Preserving Trauma: Re-enactment and Freud

“And the air, it was an inferno, and your mind was another inferno. Reason was completely blasted out of it. The bombardment created a sort of hysterical feeling. All of a sudden, one of our fellas started crying, really screaming and crying. […] It’s di cult to explain the reaction of a man when he is in a big bombardment.”1

So too, I think, is the reaction of anyone during war. How can we ever put such trauma into words? Explain that which is by its very definition unexplainable. Is not the experience of trauma the intrusion of an inexplicable gap in reality? If so, why should we even try to remember it?

The bombing of HMS Illustrious in January 1941

War topples that which is most stable, and life is ripped to shreds: societies, families, relationships and even bodies. The fragmentation of life seems to be the common thread across human conflict. Looking back on it always entails re-experiencing the splintered self:  that which was fractured into a million pieces never to become whole again.

As re-enactors, we are conscious of the fact that this is precisely what we are trying to preserve. In effect, a reenactor holds open a wound. In every event, every reenactment, we superimpose the fractured past into the somewhat mended present. We breathe life back into a dismembered time. Are we not doing more harm than good?

BLHG members re-enacting a scenario from the planned invasion of Malta

Living again, what was for millions, the worst days of their lives requires some coherent explanation. Why shouldn’t we just let war be what it is: an uncomfortable memory?

For many, the second world war is precisely that. I am only one of many that had family members succumb to its wrath. Although I never met them, my parents inherited the memories soaked in trauma. Every time I come back from a reenactment with a well-worn uniform my mother is reminded of her grandmother, Maria. “She rarely spoke of the war,” she says. “But sometimes she really wanted to tell us everything, but I didn’t care much. Looking back, I know she was trying to vent”. She explains to me, in as vivid detail as her grandmother did to her, how she never forgot what being hungry for days on end feels like; how it came to the point where they were about to start topping up their meals with plaster. “And she used to start crying whenever she told us about the war, so we didn’t ask about it”.

For many, those years under siege were a time when reality became unbounded. The stable limits of the world were disassembled. Now, the sky rained explosives, entire cities underground and one’s home, one’s ‘cosmos in every sense of the word’2, a death trap.

Heavily damaged building in war-time Malta, IWM A 8372,1942

It is almost as if it is not the war itself that was traumatizing, but that there was so much of it. It was not the dogfights in the air, the bombs, or the shelters that had to be dug because of them. It was the fact that life changed so much, so suddenly. As we live through new wars from Ukraine, Syria, and Africa, it is clear that war remains much the same but changes everything in its wake.

Looking at shell shock victims from the first world war, Sigmund Freud described trauma as a rupture in one’s ‘shell’. He defined the traumatic experience as:

“Any excitations from the outside which are powerful enough to break through the protective shield there is no longer any possibility of preventing the mental apparatus from being flooded with large amounts of stimulus which have broken in and binding of them”3

Rather than the quality of the experience, it is the fact that it stimulates the individual to the extent that all his barriers are destroyed. Trauma is the excess of life: a violent intrusion of the outside into one’s place in the world. Like a bomb exploding into infinitesimal pieces of shrapnel so too is the traumatized mind. Becoming whole again, picking up the pieces, begins the process of healing.

Oftentimes a survivor will refuse to speak of war. The common path is to forget the days in which one could not comprehend reality. Looking back entails re-experiencing the loss of oneself, the loss of wholeness. My great-great-grandfather died in April 1942. His shelter was directly hit by a bomb, collapsing its entrance, and suffocating 18 people.

My grandfather, his grandson, never met his own grandfather. Remembering him always entails bringing up his lack, his incomplete self. Like an amputee, remembering war is an unnecessary emphasis on a missing part. Why bother doing something so painful?

‘The Trench’ by Otto Dix, 1923

It lives on not only in shrapnel-damaged buildings and a neatly shaped cross on our flag but also in our collective memory. War always ignites a certain trauma of dismemberment. It is the time in which ‘everything changed’.

Perhaps, dismantling oneself is also a way of starting afresh. Throughout history, war has always been a catalyst of large paradigm shifts. Malta is no exception. The war altered the course of history and haunts us like a ghost to this very day.

This is precisely why it is worth investigating. It is an intersection of intense human processes. Rather than seeing trauma solely as a psychological experience, perceiving it as a historical process can shed even more light. As Cvetkovich argues:

“Defined culturally rather than clinically. Trauma becomes a central category for looking at the intersection of emotional and social processes along with the intersection of memory and history…Trauma discourse is important precisely because it challenges distinctions between the mental and the physical, the psychic and the social, and the internal and external sources of pain”4

Studying war as a redistribution of boundaries justifies it academically. But is it enough to support re-enactment?  Does it justify opening up individual inherited traumas at public events?

Driving around in historical vehicles, with authentic uniforms and firearms is not meant to portray the war itself, only a fragment of it. Even bringing back the civilian dimension, the dresses and suited-up men, the barefoot children, cannot ‘re-enact’ the war. How can we bring back, and articulate that which emerged as the very opposite? Present that which exists as something unrepresentable. Like a stain in one’s memory, the second world war can only be adequately represented through its irrepresentability.

The second world war was not about the rifles, the machine guns, the bombs, the vehicles, or the thousands that served through those troubled years. Rather, it was about that which we can never know about. As re-enactors, we are trying to live with traumas. Consequently, the closer we get to it, the farther we are from actually representing it.

Perhaps, the ideal re-enactment is that which re-enacts the least. How can we ever convey to others what they themselves could not understand? Even Ellul Mercer, the author, could barely fit the war into his diary. Barely managing to describe its sounds, he often resorts to anthropomorphism and metaphors:

“And in the midst of this ugly trembling we began to hear unceasing screaming; of the German Stukas, descending to dive along the ramparts of the Port, one after the other, crawling over Senglea and over Kordin; and each of them drops a bomb or two tied together, onto the Illustrious: bombs that as they descend pierce the air, they started to increase, with their ugly ringing the horror of this hellish symphony.”5

Instead of articulating the war in memoirs and texts, re-enactment paves the way towards more authentic documentation. To relive that which cannot be said, one can only experience it. Holding a rifle, sleeping in a pillbox, tasting bully beef, spending nights out on patrol, the feel of old clothes, the sound of air-raid sirens. Instead of putting the war into words, its re-experience provides direct access to it. An ideal re-enactment is one with fewer words, less explaining, more experience, and its overdose.

Freud also had a keen eye for the ways in which we first deal with traumatizing events. He writes about a game he noticed his grandson playing, referring to it as ‘Fort-Da’ (‘Gone-Here’ in German). Using a cotton reel, he would throw it away from him and state ‘Gone!’. Holding the string still attached to it, he would reel it back toward him before saying ‘here!’. The Child would repeat the game without ever getting bored. At one point, he added another part to the game:

“All right, then, go away! I don’t need you. I’m sending you away myself.’ A year later, the same boy whom I had observed at his first game used to take a toy, if he was angry with it, and throw it on the floor, exclaiming: ‘Go to the front!’ He had heard at that time that his absent father was ‘at the front’”6

To come to terms with his father disappearing from his life to ‘go to the front’ in France, his son would re-enact his heartfelt emotions of detachment with his game. Perhaps to gain some mastery over his disturbed feelings, or to better come to terms with them, if not complete the story, the child constantly recreates the experiences he could not understand. As Proust himself puts it:

“We are healed of suffering only by experiencing it to the full.” 7

This does more than justify re-enactment. The living experience of war becomes the only egress from our inherited trauma: reliving memories in such a way as to get a second chance at explaining, or even reconstructing them. Only then can we get to an understanding of the war.

As opposed to forfeiting healing through forgetting, we can return to some form of cure by piecing back together the diffuse experience of trauma. Just like its clinical counterpart: “The goal of reenactment is to resolve and heal a past traumatic experience”8. Not only partly, or in a mediated way. It is for this reason, rather than a mere historical motivation, that it is necessary to remember war or, rather, that which we have experienced but cannot understand.


1. Accounts from ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’, 2018, by Peter Jackson.

2. Bachelard, Gaston (2014) The Poetics of Space, Penguin Classics, London.

3. Freud, Sigmund (1920/1961) Beyond the pleasure principle, In Strachey J (Ed.), WW Norton, New York.

4. Cvetkovich, Ann, (1957/2003) An Archive of Feelings : Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, Duke University Press, Durham.

5. Ellul Mercer, Ġużè (2012) Taħt in-Nar, Midsea Books, Malta.

6. Freud, Sigmund (1920/1961) Beyond the pleasure principle, In Strachey J (Ed.), WW Norton, New York, p. 16.

7. Proust, Marcel, et al. (1922-1931, 2001) In search of lost time, Everyman’s Library (The Millennium library).

8. Bernstein, Peter (2014) Traumatic Reenactment, The Berenstain Institute, California.

Originally Published in 2022 on A Bird’s Eye View (BEV Malta) as ‘Preserving Trauma: Rememberence Day’
Nikolai Debono, on behalf of Battlefront Malta.