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Psychoanalysis in the Age of Totalitarianism Conference

The links between totalitarianism and psychoanalysis explored by Birkbeck academics

The impact of the Second World War and totalitarianism on the field of psychoanalysis and vice versa were explored at a sellout event at the Wellcome Conference centre in London, addressed by Birkbeck academics.

Historians, social theorists and psychoanalysts gathered at the conference to discuss a diverse range of subjects related to two intertwined features of the last century – totalitarianism and psychoanalysis.

Understanding the ‘Age of Extremes’

The event’s co-organiser Professor Daniel Pick, of Birkbeck’s Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, whose research on psychoanalysis and fascism was a catalyst for two preceding workshops held at Birkbeck  in 2009/2010, and for this international symposium, said: “This conference brought together a remarkable group of scholars, to look at the wider implications of psychoanalysis in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Psychoanalysis has been used to help understand the psychology of the masses at key points in the ‘Age of Extremes’ and to try and make sense of how some of the worst atrocities of that period occurred. The papers for this conference suggest how psychoanalysis was deployed to try and understand group mechanisms, and to entrench liberal democracy after the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust.”

The author of The Pursuit of the Nazi Mind: Hitler, Hess and the Analysts added; “Contributors also brought their research to this event in order to show how western intelligence services of the post-war period, notably the CIA, have on occasion co-opted clinicians, inside and outside the psychoanalytic movement, as advisers in the Cold War and the so-called ‘war on terror’. What was very clear at this conference was the extraordinary diversity of cultural responses to, and social uses of, Freudian thought, and the range of its political applications and misapplications in the last century.”

From fascism to the War on Terror

About 20 speakers, from home and overseas, spoke at the Psychoanalysis in the Age of Totalitarianism conference, and they covered a diverse range of subjects, including:

  • The work of the Institute for the Scientific Treatment of Delinquency. Led by leading psychoanalysts and psychiatrists in Britain, the Institute developed a new criminological discourse built on the belief that to avoid future fascism, interventions must be introduced in early childhood to channel criminal forces or desires towards democratic tendencies.
  • The role of psychoanalysis in developing a therapeutic vocabulary which Jewish survivors of the Holocaust employed to help them cope with the traumas they had experienced.
  • The psychoanalytic and psychological ideas used by secret agencies during the Second World War, the Cold War, and the War on Terror, and the investigation of how these have been adopted both to shore up anti-fascism after 1945, and, conversely, to support interrogation  operations, most notably at Guantanamo Bay.

Professor Stephen Frosh, of Birkbeck’s Department of Psychosocial Studies and Pro-Vice-Master for Research at Birkbeck, also spoke at the event. He said: “The conference gave us an excellent opportunity to explore the many ways that psychoanalytic theory has helped us to understand events related to racism, antisemitism and totalitarianism, and also how psychoanalysis can be used to oppose totalitarian methods, even today.”

Podcasts of the event will be available shortly.

An archive of documents gathered by Daniel Pick in the course of his research now also provides a teaching resource in the department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck.  The website can be found at:

The event on 21-22 September was organised by the Institute of Psychoanalysis, with the support of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck and the Centre for Psychoanalytic Studies at the University of Essex.

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