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West-Leuer, B. (2009). Colonial Aggression and Collective Aggressor Trauma. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 90(5):1157-1168.

(2009). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 90(5):1157-1168

Film Essays

Colonial Aggression and Collective Aggressor Trauma

Beate West-Leuer


Colonialism and imperialism have not only left their mark on the ethnonational group identities of their victims, but also on the group identity of the aggressors. El Dorado (1988) by Carlos Saura, a film about the Spanish conqueror Lope de Aguirre, shows the effects on the psyche of the Spanish conquistadors. The politics of colonial and imperial expansion were carried out in the name of a reputedly superior civilization of higher morals without the least consideration for any injustice towards the South American natives. There are numerous parallels throughout the world even today.

A successful cinematic rendering of such ethnonational aggression and collective aggressor trauma can activate mechanisms for processing the events within an audience which elicit feelings of collective shame and guilt and contribute to reparation (see Volkan, 1999). I understand ‘aggressor traumata’ to be the personal and collective ‘precipitates’ which result when individual acts of aggression progress into a national destructive drive. Freud saw the destructive drive as having the goal of destroying life. As a variant of the death drive it protects the collective from self-aggressive behaviour by destroying what is foreign (see Freud, 1933). The external enemy unifies the group internally. The leaders and their followers, who annihilate the external enemy, act in the name of the collective. By collectively taking advantage of the absence or only partial presence of a superego, the temporary disempowerment or even the complete destruction of a conscience, traumatic changes in the psyches of the aggressors are set in motion.

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