Collective & Transgenerational Trauma in Austria

Lab Cycle Oct 2020 - July 2021 Report


Gregor Steinmaurer & Teresa Distelberger


Frank Behrens




This research lab was focused on exploring the landscape of the Austrian collective fields of historical trauma. We identified major traumatic events and periods as well as their reverberation today. The first step was to create an overview of the major historical layers: from the Habsburg empire to WWI, the collapse of the monarchy and Austro-fascism; from national socialism, the Holocaust and WWII to the denial of perpetratorship in postwar-Austria; and the cultural effects of the re-creation of Austria as a sovereign nation after WWII, under the premise of Austria as the first victim of Nazi Germany.

In a second step we explored how collective trauma layers are showing up as transgenerational transmission of trauma in our families, and the wider cultural agreements that can be observed, especially through language, which might be traced back to collective trauma in Austria. 

In our lab we were in total 38 registered participants, including 2 facilitators and 1 trainee. On average we were 28 people throughout the 10 lab meetings. We started out with a group of 34 participants and completed with 22 participants. We met for 10 group sessions from November 2020 – June 2021. No triads were formed outside the lab, but we encouraged participants to initiate small groups on topics that they wanted to explore further, starting after the third session. Eight small groups were formed, of which some met only once or twice, others continuously throughout the whole lab.

We explored the following questions:

The following were put forth as key questions to guide our journey in this lab:


  • What constitutes the historical background of collective trauma and resilience in Austria?
  • How does the historical collective and intergenerational trauma influence the development of cultural architecture in Austria?
  • How does our use of language reflect and reinforce the consequences of this trauma?
  • Can coherent we-spaces and a process of witnessing collective and intergenerational trauma lead to an integration and eventual healing of this area of collective trauma?

Stages of our process as a group:

1. Synchronising & Resourcing
We used meditations at the beginning of each session to synchronize as a group and took care to always break out into triads or dyads within each session to help create more coherence and connection amongst participants. We ended our lab cycle with a session focused on the arts, inviting participants to share artistic impulses connected to the topics of our lab. We enjoyed classical and traditional songs, short films and a reading of a moving text by one of our participants in relation to her journey in the lab.

2. Meeting the Collective Trauma Landscape
We initiated the creation of a timeline early on in our lab. We started out by inviting everyone to first create their own timeline. We then jointly walked through history, inviting participants to share their most important topics by holding them into the screen, written on a piece of paper. We then invited participants to write their topics onto a joint online document, and a small team arranged these into a chronological timeline. After that we followed the flow of the group for several sessions and this way it became visible which topics were showing up “by themselves” (like the trauma of South Tyrol being cut off from Austria after WWI) and which topics were not mentioned explicitly. We realized that the Holocaust did not appear in this group process, perhaps becasue most participants focused on the historical trauma that their own ancestors had experienced, and only one participant had partly Jewish ancestors. We therefore took the decision (as facilitators) to address the Holocaust. Knowing that part of the Austrian strategy of dealing with collective trauma is denial, we found this to be a necessary intervention.

3. Exploring Individual & Collective Conditioning
There was a lot of interest in exploring the impact of collective trauma on individual participants and a small group was formed to focus on this specifically. This spurred a lot of energy and the notion of silencing \ being silent or mute \ not daring to speak was repeatedly present. As a group, we explored our collective conditioning by gathering expressions in the common language and there we found numerous examples for the suppression of liveliness, normalization of resignation, focus on discipline, as well as direct remnants of the Nazi ideology in everyday language.

4. Listening to Ancestral Roots & Voices from the Field
We carried out an exercise to connect to the ancestors, and different stories, perspectives and voices from this field became present throughout the whole group process. Through individual sharings, we touched parts of the collective fields of trauma. For several participants, the war experience of their (grand-)parents was predominantly present, and the experience of women in particular was mentioned several times. There was a small but consistent small group that was meeting several times between the group sessions to share about the experiences of their grandmothers in 1945 at the arrival of the Russian army. Facing the perpetratorship of grandparents was also a recurring topic. Towards the end of this lab cycle, a participant shared how her father fled from Nazi-Austria and about her aunt who was last seen on a truck before she was most possibly murdered in a camp.

5. Integrating & Restoring
We learned that integrating and restoring is a part of this journey, and that there is much more to learn about how to approach these. For most of the time we focused on just facing what is, letting everything show up and trying to stay related.

6. Transforming & Meta-learning
The most explicit transformation that was shared by one participant was that after being heard by the group about his pattern of staying silent and relating this to his Austrian roots and conditioning, from the next morning onwards he could speak up much more clearly and freely, also in his everyday life and even when addressing the difficult topic of economical inheritance in his family. This is how he describes this in his feedback (in German): “Für mich war es sehr wichtig, mich so frei zu äussern und so gut gehört zu werden. Die Rückfragen von Teresa waren hilfreich, nicht in den suchenden Geist zu gehen sondern mit dem Gefühl des Verstummens zu bleiben. Es tat mir sehr gut. Und was geschah am nächsten Morgen? Meine Stimme klang anders, nicht mehr belegt, sondern klar. Und meine Haltung war anders: es fiel mir leicht, deutlich leichter als vorher, klar zu reden, zu sagen, was Sache ist, auszusprechen, was ich sehe, denke, brauche und zwar allen gegenüber, in Beruf wie in Familie, im Kleinen wie im Grossen. Ich habe meinen Vater in einer heiklen Erbsache angerufen und gut und offen mit ihm reden können. Ich habe meinen Geschwistern in derselben Angelegenheit klarer sagen können, was meine Sicht. Ich habe meiner Tochter direkter reden können, ebenso mit meiner Frau, auch mit den Schülern, die ich unterrichte. Es fällt einfach leichter zu sagen, was ist. Es ist nun normal. Vorher war da immer schnell Druck und Angst drin auf meiner Seite, Angst mich zu zeigen, Angst nicht willkommen zu sein. Wunderbar! … Seit ich im Lab erzählen konnte, wie ich mein Verstummen mit meiner österreichischen Herkunft in Verbindung bringe, verstumme ich viel weniger, trau mich freier raus mit meiner Stimme, meiner Sicht, meinem Sein. Ihr macht mich zufriedener, ja stolzer, Österreicher zu sein. Irgendetwas wird da liebevoller und gerader in mir.” In the feedback of the last sessions, several participants (both expats but also those living in Austria) mentioned that they initially had a very distant and difficult relationship to Austria and that this had changed over the course of the lab; they now felt more connected to Austria.
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Moments of Challenge

  • Interpersonal triggers between participants in the small groups.
  • Discerning individual processes and collective patterns, knowing when to address which layer.
  • The session in which we addressed the Holocaust.


  • When there was enough trust in the group for our only participant with Jewish ancestors to share the story of her family.
  • Two participants sharing about their grandfathers, finding out that they most probably had been working together as Nazi engineers in the construction of weapons, and now the participants being able to share that with each other.
  • Sharing about a grandfather who was able to digest a lot of his war trauma while working as a shoemaker, dying at age 103 with a good portion of his experience being worked through.


  • The coherence of the facilitation team is crucial for the labs stability and depth.
  • If dealing with transgenerational topics, much depends on who is in the group and how the ancestors of the participants were affected by the collective trauma. What shows up might just be the trauma of perpetrators and bystanders, not so much of victims, because their descendants are mostly not living in the country anymore and/or have cut their ties.
  • A tool in the hands of the facilitation team is to open obvious and known trauma topics in the group, if these otherwise stay unaddressed (e.g. the Holocaust in Austria)

Our Lab Team

Gregor Steinmaurer

Gregor Steinmaurer

Teresa Distelberger(1)

Teresa Distelberger

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