Peacebuilding Around World War II: An Approach To Emotional Healing And Social Change

Silke Denker

May, 2006

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

It has been sixty years since the formal end of World War II (WW2). For many, however, it has not ended in their minds and hearts. Some who have had traumatic experiences during the war may be aware of this. Others may notice the effects in more subtle ways, for example through an uneasiness in their family about the war. This may stem from things that are not talked about, like missing family members or avoidance of questions such as, "Where was Grandpa, exactly, during the war?" Yet another way to be affected by WW2 is through the larger society, where, for example, there is a prevalent idea in the culture such as, "We Finnish people just don't like Russians."

For several years, I have been engaged in efforts to end these effects of WW2 by healing the underlying hurts. I decided to do that because, as a German national, not only was my family affected by the war, but while growing up in Germany, I also felt like there was something not good about being German. In this article, I will illustrate the principles and perspectives of the work through a report about a workshop that I attended, together with almost 90 other people, from Europe, Eastern Europe, Israel, the US, Africa, and Australia/New Zealand. Among the participants were survivors of concentration camps, children of survivors and children of Nazis, people from groups whose experiences in WW2 have been listened to, and from groups who have not really been given attention, people from perpetrator groups as well as victim groups, and people from different generations.


Each participant had experience with the healing technique used at the workshop, had found it useful and had achieved a level of proficiency with it. The motivation to come to this workshop was to apply the technique to the topic of WW2. The workshop was open to everybody who felt affected by WW2. Because the stresses of WW2 forced the relocation of many people before, during and after the war, people came from a large diversity of places.

Theoretical Background For The Healing Process

The picture of the human being that underlies this model assumes that we are all born with the potential to be cooperative, loving, zestful and intelligent human beings. If this working assumption is true, we are left with the question: Why do some people act in vicious ways? The answer we are working with is that they had hurtful experiences that they have not healed from. In other words, the working theory is that people are good, even if they do bad things.

Through distressing experiences in our lives, such as fear, pain, embarrassment, etc., our original qualities can become obscured. Our initial natural response to the hurt was what we call in this model, "discharge," for example crying or shaking. However, our surroundings typically discourage us from using this natural emotional recovery process ("don't cry") because people mistake the discharge for the hurt. The situations where we could not discharge the hurt lead to inhibitions to our healing. Over time, we get stuck in recordings of the past that have nothing to do with the present, but that limit our perceptions, our thinking and our behavioral patterns. For example, if the bombs in my village fell on a sunny day and I do not discharge the fear, I might not be able to enjoy sunshine ten years later, even though it is safe now, because my mind still connects the bombs with a certain weather condition. The discharge process heals our hurt while at the same time freeing the experience from associated memories. After discharge, I will still remember the bombs, but I may not be afraid anymore today. Some of these distressing incidents may not even have been personally experienced, but passed on from earlier generations, through stories or behaviors. These can be discharged in the same way as the direct experiences.

In the next section, I will outline some techniques that we used in order to achieve the emotional healing.



A central element of this work is discharge, the healing process for emotional hurts. Externally, discharge shows as crying or sobbing, trembling, warm or cold perspiration, laughter, angry noises, vigorous movement, non-repetitive talking, or yawning. A typical form of arrangement to achieve this discharge is a session (see below).

It was understood by the participants that the workshop would "only" be able to give ideas about issues and perspectives to be discharged and that the healing work would have to be continued back home.


A session is a specific format used to achieve discharge. In a session, two or more people come together as a group and split time equally between them. During her time, one group member gets the full attention from the other people that she can use to talk or discharge about anything she wants to, with the explicit understanding that any upcoming feelings are welcome. The other people listen with active attention. This means that they do not talk much or follow their own thoughts or feelings, but instead have their full attention on the main person. After the agreed time is up, the next person gets to be the main person until everybody has had their turn.

Because we have learned to avoid sharing our strongest feelings with most people, it often takes time for enough trust to build up for discharge to occur.

It seems that hurts from the past often persist when we could not notice that anybody was able to listen to us. Feeling these feelings while somebody pays relaxed attention is one of the most important ingredients towards reaching a point where we do not feel powerless against these feelings anymore. We questioned whether re-experiencing the old feelings is a new hurt and found that people feel better, even with the strongest, most terrible feelings, after they could show the feelings in a situation where they trusted that they were not alone.

We can tell that discharge has occurred when a person is able to think more clearly about how to solve problems, has new and fresh ideas about situations in life, can act more rationally and decisively, and feels more connected to the world around him.

Beginners might find it difficult to direct their attention back to the present after a session. People have found it useful to have the listener assist them by asking them simple questions that direct their attention back to the present, such as, "How many books are on that shelf?" or, "What would the perfect couch look like?"

The session was one way we worked at the workshop. Another was a large group format where some individuals volunteered to tell their particular stories.


Sharing personal stories about how we were affected by WW2 was a central element at the workshop. Many people shared that they could never talk about their experiences because nobody wanted to hear them. For example, the Jews said this because their families wanted to leave the Holocaust behind, and the children of Nazis didn't talk because they were so ashamed. By creating a space where everyone agreed not to blame or judge, many people expressed a great relief at finally talking. This was especially true because people from the former "enemy" side listened with compassion. It was also educational for the people to listen and get a broader perspective of what happened during WW2.


The workshop leader was aware of the dominance of English in the world and that language is a form of oppression. In order to counterbalance English as the main workshop language, the presentations were translated into one of the fifteen represented languages, rotating every fifteen minutes. This helped especially the English-speaking people to appreciate the beauty of diversity, and it gave a message to people who were not native English speakers that their language is important.

Playing And Fun

As the topic of war is, by nature, very heavy, we placed emphasis on having breaks to be outside in nature, to play games and to have fun. This was very helpful in bringing our minds back into the present and to notice that the war is over and we were there together. For me, this was an important proof that our discussions during the workshop were not only theoretical and that discharge actually enabled us to cross the lines and do fun things together.

Some Perspectives

One basic idea for the workshop was, "We are all in this together." It does not make sense to feel guilty or to blame each other for what our ancestors did. We were there to heal. Our hurts may stem from experiences on opposite sides of the war, and each group has to do their respective work. However, coming together from former enemy sides challenged us to reach deeper levels of healing. I got a glimpse of what that could feel like as a German when, at one point in the workshop, the Germans received warm applause from the other participants.

It is important to notice how much progress has already been made. Our ancestors probably struggled with survival and getting their lives back together after the war. Many may not have been in a position to challenge their feelings of anger, hopelessness or fear. It would have been great if we had had a parent who had said to us, "I am acting strangely because of the war," but that probably did not happen. We had to make sense of their behavior by ourselves, because we did not have enough information about the war. However, it is our ancestors' efforts that made it possible for us now to do this work.

The work requires discipline and organization, leadership, hopefulness, and alliances across national lines. In order to overcome the divisions between us, we have to take risks. In doing this, we will not be able to avoid making a mess, stirring up emotions, and making mistakes. What is important is to make sure that we have the resources to clean up afterwards.

Developing and communicating a picture of how we each want the world to be is a vital aspect of being a social change agent. Below, I outlined some of the essential issues we addressed at the workshop.


Nationalism / Patriotism / Imperialism

Nationalism and patriotism have been instilled in most of us. Pride in our cultural heritage is positive until we are manipulated into feeling better than other people because of our nationality.

Because of our Nazi history, in Germany I struggle to feel proud of my national heritage. I realized that in order to do effective work, I have to go on the journey towards feeling good about being German.

An illustration of how nationalism separates people was a session with two middle-aged women, one from the US, and the other from Russia. Sharing what they had learned about each other as children, they realized that they had not been able to see how wonderful the people in the other country were, and how pointless it seemed that their governments had engaged for so long in building weapons against each other.

As people from the US may be prone to some form of imperialism, the direction US citizens were given for the workshop was to try to hold back and give others a chance to take leadership. A sentence they used to get a better perspective on this was, "I am an ordinary person, no better than other people, but probably a lot more ignorant." This provided access to discharging feelings of superiority by using a humor and laughter.

Anti-Jewish Feelings

In many places throughout history, efforts have been made to create anti-Jewish feelings with the intention to make people agree to do harm to Jews. Most gentiles (non-Jewish people) have been exposed to such stories about Jews. At the workshop, we were asked to notice what effects these stories have had on us, especially the stories we had heard in our childhood, and how they had shaped our thinking and feelings about Jews. We were encouraged to not feel bad about the negative thoughts and feelings we had about Jews because we did not choose to have them. What matters now is to change these harmful attitudes.

Likewise, if we had learned to feel bad about ourselves because of what our ancestors did to Jews, we were encouraged to remember that we are good people and "we are all in this together." Feeling guilty separates us from Jews. For example, if my family or my country supported the Holocaust, and I avoid contact with Jews today because I feel bad about myself or because Jews resent me, this is neither helpful for the individuals nor the greater goal of peacebuilding.

Anti-German Feelings

The goal here was to not let people separate themselves from German people because of what happened during the war. We learned that the actions of the Germans were related to the oppression they experienced after WWI. There is nothing inherently bad about Germans. The participants were asked to explore their negative feelings about Germans and to make a commitment to pass as little of these feelings as possible on to others.

Several people shared what their families had taught them about Germans and they showed the group where they struggled in not even wanting to overcome these beliefs. Getting to know some German people at the workshop in this environment helped to contradict the stereotypes and to begin the healing process. A challenge for me as a German was to try not to prove that Germans are actually good, but be my true self and show my struggles and imperfections. I came to understand that whenever we are separated, both sides get hurt.

Strengths And Challenges Of This Work

Assumptions Of Model

Holding up certain perspectives such as "everybody is good," is central to the work, but may be challenging because my guess is that people in conflict settings typically do not think of "the other" as inherently good. However, even if one cannot hold up the perspective that everybody is good, one can achieve some healing by sharing stories and actively using discharge within one's own group. Another implication of questioning the assumption of universal inherent goodness of people may be that one may not be motivated in the same way to work towards connection with other people to end conflict, or interfere with other people's efforts towards peace.

Human Process: Culture / Gender

Discharge is a natural human healing process. Babies and small children do it all over the world. However, as we grow up, we learn to suppress discharge because most cultures discourage it to varying extents. Likewise, gender conditioning influences one's ease at discharging. It seems that, in general, men have more difficulty accessing feelings of grief, while women find it more difficult to discharge anger. The good news is that everybody can re-learn it if they persist.


As our cultures often inhibit discharge, it is necessary to be strategic about recovering this natural process. For example, it helps to make regular appointments with somebody to have sessions, and to create safe places where discharge will not alarm people.

Individual Healing vs. Bringing Peace To Larger Conflicts

Social change follows from individual change and vice versa. Therefore, individual healing is part of a larger change process and valuable as such. Clear thinking on the part of an individual or a small group sometimes makes a big difference in how a community deals with a conflict. Even if a change in the bigger context does not happen, the healing has a positive effect on the life of this individual. A decision to use the discharge process is all it takes to get started.

How Has This Healing Process Affected Me Personally?

After many years of using this healing process, I still worry that I will be viewed by other people as mentally unstable when I discharge. However, I experience that difficult feelings change when I discharge, so I am committed to the process. I notice that I can think more clearly and flexibly, and have new ideas. This has helped me to accomplish things that felt too difficult to me at first sight. I have also been able to establish relationships with people who previously did not seem available to me because of our differences.

It is not easy to maintain hope that peace is possible. However, the progress we made during the four days of the workshop, albeit small in the face of the big picture, has helped me to believe that perhaps human beings are able to overcome long-standing animosities.