Review – Michal Shapira, The War Inside: Psychoanalysis, Total War, and the Making of the Democratic Self in Post-War Britain (Cambridge 2013)

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Paul Lerner, University of Southern California

The psychological impact of modern war on civilians remains a little studied topic, even as the already prodigious historical scholarship on war trauma continues to expand rapidly. Michal Shapira’s recent book makes great strides in redressing this gap, vividly depicting the emotional strains of war on women, children and other non-combatants and revealing the enormous and sustained expert attention the topic received in Britain in the 1940s and beyond.  Dealing with populations such as juvenile evacuees during Germany’s brutal air assault, Jewish children rescued from Nazi-controlled Europe, and civilians separated from their loved ones in uniform, thrust psychoanalysts, a group once reticent about taking political stands, into public debates about mental health, trauma, and child development.  Indeed, Shapira shows that as Britain sought to emerge from the war as a stable, intact and democratic society in a devastated and fiercely divided Europe, psychoanalysts became key contributors to general discussions about the family, violence, criminality and sexuality.

Shapira frames these discussions broadly, drawing on Nikolas Rose’s Foucault-inspired work on the historicitiy and constructedness of the modern self, indeed furthering his argument that the individual with psychological depth and an “inner life” emerged in the middle of the twentieth century, due in part to the emergence of the “psy” disciplines.  Shapira builds on this insight with parallel interventions in the history of childhood, focusing on a crucial transitional moment from Victorian attitudes toward children as pure and innocent to more modern, developmental and psychologically-nuanced ideas, which saw childhood more as a precursor to adulthood where nascent sexual urges, aggression, and psychodynamic conflicts leave a lasting imprint on the psyche.  Child rearing and education then became bound up with Britain’s larger national project of emerging from the trying ordeal of war and returning to a normal domestic order.  This order, propped up by psychoanalysts, social scientists and the postwar social democratic state, involved re-inscribing traditional gender roles and emphasizing the centrality of the mother to healthful child development and domestic tranquility.

A great many of these elements can be traced back to the First World War and the interwar period.  Shapira’s first chapter goes back to that era to argue that wartime experiences helped chip away at the strict division between healthy and pathological psyches, and most significantly, that medical and psychological professions became more accepting of fear and anxiety as normal, healthy reactions to wartime experiences.  Psychoanalysts in particular played a pronounced role in this shift.  Their work with war neurotics, along with Freudian ideas about trauma, helped remove the stigma from sufferers of anxiety-induced conditions.  By the beginning of World War II, Shapira argues, these changes had taken root in lay attitudes as well, and amid Germany’s aerial bombing campaigns, many Britons openly expressed their terror and anxieties or confided them to psychologists frankly and without shame.

Most of the book’s subsequent sections focus on children as subjects of psychological treatment and expert intervention.  Its second chapter foregrounds the work Anna Freud and other psychoanalysts conducted with child evacuees and refugees.  Here the theme of the “war inside” begins to emerge, as contemporaries equated the potentially traumatizing consequences of bombardment, violence and separation with the internal turmoil of the child’s psyche.  For Anna Freud, then, violence and aggression were normal childhood tendencies, stages that all children navigate through as part of the maturation process.  The problem then was not that war-produced violence threatened to shatter fragile, beatific babes, rather that external violence could stunt children’s psychological development, that it could seem like a normative state and that kids therefore would not learn how to manage their emotions and overcome it.  Plumbing rich collections of case histories, Shapira tells of children equating German military aggression with adult anger, or bombing with parental punishment, suggesting the extent to which external danger and internal dynamics were intertwined.  The solution lay in (re)-establishing parenting and familial bonds which Anna Freud and her colleagues saw as crucial for the resolution and management of these childhood conflicts.

The famous Anna Freud – Melanie Klein dispute takes center stage in the third chapter, in which Shapira covers tensions between the existing British psychoanalytic community and the newer cohort of Central European émigré analysts.  As is familiar to scholars of psychoanalysis, Melanie Klein considered children’s play to be akin to adult psychoanalysis, in other words a setting for transference, rife with symbolic meanings for the analyst to decode. Freud viewed this notion skeptically, doubting that children were sufficiently psychologically developed for these dynamics and emphasizing instead the need for corrective pedagogy, betraying her indebtedness to Austrian educational theory from the 1920s and 30s.  Shapira’s contribution to the historiography of this debate is to call attention not to the disparity in the two positions, but to stress the common ground between the famous rivals (and the many “independent” analysts in the middle), in their shared representation of the emotional dynamics of childhood and the articulation of psychoanalytic therapeutics for children.  Shapira credits Klein with playing a crucial role in the creation of modern selfhood as she developed a deep psychological approach to understanding the impact of war and violence, in implicit contrast to the more sociological analyses of Erich Fromm and his Frankfurt School colleagues or the more materialist and mechanical theories of mainstream psychology and psychiatry.  Her key point here is that despite their theoretical and clinical differences, together Freud, Klein and others turned the child into an object of technical expertise and state intervention and made their care a matter of national concern.

The fourth chapter broadens out to the popularization of psychoanalytic expertise, which Shapira traces through a series of radio broadcasts created by Donald Winnicott and the BBC between 1943 and 1966.  Detailing the collaboration between Winnicott and his BBC producer Janet Quigley, she shows how psychoanalytic ideas about child development buttressed the new emphasis on family in postwar Britain and placed responsibility for children’s emotional wellbeing firmly on the mother, a theme she takes up again near the book’s end.  Winnicott and his BBC sponsors thus fed into postwar pronatalism and the emerging conception that the family was the bedrock of a healthy democratic state.  The gender-political implications of this stance are clear, and given the mobilization of British women in the armed services and wartime work, psychoanalytic expertise here served the larger political aim of bringing women back into the domestic sphere and blaming working women for their children’s emotional struggles.

Chapters five and six treat the Institute for the Scientific Treatment of Delinquency (ISTD) first during the war and then amid the establishment of the postwar “therapeutic” welfare state.  Here she traces the transition from more punitive approaches to a new emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation, in part, due to the influence of psychoanalysts who were strongly represented in the ranks of the ISTD researchers.  No less a figure than Sigmund Freud himself, along with Ernest Jones, Otto Rank and Carl Jung, among others, served as ISTD vice presidents.  Criminality represents a kind of bridge, an issue which brought psychoanalytic perspectives on childhood and development into the public sphere and into the administrative apparatus of the postwar welfare state.  As she moves into the postwar period, her discussion shifts to issues like prostitution, homosexuality and deviance.. Shapira elucidates the psychoanalytic side of the discussion but also surveys the work of state officials, social scientists and members of the judicial system, revealing that not only were psychoanalysts addressing these issues, but that people in power were listening to them.  Consequently, the postwar years saw a broader acceptance of psychological, as opposed to moral or economic, approaches to crime and deviance.

In her concluding chapter on child hospitalization and attachment theory, Shapira comes full circle.  Having begun with the evacuation of children during wartime bombing and their resulting separation from their parents, she ends with the broader embrace of the salubriousness of the  mother – child bond, as demonstrated, for example, in the reversal of older policies that kept hospitalized children sequestered from their mothers and fathers.  Using media sources and letters from parents, she is able to document the wider diffusion of psychoanalytic ideas about childhood and parenting not only in official circles but also among the general public.  Indeed this book’s varied source base is one of its great strengths.  Based on case histories, archival sources, professional journals, and radio, television and newspapers, the book operates on many levels and provides a broad overview of many of the ways a psychoanalytic sensibility crept into public discourse in these years and meshed with the goals of the nascent welfare state.  At the center of their concerns was of course the mother and the importance placed on her presence as a domestic anchor, the fundament of the healthy family and the restored nation.

Carefully researched and tightly argued, this book makes broad and intriguing claims about postwar British subjectivity and the origins of modern, psychoanalytically informed notions of the self.  While generally persuasive, these claims could have been further substantiated with additional discussion of British political culture.  Whereas Shapira gives some attention to the ascent of Labour after the war, she completely neglects the loss of empire which, as other historians have argued, was deeply intertwined with the emergence of the welfare state and which certainly influenced notions of Britishness, citizenship and selfhood in the postwar period.  Parallel to her discussions of sexuality, gender and the family in the reconstitution of British political life, including race and post-imperial identity could have deepened the analysis and broadened its appeal.  It would also have been interesting to place the British case, at least speculatively, in a broader context with some acknowledgement of parallel developments in North American and on the European continent.  These points notwithstanding, The War Inside is a vital addition to the study of psychoanalysis and its diffusion, the history of childhood, and the rise of the therapeutic-administrative state.  It successfully gets at the fundamental but extremely elusive process by which our emotions, feelings, and drives became things for us to manage, part of the individual’s project, helping show how the modern self emerged from the rubble of the middle of the twentieth century.

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