B.U. Bridge

Expanding Universe: The Recent Paintings of Al Held, November 7 through January 11, 2004, at the BU Art Gallery

Week of 31 October 2003· Vol. VII, No. 10

Current IssueCalendarClassified AdsArchive

Search the Bridge

Mailing List

Contact Us


Psychohistory course probes the psyches that changed the world

By Brian Fitzgerald

Anna Geifman Photo by Vernon Doucette


Anna Geifman Photo by Vernon Doucette


Psychohistory? Qu’est-ce que c’est?

Besides being the study of the psychological origins of historical events, it’s also a new colloquium offered this fall at BU. Psychohistory (HI 503), according to the course description, “addresses the ‘whys’ of history and focuses on the application of Freudian analysis” and other psychological models to interpret past individual and group behavior.

“ Actually, we don’t rely that heavily on Freud when studying people who are no longer alive,” says Anna Geifman, a CAS professor of history and director of undergraduate studies in the history department. “You can’t put Julius Caesar on the couch and interrogate him about his relationship with his mom. But there are other aspects of psychological knowledge that are relevant in studying history — for example, what we know about behavior patterns, complexes, and insecurities, and how they are revealed by leaders and their followers. We know a lot about the way some people react to stress and fear.”

When looking at events, historians traditionally study the political and economic factors leading up to them. This course shifts the focus to individual motivations. For example, when probing the reasons for the rise of Hitler and Nazism in 1930s Germany, Geifman (CAS’84, GRS’85) says that scholars shouldn’t narrow their focus to just the political chaos that took place as a result of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which forced reparations on the country and limited its armed forces, and the dismal German economic situation after World War I and into the Great Depression. She says that it is necessary to look into the psyches of Hitler and his followers.

And plenty of psychological writings on Hitler exist, thanks in part to a 1943 study by Walter C. Langer done for American intelligence officials that pointed out the well-known brutality of the German leader’s father toward his wife and son. Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, gives a description of the life of a child in a lower class family, describing drunken and “brutal attacks on the part of the father towards the mother” that he witnessed “personally in hundreds of scenes.” Langer argues that since Hitler had no close friends, it was unlikely that he saw such situations firsthand in any home other than his own — he was actually writing about his family and upbringing — and that such a damaged childhood can cause psychopathic behavior.

Indeed, Geifman says that because many autobiographies tend to be distorted and rife with rationalizations, historians looking for an accurate picture should read between the lines, along with other sources. “When you study people,” she says, “and that is what historians are dealing with — individuals and groups — you can read what they consciously reveal about themselves, but you cannot ignore what is not said, what is not professed, but what nevertheless is an integral part of a personality.”

Graduate and undergraduate students in Geifman’s course read For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child Rearing and the Roots of Violence (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1983), a book by psychoanalyst Alice Miller on the background of Hitler’s henchmen and the leader’s appeal to troubled German youth. People such as Adolf Eichmann and Rudolph Hess, Miller notes, were trained to be ultra-obedient as children, and that is partly why they never questioned the morality of the orders they were given, and further, that Hitler’s followers looked to him as a father who could do no wrong. “She explains why they saw violence as a solution to the country’s weak position after World War I,” says Geifman.

Although studying family dynamics can provide insight into culture and historical events, Geifman cautions that “one has to be careful with generalizations.” Some scholars accuse Miller of making too many assumptions. Indeed, a number of historians say psychohistory is psychobabble — that society is complex and individuals may act in particular ways for any number of reasons other than childhood family experiences.

Geifman’s students also read The Slave Soul of Russia by Rancour-Lafevrier (New York University Press, 1996). “The author deals with many extremely controversial issues related to ‘psychology of nations,’ and actually shows that it is possible to talk about national psychological trends in nonracist ways,” she says. “We discuss these issues along with questions related to group violence and whether or not psychohistorians are justified in applying aspects of personal psychology — with modification, of course — to collective behavior.”

There was a bit of academic interest in psychohistory in the 1980s, according to Geifman, but the field was also heavily criticized during that decade, with psychohistorians accused of seeing hidden motivations behind every action. “A lot of the scholarship was done poorly in the ’80s,” she says. “People automatically — and mindlessly — applied Freudian models, and in a way the field discredited itself. As a result, people hesitate to venture into this field today, because it seems so subjective, and it leaves historians with a lot of interpretive power.”

Geifman and some other historians, however, say that there is still a need to study the emotional origins of social and political behavior, especially in the age of terrorism. Geifman, who came to the United States from St. Petersburg in 1976, has written several books on extremism and terrorism in the Russian revolutionary movements, including Entangled in Terror: The Azef Affair and the Russian Revolution (SR Books, 2000), about Evno Azef, who doubled as a secret police agent and a terrorist from 1893 to 1909, and Thou Shalt Kill: Revolutionary Terrorism in Russia, 1894-1917 (Princeton University Press, 1993), in which she asserts that most terrorists during this period tended to demonstrate mental instability and a substantial lack of political consciousness. “A wide range of stimuli proved critical in driving young men and women to terrorist acts — stimuli that frequently arose from deep-seated emotional problems and conflicts, rather than from radical zeal or a solid grounding in revolutionary theory,” she says.

Psychohistory, defined as “the science of historical motivation” by the Journal of Psychohistory, which has been published by the Institute for Psychohistory in New York for the past 28 years, isn’t widely taught in universities. Geifman believes that a renewed interest in the field is possible in higher education. “If psychohistory is done well, and not in a corny, clichéd way,” she says, “I think academics will be less dismissive of it.”


31 October 2003
Boston University
Office of University Relations