own and others--has been part of psychohistory's dialogue for nearly
three decades. Psychohistorians know if individual insights can be painful,
collective insights can be even more so, and what distinguished psychohistorian
Peter Gay says about Freud can be equally applied to psychohistory.
"Freud,' wrote Gay, "took some pride in disturbing the sleep of mankind,
and mankind has responded by trivializing him, watering him down, or
finding reasons for disregarding him altogether.'1 Because
resistance remains so pervasive and persistent, how one introduces new
audiences to psychohistory becomes a crucial question. And it is critical
not just for teachers, but for presenters of scholarly papers at professional
conferences, for writers addressing unseen audiences, even for those
occasional conversations with new friends across the dinner table. It
is one reason why the quest for the best ways to present psychohistory's
findings has preoccupied so many scholars for such a long time.
Panels at annual conventions of the International Psychohistorical Association
and meetings of the Institute for Psychohistory and The Psychohistory
Forum have been devoted to the subject. A few brief but thoughtful pieces--by
Geoffrey Cocks, Mel Goldstein and Robert Pois--have appeared in the
lively new publication Clio's Psyche.2 In its early days
The Psychohistory Review regularly published syllabi from the college
courses of several psychohistorical scholars, Peter Loewenberg has written
on graduate education, and in the mid-80s I presented a paper at the
American Historical Association's annual convention and published in
the AHA Perspectives on "Teaching Psychohistory.' Scores of scholars--from
Rudolph Binion and Lee Schneidmann to George Kren, Alice Eichholz, and
Paul Elovitz--have engaged in numerous informal dialogues on what works
and what doesn't work, which have continued as internal dialogues for
some of us for months on end.
In ways I do not fully understand, all of this somehow helped turn my
psychohistory courses into successful experiences for many people. Since
1976, over five thousand students have passed through my course, and
despite my high standards, other less challenging course options, and
the course's rigorous demands, it remains the most popular history offering
on campus. While each spring schedule also includes one section of Psychohistory
II (prerequisite Psychohistory I), every fall and spring semester, three
separate sections of introductory psychohistory close out at a college
where history is not a requirement.
This successful rate has at least something to do with the way the material
is presented. I hope the following observations will be helpful to teachers
and those who would teach psychohistory as part of a course, as well
as to those struggling with ways to better introduce psychohistorical
thinking, whatever their audience.
The question "What is psychohistory?' is a good place to start, since
most people have never heard of the field. While many definitions are
possible, a sensible rendering might be simply "the psychology of people
in history.' Psychohistory weds psychology and history: It is the "Why?'
of history, the study of historical motivation. More formally, it is
the systematic application of the findings and methods of the science
of psychology to help explain individual and group behavior, past and
present. Since we deal not just with the distant, but also the recent
past (what historians call contemporary history), we look at present
politics as well and draw upon the findings of political psychology.
Of course, great and not-so-great thinkers have already had many psychological
insights over the centuries, and from the very beginnings of historical
study--Thucydides said "all men seek power'--psychology has been part
of history. Yet, based as it was solely on "common sense' and personal
experience, it more often has been sporadic, imprecise, and anecdotal.
Most historians get Ph.D.s without having to know any psychology. Hundreds
of scholars have sought to change this over the last thirty years by
calling for the extension of our understanding of human behavior by
the systematic use of psychology's scientific findings. That doesn't
mean we can't be critical of those findings; it does mean we must regularly
take them into account.
What psychology do we use? Any of the several schools from psychoanalysis
to behavioral psychology to Gestalt, whatever improves our understandings
of individual and group behavior. This is an investigative enterprise,
not a religious cult; we should explore with open minds, always keeping
in mind that historians work from documentary evidence to conclusions,
never the other way around.
Over the years I have tried different combinations of readings, including
Erikson's Young Man Luther. The texts I use now, which students read
critically, are deMause's Foundations of Psychohistory and Reagan's
America, and a special student edition of Clio's Psyche, edited by Paul
Elovitz and Bob Lenz. Students also view Sam Keen's hour-long documentary
"Faces of the Enemy.' (For Psychohistory II, I use Binion's Hitler Among
the Germans and Loewenberg's Decoding the Past, with Lifton and Mitchell's
Hiroshima in America strongly recommended.)
The course is divided into five parts, each approximately three weeks
long: introductory; the history of childhood; psychobiography; group
psychohistory; and Hitler and Nazi Germany.
No prerequisites are necessary since I assume students know no formal
history or psychology; whatever they need is covered in the first three
weeks and during the rest of the course. This is the introductory section.
Second, because both psychology and personal experiences have shown
that what happens in childhood can be an important influence in adult
behavior, to leave out the history of childhood would be to leave out
a significant part of human experience. Besides, psychohistorians have
written extensively about the history of childhood, and it is our obligation
to learn what they have said, the second fifth of the course.
The third, psychobiography, focuses on four recent presidents: Nixon,
Carter, Reagan, and Clinton. An ample scholarly psychohistorical literature
exists on them, and since everyone already knows what our culture is
like and who they are, lectures on their roles and historical contexts
are unnecessary. Fourth, group psychohistory is logically divided by
two: small groups (like the president's cabinet, or the pre-1914 Austrian
general staff) and large groups like nations. (Are there "group' fantasies
shared by 260,000,000 Americans? How does one find them?). The semester
ends with Hitler and World War II as our psychohistorical laboratory,
drawing from materials and insights developed in the first four parts
of the course.
Formal study begins with some of the ways the mind works, and the ways
it works in history. We are not interested in every aspect of the mind,
only those that can help us better understand the methods and findings
When I ask why people are in the class, they offer several conscious
reasons: the need for three credits; rumors it was a good course; it
sounded better than Western Civilization; otherwise they'd be home with
their spouse; or to actually learn. Whatever the explanations, they
are conscious, the same kind Lyndon Johnson offered when asked why he
escalated the war in Vietnam. Historians and psychohistorians are interested
in this level, the conscious level, of historical motivation.
But there is a second kind of motivation: those motives of which we
are not, or only partly aware, the level of unconscious motivations.
Many people sooner or later experience sudden, or growing, awareness
of why they've been doing what they've been doing, which they had until
then been hiding from themselves. Some students welcome this approach,
looking forward to exploring the role of the unconscious in human history.
But the mere mention of the word "unconscious' can drive others into
near apoplexy: "Oh, I get it now. This course is about Freud. Wasn't
he a dirty old man? Didn't he miss the real sexual abuse of children?
My psychology prof said there's no repressed memory. Hasn't Freud been
discredited? Wasn't he a man?'
There is no need for people to get so agitated. So far I have not even
mentioned psychoanalysis or Freud, only "the unconscious,' and when
we consult our psychology texts, we find that even behavioral psychologists
acknowledge the existence of the unconscious; it's just that they think
it plays no role. Those questions about Freud will be answered in due
course. We don't want to be diverted, and we want to keep in the forefront
of our minds the question of the unconscious.
Extensive discussions of psychoanalytic theory, or invoking the "authority'
of Freud, doesn't usually work here. It is better to go directly to
the resistance by doing two things: 1) proving the existence of the
unconscious; and 2) proving that what is in the unconscious can influence
behavior. Imagine a subject named "Bill,' about thirty-five, normal
in every way, a steady job, married, respected in his church and community,
nice kids. Bill stands in front of the psychohistory class. We introduce
him to a professional hypnotist, who stands next to him, and ask that
after he's been hypnotized we want him to tell us what it was like.
After a few minutes Bill goes into a trance; the hypnotist tells him:
"After you've wakened, Bill, you'll begin to talk, then after about
a minute you'll get up, go over, and open the window. You won't remember
I've told you to do this. Do you understand?' "Yes', says Bill. Bill
is awakened, then begins to talk--'It was pleasant, I was aware of everyone.
I had thought when people were hypnotized they were in a deep sleep,"--then
he walks over and opens the window. "Why did you do that?' asks the
hypnotist. "I don't know,' says Bill--or, if he's the kind of person
who needs an excuse for everything, he might invent a motive: "It was
hot in here.'
If Bill was not aware of the hypnotist's post-hypnotic command, if he
was not conscious of it, then the command must be stored in that part
of his brain which we must call the "unconscious.' And, since he opened
the window, what is in the unconscious can be acted out; it is not only
an "influence' on our behavior, but in some cases it is the behavior.
I can now elaborate on the work of Milton Erickson, the findings of
Hilgarten and Hilgarten (hypnotizability correlates to high levels of
physical and emotional child abuse), and the staged Nazi rallies at
Nuremberg. Madison Avenue, of course, is always trying to reach into
our minds to manipulate us without our thinking much about it, through
obvious and subliminal messages directed at our subconscious. Advertising
and political images, collected over the years, can be shown to reinforce
discussions of the findings of Wilson Bryan Key.
Elaborating on these themes sets the stage for an exploration of the
ways the mind wards off unwanted thoughts and feelings (the major defense
mechanisms of the ego). Each defense is defined, then extensive examples
are given from personal and contemporary experience, and from history.
The goal is to show that some of the ways the mind works today were
some of the ways the mind worked yesterday.
Denial and rationalization are both simple and easy to explain. (Ego
defenses will not be defined here, as journal readers are fully aware
of them. I'll concentrate on the kind of examples used to illustrate
them.) At the end of the First World War, after ten years of sacrifice
and deprivation, the war fought entirely outside their borders, and
no foreign troops on their own soil--after four years of constantly
being told they were winning the war--Germans awoke one morning in early
1918 only to learn the Kaiser had fled, the Socialists had come to power,
the Republic had been declared, and the war had been lost. Millions
could not believe it; a majority of Germans denied it; acceptance was
simply too painful. Of course, something had happened: troops were returning
home,and the humiliating Versailles Treaty was imposed. Many "explained'
these events with the rationalization that their armies had not lost,
but been betrayed, or "stabbed in the back,' by Communists and Jews
at home. This myth, a fantasy, the famous "Stab-in-the-Back Legend,'
eventually helped Hitler to power.
One can only wonder if the reactions of some Americans to the defeat
in Vietnam might also contain, at least in part, some rationalization.
Everyone has heard the argument that U.S. troops were fighting the war
"with one hand tied behind their back.' When Stallone returns on a mission
to Vietnam, in the mid-1980s film Rambo, he asks: "Can we win this time?'
The notion that "liberal' professors, "cowardly' college students, "unpatriotic'
protesters, and a "weak-willed' government had betrayed "our boys' is
familiar to millions of Americans, and many believe it. I am not saying
that this is a rationalization, only that it could be and needs examining.
Students sometimes say: "We could have won by bombing Vietnam back to
the Stone Age,' (some support using nuclear weapons). In fact, more
firepower was expended in Vietnam than was used by all the belligerents
in the Second World War, and we dropped the equivalent of 600 atomic
bombs there. Moreover, several of President Johnson's advisors (Ball,
McCone) had predicted that escalation could lead only to a "quagmire,'
a "no-way-out' situation in an unpopular, unwinnable war. The idea that
the war could have been won, therefore, is, at least, debatable. Had
the diplomats and strategists of the 60s only known something about
Vietnam, instead of being filled with the "arrogance of power' and the
memory of Munich, they would have known that earlier colonizing attempts,
by the Chinese, for example, had failed in the long run due to the Vietnamese
people's fierce spirit of independence. Now, the U.S., a great power
with cutting edge technology, had been defeated by a third-world army
using strips of used tires for sandals: a "little yellow people' had
proven it was the "fittest.' Perhaps such humiliations can be "handled'
in racist America only by inventing rationalizations of betrayal and
lack of government resolve.
Students often react to these ideas with energetic denunciations, arguing
for other points of view. This is a good place to point out there are
always other points of view, and that is one reason why psychohistory
was invented in the first place. Traditional political history was virtually
the only brand practiced in the nineteenth century. "History is Past
Politics' was chiseled in granite over the library at Johns Hopkins,
America's first graduate schoo,l and took our understanding only so
far. Economic history (production and how wealth is distributed), intellectual
history (the role of ideas; what formed Hitler's ideology), social and
cultural history (class conflict; the fine arts and popular culture)
were all twentieth-century additions. What was missing before the 1970s
was much attention to feelings and fantasies, hence, psychohistory.
There are, of course, only a finite number of explanations for any given
historical event. Historians break causes down into political, economic,
intellectual, social or cultural, and now, psychohistorical factors.
What causes historical events to take place are the result of one of
these factors, or several, in some combination. It is up to us to find
out which ones are at work in any given circumstance. Why do some people
assert that psychological factors are not at work without even examining
the evidence? Why, when emotions, intrapsychic defenses, and fantasies
are shown to be at work do people raise their hand to ask about economic
causes? In a course in economics we don't ask about psychological factors:
why do we ask about economics in psychohistory?
One reason for this tendency is that more than most courses, psychohistory
provokes emotional reactions to the material. Over the years, people
have been filled with anger, sadness, and fear, which tells us what
we're studying is meaningful. When we look at the history of childhood,
for example, we cannot help but think of our own childhoods, and, if
we are parents, what we've done to our own children. Not for everyone
all of the time, but for some of us some of the time, these feelings
can be intense and uncomfortable, and an immediate rejection of what
we're hearing can be a signal of our own denials. For at bottom, there
are only three possible reactions to any bit of information: 1) "Yes.
The evidence, logic and my experiences convince me;' 2) "I don't know,
and need time to think about it'; 3) "That's wrong!' For 3) there are
two options: either the evidence leads to a wrong conclusion; or, the
person is in denial. Visceral negative reactions, without considered
rational analysis, clue us to the possibilities that we may be denying.
This becomes a continuous, all-semester exercise for everyone, and it
is also good to reiterate, almost weekly, that students don't have to
believe what they are hearing, only that they have to learn it.
But in the long run handling these feelings pays off. An older student,
a married woman with grown children in her late 40s, came to me after
class one night in the mid-80s to tell me she had to drop the course:
what we had been discussing was "too upsetting.' Ronald Reagan's apocalyptic
fantasies, the subject of an award-winning journalist's book, included
the belief that this was the Endtime, that the appearance of Jesus was
imminent, and that the world would soon end in fire, probably nuclear
fire, brought on by a conflict over Israel. The thought that our then
president, a twitch away from the nuclear button, could help arrange
things so that his expectations could become a reality was so frightening
that the prospects of future unsettling discussions in the course made
the student want to drop it.
I suggested that she call her daughter, then a student at the University
of Maryland, who had taken the course the year before. The next meeting,
she informed me that she had indeed contacted her daughter, whose advice
was: "Stick with the course, Mom. The feelings will pass, but the insights
will remain.' This bit of wisdom can be repeated to the class several
times during the semester, and, while the course is an intellectual,
not a therapeutic experience (I am a historian, not a psychotherapist),
it is well to always keep in mind psychohistory's emotional dimensions.
Those who stick with the course will be sure to emerge with more insight
than many of their peers. And while psychohistorians have spent much
time lamenting the problem of student resistance, those taking the course
can also look forward to experiencing the joys of discovery. I see it
every semester, when the connections start being made and students begin
seeing what they hadn't seen before, that look of dawning recognition,
which is one of the most rewarding moments in all of teaching. Sooner
or later, some student will get around to raising the issues of bias,
subjectivity and personal agendas. I always take it that the student
is a group-delegate expressing the half-articulated feelings of everyone
else. Since it is a theme closely akin to denial, it is very important
to deal with directly.
The relativist position is, of course, central to twentieth-century
social science (and the philosophy of science itself), and has a venerable
existence in history as the theory of historicism. The legacy of the
deconstructionists, some elements of multiculturalism and identity politics,
along with the normal tendencies of youth finding itself, have produced
today an exponentially expanded subjectivism bordering on the nihilistic.
This is true for all courses, not just psychohistory. It needs to be
addressed, especially for psychohistory since it allows the student
to dismiss compelling evidence as "only your opinion.' I don't have
the space here to offer a full-scale discussion of what I do to handle
this form of resistance, except to mention that a discussion of the
history of the relativist position from the Sophists to today often
helps, as does showing the absurdities to which the extreme relativist
position can lead. It is also simply false that "all historians disagree
about everything all of the time.' They don't. Finally (despite her
disdain for psychohistory), one can refer students to Gertrude Himmelfarb's
fine essay on method in On Looking Into The Abyss.3
Due to current space limitations, I can only summarize, in impressionistic
and fragmented form, some of the examples I use to illustrate other
ego defenses in individuals and groups, past and present. For repression,
Miss America 1958 Marylin Van Derbur's complete amnesia (until her early
20s) of her father's nightly sexual assaults from the age of five; the
consequences of trauma (reference Judith Herman's Trauma and Recovery),
the tendency toward traumatic reliving; physical, emotional, and sexual
child abuse as trauma; shell shock, battle fatigue, post-traumatic stress
disorder; mention of the Scientific American (June 1994) article on
the places in the brain where (non-verbal) emotional memories are stored.
For displacement, the "kick the dog reaction'; attitudes towards authority
figures; Reagan's invasion of Grenada two days after the U.S. Marine
massacre in Beirut. For regression, temper tantrums, bed wetting, thumb
sucking in adults (Hitler's little finger); magical thinking; the symbolic
acting out of the early-90s pacifier craze in Austria, southern Germany
and the U.S. (Boys N the Hood); the sometime tendency in groups (and
individuals) to seek escape from long-term stress by submitting to "strong,'
authoritarian-father types. For reaction formation, the film and novel
Fearless; the contrast between Jimmy Carter's treatment of his father,
Mr. Earl (ambivalence) and his mother, Ms. Lillian (possible reaction
formation) in his autobiography Why Not The Best?, and how this could
contribute to a displaced hostility toward woman, feminists, or other
For splitting, the Madonna-Harlot complex; medieval "good mommy/bad
mommy' idealizations of the Virgin Mary and demonizations of witches;
various "us/them' examples. For projection, the monsters of medieval
and early modern cartography (and modern alien monsters projected from
our unconscious onto outer space); the use of others as "containers'
for our own feelings, "We're not addicted to sweets,'--sex, pot, love,
wine, or violence-- "addicts are--and they need to be punished'; we're
not lazy, the homeless are, welfare "cheats' are; we're not stupid,
Polish jokes tell us Polish people are; we don't want Central America,
the Russians do; for fifty years we and the Soviets used each other
as mutual containers for our own aggressions; and the world's "search
for enemies' continues since the end of the Cold War. For fantasy, conscious,
play dreams, daydreams which become conscious, the fantasies of the
sleep-dream cycle; functions of fantasy; sometimes the "fear is the
wish' in nightmares; symbol formation (are we "acting out' fantasies
as spectators when we attend movies?); what does the popularity of Independence
Day and Titanic tell us about ourselves and our fantasies? At this point,
after heated denials and assertions form students that popular films
are only entertainment, the class is ready for formal study of "The
History of Childhood.'
David R. Beisel,
Ph.D., teaches history and psychohistory at Rockland Community College,
State University of New York, 145 College Road, Suffern, New York 10901.
He is past president of the International Psychohistorical Association,
edited the Journal of Psychohistory from 1978 to 1987, and has
published numerous articles in American and European history. In May
1998 he received a national NISOD award for teaching excellence, and
was a 1987 recipient of the State University of New York Chancellor's
Award for Excellence in Teaching.
1. Peter Gay, "Introduction,' The Freud Reader, ed. by Peter Gay (New
York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1989), pp. xiii-xiv.
2. Clio's Psyche: Explaining the Why of History, published quarterly
by The Psychohistory Forum, 627 Dakota Trail, Franklin Lakes, N.J. 07417.
3. Gertrude Himmelfarb, On Looking Into The Abyss (New York: Vintage,
1995), pp. 131-161.