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Social psychology

Collective trauma

by Sheila Mysorekar

In depth

In March 2011, activists of H.I.J.O.S remind in Buenos Aires of all the people who disappeared during the military dictatorship in Argentina.

In March 2011, activists of H.I.J.O.S remind in Buenos Aires of all the people who disappeared during the military dictatorship in Argentina.

Traumatic events mould the collective memory of a society. Each new crisis brings old injuries to the surface. However, previous experiences also offer the skills to master new challenges in a better way. Argentina is a good example.

Crises are not only current issues, but they also remind us of previous crises. During the Corona pandemic, memories of the plague and the Spanish flu return. In an economic crisis, people remember how they managed during earlier economic hardships. And when armed military patrols the streets – even if it is only in order to control the ­Corona curfew – those who have lived through a dictatorship will feel uneasy.

Epidemics, economic crises or military rule are no individual experiences, but a common experience shared with all members of a society. There are differences of course: not everybody falls sick during a plague, some have large savings while others immediately face hunger when they lose their job. In a dictatorship there are perpetrators, followers, members of the resistance and victims – and that leads to very different perceptions of the same situation.


9/11 as a collective trauma

Social psychology studies how a traumatic event that concerns many people simultaneously becomes manifest in the collective memory of a society. A well-known example is the terror attack in the USA on 11 September 2001, called 9/11. The image of the exploding airplanes in the skyscrapers of the World Trade Center in New York is present in all corners of the world, even if the political consequences of these attacks diverged a lot, for instance between the Arab world and the West.

Psychologist Angela Kühner has studied collective trauma. She calls 9/11 a “collectively relevant traumatic reference event”. Kühner and other scientists do not speak of collective trauma, but rather of a “collective injury of the social fabric”. In other words, a terrible occurrence changes a society long-term. All people are affected, but to different degrees.

A typical reaction to such an event is solidarity: the collective tries to master the shock together. Shared processes of mourning are an effective method to do this. However, they can be hampered if the dead cannot be buried like it happened after 9/11.

It is even more difficult after dictatorships such as the last military rule in Argentina: 30,000 people were kidnapped and killed between 1976 and 1983. They are called “desaparecidos” (“disappeared”). The families could not bury the victims of this so-called “dirty war” – the majority of them had disappeared forever.

Similar to many other Latin American countries, Argentina has passed several cycles of traumatic events, repressing the recollection and then bringing it to mind again. The overarching Latin American experience is colonisation and the mass destruction of the indigenous peoples. In many countries, this memory has been silenced and repressed until today, also in Argentina.

The 20th century was characterised by frequent military coups as well as economic crises. After each economic and political crisis, a kind of “avoidance behaviour, which is a typical reaction to trauma” can be detected in Argentine society, says neurologist Enrique de Rosa of the Argentine medical association “Asociación Médica Argentina”. Many people are not interested in politics anymore. “Daily micro-traumas erode the psychological strength of people and turn into an acquired hopelessness. You have the feeling that never mind what you do, there is no escape – we often observe this in unemployed persons,” de Rosa explains.

After an economic crisis, all people yearn for stability, and after a period of violence, they crave peace. The victims’ desire for justice and punishment of the perpetrators is often perceived as an interference of this newly acquired peace. They are told to stop their request for punishment, according to the motto “drawing a line under the past”. But the end of a war or a dictatorship does not equal peace. Without justice, true peace is impossible. Old conflicts lurk below the seemingly calm surface and can erupt any time.

In this situation, there is an antagonism between examination and defence, that is, between voicing and denial of the event. Victims play a special role in this: they are – in a manner of speaking – the personified memory. Therefore people try to ignore them, and thus forget the violent past.

Argentina passed through such a phase after the end of the military rule in 1983. In contrast to other Latin American countries that also suffered dictatorships, Argentina staged a huge trial where the guilty were named and convicted.

Due to pressure by the military, however, the perpetrators were amnestied one after the other in the subsequent years: first the lower ranks and at last even the junta. As a result, local human-rights groups started to keep the memory alive in different ways – against great resistance. The children of the disappeared founded the organisation H.I.J.O.S (“Hijos por la Identidad y la Justicia contra el Olvido y el Silencio” – “Children for Identity and Justice, against Oblivion and Silence”).

The members of H.I.J.O.S. appeared in front of the homes of convicted torturers, told their neighbours next to whom they were living, read the judicially inflicted sentence by loudspeaker and distributed flyers listing all the crimes of the member of the military or police in question.

Social science labels shared social practices of remembrance – such as memorial days, for instance – as “intentional memory”. The practice of remembrance of the “Children of the Disappeared” was unconventional, but it showed effect: the amnesty laws were gradually revoked. The murderers and torturers had to go back to jail.

The Dutch anthropologist Antonius C.G.M. Robben, professor at the University of Utrecht, has studied the practices of remembering in traumatised societies, amongst others in Argentina. On account of state terror during military rule, “the trust of citizens in the state was totally destroyed”, he maintains. This distrust on all sides, between authorities, ex-military and families of the disappeared, continues – and prevents Argentine society to “put the traumatic past behind it”, Robben concludes.


Overcoming trauma

For peace researcher Johan Galtung “peace is more than the absence of war”. This is also true for the accounting of old conflicts. Not mentioning them does not mean they do not exist. It sounds like a contradiction: only collective and continuous practice of remembrance leads to overcoming trauma, so that violent times can be filed away.

Argentina is a good example for other post-conflict societies not to let war crimes rest, but to bring them to light: in Bosnia, Argentinian forensic scientists helped to identify the dead of the massacre of Srebrenica (1995). At last, people were able to bury their murdered family members – this is one way to bring peace to a society.

Not every trauma needs to go on forever, but it can be overcome by shared grief, says psychologist Kühner. The shared grieving process in Argentina, initiated by activists like the “Madres de Plaza de Mayo” (Mothers of Plaza de Mayo) or the “Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo” (Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo), has made people alert: during the economic crisis in December 2001, the government ordered police to shoot at demonstrators. Immediately after, many people gathered at the seat of government in order to defend democracy.

Heavily armed police and military controlled the curfew during the Corona crisis earlier this year. They proceeded with utmost brutality against any breaches, which set the Argentine people’s alarm bells ringing.

In other situations, too, memories of a painful past can help to better surpass a crisis. When in February 2020 it became clear that the Corona virus would spread from Asia to other continents, no precautions were taken in Europe. In eastern Africa, however, the recollection of the Ebola epidemic of 2018 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo was still very vivid.

This is why states like Tanzania immediately started to check the temperature of all travellers and isolate suspected cases. This did not happen when the first Corona infections appeared in Europe – in its collective memory, life-threatening epidemics were far away and vague. Accordingly, European political leaders acted more slowly. In other words: a living memory of past crises can be vital for survival.


Sheila Mysorekar is a journalist and project manager at Deutsche Welle Akademie. For 11 years she lived and worked in Argentina.
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