Vamık D. Volkan, M.D., DLFAPA, FACPsa.

Vamık D. Volkan M.D.:
The history does not repeat itself, one has to analyse history in a more sophisticated way!
Vamık D.Volkan was born in 1932, into a parallel world of two ethnic groups,
Turks and Greeks, living side-by-side in Nicosia, Cyprus.
Following Yeni Cami Primary School, he attended Cyprus Muslim High School.
In those years, he develops an utmost interest in mathematics.
But within a very short space of time, reading and writing take over numbers...
He begins writing articles for Cypriot newspapers while he is still at High School.
He obtains his university degree from Ankara University, Medical School.
During his years at the university, he joins in an orchestra
composed of amateur musicians also including members of parliament,
upon invitation from his friends who find out about his ability to play violin.
This way, music too finds a place in Volkan’s life alongside with reading and writing.
One of the most popular listeners to this successful orchestra is late İsmet İnönü,
the second President of the Republic of Turkey (in office: 1938-1950).

And then…

A life devoted to become a teacher influenced by his family tradition...

He passionately wants to become a teacher…
first to learn, and then to teach…
His target is to do his doctorate at the Medical School to become a teacher…

However, life invariably presents the most unexpected surprises…
Due to his British Nationality, it was difficult for Vamık D. Volkan 
to do his doctorate in Turkey as he would not be able to get any salary.
That is why a lot of Cypriot Turks studying in Turkey at the time became Turkish Citizens.
But it was difficult for Volkan as following the start of the conflict in Cyprus,
Turkish Authorities made it difficult for Cypriot Turks to obtain
Turkish Nationality in order to keep Turkish population high on the island.
That is why Volkan makes his choice and decides to go to the United States.
Sadness in his heart...
Images of his native land in his mind...
his violin under his arm...
and very little spending money in his pocket,
he leaves for United States in 1957...
When he first arrives there, he starts working in a hospital,
and then he resumes his career at the University of North Caroline.
He subsequently starts working at the University of Virginia in 1963.
With his heart in his country, he constantly follows developments in Cyprus.

Will he ever get any bad news? Are his relatives being killed?

He devotes himself to studying and reading in order to repress and deny his fears and worries.
His books almost glued to his hands soon get replaced by volumes of encyclopaedias...
In 1968, when Greeks eventually lift their blockade in Cyprus,
and as soon as he obtains his American citizenship enabling him to re-enter United States comfortably,
Volkan catches his breath blended with nostalgia and excitement in Cyprus, his native land,
with 10 years worth of emotional luggage on his back and his longing at its peak... 
On his arrival to Cyprus, he faces an unusual situation…
His relatives coming to meet him at the airport, whisper to him that he must not speak at all in the car.

Because it would seem that speaking means either fear or being killed!

Therefore, his relatives and he dissipate their long last longing by means of
looking at one another in the car while driving home.
And that is how he finds out that only Birds of Cyprus can speak freely on their behalf.

 I first heard of Prof Dr Vamık D. Volkan during my years
at Bakirköy Mental and Nervous Diseases Education and Research Hospital,
as a voluntary media consultant and corporate communications coordinator.
I had already read the books and articles written by Dr Volkan.
Therefore, the question marks I had in my mind about his scientific achievements were quite clear;
but it was almost like a dream to be able to meet him.
However, Prof Dr Arif Verimli who has always supported me in my personal and professional life,
encouraged me to meet Dr Volkan too, as he has in other matters before.
His unusually modest attitude, his natural personality,
and his sincerity in answering my questions soon
turned my nervousness into a pleasant surprise and happiness.
Prof Dr Arif Verimli was right!
For the last few years, Vamık D. Volkan has been same to me:
"You have been a student of mine for a long time in the past, now I am one of your students."
To me hearing this from Vamık D. Volkan and still working with him is
a prime example of courage, determination and hardwork.
I hope you find all my interviews with Vamık D. Volkan interesting.
Özler Aykan
Prof. Dr. Vamık D. Volkan



Özler Aykan:                            Welcome back home… You have been living in the United States since 1957, do you miss Turkey a lot?

Vamık D. Volkan:                    You are welcome too. Would I not miss my country? A great deal… Whenever I come back here, I experience a different feeling of excitement. I tend to be like a little child, believe me it is the kind of feeling that cannot be explained. I already try to visit as often as possible. I have a house in Cyprus where I invariably spend summer months relaxing. I admire my flowers, my olive trees. I breathe in the unique air of Cyprus.



Ö.A.:                                         You are a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. However, you have diverted to work in the field of political psychology. Indeed, you are directing the world. Is there a story behind this diversion?

V.V.:                                         Yes there is. The fact that I am a Cypriot! In 1969, the Brookings Institute organised a meeting together with the government delegates and academic representatives in order to study the political situation in Cyprus. What they wanted to find out was why the Turks and the Greeks on the island could not get together as one single nation. However, being a young psychoanalyst at the time, the only thing I could offer to them as opinion was the stories from my childhood emphasising how different I was from my Greek neighbours. That is how my career in the fields of political psychology and history of psychology began.



Ö.A.:                                        Today, I would like to basically converse with you on the scientific theories that you have created and have been defending in the field of political psychology. But, prior to this and only if it is not very private, may I ask you to share with us the first trauma you have ever experienced once you have settled in the United States?

V.V.:                                        Let me tell you the most important first trauma during my stay in the United States. I was still in my first year in the United States where I went to in 1957, I cannot forget the moment I found out about the death of Erol who used to be my roommate during my medical studies in Ankara, and who I used to adore and consider to be my brother. This is my first trauma ever. Late Erol was one year below me at the faculty.
                                                When I went to the United States, he had returned to Cyprus to look after his ailing mother during mid-term in February. Apparently, he went to a pharmacy in then called Omorfo, currently called Guzelyurt in Cyprus, to purchase medicine for his mother, and he was shot by EOKA, the Cypriot Greek terrorists. I found out about Erol’s death from a newspaper article sent through to me by my father. I only understood how deeply this had affected me years later. I realized it when I got engaged into a long lasting analysis under my professor’s supervision in early 1960.




Ö.A.:                                        How can you evaluate the psychodynamics of individual and group psychology within the same platform?

V.V.:                                        Let me explain as follows. Even though there are s lot of differences between mental processes of the individual and the group, the methods of psychology and especially psychoanalysis sheds light on group identity and behaviour. Large-group identities are the result of historical continuity, geographical reality, a common myth about the origin and other shared events. These things emerge naturally. It is neither bad nor good, it is just an ordinary phenomena. If we bear in mind the propagation of ethnic, religious and cultural conflicts in countries around the world today, it becomes an urgent necessity to understand why people, beyond their personalised motivations, kill each other in order to protect and maintain their large-group identity. We have to accept this. We can bridge the gaps in the field of diplomacy using psychoanalysis principles in order to research into the meaning of deep feelings related to blood line, cultural identity, ethnic attachment, and other relations of this sort.


Ö.A.:                                        Can we call the work you do some sort of preventative medicine? Moreover, it is as though you are working in a very shaded area…

V.V.:                                        You have definitely made a correct assertion! Yes it is a shaded area, but at the same time it can also be illuminated. Our research from a psychoanalytic point of view helps us to lift the cover hiding irrational and stubborn factors leading to violence. We believe that we shall be able to bring our worst enemies, our common identity conflicts and our worries from darkness to daylight with this method.


Ö.A.:                                        You are effectively exercising unofficial diplomacy. Well, how do you measure the impact?

V.V.:                                        The scientific methods I can explain right now have not been certified yet. Therefore, It is too early for me to answer this question for definite. But of course, we have done a lot of work on impact measurement. For example, we have done important work in relation with our Estonia project. We are applying a survey to different ethnic groups. We are doing some work for anti-ethnic groups to exhibit their perception of ethnic identity. We are aiming to show quantitatively the variations in large group relations by means of measuring variations in the perception of ethnic group.


Ö.A.:                                        “Chosen trauma”, “Chosen grief” are your theories that are being discussed, and in a way being accepted by worldwide science nowadays. Could you briefly talk about these theories? 

V.V.:                                          First of all we have to make something clear. I use these definitions or theories to define the collective memoir of a disaster happened to a group’s ancestors. But these definitions naturally contain and express much more than a simple memoir. The trauma I am referring to is not the kind of trauma experienced following an earthquake or an accident. I am talking about a massive trauma involving humiliation and anger.
                                                   Notice that if you are to concentrate on ethnic conflicts worldwide, you will see clearly the domination of an enormous feeling of humiliation in every small or large group in conflict. This is a reality that cannot be ignored. These groups transform their feeling of humiliation and helplessness into a terrible anger in time, and as a result resort to act of retaliation. Here is a critical point which is highly important: These groups’ grief is not resolved. In other words, they cannot mourn, and unresolved grief is transmitted from one generation to another. In one way or another, the new generation carry on the grief of the old generation. Mourning their ancestors’ grief thus becomes a very important mission in other words an inevitable duty for them. Therefore, the new generation becomes the reservoir of the previous generation.



Psychological DNA

Ö.A.:                                          Can I use the definition of “Psychological DNA” as regard to what you have been explaining?

V.V.:                                          It is a perfectly correct definition. Dear me, how well you seem to have prepared for your interview. Yes, we can in a way call it psychological DNA. Traumatised self images are transmitted from one generation to the other. Psychological DNA in this context influence individual identity in one hand, and subsequent adult behaviour in the other. But, we must not ignore the variations of the transfer during transmission from one generation to the other.
                                                   Let me explain as follows: The psychodynamic processes between those who were directly affected by and those who survived a disaster, a bad event, or a trauma are very important. I would like to attract your attention to this sensitive issue. If you are not affected by the disaster, your generation might put away the memoir of the trauma experienced by the previous generation. Here, we have seen the variation in transfer have we not? Is it forgotten forever? Of course it is not forgotten, but the memoir of past trauma stays as if it was put away for generations while being contained within psychological DNA of the group members; it is accepted quietly within their culture. When analysed from another point of view, it is possible to say that the perception of the group is being diverted.

Ö.A.:                                          By coincidence, we are having this conversation at a very interesting time. As they say “History is not a jumping board.” Today is Sunday, 8th October 2000. Slobodan Milosevic who became the President of Serbia in 1989, and who painted the Balkans with blood during his leadership, has been brought down on 5th October 2000 as a result of big demonstrations escalating across the nation. With reference to your explanations, has the grief for people living there not been resolved and will it carry on just because Milosevic’s leadership has been brought down?

V.V.:                                          It really is an interesting timing. Slobodan Milosevic is an individual who very much misleads mental designs of Serbian history. Those who know him claim that he is a cold, angry, cunning and self-centred politician. In addition, there are clues as to him coming from an abnormal family in the scientific analyses we have done. Slobodan Milosevic who was born in 1941, finds himself in a stormy and turbulent life since childhood. His father who left home following Second World War, shot himself dead with a gun in 1962, his mother who is teacher and a strict communist committed suicide in 1972. His uncle just like his father and mother committed suicide too. His life is full of storms and turbulence starting right from his childhood. During some period in Belgrade, there was a saying often heard amongst people: “Feel sorry for whom Milosevic called a friend!”

                                                  Slobodan Milosevic rose rapidly in his political career and became the leader of Serbian Communist Party in 1986; he became the Head of State in 1989. After he became the Head of State, winds of nationalism started blowing again in Yugoslavia. Slobodan Milosevic, soon turning upside down the structure built on delicate balances by General Tito, the founder of Yugoslavia, caused Slavic nationalism to drift  first Yugoslavia and then the entire Balkans to disaster. Yugoslavia literally disintegrated as a result of Slobodan Milosevic’s racist attitude and the civil war that took place between 1991 and 1995.

                                                  Serbian forces, supported by Slobodan Milosevic throughout the civil war, started mass murders against Bosnians and Croatians. Following this inhuman and ruthless period, Slobodan Milosevic started being referred to as a “butcher.“ International Human Rights Tribunal wanted him to stand trial. Slobodan Milosevic who got stronger as his country disintegrated, acquired a charismatic identity during Kosovo events. 1.7 million Albanians living in Kosovo in the north of the country requested more political rights rebelling against cruelty order in the country. Slobodan Milosevic responded to this request again using inhuman methods, and resorted to new mass murders against Albanians. 
                                                  The western world, worrying about the events spreading, persuaded the Serbian Butcher to sit down at the discussions table. Milosevic who did not give in the concessions requested from him, continued with his mass murders. News coming from the region during the talks showed that the Serbians fully supported by Milosevic had started ethnic cleansing against the Albanians. Thereupon, NATO forces started an air operation directed to Yugoslavia. At the end of the operation that lasted for 78 days, Milosevic finally conceded to vacate Kosovo. Nobody would presume that Serbian Butcher Milosevic who continuously lost strength since then, but nonetheless did not wish to leave power, would eventually give up his leadership. Here, I would like to touch upon a very important matter requiring attention. The personality of the new leader to replace Milosevic carries an utmost importance for people living in that region. Currently, there is a big chaos in the region. If alongside with this, war criminals are to be protected which I do not want to even imagine, very serious psychological traumas and conflicts would take place.
                                                 The corresponding consequences would be almost irrevocably severe. If those who act cruel and the leaders who collaborate with them are not punished, Serbians will internalise this shame and guilt whether they accept it or not. The feelings of pain, grudge and anger they experienced will be transmitted to future generations. The feeling of revenge in Bosnian Muslims who are victimised will be triggered and much larger conflicts will be recurring. 

Ö.A.:                                        If Slobodan Milosevic stands trial for charges of war crimes committed in Kosovo before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague, he will be accountable to the entire world for genocide in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. Moreover, he will stand trial for charges of crimes against humanity (murder, massacre, torture and rape.) The Congress of United States had allowed time for Yugoslav federal authorities to start implementing democratic reforms until yesterday.

V.V.:                                        The decision to arrest Slobodan Milosevic has been the first reform. But it is early days yet. We need to observe the developments carefully.


Ö.A.:                                         A group of your colleagues in Turkey reject your theory of “Chosen Grief” while criticizing. Why do you think?

V.V.:                                         It is difficult for me to understand as well as to explain the reasons why my colleagues reject this theory as they do not discuss with me in a scientific environment. I know of these rejections based on what I have heard. But since you have asked, let me explain very briefly as follows: I think that they reject this theory of mine on the basis that part of the group does not choose themselves to be victimized. But, I believe that I use the word “chosen” in accordance with the identity since a large group’s identity is unconsciously based on their ancestors’ traumas and on injured images transmitted from generation to generation. I do not wish to take part in these discussions. Because as you know, oppositions and rejections are put forward, discussed and understood in scientific environments.


Ö.A.:                                         You are defining Large-group psychology within “large tent” and you are interpreting it using relations between “inside the tent” and “texture of canvas.” Could you please explain?

V.V.:                                         Let us consider learning to wear two layers of clothing since our childhood. Let our first layer of clothing be our real identity. As to our second layer of clothing, let it be our group identity that is our ethnic clothing. Our second layer of clothing, which is our ethnic clothing, is looser a coating. It does not perfectly fit our body, because it also covers other members of the group, society we live with. That is to say, this second clothing of ours protects the group, society we live within. Hence, what I qualify as “tent” is this second layer of clothing of ours. We work on this second layers’ that is the tents’ identities. In order to be able to understand this identity properly, we observe and examine the canvas of the tent that is its fabric and its texture. Is the fabric strong, how is the thread, does the fabric stretch quickly etc?


Ö.A.:                                           In this case, is the tent pole the group leader?

V.V.:                                           Yes. What sustains the group is the tent pole, but what actually protects the tent is its canvas, its fabric that is its texture. Suppose you place the strongest pole in the middle of the tent, if the canvas of the tent is not made of quality fabric, for example if the fabric can be easily ripped or pierced, you get completely soaked in the tent when it rains. The tent can no longer stay upright and it collapses. Now you will be asking me, “what is the leader for, is he not the one protecting the tent?”  Whereas on the face of it, it is the leader’s duty to protect the tent from collapsing; if the canvas of the tent is strong, the tent can survive without collapsing despite numerous leaders coming and going. Indeed, that is why leaders are selected according to the canvas of the tent. Leaders need to be able to carry the weight of the canvas that is they need to be able to respond to the group’s special requirements.
                                                    Finally, whilst in one hand, the response of the leader to his own internal demands and to his own personality influence the group members; on the other hand, the collective requirements and identities of the group members create an atmosphere permitting a certain type of  leader to gain power.

Ö.A.:                                           Let us suppose that the canvas of the tent is of poor quality, and wear-and-tear starts, what do we do then?

V.V.:                                           That is when concerns and, regression start. Here, the group members get together not around the pole that is the leader, but alongside the wear-and-tear and they start patching. Under certain circumstances, they resort to violence in order to repair the tent, and conflicts start.


Ö.A.:                                           With your permission, I would like to continue this pleasant conversation a little bit with a few subjective headlines related to our country. If we were to apply your theories to current Turkey’s foreign policy, for example the case of Cyprus, what would you like to tell us?

V.V.:                                           Mr Bülent Ecevit, in a speech he delivered in 1979 five years after the Cyprus Peace Process in 1974, had talked about the fact that “the majority of problems between Turks and Greeks in Cyprus are psychological.” As far as I am concerned, this is a concrete example of adaptation of our theories to Turkey’s foreign policy. To your opinion, is this example not a real verification? There is a subject I am concerned with: The work we do in political psychology receives much more recognition in the western world. To my view, this subject is an important handicap for Turkey that ought to be rectified urgently. Currently, the subjects such as violence, terrorism, racism and genocide are only being dealt with from the point of view of sociology. However, to be able to find positive aspects within variations is much more related with analysing internal psychological reasons.
                                                   Nowadays, psychoanalysis is almost taken as being arrogant in Turkey, whereas in the west it is a very common and largely supported science. While making macro plans, it is an obligation to understand the societies with all their processes. There is not even a study centre in this field in Turkey. Psychoanalysis only remains in the clinic. That is to say, in a way, it only remains within its own abstraction.

Ö.A.:                                            Is the matter of alleged “Armenian Genocide” bill presented to United States House of Representatives International Relations Committee in September 2000, also “Chosen grief?” If not, is it new generation “Chosen victim” for both sides?

V.V.:                                           This bill to my mind is the self identity protection method for the Armenians, and it is completely in the shape of militancy. If a university lecturer in Armenia makes a comment in favour of Turkey, he is immediately expelled from the university. Such situation would be out of question in our country. High level Armenian politicians had a meeting in Erivan in 1990, and I managed to get hold of the documents handed out during this meeting. At this meeting, they discussed how the Armenian identity will change, and how to be able to get rid of the helplessness identity;  what the new Armenia identity will be, and they felt the need of a big brother in order to implement their plans. This big brother is of course Russia. The relationship for example, which Armenians entered into with Azerbaijan, is also a retaliation psychology. They refused Azerbaijani blood at the Armenian earthquake.



Ö.A.:                                            Here, I would like to ask you a by the way question. This blood issue also came into question in our country following the 17th August 1999 earthquake. Does the chemistry of blood have a mind?

V.V.:                                            Of course this is a highly absurd issue. Large-groups in conflict do emphasize the purity of blood. This is a psychological motivation. Such as the Armenians refusing Azerbaijani blood, the Serbians refusing the existence of Muslim blood in children of women they raped. The sense of self and blood symbolically intertwine. In other words, blood and identity are connected together.



Ö.A.:                                             Is it “Chosen grief” or “victim?”

V.V.:                                             It looks like it is more appropriate to say “victim.” Please observe how mild a picture the Armenians living in our country draw throughout all these events. They do not at all talk about these claims. In the meantime, we also ought to consider the presidential elections in United States. Besides this is a highly political approach. Leaders attempt to remind the group of their traumas by means of reviving the group’s previous grieves for their own interest. Some leaders find or create external solutions for their own internalized, mostly unconscious requests and individual conflicts. To achieve this, they use political or historical arenas. We can also say “enforcing the group to respond to their own need.”

Ö.A.:                                              If we come back to that famous Armenian bill, Turkey has a definite attitude as regard to this subject, and therefore almost certainly will not compromise. I personally believe that this issue will be brought to the table over and over again, and as such will continue to trouble Turkey for years to come. Would you say that this bill will be approved?
V.V.:                                              I can only point out my personal opinion. Above all, I think that we approach this genocide subject with excessively defensive and aggressive responses. We will of course give our political responses as and when necessary. Be careful though, I am not suggesting to keep quiet, nor to be shy, but I believe that one has to spread it over time realizing that the subject is a matter of perception. Here too, I think that one has to resort to inter-discipline.
                                                       For now, I do not believe that this bill could be approved. Turkey is a stubborn country, and when you look at its history, you will see that it has never renounced its decision, nor has it ever compromised. Therefore, it seems to me as though United States cannot put their relations with Turkey at risk. Nonetheless, we should also observe that a lot of work remain with historians in this matter, and we ought to consider this very carefully. These genocide claims are always made by Armenian historians. It is important to be able to write about history in an objective manner. Moreover, it is necessary to analyse the history in a sophisticated way; and not only in this subject, but in every subject matter. I personally do not find the saying “History repeats itself” very appropriate.




Accordion Phenomenon

Ö.A.:                                                In your book called “Bloodline: from ethnic pride to ethnic terror” that you wrote in 1997, you state “Turkey and Greece need leaders who could be comfortable enough psychologically when faced with uncertainties.” Are you still of the same opinion?

V.V.:                                                No, I do not think so now. In that book, I was referring to the unusual government established in Turkey in 1996. That was a period with the first ever conservative Islamic Prime Minister in the history of Republic of Turkey. In my opinion, that was a very dangerous period that took Turkey back so many years. However now, we ought to talk about an “accordion phenomenon” in terms of Turkey’s relation with Greece, in particular following the terrible earthquake disaster that took place in our country.
                                                         As we all know, accordion is a pneumatic instrument producing sound through vibration of the free strips of brass or steel, called reeds, due to airflow created by compressing or expanding a bellows. Vibration of the reeds is accomplished by pressing the keys on the manual of the accordion which consists of one bellows and one or two manuals. When I talk about “accordion phenomenon,” I mean the rhythmic roundtrip in between compression and expansion enabling the piece of music to be well performed and to sound pleasant to the ear as the accordion is played. This phenomenon also reflects the necessity to draw a boundary in between oppositions. I am currently watching Mr İsmail Cem, Foreign Affairs Minister of Turkish Government with appreciation, and I find him extremely successful as a leader. I sure hope that this harmonious melody lasts for years.



Ö.A.:                                                 Your new book is about Turkish-Greek relations. Could you briefly summarise it for our readers?

V.V.:                                                  My book has not been translated into Turkish yet. It will be translated in the near future. In my book, I tried to emphasize the importance of historically shared mental designs in Turkish-Greek relations. To me, there are very important assertions.



Ö.A.:                                                  Thank you very much indeed for your precious time and for this pleasant conversation. 

V.V.:                                                   I thank you too Özler. I sincerely hope to see you again.


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Last modified on: May 28, 2012