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Peace from Harmony
Conflict theory for harmonious peace: methods of solving interethnic conflicts

Mikhail Reshetnikov

Clinical approach to investigation and solution of international conflicts

Short version

Its not frightening to be disproved,
but its strange to be misunderstood
I. Kant


In mid-90th I was invited to participate in mission of the US President Carter Fund for resolution of Russian-Estonian conflict in Narva. That time my friend and colleague, eminent American psychiatrist and psychoanalyst professor Vamic Volcan told me that every international conflict develops like paranoia.

This idea stuck in my head, but then I could neither elaborate it, nor find its implications in Volcans works. But, originally it was his idea.

This paper was written for psychopathologists, so it isnt necessary to describe clinical picture of paranoia. I will just remind respected colleagues some aspects of the picture that are important for further material of the paper.


As we know paranoia is single-symptom psychic disorder. Typically, patients delusional thoughts and ideas have ordinary contents: in patients opinion someone persecutes him, deceives, betrays, tries to humiliate, to stress his inferiority, to poison or infect or even destroy him.

Outside of this narrow-focused cognitive disturbance such patients usually havent any behavioral difficulties or strange features, and they often demonstrate high social achievements. Now it is generally accepted that delusional disorders have mainly psychosocial roots, and their main triggers are: psychic traumata, especially experiences of humiliation, physical or psychic violence in early life, parental abuse, over-demanding attitudes and expectations of high achievements from the child.

In result feeling of basic trust doesnt develop, and such person from the very beginning perceives his close environment or all the world as hostile. But in most cases of prominent pathology there would be the most dangerous figures or groups or types of relationships.

Historical review

Let me remind you that in XIX century it was already known that paranoia develops gradually, like normal character develops in other people; and it is result of psychic development of particular personality. Kraepelin wrote, that such patients, develop a tendency to evaluate and interpret life experiences from subjective point of view and connect them to o­nes own wishes and fears; thus, religious thought leads to the belief that o­ne is chosen by God and tendency to preach and to seek followers, which often could be successful.

Kraepelin was o­ne of the first specialists who spoke about transmission of illness from o­ne person to another. He called it induced madness that happens mostly in cases of paranoia. Suspicions and guesses gradually transmute into sureness and then into unshakable belief.

At the beginning of XXth century majority of specialists came to the conclusion that paranoia was not a disease but rather a specific development of personality.

Case histories

Case histories of paranoia constitute o­ne of the most tragic and impressive chapters in psychiatry, which in modern times is multiplied by cinema and became an element of mass-culture (and it is very symptomatic). This is not a history of psychiatry, so I will mention o­nly the results of some clinical case studies (in particular: Rolfink, Vagner and Schreber described by Kraepelin, Bleuler and Freud, which I think are well known to audience). In all these cases we can see the ideas of persecution, injustice, social humiliation with further transformation in seeking truth and revenge, which sometimes take form of serial murder without any guilt, remorse and even a fear of punishment. There are also ideas of messiahs mission, self-sacrifice, martyrdom and death for redemption as a way of approaching God.

Social pathology

In his paper Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego Freud expresses revolutionary idea that a contrast between individual and group psychic phenomenon loses a great deal of its sharpness when it is examined more closely, so the psychology of personality is at the same time social psychology as well. Freud adds that mass psychology have to consider every person not as individual subject but rather as a member of race, of a nation, of a cast, of a profession, of an institution and he stresses that a group is always impulsive, changeable and irritable The impulses which a group obeys may according to circumstances be generous or cruel, heroic or cowardly, but they are always so imperious that no personal interests, not even of self-preservation, can make itself felt It (a group) has a sense of omnipotence; the notion of impossibility disappears from the individual in a group(Freud S. SE XVIII, pp. 69, 70, 77).

The content of hypothesis

I have nothing to add to this, I o­nly expand this idea from group psychology to group pathology, and formulate the following idea: if there has been a deep psychic trauma in group background connected to (national) humiliation, then delusional ideas (or relationships) could develop after a long time. Under certain conditions (negative economical, social or political factors) such ideas can transmute into unshakable belief of these people (or large ethnic group) that they are righteous, chosen by God and have special messiah mission, together with the ideas of pride, greatness and self-sacrifice in name of redemption or revenge. And such messiah mission can take the cruelest forms.

I understand that this hypothesis is quite vulnerable (especially when it is proved in theses) and Im sure that it will evoke ruthless criticism. But I dare to expand this hypothesis to all ethnic groups that went through repression and colonization, then got freedom and a possibility to return back to their historical lands and soon felt themselves at the backyard of history and civilization.

Intergenerational transmission

Now I will turn to Vamic Volcans works that were mentioned above, in particular, to his paper Traumatized societies (2003). Volcan pays attention to the fact that investigations of national affects and massive psychic trauma (inflicted by the hostile group) showed the special significance of intergenerational transmission mechanisms. After Second World War in the process of correction of psychic status of concentration camps survivals (including children) many investigations were carried out o­n intergenerational transmission. They confirmed that parents transmit to their children something more than just an anxiety or other depressive or manic affects.

Children of survivals (after national tragedies) develop deeper identification with their parents and manifest symptoms connected to psychic contents of parental past - and past in general (which they didnt and couldnt witness). This concept of identification is well-known both in psychoanalysis and outside it. The most important is the fact that adults who went through massive psychic trauma can insert their traumatized self-images into developing identity of their children. In result the children become carriers of damaged parental images.

After massive trauma (inflicted by hostile group) hundreds, thousands or even millions of individuals insert their traumatized images into their children, and the result is cumulative effect, which determines psychic content of large groups identity. And all these inserted images are connected to the same traumatic event.

In result common task of the next generation is to save a memory of parental trauma, to mourn their losses, to act upon their humiliation or (if it isnt possible) to take revenge o­n their enemies. In any case the main task is: to save mental representation of parental trauma which gradually (during decades and centuries) supports a special identity of particular large group.

Vamic Volcan called such mental representation the chosen trauma of a large group. When the large group is threatened by a new economical, political or religious crisis, its leaders (intuitively or intentionally) appeal to that chosen trauma which has a special potential for groups emotional consolidation.

Practical example

I would like give you an example(Volcan V., 2003) that is events in Yugoslavia before the first post-soviet conflict between Serbs and Bosnian Moslems. Serbs (who were abandoned by their Slavic brothers after destruction of soviet camp) with their mass consciousness are the most prominent example of such chosen trauma. In 1998 state structures (mostly Serbs) began an active propaganda, exploiting the memory of Kosovo battle. In result the huge group of people (Moslems) appeared to be guilty in all the troubles and became a legitimate target for Serbs hatred, although they have lived quite peacefully together for many decades. Let me remind you the date of Kosovo battle, it was June 28, 1389 (!). Then, 600 years after this battle, official authorities allowed the exhumation of legendary Serb Prince Lasar who had been captured and killed in Kosovo battle. The year before the conflict between Serbs and Bosnians his coffin has been taken from village to village, and there has been something like a burial rite in each place. This seemingly harmless rite created a shift in time: national feelings of Serbs were such, as if Lasar has been killed a day before, rather than 600 years ago. This situation is called in psychoanalysis condensation of feelings and time in combination with regression to an early (in historical sense) modes of reaction. The anxiety created by current events, especially by economical and political instability which followed the breakdown of soviet camp, was mixed with memories of past and unfulfilled revenge. In result Bosnian Moslems were perceived as guilty in all historical troubles of Serbs, so it was a legitimate reason for all forms of revenge: Serbs began to kill, robber and rape their enemies with Middle-age cruelty.

Translation of criminal experience

I wont give other examples or draw any parallels. They are quite obvious. In conclusion I should say that I am not trying directly or indirectly (by explanation) to approve terrorism as an extreme manifestation of international conflict, even taking in account that it is a weapon of weak. My task is essentially different to understand the roots of violence and terrorism from the deep psychological perspective and to find ways to minimize terrorism and to deprive it of psychological supplies and social basis where it finds its forces and followers. My goal is to allow boys and girls which were born today or will be born tomorrow in any ethnic group to be protected from the transmission of criminal and semi-criminal experience of previous generations and prevent them from joining terrorists. I am sure that this goal can be reached, but not in result of hasty military operations with the same paranoia hidden behind them.

I can speak more about psychotherapeutic actions and psychotherapeutic interventions in cases of massive psychic trauma taking into consideration my own experience and that of the foreign specialists but it would be different topic.

We know that every psychic trauma has its own history, its own mythology and its irrational transformation. In any case it demand deeper investigation, and we can suggest such deeper approaches to these problems.

My main point is that we cant predict something irrational, so we cant construct reconciliation process from outside. It can be o­nly studied in cases of small conflicting groups and then we can act like psychotherapists, search for possible means of social therapy and find ways to reconcile the hostile parties.

We do find spiritual leaders of terrorists in case of emergency. We do find suitable words and convincing arguments in these cases. Why cant we speak to them more often and try to understand them, their purposes, their and our delusions? Maybe we just have two different paranoias?

I believe that in our complicated world we are doomed not to the escalation of violence but rather to dialogue and understanding.

Mikhail Reshetnikov,
M.D., Ph.D. Professor, East European Psychoanalytic Institute, Rector, St.-Petersburg


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