesn’t consider any other assumptions, all it wants is to get into action. The pressure comes from their shared affect, for example rage, outrage, fear, or a sense of impotence. This is so strong that a partial loss of reality sets in. The attempt to exert influence through self-immolation by fire is partially rational. The procedure mostly happens within the framework of a political movement, which has rationally formulated aims. We know from group and mass psychology, that the more strongly feelings determine the dynamics, the more rationality is brushed aside. It is then generally down to a few simple basic assumptions, and these may be partially or wholly false. What unites the group is their common affect: rage, outrage, fear or impotence. This sets activities in motion, over which no one then has any control. The leaders are mostly the ones who stimulate these affects, pour oil on the flames and are prepared to sacrifice the victims: the victims weld the group together, they demand commitment.

Don’t you think you’re demystifying a particular instance here? I mean, that you may be underestimating the individual’s “will to self-sacrifice”?
My statements are related to the particular political event and can’t simply be applied to other events and situations. There are self-immolations from the most varied motives, individual and collective, mostly even from a bundle of motives, among which sacrifice can, but needn’t be one.

Must we also regard a war, say between two countries, where many men and women take a decision to fight for their country or their religion, as a “collective psychosis”? Can we talk here about masses who no longer question their assumptions, because in this case they also have to obey orders from others? Can we also speak of loss of reality in cases of war?
Any psychosis or psychotic reaction is a partial loss of reality. Hitler in the Second World War suffered such a loss of reality, as did his generals. But the bombardment of Dresden in 1944 was also a loss of reality. A sense of reality requires rational aims and means. These relations are wrong in almost all wars. I take the view that that’s because the military, and also the wars themselves as a rule develop their own dynamics and logic, which can no longer be controlled by rational political understanding or any other kind of understanding. Waging war rationally is almost a contradiction in terms, because people as a rule are not immune to the intoxication of power which warlike means arouse.

What does it mean when people sacrifice themselves out of a sense of duty (and for money), and what if they sacrifice themselves for tactical motives?
I don’t see the difference. A sacrifice is a sacrifice—at least subjectively.

Is a person’s sacrifice, when it takes place for political reasons, although that person belongs to no political movement or group, as for example was the case with Jan Palach in Czechoslovakia,2 to be interpreted as a considered action by someone who wanted to do something? Or can one see this self-immolation too as a form of emotional blackmail?
Jan Palach seems (I assume that he did not consult others beforehand) to have acted on his own initiative. Premeditation and exerting pressure are not mutually exclusive: if I stage a public burning, I definitely want to make a public statement, and therefore also to apply political pressure.

How would you describe this individual action? What patterns and lie behind it? Are these patterns the same with every suicide?
There may be suicidal intentions behind it, but there needn’t be. I can’t make a general pronouncement on this, I would have to look into each case to see what motives—mostly they would probably be bundles of motives—lie behind it, always assuming the available findings had been validated. A suicide too can have very varied motives. I am only talking about conscious motives here, the unconscious ones mostly stay in the dark anyway.

Is that in your eyes a failure? Personal, political?
How am I supposed judge what constitutes a failure? You can only measure an action against what the perpetrator wants to achieve. As a rule setting fire to yourself gets public attention, often of course only for a very short time. I don’t know to what extent those who do it are aware of this.

Can self-sacrifice be described as a masochistic attitude?
It can be an expression of masochism, but it doesn’t have to be. It can just as easily be an expression of desperation, resignation, love, high ethical principles, or even the fact that some people regard standing up for their principles more highly than their lives. People should read Albert Camus’s L’Étranger on this.

  1. “A Movement that Nobody can now Control”, Interview by Harry Nutt with Gertrud Hardtmann, 19. 2. 1999, Die Tageszeitung. The interview deals with the phenomenon of self-immolation by fire among Kurdish men and women in various European cities. In this interview Gertrud Hardtmann offers a few explanations for these happenings from the field of social psychology, and describes the burnings as an extreme means of public provocation. When all other efforts to attract public attention have failed, she suggests, the suicides are a reaction to an intolerable feeling of offence, and a desire for attention and recognition.
  2. On 16. 1. 1968 the Czech student doused himself with petrol and set fire to himself among the evening traffic on Wenceslas Square. Jan Palach hoped this would rouse the Czech and Slovak population to rise out of their growing lethargy in the face of the Soviet military occupation.

Printed in: Mathilde ter Heijne: Tragedy, pages 151-153