A Suicidal Embrace: War as Self-Punishment and Suicide


Jerrold Atlas
© 2005

War is the collective desire to sacrifice and to punish each other.

It is the result of the collective wish for self-punishment in a suicidal embrace of aggression and sacrifice. It is the hurt one inflicts on oneself during a period of enormous collective pain and/or guilt about perceived feelings–

1. that one has succeeded too much,
2. that one has outperformed one’s parents,
3. that the group is sinfully enjoying itself too much,
4. that the group has strayed too far from some imaginary limits,
5. that there’s too permissive a society,
6. that women have dangerously succeeded in elevating themselves from the subordinate positions men had assigned them, etc.

The painfulness of war cleanses the collective sense of these, usually through the sacrifice of the young. The “memory of war” has a far different purpose — it is an “industry” constructed to service the collective needs of the group. It services the leaders by embracing a noble purpose for the actions of the group and allows leaders to manipulate the masses. It services the people by frightening them with traumatic memories that increase their willingness to be led. It services the people by emboldening their desire to do service to the group. It allows the group to construct a “fusion illusion/merger with Mommy”.

A perceived sense of having gone astray from what one was taught not to do in childhood frightens and, to prove one’s affection for the memories of Mommy (and need for the desired Mommy’s love), one merges with the memory of Mommy. Then one projects all of one’s negative thoughts onto internal or external others whom one then attacks/abuses/destroys in service to the memory of Mommy.

In more modern times with increased technologies, the central state develops an ability to manipulate the group through control of the systems of the state – media (radio, television and print), education, mythologies, rituals of celebration, etc. The group acquiesces to this manipulation for several reasons –

1. the general weakness of individual and collective thinking,
2. the ease of using repeated falsehoods or constructed myths to convince the collective sense,
3. the punishment/reward system favoring those who support the collective process (what we term the “group illusion” that all members buy into in order to be members),
4. the construction of an “illogical logic” for the group to justify its actions and beliefs, etc.

The very acts of “sanctifying” war and the memories of war signal those who think clearly and carefully that they are being manipulated. Yet, since clear thinkers are usually in the minority, the state is able to accelerate the group’s desire for sacrifice and self-punishment by constantly plunging the group into repeated traumas and memories of trauma. These traumatic reminders actually create a trance state for the group where mental illness dominates – thus, leaders manipulate the collective sense of trance and encourage devotion and loyalty to the leader. Indeed, “loyalty” replaces logical thinking and the group plunges into the “illogical logic” of a collective trance. That’s what allows the group to perform this suicidal embrace of destruction.


As I indicated in my 1997 article in The Journal of Psychohistory , “Leaders in Trance: A Conceptual Framework for Leadership Decisions and the Actions of Nations”:

What is most apparent is that our leaders perform clear service for the group . That leaders are themselves subject to the vagaries of their psychic defenses and these, under stress, often determine their most peculiar behaviors and actions. They surround themselves with a “circle of mutual admiration” busily celebrating their leadership in all of the fundamental ways previously discussed in numerous books and articles by Bion, Anzieu, deMause and myself. They receive digested and interpreted information designed to fulfill their prestated policy goals:
bask in an almost imperial glory attended by many,
become the focus of minute-by-minute media and public attention and
rarely get to see or hear what the people really want.

It is important to understand that these ideas are universal in application – they are not specific to any one nation or group or to any one time period.

I further added:

The way in which a society structures itself is a measure of its willingness to be governed. Leadership is the by-product of the group’s unconscious need to be led . What this presupposes is that the group exists – that it is a whole entity. What the group is doing is the unfinished psychological work of its members’ childhoods – more importantly, the group:
1. is regressive in doing its child work,
2. has the here and now as its focus,
3. seeks only the positive (thereby creating a common behavior, an acceptable “group-think”) and
4. desires its leader to service the group.

In this sense, the leader is variously seen as a mouth, a container (for the group’s negative feelings – which psychohistorians term “poison” – so that the leader is a poison container for the group), a feeder, a mirror or a messiah. Indeed, the group:
1. tends to function in and out of dreams (so that we may interpret group behavior as dreamwork),
2. serves as a privileged place for bizarre behavior,
3. duplicates the maternal imago (thereby projecting an unconscious feeling of being in the hands of one’s mother, albeit herein a substitute mother) and
4. establishes a common belief system (the “group illusion”).

I indicated above that the group becomes a privileged dimension for the practice of perversion. This is because the group allows perversions, which frighten individuals to be played out in relative safety and impunity. Groups weaken the psychological defenses and strengths of members, favor the pleasure principle (defined by Freud) over reality (thereby attracting lost souls, psychopaths and the emotionally stunted) as well as allow the rise of someone with underlying fantasies and anxieties who establishes a sense of abandonment anxiety among the members.

As leader, he offers an opportunity for each member to increase abandonment anxiety. If he is rejected by the group, he is sacrificed as the abandonment. The leader can be seen as accomplishing, for the group, the forbidden possession that the Oedipus complex required us to give up: lost love of mother will be regained. The central group illusion is that the group is its own cause – thus, the group appears to be in a place without time, at the doorway to its own utopia.

To this I must add that whenever groups believe themselves to be under some extreme stress (it doesn’t really matter what kind of stress or whether the stress is real or imagined), they tend to regress. This regression is a “coping mechanism” to handle the psyche’s need to defend itself from discomfort. This regression is usually to pre-verbal, pre-oedipal or fetal stages – there are countless images of being trapped (in the womb), of leaders as pregnant women, of breaking through (like the rupturing of the amniotic sac prior to birth), of choking and strangling (reflecting the sensation of the overcrowded womb as well as the reality of the danger in birth in possible choking to death by one’s umbilical cord) and many other images of a fetal or early childhood nature.

Thus, groups display their willingness, even their desire, to be punished . This is a group need for sacrifice because of our perceived guilt (e.g., we have enjoyed too much, lived in excess, participated in abundance) – we seem to need to be punished in order to feel better. Naturally, we really don’t want to hurt ourselves – so we look for someone else to be our sacrifice. We first look to our leader (this is one of his purposes as our poison container). The leader looks for some minister/advisor to serve as the sacrifice or, failing that, attempts to misdirect the group into hating and sacrificing some target group – the scapegoat. If that doesn’t succeed, the leader finds some way to punish the group itself (e.g., heavy taxation, financial distress, food and product shortages are all forms of economic and psychological suicide) or directs the group into hatred of an external enemy so that the group prepares for (and may actually go to) war.

Finally, if all else fails, the leader becomes the group’s sacrifice.

So, if I can restate the above, the individuals in the group restage their childhood traumas, develop group illusions identifying their shared existence, select their leader according to their needs and seek punishment. They give the leader the right to act out the group fantasies so that the members can peacefully deny any ownership of these actions.

Periodically, when the group and the leader are imagined to be collapsing – when our despair becomes too great and our social alters seem too distant so that we feel depleted of vital parts of ourselves, and our hypervigilance is at an unbearable peak – …we enter a panic state, and our early fears and other emotional memories are restaged in wars or other forms of social violence.

This is the group as an entity, capable of feelings and actions.

We should also understand that thwarted desires are psychologically uncomfortable. Years of economic distress, feelings of abandonment by allies, rapidly altering lifestyle, appearance of a new class of rich, crime/pollution/health difficulties and a host of other difficulties produce hopeless confusion. This confusion creates a dysfunctional society – a society at war with itself.

In moments of distress, we should expect the dysfunctional group to fantasize the leader as being in command and capable, as physically strong with a muscular physique and a powerful manner. There might be evidence in political cartoons, magazine covers, newspaper headlines and all forms of advertising (all reveal the group’s unconscious) of fantasies of self-doubt, self-deprecation and devouring, related fantasies of male weakness (which is diminished phallic potency) and overpowering women as well as of rescue by outside forces (which is helplessness and resignation).

Unsuccessful leaders frequently plunge their nations further into dysfunctional depression or war. Movements that devour their leaders simply continue their unsatisfying dysfunctional dance. New leaders, new devouring accelerate the illogical race to somewhere, to nowhere. Only strong and charismatic leaders can halt the dysfunctional dance by mobilizing and manipulating the masses.

I further added:

Charismatic-like leaders have consciously or unconsciously perfected the use of trance induction techniques to accomplish their delegated tasks. Indeed, this is one explanation for what will be seen as a trance-like atmosphere pervading the leadership circle. This trance atmosphere is marked by catastrophizing, over generalization, selective abstraction, dichotomous thinking, time distortion, misassessing causality, irresponsibility or excessive responsibility and circular thinking.

For example, scapegoats cannot be seen as having a call on our empathy because we have projected so much negative into them during our social trance. We have injected them with our poison so that they are bad, greedy, demanding too much of our attention, too pushy, too successful and are obviously deserving of our punishment. “The larger the success a society must face – the more its progress outstrips its childrearing evolution – the larger the historical punishment it must stage”.

One may easily observe this trance behavior in any group – it certainly occurs within the circles of mutual admiration that typify national leadership. As a typical meeting is about to start, all switch into their social alters and the social trance begins. Subliminal messages begin, language style alters, body language and psychic awareness change to reflect the group mindset. The members have distanced themselves from their normal behaviors and thinking capacities, from their critical thinking abilities. The leader is now perceived as being in control, group boundaries are fantasized, work is deemed to be easily accomplished, enemies are created, subgroups act out opposing views and all abusive behaviors toward others is seen as acceptable. This is a “trauma-filled inner scenario”, sacrificial volunteers appear, group-fantasies appear (of their history, theories, hatreds and likes) and the meeting place ( the group ) becomes more vital than ordinary life. This perceived vitality is reflected in the members’ exhaustion afterwards, in the feeling of awakening at the applause concluding the meeting and the emotional disappointment of ordinary life afterwards.

We should also remember that there is a perceived necessity to obey authority within the social trance. Too frequently, we underestimate the amount of trauma in most people’s lives – thus, we also underestimate how effectively the social trance allows them to restage these deep injuries. Didn’t Hitler use the desire to revenge “the shame of Versailles” as one of his campaign themes? The Greeks vilified the “barbarians”, Caesar used the Gauls, Germans targeted the Slavs, Christians scapegoated Jews/pagans/ Muslims, Urban II used the Muslims and so it goes. In mid-90s Austria, Thomas Klestil’s successful campaign may have rested on his election posters’ slogan: “Might Requires Control”. Giant tire manufacturer Pirelli’s contemporaneous advertising campaign (1995-1996) advanced the slogan: “Power is Nothing Without Control”. These are but a few of the many examples of the need for authority.

Zeroing in on the role of the leader, I noted:

Thus, the leader perceived to be tough and mean is also accepted as being strong and good for us – just as we excused the cruelty of our parents.

This is the perceived power of the leader – he is deified just as were our parents. That he is feared is also how we feared our perpetrators of childhood trauma. Throughout most of the world’s history, the leader’s touch/prayers/body waste were all thought to carry the power of healing and divinity. Perhaps we should now wisely understand that this was a reflection of our projections or our parents’ perceived powers. Social exploitation, wars, cruelties and excessive abuse can be justified when we have merged with the perpetrator – the persecutory social alter prevents us from being overwhelmed with guilt.

Indeed, this is the leader’s principal role in the group: to lead the group into trance, to establish the social alter and to restage early traumas. The group wants to access its dissociated traumatic experience as a group, allows the leader to fascinate it (just as one would be in a trance) and the leader serves to goals of the social trance by enabling a recapturing of the hypnotic evasion used to avoid early trauma. The leader functions, therefore, to defend the group against repetitions of early traumas and abandonment – except that he is there to allow access and recapturing of the feelings in order to heighten the individual’s identification with the protective group. The group grows stronger in its bonding by using these anxieties.

Leaders provide “grandiose manic antidotes” to the group’s abandonment panic or fear of maternal engulfment. “Indeed, poison-cleansing is a central purpose of all social rituals, whether it is accomplished by wars, religious sacrifices or depressions, all of which cleanse the body politic of sinful pleasures and freedoms”.


Group-fantasy analysis calls upon us to interpret the unconscious symbolism imbedded within words, motivations, calls for action, literature and art. As I indicated in a 1999 unpublished paper, “Fear of Pollution and Poison: Licentious Literature and the ‘Dangerous Woman’ Image in the Origins of the French Revolution”:

As is usually the case with delusional systems, fears of one’s poisonous sexuality are projected onto “enemies” to avoid psychotic breakdown. Groups/nations also project fear onto designated “enemies” in order to maintain homeostasis. In this sense, group fantasies function to relieve the group psyche’s fears of being polluted or poisoned. This is particularly certain when we remember that much of Europe had long suffered severely abusive childhood.

Lloyd deMause posited that “poison blood” group fantasies regularly appear prior to outbreaks of war. These appear together with a variety of images of guilt about the nation’s prosperity and success. Success is generally believed to “pollute the national blood-stream with sinful excess”, making men “soft” and “feminine” so that the only acceptable relief comes from “blood-shedding purification”. Remember that both deMause and I have frequently emphasized this fear of success and its requisite blood purge: we fear success, not the failure we have been trained to believe is our appropriate reward, and work our hardest to eliminate any success from preventing our achieving failure. Thus, war is:

One of the great agencies by which human progress is effected ¼ [It] purges a nation of its humors ¼ and chastises it, as sickness or adversity ¼ chastens an individual ¼ [curing it of its] worship of comfort, wealth, and general softness.” Even Conan Doyle has Sherlock Holmes emphasize that “A bloody purging would be good for the country”.

From earliest human history onward, human sacrifice was used to service then current group-fantasies. War, therefore, was a sacrificial ritual thought to purify a nation’s polluted blood. The vigorous blood of youths cleansed the nation’s perceived pollution – vitality-in-the-service-of-the-group: “nations drink renewal from the blood of the fallen soldiers”. This blood purge was usually in the service of some maternal figure (e.g., Mother-Earth or some other bloodthirsty mother goddess) so that the entire ritual served as a rebirthing, for a nation reborn “from the womb of history ¼ [a] bloody baptism” removing all poisonous self-indulgence. Thus, we should quickly sense, war is frequently symbolized as female or as serving a female deity.

With this in mind, group-fantasy analyses often focus on the search for images of “the dangerous woman” since this represents fundamental male fears with readily understandable expected actions to follow:

War has been portrayed as a dangerous, bloodthirsty woman. From Athena to Freyja to Marianne to Brittania (and a huge list of others), war goddesses have been terrifying. What a role reversal (since men were usually the warriors and women usually the victims) with goddesses devouring, raping and ripping apart their children. Repeated so often in art, myth and literature, this theme has become embedded within our collective frame of reference. It denies reality and delegates the responsibility for all of war’s horrors to fearful females.

Thus, patriarchal societies shed responsibility for the typical male vocation by assigning blame for it to its principal victims. The theme of the dangerous woman, therefore, serves to prevent male psychotic collapse.

Indeed, deMause drew a bead on this “dangerous woman” imaging by singling out what he termed the “Marie Antoinette Syndrome”:

DeMause emphasized that the appearance of “monstrous bloodthirsty women have preceded every war”, then disappeared when war took place because the dangerous woman theme is projected onto the enemy. In this sense, “war is experienced unconsciously as a battle with a mother-figure”. Ancient battles were mythically fought against female monsters (e.g., Tiamat, Ishtar, Inanna, Isis or Kali), frequently the hero’s mother. The bestiality evident in war – anal rape, castration, collections of excised penises – reflects a feminization of one’s enemies that should be expected in battles against one’s mother. That “more women have been raped and killed in wars than enemy soldiers [makes] the hero ¼ a mother-killer , inflicting our revenge for early traumatic experiences”.


In my 2001 article in The Journal of Psychohistory , “The Central Paradigm: Childrearing as the Fulcrum of Psychohistorical Explanation”, I focused on deMause’s emphasis on the reenactment of the trauma of abandonment in childhood:

Would that we could simply declare that early childhood abandonment (e.g., to relatives, craftsmen, church, colleagues as well as foster care) established psychic defense patterns in children conditioning the willingness of adult societies to harm others. That projection onto others of one’s own unresolved abandoning-parent issues allowed these societies to viciously attack/destroy/forcibly deport [= abandonment reenactment]/ annihilate [= seeking revenge through a “safe” substitute parricide/fratricide] those whom they had declared as their “enemies”. That (and here I project forward in history) very same abandonment reenactment has encouraged modern-day mass deportations of hated resident aliens or, worse yet, ethnic annihilation. Of course, this is all true but it is definitely not simple.


DeMause has assigned the universality of child abuse in childrearing to a form of child sacrifice to the feared grandmother [alters reflect a psychic defense to unspeakable trauma by resisting acknowledgement of the terrible deed(s); herein, it means a refusal to recognize the maternal – and probably the paternal as well — filicidal desires and actions, the familial demanding of a death to satisfy grandparental threats to kill or abandon the parents for daring to become parents themselves].

In chapter 6 of “The Emotional Life of Nations”, Lloyd deMause stated about the origins of WW II:

“What is, however, most widely accepted is that Germans were “under stress,” voted Nazi, and then turned to violence because of the Great Depression.

Numerous detailed studies of Nazi membership all disprove this “economic stress” argument. The “model Nazi party member” joined before the Depression: “his economic status was secure, for not once did he have to change his occupation, job, or residence, nor was he ever unemployed.”

“The only group affected [by the Depression] were the workers…Yet paradoxically the workers remained steadfast in support of the [democratic] status quo while the middle class, only marginally hurt by the economic constriction, turned to revolution.” Most workers did not vote for the Nazis and of those who did, who “believed in Hitler the magician,” most soon felt disappointed.

Hitler admitted “economics was not very important to him [and] very few Germans had any information about what his economic program actually was.” Germans who became violent Nazis came primarily from authoritarian middle-class backgrounds, not from poverty. Indeed, “those who grew up in poverty showed the least prejudice” in Merkl’s study of Nazi stormtroopers. The “stress” that triggered the war and genocide was related to economics, but it in fact came from renewed prosperity in the late 1930s, not from the economic collapse of 1929.”


While I will want to deal further with the topics of “what is a leader”, “the leader’s role in the group”, “trance command” and “living in dysfunction” in a future article, I think I have clearly demonstrated here that war is a national suicidal embrace seeking self-destruction [= suicide]. They are “repetitions of early child abuse triggered by too much economic and social progress which makes people fear that they are becoming too independent from the authoritarian parents still in their heads.” Indeed, wars are constructed from inner fears and rages, not from the outer social stresses claimed by most historians. These inner delusional emotional states are the psychohistorian’s focus and should become the focus of all those who study wars or seek peace.

We should all be able to separate the claimed “demonic enemy images and virtuous self-images on both sides”, recognize a need to change the opponents’ emotional dispositions and end their cycle of suicide. Only an awareness of this acting out of early relationships can undo the automatic rage reaction that is threatening violence. Wars are not, as most historians and political scientists claim, rational and begun for utilitarian reasons – they are almost always suicidal.

Jerrold Atlas, PhD, is Vice President of the International University of Altdorf, a retired Senior Professor of History, several times past president of the International Psychohistorical Association and International Vice President, Director of the Center for Psychohistorical Studies, Associate Director of the Institute for Psychohistory, Founding Editor of TAPESTRY: The Journal of Historical Motivations and the Social Fabric, Contributing Editor of The Journal of Psychohistory, Chair of the Historical Motivations Congresses in Europe, author of Was in Deutschland Passieren Wird…das Unbewusste der Deutschen [What Will Happen in Germany: The Unconscious of the Germans](1992: ECON, Dusseldorf), author of numerous articles on psychohistorical and historical motivations topics and a hypnotherapist in private practice.