Virtual Special Issue

Virtual Special Issue: Psychoanalysis and History


Sally Alexander

Psychoanalysis occupies a special if controversial place in History Workshop Journal.  Editors – always an eclectic group – are divided about the value of unconscious fantasy for the historian’s craft. The historian reconstructs real events with an understanding of human nature (if s/he uses one) that changes with time and place. What a historical figure ‘felt in their heart’ – to quote Catherine Hall and Daniel Pick – can never be known.

Portrait of Emma, Sid and Cora as baby. From Cora Kaplan, ‘Red Diaper Baby’, History Workshop Journal 83 (2017).

If Journal editors shared a common sense in the early years, it converged around an overwrought historical materialism, with class as the subject of history, experience the source of other voices, relationships and knowledge. Feminist historians (or some of them), quick to question class as the basis of either experience or subjectivity, read Freud and his colleagues in study groups from the early 1970s with women’s wants and sexual difference in mind. Oral historians (of Italian fascism, the Caribbean, Britain), pioneers in the history of subjectivity, read memory’s dramatizations, resistance and silences through unconscious mental process (oral history will be the subject of a future virtual issue). History Workshop, as Timothy Ashplant notes, hosted discussions from the mid-1980s in London and Oxford between historians, anthropologists, literary critics, philosophers, feminist and gay activists and psychoanalysts to discover how knowledge of psychic life might inform archival research. ‘Transference doesn’t just happen in analysis’ psychoanalyst Charles Rycroft remarked on one of these occasions, offering a clue to the power of emotional recall in the everyday, ‘the postman might be the recipient of our most intimate feelings’.

For psychoanalysis intimate – erotic – feeling is the well spring of human subjectivity. It underpins the moral self, reasoning intellect and the creative imagination, to paraphrase from Barbara Taylor’s polemic with E. P. Thompson. From infancy we internalise and identify with idealised images of mother/father, of those whom we love; as we grow up, we become and believe in whom we once adored, these are ‘the gods we need and use’. Taylor describes the radical imagination of the 1790s via William James, Freud and Julia Kristeva. Ronald Fraser, in search of his own past, interviewed eight family servants believing the truth of his own subjectivity would emerge if the class divisions of his interwar childhood were laid bare. Instead he found his psychic myths confirmed. Bert, the groom of the family estate, was not dislodged as the father who lived inside him, while analysis revealed that he had two mothers – something which the history of upper class families had always left out, as Leonore Davidoff once told him. If the servants were not the subjects of their own lives, Fraser came to realise, then, for different reasons, neither was he.

Psychoanalysis as historical explanation first enters the pages of the Journal with Klaus Theweleit’s path breaking study of the inner world of the Freikorps – armed bands of mercenaries, discharged soldiers who roamed the desolate landscapes of central and eastern Europe post-Versailles, some of whom ‘turned up’ in the Nazi Party after 1933. Fiction and diaries written by the Freikorps, revealed a compulsive sequence of fantasies of raping women, beating their bodies to bloody pulp or swamp, followed by fear of loss of the self’s boundaries, of becoming one with the swamp – fears only momentarily assuaged by fantasies of cleansing and rebirth through battle and killing. Childhood disciplines of distant mothers, cadet school beatings and military training structured the Freikorps’ military masculinity pre-1914, but could not explain the ‘monumental horror’ of this ‘epochal literature’. For this Theweleit summoned a medley of post-Freudian concepts – Deleuze and Guattarri’s notion of ‘productive desire’ made intelligible the unstoppable flow of images, while Wilhelm Reich’s ‘bodily armour’ affirmed the frantic shoring up of self through military ritual which enabled identification with nation and crown. Theweleit’s research and analysis, in Lutz Niethamer’s phrase, ‘kicked open the door’ to the historical investigation of the human motivation of fascism – still a contemporary issue, as Geoff Eley points out in an evaluation of the historiography in Issue 84.

Most historians give the psyche or pathological states of mind their due when exploring extremes of feeling or epochs of historical violence. Psychoanalytic concepts developed in part in response to the 20th century’s catastrophic events.  Freud famously re-mapped the topography of mental life in the vortex of world war: conceiving the death drive through mourning, shell shock and repetition; exploring group belonging and structures of belief; asking why civilisation made it so difficult to be happy; and what it meant to be a Jew. Female sexuality was debated by psychoanalysts amid feminist demands for sexual and intellectual freedom through the 1930s. Female circumcision, practiced among the Kikuu and other ethnic groups, became a signifier of Kenyan nationalism for Jomo Kenyatta, first President of independent Kenya, who studied anthropology at the LSE in the mid-1920s when the relevance of the incest taboo and Oedipus complex for societies beyond European colonial powers was being debated among social scientists. French psychoanalyst Marie Bonaparte – obsessed with Freud’s distinction between clitoral and vaginal erotic feeling –  defended the practice in face of strong feminist opposition. During the second world war ‘anxious histories’, which fused states of mind with conditions of war itself, emerged from both fiction and Mass Observation’s ‘dream box’, Lyndsey Stonebridge found.  Delving deep into children’s inner worlds, Melanie Klein and her colleagues used war metaphors of bombs and the blitz to evoke splitting in unconscious fantasy, while locked in quarrels among themselves about the democratic practices of the British Psychoanalytic Society. Donald Winnicott in BBC broadcasts during and after the war advocated the ‘ordinary devoted mother’. His aim was to uproot fascism, to build individuals strong enough to resist the appeal of authoritarian leaders and ideals, who could think for themselves.

Bernard Canavan. From Sally Alexander, ‘Women, Class and Sexual Differences in the 1830s and 1840s: Some Reflections on the Writing of a Feminist History’, History Workshop Journal 17 (1984).

Strong feeling is not confined to 20th century bloodlands and battlefields. Lyndal Roper’s insight into witchcraft in Augsburg in the aftermath of the Thirty Year War explored the female world of childbirth. Some witches were older women, impoverished, marginal, employed as lying-in maids to mother and infant during the 6-8 weeks between birth and ‘churching’. Accusers were often the mother or close relative after some misfortune – sickness or death of infant or mother. Envy, suspicion and maleficence arose from the risks and dangers of childbirth and infancy, from the anguish of loss. Both witch and torturer, accuser and judge internalised a theatre of beliefs and figures in which the witches’ barren body, craven in lust with the devil, was framed in law and government. She did not have intercourse with the devil, one accused witch confessed, he came to her breast to put poison on and in them. Theweleit found a terror of women’s bodies, of their own mothers and sisters in particular, underpinning the Freikorps’ violent sexual fantasies. In witchcraft, fear of women’s bodies took many forms. These essays remind us how historians have only begun to explore the ways in which the maternal body haunts both the minds of individuals and is inscribed in myth, law and order.

What makes a fascist, what is the meaning of the ‘primitive’ in the encounter between settlers and indigenous peoples, what are the subsoils of witchcraft, what shapes the radical imagination, how can we understand the practice of female circumcision, how is class lived, what makes a self? These are just some of the questions addressing the relation between psychic and historical reality published in the Journal since its beginnings. Dreams, fantasies, screen memory and myth mark and blur the boundaries between inner and outer worlds.* Botanist Arthur Tansley dreamt in Cambridge, sometime during the First World War, of a confrontation with natives carrying spears, followed by a glimpse of a woman (his wife?) when he awoke. Reluctant to plumb its erotic pulse, he was led by the dream nevertheless to flirt with psychoanalysis as a possible profession and to affirm the biological (scientific?) foundations of Freud’s death drive. Trauma suffered by survivors in the decades after Bloody Sunday in Derry, Graham Dawson shows, gradually became a creative source of resistance and freedom. Memories, dreams, transference, fantasies – the well spring of human feeling – as they work their alchemy make history happen; they open a dimension of historical explanation of the world around us which has been made by men (and women), but which is so hard to comprehend (I’m re-phrasing Arendt). The historian, like the psychoanalyst, works from traces, details, clues – a method of gathering knowledge as ancient as the arts of divining, or the hunting skills of nomadic peoples.  Behind the historian’s endeavour, Carlo Ginzburg suggests, can be glimpsed a figure as old as the human race, the hunter ‘crouching in the mud’ in search of tracks or traces from the past, alive in the present.

*Two special features on Dreams, edited by Daniel Pick and Lyndal Roper, appeared in Issue 28 (1988) and Issue 49 (1999) and were published as a book, “Dreams and History”  by Routledge in 2004


The Virtual Special Issue includes free access pdf downloads of all of the articles listed below for a period of six months. Click on the hyperlinks to access.

Lutz Niethammer [transl. Jane Caplan, Tim Mason]Male Fantasies: An Argument For and With an Important New Study in History and Psychoanalysis 7 (1979)
Carlo Ginzburg [transl. Anna Davin]Morelli, Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method
9 (1980)
Sally Alexander
Women, Class and Sexual Differences in the 1830s and 1840s: Some Reflections on the Writing of a Feminist History 17 (1984)
Ronald Fraser and othersIn Search of a Past: A Dialogue with Ronald Fraser
20 (1985)
T. G. Ashplant
Fantasy, Narrative, Event: Psychoanalysis and History 23 (1987)
Lyndal RoperWitchcraft and Fantasy in Early Modern Germany 32 (1991)
Barbara TaylorReligion, Radicalism and Fantasy39 (1995)
Lyndsey StonebridgeAnxiety at a Time of Crisis
45 (1988)
Jacqueline Rose
Freud in the Tropics
47 (1999)
Laura Cameron and John Forrester‘A Nice type of the English Scientist’: Tansley and Freud
48 (1999)
Daniel Pick‘Roma a morte’: Garibaldi, Nationalism and the Problem of Psycho-Biography57 (2004)
Michael RoperSlipping Out of View: Subjectivity and Emotion in Gender History59 (2005)
Graham DawsonTrauma, Place and the Politics of Memory: Bloody Sunday, Derry, 1972-200459 (2005)
Bodil Folke FrederiksenJomo Kenyatta, Marie Bonaparte and Bronislaw Malinowski on Clitoridectomy and Female Sexuality65 (2008)
Anne KarpfConstructing and Addressing the ‘Ordinary Devoted Mother’78 (2014)
Cora KaplanRed Diaper Baby
83 (2017)
Catherine Hall and Daniel PickThinking About Denial84 (2017)


  1. Hi, this looks amazing and will be of great interest to our library members. But the first couple of links I tried lead to paywalled versions of the articles, not free access as described.

    1. Hi Anthony. Thank you for bringing these technical problems to our attention. We are currently working with OUP to fix the access issues – do check back next week, when we hope to have resolved this.

      1. Thanks so much. I’ll share it on our social media channels once it’s sorted out!

  2. Hi, I was hoping to access these papers but don’t seem to be able to, as they are behind a paywall.

    1. Hi Harry, unfortunately Virtual Special Issue articles are only free access for six months. Our latest VSI on The State can be found on the homepage.

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