Vamik D. Volkan
A Nazi Legacy
Depositing, Transgenerational Transmission, Dissociation, and Remembering Through Action
Vamik D. Volkan, a native of Cyprus, was touched by ethnic/political violence at a very personal level when he was still in medical school: a very close friend was shot by terrorists during the Cypriat war. “I didn’t have anyone to talk to about it at the time, I was far from home.” Once he completed medical school and his psychoanalytic training, he noticed that he had become preoccupied with theoretical questions of mourning, and he realized he was motivated by his loss to address issues of ethnic violence and peace-making from a psychoanalytic angle. How are generations of families affected by historical trauma and loss? How does political violence and trauma become a chosen or disavowed element of identity across generations? With A Nazi Legacy: Depositing, Transgenerational Transmission, Dissociation, and Remembering Through Action (Karnac 2015), Volkan recounts a fascinating, riveting, theoretically powerful case history he supervises, of the grandson of a high level Nazi perpetrator, instrumental in developing the forced euthanasia of people with disabilities. The grandfather’s program was called “T4”, and he was responsible for introducing the technique of killing groups of people with gas, which went on to be used on the large scale in the camps. He was later killed on the Eastern Front. When the grandson, the subject of the case, Victor, is born, his parents are deeply preoccupied with the possibility that Victor may have a disability. Victor is haunted by the memory of a tonsillectomy at three years old, of his struggling and resisting being “gassed” by the pediatrician. As an adult, he presents for therapy with the problem that he has episodes at night of waking in a dissociative state in his room and trying to escape through the window. A complication for the treatment is that Victor’s future analyst is the daughter of a Nazi soldier…
A Nazi Legacy is challenging, moving, but also useful as a presentation of clinical technique. Volkan strongly advocates for psychoanalysts to be more aware of the effects of social and political violence on the internal world of their patients, but also to be aware of how these events affect analysts themselves, and play out in enactments of disavowal. As Victor begins to work through his family history and the truth of his grandfather’s atrocities, he has a pivotal reaction to seeing the film “Twelve Years a Slave”: “he recalled the film dealing with racism and thought he might be like white people in the United States.”
Vamik D. Volkan is Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, the Senior Erik Erikson Scholar at the Erikson Institute of Education and Research of the Austen Riggs Center, and an Emeritus Training and Supervising Analyst at the Washington DC Psychoanalytic Institute. Dr. Volkan is also president of the International Dialogue Initiative (IDI), a nonprofit organization that brings together unofficial representatives from various parts of the world, such as Germany, Iran, Israel, Russia, Turkey, UK, U.S.A, and the West Bank to examine world affairs from a psychopolitical angle. The IDI develops a common language between psychoanalysts and those who are diplomats, politicians or from other disciplines. Dr. Volkan is a 2015 Winner of the prestigious Sigourney Award, and has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.