Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

A German Dilemma: Challenging Experiences at a Tavistock Conference in Poland: PART ONE: Introduction, Background, and Experiences

Academic journal article Organisational and Social Dynamics

A German Dilemma: Challenging Experiences at a Tavistock Conference in Poland: PART ONE: Introduction, Background, and Experiences

Article excerpt

"Forgiveness is giving up all hope for a better past."

Love Waits On Welcome ... and Other Miracles, Corinne Edwards after Jerry Jampolsky, 1994, p. 85


When the group asked Silke (names have been changed to protect confidentiality) about her headache and why she might be feeling tired and bored, she turned to me and said in her German accent, "I am tired of your shit!" And to Thorsten, the only man in the group, she uttered "And your shit as well! You both talk too much and I can't connect to it emotionally." But to Bina, an Israeli who was also an active talker, she added: "Now you, I can relate to, so it is different!"

This and similarly charged moments occurred during a group relations conference I attended in 2014, which aroused upsetting feelings in me while also teaching me about group dynamics. In this paper, I examine these events more closely in an attempt to understand what was happening within me and within the various groups I participated in.

The conference, held in Poland, was titled "European Victims and Perpetrators, Now and Then." Partners in Confronting Collective Atrocities (PCCA), a group formed by German and Israeli psychoanalysts in the early 1990s (Erlich et al., 2009), organised the conference. PCCA uses the Tavistock group relations model developed by Bion, Lewin, Rice, and others (Hayden & Molenkamp, 2004) to explore how feelings and projections rooted in the past can affect the present. The staff was comprised of psychoanalysts and/or organisational consultants trained in the group relations model and included names familiar among the global "tribe" of Tavistock consultants. The primary task of the conference as stated in the conference brochure was: "to explore how the full range of feelings, fantasies and experiences about 'victims' and 'perpetrators' shape relations within and between individuals and groups in the conference, and how they affect and influence perceptions of the past, the present and the future."

Just as psychoanalysis can raise anxiety and uncertainty in individual patients as part of the process of emotional growth, group relations conferences similarly create an environment that generates anxiety in order to facilitate emotional maturation on both the individual and group level (Khaleelee, 2006). According to Khaleelee, it is important that the experience provides a manageable rather than overwhelming level of difficulty to prevent it from being traumatising or paralysing. She points out that participants in a Tavistock conference may have different levels of emotional capability to manage the anxiety and uncertainty created by the conference, but notes that the ability of staff to create an effective container can play a crucial role in how a conference is experienced.

Interactions like the one described above led to painful feelings that I needed to examine more closely in order to move beyond feeling traumatised by the events. I first turned to Bion's Experiences in Groups (1961) and his theory of the basic assumptions to examine how his concepts might help me understand what had occurred. I further turned to psychoanalytic and trauma theory to come to a deeper understanding. In addition, I used historical information to put what happened in perspective.


I was born in Germany in 1967 to a German father and a Dutch mother, yet have lived in the US for the majority of my adult life and am raising my children here. Having spent the bulk of my childhood and all of my adolescent years in West Germany, I identify as German. My parents and siblings continue to live in Germany and I visit regularly.

During the 1970s and 1980s, when I was growing up, West Germans were still in the process of breaking the silence that had followed the end of the Second World War, a process that they had begun in the 1960s. Incredibly, some German adults grew into adulthood during the early 1960s without conscious basic knowledge of the Holocaust and Nazi atrocities (Wittenborn, 2004). …

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