Restaging Fetal Traumas in War and Social Violence
Part I

By Lloyd deMause

"A just war for the true interests of the state advances its development within a few years by tens of years, stimulates all healthy elements and represses insidious poison." -- Adolf Lasson

When Adolf Hitler moved to Vienna in 1907 at the age of eighteen, he reported in Mein Kampf, he haunted the prostitutes' district, fuming at the "Jews and foreigners" who directed the "revolting vice traffic" which "defiled our inexperienced young blond girls" and injected "poison" into the bloodstream of Germany.1 Months before this blood poison delusion was formed, Hitler had the only romantic infatuation of his youth, with a young girl, Stefanie.2 Hitler imagined that Stefanie was in love with him (although in reality she had never met him) and thought he could communicate with her via mental telepathy. He was so afraid of approaching her that he made plans to kidnap her and then murder her and commit suicide in order to join with her in death.

Hitler's childhood had been so abusive--his father regularly beat him "with a hippopotamus whip," and he said he once endured 230 blows of his father's cane without a murmur3 'hat he was full of rage toward the world. When he grew up, his sexual feelings were so mixed up with his revenge fantasies that he believed his sperm was poisonous and might enter the woman's bloodstream during sexual intercourse and poison her.4 Obviously Hitler's rage against "Jewish blood-poisoners" was a projection of his own fears that he might become a blood-poisoner. Therefore, faced with the temptation of the more permissive sexuality of Vienna, Hitler wanted to have sex with the prostitutes, but was afraid his sperm would poison their blood. He then accused Jews of being "world blood-poisoners" who "introduced foreign blood into our people's body."5

As is usually the case with delusional systems, Hitler's projection of his fears of his own poisonous sexuality into Jews and foreigners helped him avoid a psychotic breakdown and allowed him to function during his later life. He said so quite specifically in Mein Kampf; saying that when he "recognized the Jew as the cold-hearted, shameless, and calculating director of this revolting traffic in the scum of the big city, a cold shudder ran down my back .. . the scales dropped from my eyes. A long soul struggle had reached its conclusion."6 From that moment on, Hitler became a professional anti-Semite, ordering Nazi doctors to find out how Jewish blood differed from Aryan blood, having his own blood regularly sucked by leeches to try to get rid of its "poison,"7 and, eventually, ordering the extermination of all "world blood-poisoners" in the worst genocide and the most destructive war ever experienced by mankind.

The success of Hitler's ability to use the group-fantasy of antiSemitism to save his sanity was, of course, dependent upon there being millions of followers who shared his fantasies about poisonous enemies infecting the body of Europe. Much of Europe at that time shared Hitler's experience of a severely abusive childhood,8 and many shared his fantasy that the ills of the modern world were caused by the poisonous nature of Jews.9 Therefore, when he regularly used metaphors of blood poisoning in his speeches, saying the world was a constant warfare of one people against another, where "one creature drinks the blood of another," and that Jews were spiders that "sucked the people's blood out," he was cheered on by millions who shared his fantasies.10


I have regularly found "poison blood" group-fantasies in nations prior to outbreaks of war. It is usually found in conjunction with images of guilt for recent prosperity and progress that is felt to "pollute the national blood-stream with sinful excess," making men "soft" and "feminine," a frightful condition that can only be cleansed by a blood-shedding purification.11 This fantasy of periodic shedding of poisoned blood through war is based on the same presumed cleansing effects as the bloodletting therapies physicians prescribed through the nineteenth century to cure many diseases, which also were believed to be caused by "gluttony, luxury and lustful excesses."12 As one military leader put it, war "is one of the great agencies by which human progress is effected. [It] purges a nation of its humors...and chastens it, as sickness or adversity. ..chastens an individual;" it cures it of its "worship of comfort, wealth, and general softness..."13 When John Adams asked Thomas Jefferson "how to from producing effeminacy, intoxication, extravagance, vice and folly?" Jefferson's answer was: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots."14 As Sherlock Holmes expressed it in a story set in August 1914, rapid material progress until then had produced a feeling that "God's curse hung heavy over a degenerate world, for there was an awesome hush and a feeling of vague expectancy in the sultry and stagnant air...[but] a cleaner, better, stronger land will lie in the sunshine when the storm has cleared....A bloody purging would be good for the country."15

Wars have often been thought of as purifying the nation's polluted blood by virtue of a sacrificial rite identical to the rites of human sacrifice so common throughout history. War, said those preparing for the bloody Finnish Civil War, purges guilt-producing material prosperity by means of the blood of soldiers sacrificed on the battlefield: "The idea of sacrifice permeated the war...Youth...have heard the nation's soul crying for its renewal, their heart's blood Because] nations drink renewal from the blood of the fallen soldiers."16 Usually the blood of the soldiers is thought of as being needed to feed a maternal figure, either mother-earth or, as with the Aztecs, an actual bloodthirsty mother-goddess.17 War renewed national strength; the state was "reborn" by the soldier's blood and war cleansed the polluted national bloodstream as if there was a "rebirth from the womb of history," a "bloody baptism" that removed all poisonous self-indulgence.18 "A nation hath been born again,/ Regenerate by a second birth!" wrote W. W. Howe after the bloody American Civil War.19 Another American, speaking of World War I, said "It was like the pouring of new blood into old veins."20

The question immediately arises: How do such poisoned blood fears originate? And what do they have to do with birth? The answers to this question will become more convincing only after we have examined another related question: Why is war so often depicted as a woman?


For the past two decades, I have collected historical material from sources such as magazine covers and political cartoons on images of war. One of the most unexpected of these was that war was shown as a dangerous, bloodthirsty woman.21 Despite the fact that women neither play much part in deciding on wars nor in fighting them, war has so often been depicted as a dangerous woman that a visitor to our planet might wrongly conclude that women were our most bellicose sex. From Athena to Freyja, from Marianne to Brittannia, terrifying women have been depicted as war goddesses,22 devouring, raping and ripping apart her children. The image has become so familiar we no longer think to question why women are so often shown as presiding over war rather than being thought of as its victims, as they are in reality.

Even in later antiquity, when the god of war was male, his mother usually was imagined to have hovered above the battlefield, demanding more blood to feed her voracious appetite.23 And even though it was almost always men who fought the battles,24 women in early societies were expected to come along to watch from the sidelines, rather like at a sports match, shrieking their own battlecries, heckling and insulting those warriors who held back and demanding a plentiful show of blood on the battlefield.25


The French Revolution fully demonstrates the role of the dangerous woman fantasy in social violence, being preceded by a deluge of pamphlets and newspapers picturing Marie Antoinette-actually a rather sweet-natured woman---as a sexually voracious, incestuous, lesbian, murderous "bloodsucker of the French."26 The French Revolution, Terror and revolutionary wars were accompanied by increasingly violent Marie Antoinette fantasies, centering on grotesque images of her imagined sexual perversities, while the king was pictured as merely an impotent tool in her hands. Finally, the Tribunal, whipped up by the press, declared her a "ravening beast" and chopped off her head, after she had been accused of being a "tigress thirsty for the blood of the French," a "ferocious panther who devoured the French, the female monster whose pores sweated the purest blood of the sans-culottes," a "vampire who sucks the blood of the French," and a "monster who needed to slake her thirst on the blood of the French."27

I have found that media images of monstrous bloodthirsty women have preceded every war I have analyzed. Even the most popular movies prior to wars reflect this dangerous woman fantasy. The biggest movie preceding W.W.II was The Wizard ofOz, which is about a wicked witch and how to kill her; the second biggest was The Women, a movie featuring 135 dangerous women. All About Eve just before Korea and Cleopatra before Vietnam had similar dangerous women as leads, and the Persian Gulf War was preceded by a whole string of dangerous women movies, from Fatal Attraction to Thelma and Louise,28 including a popular TV series entitled Dangerous Women.

When war breaks out, all these terrifying women disappear from the media, and the dangerous woman image is projected into the enemy, so that the war is experienced as a battle with a mother-figure. For example, when the United States attacked Libya, the New York Post reported the rumor that American intelligence had discovered that Moammar Khadafy was actually a "transvestite dressed in women's clothes and high heels,"29 even touching up a photo to show how he "might look...dressed in drag." Similarly, in the Persian Gulf War, Saddam Hussein was depicted as a dangerous pregnant mommy with a nuclear bomb in his womb.

Hallucinating dangerous feminine characteristics in one's enemies in fact goes all the way back to antiquity, when the earliest battles were imagined to have been fought against female monsters, often the mother of the hero, whatever her name--Tiamat, Ishtar, Inanna, Isis, or Kali.30 Typical is the Aztec mother-goddess Huitzilopochtli, who had "mouths all over her body" that cried out to be fed the blood of soldiers.31 Early Indo-European warriors had to pass through initiatory rituals in order to attain full status in which they dressed up and attacked a monstrous dummy female poisonous serpent, complete with three heads.32 Although early warriors fought against men, not women, they often anally raped and castrated their enemies, turning them into symbolic women; from ancient Norse to ancient Egyptian societies, heaps of enemy penises on the battlefield are commonly portrayed.33 In addition, according to the world's leading historian of war, "the opportunity to engage in wholesale rape was not just among the rewards of successful war but, from the soldier's point of view, one of the cardinal objectives for which he fought."34 In fact, more women have been raped and killed in most wars than enemy soldiers. The hero is therefore symbolically a mother-killer, inflicting our revenge for early traumatic experiences.35

At the same time, by restaging early traumas in wars the magical goal is achieved of merging with the mother in a defensive maneuver to deny her as a dangerous object. Giving one's life for one's Motherland means finally joining with her. The soldier who dies in war, says one patriot, "dies peacefully. He who has a Motherland dies in her, like a baby falling asleep in its warm and soft cradle..."36

Yet even though we understand that both the Motherland and the enemy in wars are ultimately the early mother, the question remains: what could possibly be the infantile origin of fantasies of the enemy as a poisonous blood-sucking monster? Why did Americans before the Revolutionary War feel "poisoned by Mother England" and fight a war rather than pay a minor tax? Why did Hitler fear "blood-sucking Jews and foreigners" and why did Aztec soldiers go to war to feed blood to a mother-goddess? Closer to today, why did Americans for so long fear their "national life-blood" was being "poisoned" by Communists? Why do so many today feel the government and welfare recipients are "sucking their blood?" Images of blood-sucking, engulfing enemies are ubiquitous throughout history. Surely our blood was never really poisoned or sucked out of us by a maternal monster in our past. Or was it?


As I described in my Foundations of Psychohistory,37 when I first began collecting the emotional imagery surrounding the outbreak of war I was puzzled by recurring claims by aggressors that they were forced to go to war against their wishes because "a net had suddenly been thrown over their head" or a "ring of iron was closing about us more tightly every moment" or they had been "seized by the throat and strangled." I piled up hundreds of these images of nations being choked and strangled, "unable to draw a breath," "smothered, walled-in," "unable to relieve the inexorable pressure" of a world "pregnant with events," followed by feelings of being "picked up bodily" in "an inexorable slide" towards war, starting with a "rupture of diplomatic relations" and a "descent into the abyss," being "unable to see the light at the end of the tunnel" as the nation takes its "final plunge over the brink," and even that wars were "aborted" if ended too soon. Given the concreteness of all this birth imagery, I concluded that war was a rebirth fantasy of enormous power shared by nations undergoing deep regression to shared fetal traumas.

War has long been described in images of pregnancy: "War develops in the womb of State politics; its principles are hidden there as the particular characteristics of the individual are hidden in the embryo" (Clausewitz); "Germany is never so happy as when she is pregnant with a war" (proverb).38 Wars are felt to be life-and-death struggles for "breathing space" and "living room," Eebensraum, as though nations were reliving the growing lack of space and oxygen common to all fetuses just prior to and during birth. Nations become paranoid prior to wars and feel they have to resort to violence in order to get out of what appears to be a choking womb and birth canal. Bethmann-Hollweg, for example, told the Reichstag in announcing war in 1914 that Germany was surrounded by enemies, and "he who is menaced as we are and is fighting for his highest possession can only consider how he is to hack his way through."39 As Hitler repeated over and over again, only a violent "rebirth" could "purge the world of the Jewish poison" and avoid it being "asphyxiated and destroyed."40

Now, the notion that war might be a battle against a dangerous mother is difficult enough to believe. That it in addition includes fantasies that you are hacking your way out of the engulfment of your own birth is infinitely harder to accept. But what followed then in my psychohistorical research into imagery prior to wars was a discovery that seemed to be a final step into the unbelievable, revealing a depth of regression prior to wars greater than anything yet contemplated in the psychological literature. Yet it was a discovery that for the first time seemed to explain the true origin of the poison blood imagery.

What I found was that the cartoons, past and present, of the enemy in war were dominated by an image that was even more widespread than that of the dangerous mommy: it was that of a seabeast, often with many heads or arms, a dragon or a hydra or a serpent or an octopus that threatened to poison the lifeblood of the nation. Most early cultures believed in this beast as a dragon that was associated with watery caves or lakes; modern wars show the beast as a blood-sucking, many-headed enemy. This serpentine, poisonous monster I soon began calling the Poisonous Plancenta, since it resembled what the actual placenta must have sometimes felt like to the growing fetus, particularly when the placenta fails in its primary tasks of cleansing the fetal blood of wastes and of replenishing its oxygen supply. When the blood coming to the fetus from the placenta is bright red and full of nutrients and oxygen, the fetus feels it is being fed by a Nurturant Placenta, but when the mother smokes, takes drugs or is hurt or frightened or otherwise stressed, the placenta does not remove the waste from fetal blood, which becomes polluted and depleted of oxygen. Under these stressful conditions, the helpless fetus experiences an asphyxiating Poisonous Placenta, the prototype for all later hate relationships, including the murderous mother, the castration father or the dangerous enemy. It is even likely that the fetus, like Oedipus, feels it is actually battling with the dangerous beast (Sphinx means "strangler" in Greek) in order to restore connections with the Nurturant Placenta. This battle, what I have termed the fetal drama, is repeated in death-and-rebirth restagings of traumatic battles in all wars and other social violence.

The cosmic battle with the Poisonous Placenta, where we repeat the fetal drama of a paradise lost, of being sucked into the whirlpool and crushing pressures of birth, and where we fight the placental dragon, is well depicted in a comic-book character, Conan the Barbarian, although I could just as easily have used pictures and texts from ancient myths of battles with seabeasts such as Tiamat, Rahab, Behemoth, Humbaba, Apophis, Hydra, Gorgon or Typhon.41 In this version, a baby is first shown abandoned, beginning his watery birth passage between headcrushing bones, going down the whirlpool of birth after the amniotic waters break, being choked by the Poisonous Placenta, a black seamonster that tries to asphyxiate it. The hero, an imaginary powerful version of the fetus, battles with the Poisonous Placenta and frees the fetus, who reaches the safety of land. The final panel shows that the goal, however, is not birth, the arrival on land, but the reuniting with the placenta. That it is the Nurturant not the Poisonous Placenta that holds the baby in its embrace is depicted by its being shown as a white sea beast.

In most cultures, past and present, the actual placenta is considered very much alive after delivery; it is felt to be so dangerous to the community that unless it is buried somewhere deep the whole tribe will fall sick.42 The Poisonous Placenta is even present in most small groups we form. As one group analyst describes his conclusions from a lifetime of studying unconscious group images:

One of the most active, or rather paralyzing, unconscious group representations is that of Hydra: the group is felt to be a single body with a dozen arms at the ends of which are heads and mouths, each functioning independently of the others...incessantly searching for prey to be squeezed and suffocated, and ready to devour one another if they are not satisfied.43

Obviously, full understanding of the placental source of "poison blood" and sea-beast imagery and of the fetal origins of war and social violence is going to have to wait until we investigate more fully the psychology of dangerous wombs, Poisonous Placentas and asphyxiating births--which is to say, until we understand more about both the psychology and neurobiology of fetal life.


1 Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971, p. 59.
2 Norbert Bromberg and Verna Volz Small, Hitler's Psychopathology, New York: International Universities Press, 1983.
3Alice Miller, For Your Our Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, New York: Farrar, Staus, Giroux, p. 152.
4Bromberg and Small, Hitler's Psychopathology, pp. 137 and 280.
5Hitler, Mein Kampf, p. 388.
6Ibid, pp. 59-60.
7 Bromberg and Small, Hitler's Psychopathology, p. 281.
8Lloyd deMause, Foundations of Psychohistory. New York: Creative Roots, 1982, pp. 48-59; Lloyd deMause, "Schreber and the History of Childhood," The Journal of Psychohistory 15(1987):426-7; Aurel Ende, "Battering and Neglect: Children in Germany, 1820-1978." Journal of Psychohistory 7(1980): 249-79; Aurel Ende, "Bibliography on Childhood and Youth in Germany from 1820-1978." Journal of Psychohistory 7(1980): 281-7; AurelEnde, "Children In History: A Personal Review of the Past Decade's Published Research." Journal of Psychohistory 11(1983): 65-88.
9Robert Wistrick, Hitler's Apocalypse: Jews and the Nazi Legacy. New York; St. Martin's Press, 1985; Edward Timms, Karl Kraus, Apocalyptic Satirist: Culture and Catashophe in Habsburg Vienna. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986.
9Bromberg and Small, Hitler's Psychopathology, p. 24.
11Lloyd deMause, Foundations of Psychohistory, pp. 244-317.
12K. Codell Carter, "On the Decline of Bloodletting in Nineteenth Century Medicine." The Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology 5(1982): 221.
13Michael C. C. Adams, The Great Adventure: Male Desire and the Coming of World War I Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990, p. 57.
14ibid, p. 51.
15ibid, p. 61.
16Juha Siltala, "Prenatal Fantasies During the Finnish Civil War." The Journal of Psychohistory 22(1995): 486.
17Burr Cartwright Brundage, The Fifth Sun: Aztec Gods, Aztec World . Austin University of Texas Press, 1979.
18ibid, p. 487.
19Michael C. C. Adams, The Great Adventure , p. 55.
20lbid, p. 53.
21Lloyd deMause, "The Gulf War as a Mental Disorder." The Journal of Psychohistory 19(1991): 1-23.
22Miriam Robbins Dexter, Whence the Goddesses: A Source Book . New York: Pergamon Press, 1990; Paul Friedrich, The Meaning of Aphrodite. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
23James A. Aho, Religious Mythology and the Art of War: Comparative Religious Symbolisms of Military Violence. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981; Wolgang Lederer, The Fear of Women. New York: Grune & Stratton, 1968, p. 58.
24Ilse Kirk, "Images of Amazons: Marriage and Matriarchy." In Sharon Macdonald, Pat Holden and Shirley Ardener, Eds., Images of Women in Peace and War. Houndmills: Macmillan Education, 1987, pp. 27-39.
25Burr Cartwright Brundage, The Fifth Sun, p. 201; Margaret Ehrenberg, Women in Prehistory. London: British Museum Publications, 1989, p. 163.
26Joan Haslep, Marie Antoinette. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1987. Lynn Hunt, "The Many Bodies of Marie Antoinette: Political Pornography and the Problem of the Feminine in the French Revolution" and Vivian Cameron, "Political Exposures: Sexuality and Caricature in the French Revolution." In Lynn Hunt, Ed., Eroticism and the Body Politic. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991, pp. 109-130; Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle ofthe French Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989, pp. 203-227; Terry Cartlp, "Marie Antoinette Obsession." Representations 38(1992): 1-38 Madelyn Gutwirth, The Twilight of the Goddesses. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992, pp. 136-200.
27Lynn Hunt, "The Many Bodies of Marie Antoinette," pp. 122-3; Simon Schama, Citizens, p. 796.
28Richard Grenier, "Killer Bimbos." Commentary, September 1991; "Kiss Kiss Slash Slash." Newsweek, March 23, 1992.
29New York Post, June 16, 1986, p. 4.
30James A. Aho, Religious Mythology and the Art of War: Comparative Religious Symbolisms of Military Violence, Westport Conn. Greenwood Press. 1981. pp.21-23
31John Bierhorst, Ed. The Hungry Woman: Myths and Legends of the Aztecs. New York: William Merrow, 1984, p. 10.
32Bruce Lincoln, Death, War, and Sacrifice: Studies in Ideology and Practice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991, p. 13.
33P. Meulengracht Sorensen, The Unmanly Man: Concepts of Sexual Defamation in Early Northern Society. Odense, 1983, p. 82; A. Edwardes, Erotica Judaica: A Sexual History of the Jews. New York, 1967, pp. 69-76.
34Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War. New York: The Free Press, 1991, p. 179.
35Sidney Halpem, "The Mother-killer." The Psychoanalytic Review 52(1965): 73.
36Aleksei Fedorovich Losev, cited in Daniel Rancour-Laferriere, The Slave Soul of Russia: Moral Masochism and the Cult of Suffering. New York: New York University Press, 1995, p. 226.
37Lloyd deMause, Foundations of Psychohistory, pp. 90-102, 244-332.
38Nancy Huston, "The Matrix of War: Mothers and Heroes." In Susan Rubin Suleiman, The Female Body in Western Culture: Contemporary Perspectives. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986, p. 133.
39Ralph H. Lutz, Fall of the German Empire 1914-1918: Documents of the German Revolution. Vol. I. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1932, p. 13.
40Jeremy Noakes and Geoffrey Pridham, Eds. Documents on Nazism, 1919-1945. London: Jonathan Cape, 1974, P. 37; Robert Wistrich, Hitler's Apocalypse: Jews and the Nazi Legacy. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985, p. 134.
41For further examples or the fetal drama, see Lloyd deMause, Foundations of Psychohistory, pp. 261-282.
42J. R. Davidson, "The Shadow of Life: Psychosocial Explanations for Placenta Rituals." Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 9(1985): 75-92.
43Didier Anzieu, The Group and the Unconscious. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 1984, p. 161.

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