Martin Mahler

The Shadow of Heritage - One Experience from Prague

(Z 21. konference EPF 13.-16. března 08 ve Vídni, panelová diskuse "Integrating New Groups in the EPF: Building the Future with the Heritage")


The development of Czech Psychoanalytic Society differs from most of other post-communist psychoanalytical groups in that psychoanalysis has existed without interruption since before the Second World War. However, the term "without interruption" is not completely accurate. Rather then claiming that there has not been any interruption then, we should simply say that there has always been someone practicing psychoanalysis in Prague. There are obviously also many basic similarities with other post-communist groups. I do agree with Wojtek Hanbowski about presence of various inhibitions related to Western parental figures, on the other side I also believe that our important issue is rather coping with the figures from our own past. I shall speak here of one observation only, related to the theme of this conference. This is peculiar incompleteness of our historical memory. Every society has various attitudes toward own history and gives different importance to historical investigations. Certain periods and truths stay for a long time denied, splitted or idealized, until they can be implemented into more integrated story. Also the Czech story has contained lot of gaps and unclarities regarding own past.
It is most fascinating for me that psychoanalysis in Prague, despite long-term oppression, maintaining the fundamental direction of world psychoanalysis in the group's core. Unlike some of other psychoanalytical societies in other post-communist countries that are starting from scratch with the help of foreign psychoanalysts, Prague psychoanalysis has evolved for a long time nearly without any external assistance. Of course, such autonomy has brought certain handicaps as well. Interestingly, the already communist Prague provided a place for the psychoanalytical training of many foreign colleagues. We cannot find many groups in Central Europe which have focused so much on the training of candidates from neighboring countries. In the past, it was mainly Poland. Today, primarily Slovakia, Ukraine, Russia and the Baltic states. Prague has become one of the hubs of shuttle analysis.
However, we are also a society with a history of several new beginnings and with persistent strivings to build a stable environment, necessary for a prospering psychoanalysis. After so many years it is perhaps paradoxical, but we still remain to certain extent at the beginning of development of true psychoanalytical culture. Therefore, as one of our main topics has stayed the internal transformation from, I believe, an old disturbing shamefullness to more healthy self-concepts.
The city of Prague has a - for psychoanalysis particularly favorable - character, similar to the one of other cities of the former Austria-Hungary empire such as Vienna, Trieste or Budapest. We can dream about what would have happened if Prague had not experienced the atrocities of the 20th century, which devastated its unique culture, built by Czechs, Germans and Jews together. At what level would our psychoanalysis be today? Even though it has succeeded to realize a lot of our dreams during last years, our self-perceptions have been still affected by the collective feeling of insufficiency. Still we are having to work through certain convictions that we are insignificant society that cannot create anything great, that can - in the best case - only copy. Such self-perceptions have obviously influenced also our attitudes to own history. I think that also some post-communist groups are determined by these powerful perceptions.
"You do not know your history," said John Steiner to us openly during the only visit of his homeland in the first half of the 90s. He was talking about Freud's secret committee, his "Fellowship of the Ring", which he founded in 1912 together with Rank, Abraham, Eitingon, Jones, Ferenczi and Sachs, and which was supposed to preserve the heritage of psychoanalysis. Most of us had never heard of this secret society at all. From Steiner's entire visit, I remember this one statement in which he expressed unwittingly the vagueness of our understanding of the history of Czech psychoanalysis as well.
Characteristically, our society did not have any archives for many years. We were a society without a founding documents, records from meetings, attendance lists and conference programs. We did not have a chronicle or scientific correspondence. Not a single modern presentation has been recorded. Efforts to document and preserve these events were sometimes associated with bureaucracy and sometimes were considered either as purposeless, or even dangerous because of suspected communist persecution. Therefore, we can learn about half a century of our history only from incidental sources and private archives. The chance we will ever fill these memory holes in is very small. Only in the very recent past, did we dare take a few pictures in which we are depicted together. And it had taken twenty years since the fall of Communism until the society decided to get its own registered premises. Did we follow "the tradition" to leave almost no trace behind us?
Our understanding of Czech psychoanalytical continuity barely covers three post-World War II generations of psychoanalysts. Personally, I belong to a generation that emerged shortly after the fall of communism with nearly none or vague perception of our analytical grandparents. It doesn't matter whether these predecessors have already died or are still surviving - their manifest presence in the contemporary psychoanalytical community is - from the point of my generation - negligible. Not speaking about presence of even older generation of analysts. We even do not know how these people looked like. How to understand such gap? Why are we forgetting our roots? Do we really know then where we have come from and where we are going now? Such questions which are closely linked to devaluation and denial of our past seem more reasonable for us now than before.
The life of our community sometimes resembled an antique tragedy, in which adaptation to distorting events in our history left behind also experience of transgression. This transgression interrupted the natural process of growth in the past generations and predestined the future ones to limited knowledge of certain truths and to blind repetitions. What did this transgression concretely consist of? I believe these were mainly failures to found institutionalized psychoanalysis in Prague resulting in their inability to make our city for many years more than a place suitable for rather individual - and most of this time secret - psychoanalytical work. If we look back, we must conclude that our old predecessors, these "wounded healers", to paraphrase words of Tamara Steiner-Popovic, had managed to survive without founding idea of society for nearly fifty years. I mean by this founding idea the complex of essential meanings, goals and strivings of the group, vital for its healthy development. There were too many collective hopes and initiatives destroyed during half of a century. Because of that it is difficult for us, even retrospectivelly, to appreciate simple fact of survival.
Let me give only brief account of several breaking historical events. The very first miscarriage of collective "psychoanalytical child" happened just before World War II. The history organized psychoanalysis began in Prague of the 1930s, thanks to an excellent group of German-speaking psychoanalysts. This group, however, disappeared violently in six years, leaving almost no trace behind them. The psychoanalysts who survived the Holocaust usually continued to work in the US and never created some connection with Prague again. In our contemporary historical consciousness, these people represent the distant but attractive image of the group during the golden period of the First Republic. Its significance is already (or perhaps so far) barely recognized today. More than real ancestors, the group should be regarded as the native population with whom we have almost nothing on common. We know very little about their scientific as well as social activities.
It is clear, that contemporary Czech psychoanalysts identify more with the post-World War II development of psychoanalysis, associated mainly with one Russian immigrant who became also a member of the pre-war German speaking group in Prague. When this group ceased to exist, he remained the only one in Prague who practised psychoanalysis, and continued to do so illegally after the Communists came to power. Prague psychoanalysis thus survived, even though, through this refugee, it did not grow from necessarily Czech roots. For a long time, this man was a solitary psychoanalyst who could not even start a secret committee like Freud, leave alone create a legal psychoanalytical institution. Several times he and the few of his colleagues attempted to do something similar, but the Communist regime would always quickly spoil their plans.
A Jewish joke, circulated around, explained the state of things: "What are the professions one should choose? Psychoanalysis, medicine, law and music. Why? Because these professions are mobile enough so that when you cannot do anything else, you can just run somewhere more safe."
Thus also the first post-World War II generation was not able to bear a collective "psychoanalytical child" shortly after it had been conceived again. Ironically enough, also personal conflicts and rivalries in the Prague group contributed to this miscarriage. These founders were thus founding mainly retreats for individuals and small conspiring groups, which were for a long time disconnected, distrusting any larger organization, and which were ready to survive in the given conditions that the Communists envisioned "for eternity." This situation persists in the background of our common analytic life until now. On the other hand, thanks to their vitality other psychologists and psychiatrists gained a personal experience with psychoanalysis, although not all of them later associated with it. They felt as members of a larger psychotherapeutic community and less importantly as analysts. They had only vague sense what a psychoanalytical identity really is. Czech psychotherapy and clinical psychology has got high level already during communism and psychoanalysis evolved in this matrix and has not got any privileged position of freedom holder. There is a lot of positive in this fact, even though it also represents strong obstacle in our present differentiation from psychotherapy. It is not easy to repair partial dissolution of analytic identity which served also to defensive and adaptive measures.
With the similar problem, I suppose, also other post-communist groups are confronted now, since they are often growing up from local psychotherapeutic culture, or specifically from psychoanalytic psychotherapy. Therefore multiple ideas about setting and rules of treatment have been introduced and practised there, sometimes also "anything goes" models which are mistakingly identified with psychoanalysis.
The second Prague generation of 70s repeated the attempt to restore idea of institutional analysis and, fortunately, the miscarriage did not happened again. Despite working mainly on their own - these few analysts from second wave founded a functioning "home" psychoanalytical institute, established regular scientific meetings and even illegally started publishing a psychoanalytical yearbook. This group was, considering its size and stability, proved to be extremely vital and active, especially in terms of training new candidates. Unavoidably, these analysts also lived in the shadow of past miscarriages which mainly shaped their group dynamics and limited their common scientific life and enjoying interacting with others. The process of integration into the IPA during 90s consumed lot of creativity of some of our members. I think that one generation of analysts had to make considerable sacrifice. Of course, they deserve special admiration and gratitude of all contemporary society.
It is not so unrealistic to expect that also founding generation in other post-communist groups cannot step aside of this difficult task. Even though analysed and educated in Western societies these people have limited possibility to establish mature analytic culture at home. They have to work through many shadows of the local past and present to reach, as to say, "the point of no return", means relative group maturity and creation of lively founding ideas. Each group needs own speed and this process can hardly be accelerated by premature structuring or by external power.
As I mentioned, the shameful self-perceptions related to certain past events or miscarriages obviously influenced our attitudes to own history and to documentation of events. Fortunately, the process of collective historicization in our society has already begun. Recognizing historical facts and appreciating them is what we want to benefit from. Retrospectivelly, all these quarrels, exclusions and traumatizations in the group do not leave bad consequences only, it also meaningfully enriches our experience. Perhaps, only today can we also truly regret and grieve many lost opportunities and hopes. And that is, I think, encouraging.

© Martin Mahler, 2008


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