Even Sigmund Freud, no stranger to the unconscious drives fraught with all sorts of conflicts and repressed wishes, was shaken to his core during World War l. Not only were his three sons in danger from combat, but he was amazed at the aggressive ferocity of all of the combatants in that war, and the political encouragement of that ferocity that, at the war’s very beginning Freud, himself, had even supported.
He later came to the conclusion that our desire for the preservation of our lives was met with a counter-force that sought death and destruction. Indeed, the Pleasure Principle that impelled us to affirm life and meet our libidinal needs, not only had to be harnessed through the Reality Principle so that civilization could exist, but that Eros, our need for love and socialization with others, had as its counter-force Thanatos, the desire for death and destruction.
The basic problem of civilization hinged on the need to frustrate and thwart the most basic instincts in human beings, our inherent desire for seeking after pleasure and our inherent aggression, with the repression on the unconscious level of all sorts of wishes and desires, and with suppression of conscious wishes and desires that would be condemned by the current norms of that society. Since those norms were ostensibly designed to protect society from the inclination toward unfettered sexuality, and the natural aggression of individuals, those norms had at the very least to be obeyed on the conscious level so that the individual could avoid punishment and shame.
World War l and, of course, the rise of the Nazis in the 1930’s in Austria where Freud lived, brought into sharp relief the very thin veneer of civilization that most people, then as now, took and take for granted. What Freud viewed as particularly remarkable was how fast anti-Semitism grew, not only in Germany but more particularly in Austria that had before the Nazi arrival far less of it than existed in Germany and France.
People who were hitherto “friends” and neighbors almost immediately turned anti-Semitic and engaged in the most hateful acts once the Nazis came into Austria. It’s like that hate appeared almost instantaneously among people whom no one would have guessed housed that hatred, that aggression, that venom.
Although that venom, and those atrocious acts, were largely, although by no mean solely, directed toward Jewish people, it is very likely that had Hitler or any other leader chosen a different scapegoat, that group would have been the target of similar ferocious attitudes and behaviors by those who were led to believe that they were “superior” to those whom they were repeatedly told were the enemy. The logic of the argument was irrelevant! The only thing that seemed relevant was the permission given by the leadership to release aggression and hostility against a group deemed to be “outsiders,” “the enemy,” “the other,” “the deviants,” “the undesirables.”
So, the veneer of civilization, and of civility itself, were brushed away by mere rhetoric, and irrational rhetoric at that, and man’s basic aggression was all too willingly ferociously and assiduously released because the social structure’s leaders, and thereby the social structure itself, permitted and encouraged that release. And liberation from adherence to norms of civility was even evident among the highly educated. So, university students were largely the instigators of the burnings of books written by Jewish scholars and scientists, and they were active participants, along with many faculty, not the least of which was the famous philosopher Martin Heidegger, in removing Jewish and other “undesirable” faculty from their positions in Universities.
Jewish people were taunted and humiliated by such acts as roving bands of people beating them, having the beards of Rabbis and other Jews shaved off, destroying synagogues and Jewish businesses. The conclusion that one can draw from these, and other atrocities that have occurred throughout the course of human history, is that we can’t count on “the goodness of man” and “the milk of human kindness” to insulate us from the worst aspects of man, from man’s basic aggressive and pleasure-seeking nature.
Moreover, the Holocaust and other historical atrocities teach us that we can’t count on the seemingly civilized norms of a society to not give way to those aggressive and pleasure-seeking impulses or instincts when a charismatic leader and his henchmen are able to use mass communication and other venues to convince the populace that they are fighting for some noble cause, regardless of how irrational and ignoble that cause really is.
As Giovanni Costigan, in his excellent book, Sigmund Freud: A Short Biography, wrote: “Taking as his starting point Gustave Le Bon’s ‘deservedly famous work’ The Psychology of Crowds (1895), Freud accepted that author’s analysis of mass psychology: the lowering of the intellectual and the heightening of the emotional temperature; the abdication of reason and the surrender to instinct; the loss of individuality and the welcoming of anonymity; the abandonment of self-restraint and the license to commit violence….” (p. 230)
The veneer of civilization is, indeed, very thin, and all of us must guard against the fiction that any of us as individuals, or we as a society, are immune from this tragic and frightening fact of social life when we allow any social or political leader to define our realities for us, and/or seek to create “enemies” for their own and/or others’ psychological and/or social and/or economic and/or political and/or “religious” gain.