International Conflict is within Individuals

International conflict is marked by powerful feelings, often poorly understood, across cultural and ethnic differences. These feelings emerge around security concerns, economic needs, religious tensions and traumatic pasts and regularly lead to impasse. The International Dialogue Initiative brings together a small group of psychoanalysts, political scientists, politicians, lawyers, historians, economists and other leaders from a range of nationalities, generations and ethnic groups to study human experience through the lens of differing disciplines in order to maximize psychological understanding. We focus on the psycho-historical origins of conflict and the possibility of gaining perspective on unmanageable feelings. We have increasingly recognized, through the work of Vamik Volkan, that each large group (ethnic, national, religious) carries with it an organizing “identity”, created through the transmission of narratives, symbols, and the residue of chosen trauma and glories. This can readily be reactivated by political leaders, leading to wishes for revenge and retribution. But what aspects of such trauma are carried by individuals – and how can this kind of representation help us understand the large group?

Our families shape us, and we shape them. When we leave the family, we carry aspects of them with us. We emerge with values and ideals that are shaped by and transmitted through family interaction and development. Though we may not be aware of it, we become representatives: of the family, of our ethnicity, and of our multigenerational history. Other people recognize this, and they respond to us in ways we may not see; they shape us further as representatives of our family’s missions. Over time, we increasingly perceive the world through those lenses. Even when we are not aware of it, we represent to others these elements of our identity. Some of the internalized history becomes evident through painful affects – sadness, anger, hesitation, anxiety, fear —  visible and enacted through subtle cues. These generate affective reactions in others; attention to that process can illuminate group interaction between representatives of different cultures.

Given IDI’s commitment to deepening international dialogue and studying conflict, the group attends to painful feelings as they emerge in individual reports and notes the group’s process during our meetings as potentially reflective of international tensions. In this brief communication, I will illustrate this method through the use of two cases.

Case 1: In an opening discussion about the way Germany has borne the full burden of guilt and responsibility for World War II and its atrocities, a British negotiator in our group notes that Americans and the British also carry some responsibility for carrying out terrible things during the war. He tells the story of a heroic Polish woman who spied for the Allies, taking enormous risks and saving many lives. After the War, the British refused to give her a passport and she was murdered in a British hotel. He uses this story to suggest that the burden of guilt might more appropriately be shared if it were understood more complexly, rather than located in stereotyped and polarized delineations of German “perpetrators”, Jewish “victims” and allied “heroes”. Following this discussion, we turned to our first case.

A young Polish psychologist presents a group intervention she has organized in her country about ‘reflective citizenship’. Since many World War II concentration camps were located in Poland, the Polish people are blamed for them, though they were run by the Nazis.  Her citizenship intervention invites Poles to consider what aspects of the war actually “belong” to Poland.  

The IDI group asks how this social commitment evolved in her own life. She hesitates to respond, indicating that she doesn’t like to think about her past because, when she does, she weeps. She then reports the following:

Her grandmother lived through World War II, and her mother was born right after the war when Warsaw was totally destroyed. Overwhelmed by managing post-war survival and in her attempt to soften the traumas of the war for her developing family, she did not speak to her young daughter (the presenter’s mother) about the terrible things that happened. Her grandchild, our presenter, reports that her favorite childhood book, given to her by her beloved grandmother and kept behind her bed, contained stories with details about the soap that was made from the fat of Jewish corpses. Grandmother also told her stories about the war that frightened her, and in school she watched horrifying documentaries. She often woke up screaming at night. No adult helped her with these feelings or put these stories and films in perspective.

This is an example of the transgenerational transmission of trauma, placed into a child without conscious awareness. In the first generation, the war experience was unbearable and not able to be symbolized. A generation later, it could be represented through books and images but not yet faced; the child was unconsciously invited to carry the unbearable affect.  As an adult, our presenter’s ability to tolerate these war images ended when she had her own children (the next generation); looking through her children’s eyes brought back her childhood feelings. She discovered that she could no longer watch such movies; she now limits herself to seeing romantic comedies. An IDI member asks her what might allow her to look again at such movies and she answers, with tears, “I might be able to do it if some others watched them with me and held my hand.” This deeply moved IDI members and they associated to the earlier discussion about sharing the guilt of war.

This Polish grandmother, a war survivor, had unconsciously located her denied and overwhelming feelings of terror, guilt, and anger in her granddaughter, who could not manage them alone, a mirror of her own experience. The group considered the possibility that the story might reveal a parallel in the behavior of nations, who have simplistically parceled out war guilt without ‘holding the hand’ of those nations who have been invited to carry it all, preserving ‘heroism’ for the victors in a way that inhibits international integration and perspective.  Though Germany seems to have found ways to manage the burden of war guilt, Japan has not.

The IDI group then continued its discussion about the cultural and historical differences that explain this outcome, raising the question about where else in the world this phenomenon might be happening?

When historical memory is experienced as a presence that has never made its way into words, it is transmitted through affect and bodily communication to the next generation (Volkan, 19989, 2006; Davoine & Gaudilliere, 2014).  If individuals silently carry in their experience a map of generational and national trauma, under what circumstances – and with what kind of help — can they offer their perspective to those working at conflict negotiation?

Case 2:

A discussion between an aging senior Israeli former official and a British negotiator comes to a stop around an exploration of the current Palestinian conflict. Our Palestinian member reports on the current disengagement of Palestinians, their dissatisfaction with their own leaders, and their increasing long-term sense of helplessness. The older Israeli states, however, that things are much better between the two cultures in Israel because the economic situation for Palestinians has so much improved. In his view, Palestinians have consolidated their political parties and can have an impact on the formation of the government, though they will not be able to take up leadership roles in Israeli society because of the structure of “The Jewish State”.

The British negotiator notes that open dissent from the impoverished and disenfranchised can more easily be managed by government than the dissent that begins to emerge once the group is better off and less marginalized. With beginning economic and political power comes stronger demands about equal participation. The implied challenge embedded in this statement to the ongoing existence of the “Jewish” state evokes such an angry and defensive response in the older Israeli that the conversation stops.  But quietly, a younger Israeli member reports on his own conflict between wanting to sustain a Jewish state and wanting to be forgiven for wanting it.

This is an example of an impasse in political discussion. The passion about historical trauma carried by the older Israeli (who had experienced it) is more muted when offered by the younger Israeli, at more distance from the events. But still, the group does not dare to push the discussion. In the moment, the traumatic histories of Israelis and Palestinians are on the table, with representatives from both sides, but even in this intimate group of colleagues, the discussion cannot deepen.

The tension has been evoked by the recognition that it is more difficult to hold off the power of marginalized groups when their economic and political power is stronger. Without naming the connection, the group turns to a parallel problem in another nation.

Political polarization around race in America has taken a new turn in America with the presidencies of Donald Trump and Joe Biden.  With significant, though still limited, improvement in the economic and political progress of African Americans, their voices have become more powerful. The conversation turns to the current power operations of the white majority. This insight leads to the group’s ability to explore (in displacement) the question that could not be raised with the Israeli. What would it take in any nation for the dominant voices of the more powerful players to put their own strongly held beliefs and sources of power on the table for review to get beyond impasse?  


These two examples represent the range of opportunities the group’s discussion offers. But the method for effective engagement requires attention to some technical considerations. The first is how to help presenters recognize that their psychological conflicts are not to be understood as individual psychopathology to be opened up for “psychotherapy” from the group. The presenters are not asking to be in the role of ‘patient’ and psychologically trained IDI members are not taking up roles as ‘therapists’. Instead, the group has negotiated a recognition that each of us can be understood as a representative — both conscious and unconscious — of our nations, our ethnicities, our multigenerational pasts. The troubles we carry around with us derive from our environments and represent aspects of social conflict that we have unwittingly been invited to carry on behalf of others.

For example, if I am a third-generation post war Polish woman and my grandmother who survived the war has repressed the horror and is too traumatized by the immediate post war management struggle to make sense of it, she is unavailable to help me understand our history.  If she cannot recognize the adult protection her grandchild needs because no one protected her and she unwittingly passes on the horror onto me and, if it is unmediated by my mother who is part of a shared family denial, I will be terrorized as a child by a range of powerful feelings I don’t understand. But when I am an adult, I might be able to begin to see what I need from others to put that trauma in some perspective. I will begin to recognize my need for others who have differentially managed the trauma of post-war anxiety and guilt to put my own experience in perspective.

Is this discussion usable as a metaphor for a three- generational transmission of trauma? Is it a beginning recognition of the consequences of simplistic formulations about perpetrators and victims, and the need for more complex international management of war trauma? The presenter’s case was about her adaptive creation of learning opportunities for ‘reflective citizenship’. Can coming to terms with these experiences and putting voice to them mobilize more effectively the citizenship role? Speaking these memories appeared to allow the presenter to take up leadership, an authority that she had not previously exercised in the group.

The second technical challenge is to help individual IDI members begin to recognize that their national experiences — and the group’s process — can be used as metaphors for the range of global conflicts. For example, the passionate (and seemingly unmovable) commitment to a Jewish State (“Never again!”), though derived from a unique experience of the Holocaust, was used to begin to understand the anxiety, resistance, and power politics mobilized by other seemingly unipolar national majorities in the face of the impending ‘threat’ of integrating difference, e.g., the anxiety of the white majority in America about the challenge of immigration, the anxiety in Jordan about the sizable Palestinian population, etc.?

Once similar dynamics are recognized across cultures and nations, there is an opportunity to go deeper within each culture to tease out the unique cultural histories, the significance of particular ‘chosen trauma’ and the symbolic connections that make each culture unique.

Summary Concepts

  • Individuals, small groups, organizations and nations are all open systems. Each is configured with an internal world, an external world and a boundary function that mediates between the two (Modell, 1984; Erikson, 1968).
  • Open systems are linked through the communication of feelings (Modell, 1984).
  • For individuals, that boundary function mediates between the internal views of the self, and the views of others. For groups and organizations, the mission is the boundary.
  • Individuals are representatives of their culture, gender, race, ethnicity, multigenerational history, whether they are aware of it or not. They carry signs of these identities that others can perceive and relate to (Shapiro, 2020, 2021).
  • Painful experience, when put into words, can illuminate aspects of personal and social history. Integration of multiple role identities within an individual increases the potential for engagement as citizen. For groups and organizations (and nations), differences can become useful if subordinated and integrated with a mission (E. Shapiro, 2020, 2021).
  • A group’s affective responses can illuminate hidden meanings and pathways for understanding related to the topic under discussion.


Davoice, F. & Gaudilliere, J. (2014). History Beyond Trauma. New York: Penguin

Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and Society. New York: W.W. Norton

Erikson, E.H. (1968). Identity, Youth, and Crisis. New York: Northon.

Modell, A (1984). Psychoanalysis in a New Context. New York: International Universities Press.

Shapiro, E.R. (2020). Finding a Place to Stand: Developing Self-Reflective Institutions, Leaders and Citizens. Bicester: Phoenix Publications.

Shapiro, E.R. (2021). Why do I have to do this? Institutions, integrity, and citizenship. Organisational and Social Dynamics (in press)

Volkan, V. (2006). Killing in the Name of Identity: A Study of Bloody Conflicts. Charlottesville: Pitchstone.

Finding a Place to Stand: Developing Self-Reflective Institutions, Leaders and Citizens
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