How war trauma is passed down through families

After VE Day, a look at how trauma can transcend generations, and the need for peacebuilding work to overcome the consequences of conflict.

Larisa Sotieva
9 May 2016
 Press Association/Alexander Zemlianic

Russian soldiers with Soviet Army flags march during a VE Day rehearsal in Moscow. Credit: Press Association/Alexander Zemlianichenko.

9 May is the day the former Soviet Union celebrates the end of the Second World War, or the Great Patriotic War, as it is called there.

I recently read W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz, the book about a child who escapes from the Nazis and many years later goes back into the past to try and save his dead parents.

It has helped me to understand the story of my own family trauma. 

You do not have to have fought in a war to suffer from war trauma. You can experience the trauma decades after the war is over, through family and public narratives that convey the depth of the tragedy both within the family and at the level of society as a whole.

A child is quick to pick up these narratives, just as they pick up everything else around them. And later on, whilst they may no longer have any memory of it, the effect of the strong emotional message they once heard can become a prevailing subconscious factor that determines their attitude to life.

As a child, I had never particularly liked my paternal grandmother and thought that the feeling was mutual. I have vague memories of a strict, stoical, woman, always dressed in black. Once I overhead my mother relate to a friend how when I was just born, my grandmother came to the hospital to see us, and bending over my cot, she examined my face, then left without saying a word. That story could not but form rather unpleasant memories of the woman in my child's mind. 

But later on in life, I would hear many interesting stories from different people about my grandmother, all of which ran contrary to my perception of her. For example, her neighbours would tell me how during the war, every time she baked pies, she would always give the first batch to the neighbours' children whose fathers were fighting at the front, ahead of her own hungry children and husband who had to wait. 

My father told me that his mother always carried a triangular envelope with her, a pokhoronka – the official notification the family had received of his brother's death in the war. It was a tragic death. Wounded in a battle, he had to have his leg amputated, after which he was demobilised – but on his journey home, he shot himself. My grandmother carried the letter with her until her dying day and asked for it to be buried with her. 

According to my father, his late brother – my uncle - had been everybody's favourite, a particularly kind man, with a wonderful sense of humour, handsome, passionate about horseracing, popular with women. 

I didn't give the story much thought in my childhood or adolescence. This was just one family story among many others. His portrait hung on the wall in our house, a very agreeable man staring down from it. Though I had never met him, I could not understand nor accept that he was no longer with us. 

I learned from my mother that when she was pregnant with me, my father’s mother was hoping for a grandson - clearly, a copy of her own favourite son, who had been taken so early and so tragically - blue-eyed, curly-haired, smiley, full of life. My mother failed her expectations, instead giving birth to me. It was clear that that was the reason why, having seen me in the hospital for the first time, my grandmother had left without a word. 

Revisiting that family story, I began to think about its impact on myself and more broadly, how a family trauma and the resulting narrative can influence the development of a child's persona. I contemplated on how a family trauma can be passed on to a child through a chance comment, through the emotional background of somebody's casual remark and become transformed in that child’s subconscious barely perceptibly.

In my professional life, I have focused on helping others to overcome the consequences of violent conflict and together with my colleagues have implemented a number of programmes including the establishment of rehabilitation centres in different post-conflict regions. 

I was recently asked what was the happiest moment in my professional career. The first thing that came to mind was the event my colleague and I facilitated many years ago in Moscow. It was a four-day workshop for the Caucasus NGO Forum led by International Alert on confidence building for ex-combatants from all post-Soviet conflicts. The participants were worldly-wise young men, some with prosthetic limbs, some in wheelchairs. You can imagine what a responsibility it was to work with such a group, and the emotions I felt. Yet the resulting internal group dynamic was so extraordinary that at the dinner on the last evening of the workshop they unanimously elected me to be their tamada (ceremonial toastmaster). 

Going back to our family tragedy I understand now that throughout my whole life I have been trying to save my uncle and that is what has made me who I am. It seems that my uncle, in observing this fidgety and restless child from his place on the wall, made his mark on me.

I think of what might have happened had I not grown up in a safe environment that provided the best conditions for the transformation of my share of the family trauma. Had I grown up in an environment that focussed on revenge, searching for and creating an ‘enemy image’, someone to blame. 

It is hard for me to imagine and appreciate what will follow from the traumas experienced by families and societies as a result of the wars raging today. What family and public narratives will sustain future generations of Iraqis, Syrians and others? 

Our politicians try to impress upon us that we are fighting terrorism. But we do not have a good understanding of what it is, what its root causes are and how we should fight it. Yet we are fighting it with enthusiasm. We are told, that once ‘it’ is defeated, once 'they’ are physically eliminated, everything will turn out fine.

What is remarkable is that politicians are using violence to promote peace and wellbeing, when this will inevitably yield more violence, in many new forms, even generations later. So what are we fighting?

I think that with this prevailing attitude to conflict resolution in official practice and rhetoric we are overlooking the need for the equally important work on conflict prevention, for ending violence, and for overcoming the consequences of conflict in all its manifestations, including the psycho-social ramifications.

If we do not take this important factor into account, the echoes of the past and present conflicts will long continue to resonate in our lifetime and for future generations. 

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