The Wretched of the Earth

The Wretched of the Earth Summary and Analysis of Chapter 5, “Colonial War and Mental Disorders"


In this final chapter, Fanon turns to the psychology of colonialism—more specifically, the kinds of psychological disorder colonialism produces. Fanon foreshadowed this line of inquiry in Chapter 1, where he argues that the colonist creates the identities of colonist and colonized, and in turn instills in the colonized an entire subjectivity of submission and inferiority. He also talked about how colonialism represses men’s “muscular power,” their violent desire for freedom. In this chapter, he goes further in discussing the great variety of psychological disturbances the colonized can experience, and he also discusses how colonialism psychologically damages the colonists, too.

Fanon begins with a general and more theoretical discussion of possible sources of psychological disturbance. Philosophically, he notes the effect dehumanization has on how the colonized conceptualize something like “reality”: “Because it is a systematized negation of the other, a frenzied determination to deny the other any attribute of humanity, colonialism forces the colonized to constantly ask the question: ‘Who am I in reality?’” In other words, because colonialism constantly denies that the colonized are fully human, the colonized also asks if they truly are what they think they are (i.e., human beings). From this a number of psychological disturbances can follow. Another source of disturbance can be from the violence the colonized and colonist witness or perpetuate. Here, Fanon notes that, after WWI and WWII, psychologists observed an upsurge in disorders we would now identify as something like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Soldiers who witnessed destruction as well as “civilian refugees and bombing victims” displayed a number of disorders. If colonialism is maintained by violence, then perhaps those under colonialism will have similar disorders.

After this theoretical introduction, Fanon turns to actual case studies he has observed in his capacity as a psychiatrist in Algeria from 1954 to 1959. He divides these cases into four different groups, or “series.” In “Series A,” he considers “reaction disorders.” This is when people develop a disorder in direct response to a specific traumatic event. For instance, after one Algerian man witnessed the rape of his wife, he become incapable of sexual arousal himself. In another case, a 37-year-old witnessed a massacre of his village and, as a reaction, developed homicidal impulses of his own. Colonists are not immune from these disorders either. In one case, a European police officer develops uncontrolled violent urges, even torturing his wife and children. The violence of war, and the feeling of disempowerment within it, leads some men to want to assert their power at home.

In “Series B,” Fanon collects cases with less direct causes. Here, people do not develop a disorder in “reaction” to a traumatic event, but because of a more general atmosphere of violence and chaos in Algeria. A number of people develop suicidal thoughts or anxiety disorders because of the terrible conditions surrounding them. Fanon considers the case of a number of refugees, for instance. Child refugees, due to the trauma of displacement, develop “adjustment disorders” in which they have fears of abandonment and suffer from insomnia and bedwetting. Women refugees who are pregnant, who also live in a state of “permanent insecurity,” may also develop suicidal tendencies or depressive tendencies.

In “Series C,” Fanon turns to people who develop disorders in response to torture. In turn, this section also describes techniques of torture itself, in somewhat graphic detail. Common symptoms of people who have been victims of torture include depression, eating disorders, and insomnia. Fanon describes men whose brains are broken by the injustice of having been tortured for no apparent reason. These men may become apathetic. Fanon also talks about people who are chemically tortured by being given a “truth serum” to swallow. Some of these people develop cognitive disorders in addition to psychological ones, for instance blurred mental and sensory perception.

The “psychosomatic disorders” collected in “Series D” are those in which patients develop physical, bodily (“somatic”) symptoms that are actually caused by psychological factors instead of, for instance, bodily disease. Women might stop menstruating, for instance, or a young person’s hair might turn white. Other common symptoms include ulcers, uncontrollable shaking that resembles Parkinson’s even though patients do not have Parkinson’s, and pain in urination that feels like kidney stones although patients do not have kidney stones. Fanon finds all these psychosomatic symptoms in Algerians sent to internment camps. The brutal conditions there caused his patients to develop these severe somatic symptoms.

Fanon concludes the chapter with another theoretical discussion, this time in response to colonial scholars who have argued that colonized peoples are, by definition, degenerate and prone to violence. This was part of the colonial division of the world into black and white, good and evil. But Fanon argues that any perceived difference in tendency toward violence on the part of the colonized must be understood not as innate to their nature but produced in response to the violence they themselves have experienced. “The criminality of the Algerian, his impulsiveness, the savagery of his murders are not, therefore, the consequence of how his nervous system is organized or specific character traits, but the direct result of the colonial situation.” In turn, overthrowing colonialism will also liberate Algerians from the mental disorders they experience. By detailing the many disorders people experience under colonialism, Fanon makes an argument for decolonization as not only a liberation of a nation but also a liberation of individual psyches—a cure for pathology.


Fanon begins this chapter with some hesitation: “Perhaps the reader will find these notes on psychiatry out of place or untimely in a book like this” (181). Indeed, this chapter may seem a bit uncharacteristic compared to the relatively more historical or theoretical chapters preceding. Nowhere before has Fanon used the “case studies” approach he does in this chapter, where individual cases are presented. Instead, he has looked mostly at patterns in colonial and postcolonial history. Fanon is, then, more of a synthetic thinker in the previous chapters. But here, he turns to case studies in order to make a larger point about how the effects of war are not just physical, but also psychological. Looking at individual stories paints a picture of the collective devastation all around.

Although different in style from the previous chapters, it should be remembered that psychology has not been absent from Fanon’s consideration. His fundamental definition of colonialism as the production of a kind of “man” and decolonization as the production of a different kind was, we have seen, inherently psychological. He has always been interested in how colonial submission, for instance, is created through fear, inferiority complexes, repression, and other psychological means. But here, he turns to more severe or unusual neuroses and shows how these, too, are explained by war. Fanon’s point seems to be that, in war, the unusual or neurotic becomes normal.

Fanon’s first book, Black Skin, White Masks, published in 1952, was a more sustained look at how colonialism produces psychological problems for colonized people. There, he showed how the impossibility of Black people fitting into White masks—or embodying the norms and expectations of a white society—leads to a number of “psychopathologies.” He also showed how cultural representations of Black people as evil—which Fanon also discusses in Chapter 1 of The Wretched of the Earth—can be internalized by Black children, leading to additional traumatic experiences and pathologies. Chapter 5 of The Wretched of the Earth is in some ways a sequel to that book. It explores these themes in a new context: colonial warfare.

In doing so, Fanon not only analyzes the colonial warfare context, but also revises predominant European theories of personality. We have seen Fanon do this throughout the book. In discussing Marxism, for instance, Fanon not only develops an account of colonial society, but also links the colonial context to the European one in order to intervene into European accounts of class-based revolution. Now, the colonial context is also positioned to intervene into European psychology. He shows how what some psychologists consider innate is also a learned response to traumatic situations.

Such a structural account of psychology—where neurosis is produced by a social and political situation rather than a personal or innate feature—makes Fanon’s final analysis not only psychological, but also sociological. In traditional psychoanalytic accounts, a person’s psychology can sometimes be explained by their individual childhood experiences. Fanon shows that social structures make some experiences so pervasive they are not individual, but shared and collective. In turn, there can be something like a collective psychology—whether that of submission under colonialism or that of trauma under warfare—and the “cure” cannot be an individual one, because the cause is social and political. This is a final and powerful plea for political solutions: the mental health of a nation, in addition to its social and economic prosperity, are at stake in decolonization.