Saturday, July 15, 2006

National Psychology

I was wondering recently about the increasing tendency in the media and elsewhere to assign psychological motivations to an entire nation. Israel is worried about its security, the USA has been mentally scarred by the Vietnam War, Tuvalu has Attention Deficit Disorder, that kind of thing. And while it’s obviously bollocks and just lazy journalism, I wondered if there was anything one could glean from this exercise.

I also have this fairly vivid memory of being half the age I am now and talking to an old Italian bloke who put forward the theory that the US was the way it was (in foreign policy) because it had a national inferiority complex and that Germany was the way it was because it had a national superiority complex. At the time I thought this was just rubbush, but as time went on I began to understand where he was coming from (I still think it’s nonsense, but its not completely baseless nonsense).

To be honest, the thing that sparked these thoughts were some comments I read about the recent World Cup and how the great success of the tournament (off the pitch at least) was enabling Germany to at last feel proud of itself again. This ties in (somewhat) with a film that was released a couple of years ago called Das Wunder von Bern about the (West) German football team’s win in the 1954 World Cup. The basic premise behind the film (and I’m paraphrasing considerably, and there is a genuine and apparently fairly moving plot that reveals this message) is that the Germans were a proud people with a strong sense of national identity, who at the end of the war had nothing left to cling to – a destroyed country and economy, national humiliation and nothing whatsoever to be proud of for being German. Then came the 1954 World Cup in Switzerland, and against the odds and in the final against the best team in the world at that time – Hungary – the West German team won, giving people a reason to be proud of their country again in a completely non-threatening way (after all it was only football). The radio commentary of the last few minutes of that game is apparently hugely famous in Germany to this day.

Well it seems that Germany in particular has been the subject of the national psychoanalysis more than most places – Hitler’s rise is often painted as a historical inevitability given the national sense of injustice resulting from the post World War I treaties that Germany was made to sign. Indeed this is largely the reason that the Marshall Plan came into effect after the second war – not wishing to make the same mistake again, the US, in what remains possibly the most enlightened foreign policy decision by any nation ever, helped to rebuild (West) Germany from the rubble up.

Anyway, enough digressions, and back to the point. When I say “back” of course I mean I’m now about to touch on the point for the first time. Going back to “the Miracle of Bern”, the untold story is of the Hungarian team. Now every football fan knows that Hungary were the best football team of the 50s (just as every football fan knows that Hungary are now utterly rubbish – I notice Ujpest lost 4-0 to a team from Liechtenstein this week. Sorry, digressing again). So how did this defeat affect the Hungarian national psyche? What, indeed, is the Hungarian national psyche? You see, when you go back and take a look at the 20th century it’s hard to find a European nation that had such a bad 20th century. Like Germany, at the end of the first world war in a treaty signed in a French chateau (Trianon this time, rather than Versailles), Hungary was sliced up and fed to its neighbours. Only Hungary lost 2/3rd of its territory and millions of its people in the deal – significantly more than Germany lost, though unlike Hungary, Germany did also have colonies in various other parts of the world which it also ceded control of. The “historical inevitability” of then ending up with an expansionist genocidal maniac in power somehow wasn’t quite as inevitable in Hungary. At the end of the second world war, Hungary ended up on the wrong side of the iron curtain, unlike most of Germany, and hence not only did not benefit from the Marshall Plan, but also had to put up with communism. When Hungarians actually started protesting about this state of affairs they promptly got invaded by the USSR (and sold out by the west) and crushed even further into the dirt. In fact it’s only since 1989 that things started to get better for Hungary. All in all it was a pretty miserable century. And they didn’t even get to win a World Cup in the midst of it all. So why are we not bombarded with analytical pieces of journalism analysing the national state of mind of Hungary and how all this misery must have traumatised the Hungarians? (To be fair, I don’t read the Hungarian press, and it may be that this subject gets debated interminably there)

I do know, for example, that Hungary has a startlingly high suicide rate. One of the highest in the world as far as I know. (Also Harghita county has the highest suicide rate in Romania, but that maybe just because it’s bloody freezing for 4 months of the year, rather than because it is full of manic depressive Hungarians). Whether there is any connection between the effect on the “national psyche” of a century of desperation and the suicide rate, is of course debatable (I’d go as far as to say that there is no connection, but that’s mostly because I don’t really believe in the concept of “national psyche”).

I suspect that the reason that there isn’t much coverage of the Hungarian psyche in the world’s media is because Hungary doesn’t matter that much. It’s only the strong nations that get anthropomorphised in this way (I’m guessing for example that the effect of Versailles on the Germans wasn’t looked into until Germany started once again to assert itself). We look at the effect of the war in Vietnam on the American psyche but not on the Vietnamese. Only this morning, for example, I read about the effects of Hizbullah’s rocket attacks on the Israeli psyche, and nothing about the effect of Israel’s bombardment of Beirut on the Lebanese psyche. (I made up the Tuvalu thing in the first paragraph, you may be surprised to learn). Is this because we don’t like to present our enemies (or the enemies of our friends) in psychological terms for fear of humanising them too much?

I’ve gone on long enough, and will stop now, without ever really having made any kind of point. You’ll have to supply your own conclusion for whatever makes any sense out of this. I do have some points to make about the relationship between Hungarians and Romanians based on all this, but I will wait till I get back from holiday to do it. I bet you can’t wait, can you?

4 comments:

Andy H said...

Oh, and by the way, I will be away and so won't be able to respond to any comments left here for a while. If you can help me sort my ideas out on this one, please don't take my silence as ignoring you.

Anonymous said...

For your information, more than 3.5 million Romanians found themselves outside the post World War II borders (in territories having an area 1/4 of those ceded by Hungary after World War I). Around one million of them were murdered or deported to Siberia between 1940-1964 where they perished. Also, Romania had by far the most oppressive communist regime in Eastern Europe.

If it is your idea that a people's unhappiness is directly proportional to the area of lost territories - well, I think this idea stands only from a nationalist point of view.

Andy H said...

Well, that's far from my idea. I'm not sure what my idea is, in fact, but it's not anything like what you are suggesting. And I don't believe I actually mentioned Romania in what I wrote (you'll spot, if you actually read it, I waa mostly comparing the Hungarian "nation" to the German one), so I'm not disputing anything you say (though I suspect Soviet citizens who lived under Stalin may dispute your "most oppressive regime" contention, but arguing about which particular oppressive dictatorship was the most brutal is not a very productive path to go down)

Romerican said...

I read this a few days back and really agreed with most of the overall sentiment. I think it is rubbish, but was not always so.

I usually center my thoughts on the concept that nation states are becoming increasingly less important (meaningful, relevant, etc), and will continue to do so, and thus national psyche is an evermore outdated term used by lazy journalists.

Granted, we're not quite at the destination yet where one's homeland means little beyond some vestages of cultural identity withing a closeknit circle. There are still plenty of Noua Dreapta cretins who seek to gain dictatorial powers by scaring the ignorati into xenophobia. One might even find evidence of a slight reprise in their popularity across parts of Europe. Nonetheless, I believe these things are on their way out and most folks will increasingly identify with something akin to 'world citizen' and then, necessarily, bond with more regional influences or city governments.

Of course, none of that is predestined. We could cling to our nationalism and nuke the hell out of people just like us who live across an imaginary line.