Book Review – Julia Barbara Köhne. Kriegshysteriker: Strategische Bilder and mediale Techniken militärpsychiatrischen Wissens (Husum, 2009)

By Juliet Wagner

Presented as both as an example of applied media studies and as a contribution to the history of German and Austrian “shell shock” during the First World War, Julia Köhne’s Kriegshysteriker: Strategische Bilder and mediale Techniken militärpsychiatrischen Wissens (Husum, Matthiesen Verlag: 2009) largely reinforces an older strain of historiography that emphasizes coercion as the primary mode of military psychiatry.[1] Köhne praises the more nuanced recent scholarship on the subject by Paul Lerner and Hans-Georg Hofer in her introduction and expresses some misgivings about the strident tone of classic accounts, but she does not integrate the subtleties of Hofer or Lerner’s detailed research into her evaluation.[2] The structural logic of the book—as well as Köhne’s recurring analysis—convey the argument that “war hysteria” was constructed by medical media in order to allow doctors to assert some control over disorderly, chaotic symptoms, using film in particular to great disciplinary effect. Köhne deliberately chooses the phrase “war hysteria” over the more neutral “war neurosis” on the grounds that the term hysteria better conveys the contemporary values and associations of these conditions, in particular the gendered dimension of the diagnosis.

It is through her discussion of the relevance of contemporary mass psychology to war hysteria, and in her detailed critique of the case study in all its forms, especially visual, that Köhne considers her contribution to be original and unique. As she indicates, no published scholarship has yet subjected the rich visual sources on this topic to sustained analysis. Alongside her interpretation of medical photographs and films depicting war hysteria, Köhne also subjects written media to stringent formal analysis, drawing attention to the patient file and the medical case study as genres in a way that is thoughtful and thought provoking and could serve as a useful model for medical historians. This type of careful, methodologically self-aware formal analysis that refuses to accept the meaning of any source as self-evident is a real strength of Köhne’s book.

The book is divided into two unequal parts: the first discusses war hysteria as a mass phenomenon, connecting the medical discourse on troubled soldiers during the war to that on crowd psychology in the late nineteenth century, while the second—much longer—part does the systematic work of examining the various medical media and their construction of the war hysteria diagnosis. Part II includes chapters on written sources and visual sources, as well as a final somewhat incongruous chapter on the marketing of electrical medical devices in the 1920s. Köhne concludes that the war was pivotal in creating the new category of (male) war hysteria and that the “media technologies” of military-psychiatric knowledge were central tools in the creation of the disease. Her argument builds structurally from a discussion of medical anxiety in the face of mass psychological disorder in Part I through analysis of complex and often contradictory written case studies, up to analysis of photographic and finally filmic depictions of war neurosis. Within the discussion of film, Köhne also proceeds from the two shorter German films towards the culminating example of Clovis Vincent’s 1916 film Le Progrès de la Science Française au Profit des Victimes de la Guerre. Une Grande Découverte du Docteur “Vincent”. Vincent’s film most neatly fits her argument about film as a medium of control and an analogy to the new war hysteria diagnosis itself, in which the condition was teleologically defined by the cure the psychiatrist would inevitably enact. Curability was proof of both the hysterical nature of the symptoms and an opportunity to demonstrate the success of medical intervention. The de facto function of the closing chapter on electrical devices is to reinforce the message of psychiatric coercion and Foucauldian discipline.

If Köhne’s discussion in Part II can be heavy on overly detailed methodological excursuses, the insights she offers justify her careful attention to form. One compelling example is her exposition of the genesis of a medical patient file or a case study, the many layers and multiple authors of which combine to create a picture of a condition that is often composite and contradictory, as Köhne demonstrates. Her discussion of medical film is somewhat more problematic, however. While her perceptive formal analysis continues in this chapter and the essential characterization of especially Vincent’s film as an exercise in asserting control and establishing prestige is convincing, the neatness she ascribes to war hysteria film as a genre is somewhat artificial. Not only does she neglect films—in particular multiple French examples—that do not conform to the model she describes, but she also neglects cases within the five included films that complicate her argument, for example the case of Private Preston in the British film War Neuroses, whose cure is not shown or even referenced. If the sole function of the film is to demonstrate the doctors’ capacity to restore their patients to fighting (or working) form, why include a case study like Preston’s that fails to demonstrate such a transformation, and instead shows him cowering beneath a hospital bed in response to the word “bombs”? That said, although she overemphasizes the novelty of the “before and after” format (which is far from unprecedented, at least in psychiatric photography, as Köhne notes herself in her photography chapter), Köhne is accurate in her contention that these films represent the first clear examples of narrative psychiatric films depicting medical intervention, rather than simply a display of symptoms.[3]

A more serious shortcoming from a historian’s perspective, Köhne’s analysis of War Neuroses and of Vincent’s film is further undermined by a very meager selection of accompanying written sources from either Britain or France, leading her to make conjectures about the films that are sometimes false. Köhne also moves too freely between analysis of the French and British films and contemporary German-language sources (the Bavarian army regulations on the wearing of uniforms by disabled patients do not offer much historical insight on the choice to include uniforms in a British film, for example.) For this reason, the book is strongest on the German material, but even here Köhne’s analysis of the two surviving German films could draw more effectively on both contemporary sources and on existing scholarship. Those interested in the Hamburg neurologist Max Nonne and his hypnosis film, for example, will find more of interest—and more exhaustive research—in Paul Lerner’s work. Like many early historians of “shell shock,” Köhne overplays the importance of suggestive treatments based on the application of electricity and often inserts them speculatively into the films (as scenes she supposes were removed in editing or not filmed) where publications in the medical press by their doctor-director state the relative insignificance of such methods in their approach. Köhne’s observation that the frustration expressed by early doctor-filmmakers about the technological limits of the medium to depict their patients’ trembling parallels the frustration evident in their attempts to contain the trembling itself is perceptive, but trembling was only one of a multitude of symptoms from which war neurotics suffered.

In summary, although her formal analysis of written and visual case studies is consistently insightful and instructive, Köhne’s commitment to a Foucauldian approach results in a rather narrow interpretation of the visual material that partially revives certain myths generated by psychoanalytic historiography, without the evidence to fully support those claims. Formal analysis of media can genuinely enrich historical writing, but there are limits to its validity when it is not informed by detailed contextual research. Although it is one very important function of war neurosis films, Köhne’s presentation of these films exclusively as a tool of control has the consequence that she misses the substantial resonances that existed between the discourse surrounding war neurosis as a mass phenomenon and the contemporary discourse on cinema, which was also viewed as a potentially dangerous vector of suggestion. Film was not simply a technological innovation employed by doctors and scientists, but was widely applied in the sphere of entertainment, a significant context that Köhne does not address sufficiently. She is right that film was an important and allusive medium used by doctors to construct an understanding of war neurosis, but it was not merely an attempt to exert control. Instead, film played a fascinating and complex role as a medium of persuasion, extending the charismatic power of the doctor-director to nationally distinct medical and public audiences, employing not only discipline but occasionally spectacle and empathy too.

Juliet Wagner is lecturer in History and Literature, Harvard University. She is currently working on revising for publication her Ph.D. dissertation “Twisted Bodies, Broken Minds: Film and Neuropsychiatry in the First World War” (Harvard University, 2009).

[1] Eric Leed, No Man’s Land: Combat and Identity in World War 1 (Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press 1979); Peter Riedesser und Axel Verderber, Aufrüstung der Seelen: Militärpsychiatrie und Militärpsychologie in Deutschland und Amerika (Freiburg i. Br.: Dreisam-Verlag, 1985); Elaine Showalter, The Female Malady: Women, Madness and English Culture, 1830-1980 (London: Virago, 1987)

[2] Paul Lerner, Hysterical Men: war, psychiatry and the politics of trauma in Germany, 1890-1930 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2003); Hans-Georg Hofer, Nervenschwäche und Krieg: Modernitätskritik und Krisenbewältigung in der österreichischen Psychiatrie (1880-1920) (Wien: Bohlau, 2004).

[3] The “before and after” format is also evident in less codified form in Camillo Negro’s Neuropatalogia (1908), in which the shift from documentation of symptoms to narrative of medical intervention was already beginning to take place. See Ute Holl, “Neuropathologie als filmische Inszenierung” in Martina Heßler (ed), Konstruierte Sichtbarkeiten Wissenschafts- und Technikbilder seit der frühen Neuzeit (München, 2006), pp. 217-240

New issue – History of the Human Sciences

hist human sciences

The April issue of History of the Human Sciences is now out and includes the following articles:

“Crackpots and basket-cases: a history of therapeutic work and occupation” (Jennifer Laws)

The abstract reads:

Despite the long history of beliefs about the therapeutic properties of work for people with mental ill health, rarely has therapeutic work itself been a focus for historical analysis. In this article, the development of a therapeutic work ethic (1813—1979) is presented, drawing particular attention to the changing character and quality of beliefs about therapeutic work throughout time. From hospital factories to radical ‘antipsychiatric’ communities, the article reveals the myriad forms of activities that have variously been considered fit work for people with mental health problems. While popular stereotypes of basket-weaving paint a hapless portrait of institutional work, a more nuanced reading of therapeutic work and its political and philosophical commitments is advanced. The article concludes by arguing that the non-linear and inherently contested development of therapeutic work is less the effect of paradigmatic shifts within the therapeutic professions, but rather evidence of a broader human struggle with work.

“‘The dangers of this atmosphere’: a Quaker connection in the Tavistock Clinic’s development” (Sebastian Kraemer)

The abstract reads:

During the Second World War, through innovations in officer selection and group therapy, the army psychiatrists John Rickman and Wilfred Bion changed our understanding of leadership. They showed how soldiers under stress could develop real authority through their attentiveness to each other. From contrasting experiences 25 years earlier each had seen how people in groups are moved by elemental forces that undermine judgement and thought. This article arose from my experiences as a trainee at the Tavistock Clinic, where the method of reflective work discussion, giving individuals seated in a circle the choice to speak or to remain silent, seemed similar to a Quaker meeting. Many decades later I found that this association had a basis in fact. Among other influences on Bion — a childhood in India, distinguished service in the First World War, and a surgical apprenticeship with Wilfred Trotter — there is a little-acknowledged Quaker source, in John Rickman, for Bion’s radical work in the army that led to new methods of training and organizational consultancy in the postwar Tavistock.

More information, as well as a complete table of contents, can be found at

New issue – Journal of the History of the Neurosciences


A new issue of the Journal for the History of the Neurosciences is now out and includes the following articles:

“Salomon Henschen’s Short-Lived Project of an ‘Academia Neurologica Internationalis’ (1929) for the Revival of the International Brain Commission: Documents from the Cécile and Oskar Vogt Archives”
(Bernd Holdorff)

The abstract reads:

In 1929, at the age of 82, the Swedish neurologist Salomon Henschen (1847-1930) planned an Academia Neurologica Internationalis. The exchanged letters with Ceacutecile and Oskar Vogt suggest that there was a great number of neuroscientists internationally who approved of the project. However, during three months of preparation, the initial skepticism increased and, although the invitation to the conference had already been printed, it had to be revoked. The endeavors to revive the Brain Commission failed. Two other projects nonetheless did take shape: the founding of one of the largest and most modern brain research institutes in 1931 by the Vogts and the first International Neurological Congress in Berne that same year. For decades, the Brain Commission remained without successors until the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) was founded in 1961.

“The Search for an Endogenous Schizogen: The Strange Case of Taraxein” (Alan Baumeister)

The abstract reads:

In 1956, Dr. Robert Galbraith Heath, Chair of Psychiatry and Neurology at Tulane University School of Medicine in New Orleans, announced that he and colleagues had discovered a protein they called taraxein in the blood of schizophrenic patients that caused symptoms of schizophrenia when injected into healthy volunteers. Heath’s claim received wide public and professional attention. Researchers quickly tried to confirm the discovery. These efforts, which were rigorous and in some cases conducted in consultation with the Tulane researchers, failed. Nevertheless, for the next four decades Heath continued to defend his claim. This article recounts the scientific developments that led up to Heath’s putative discovery and it explores the scientific findings for and against the taraxein theory of schizophrenia.

“Gall’s Visit to the Netherlands” (Paul Eling, Douwe Draaisma and Matthijs Conrad)

The abstract reads:

In March 1805, Franz Joseph Gall left Vienna to start what has become known as his cranioscopic tour. He traveled through Germany, Denmark, and The Netherlands. In this article, we will describe his visit to The Netherlands in greater detail, as it has not yet received due attention. Gall was eager to go to Amsterdam because he was interested in the large collection of skulls of Petrus Camper. Gall presented a series of lectures, reports of which can be found in a local newspaper and in a few books, published at that time. We will summarize this material. We will first outline developments in the area of physiognomy, in particular in The Netherlands, and what the Dutch knew about Gall’s doctrine prior to his arrival. We will then present a reconstruction of the contents of the lectures. Finally, we will discuss the reception of his ideas in the scientific community.

More information, as well as a complete table of contents, can be found here.

Call for History Papers: Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease

The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, America’s oldest continuously published independent monthly journal in the field, will celebrate its 200th volume in 2012. Editor-in-Chief John A. Talbott, M.D., has announced that the anniversary issue will be dedicated to the history of psychiatry and neurology and has asked that submissions of papers of a historical nature (especially subjects from 1974 to the present) be sent to him online at <>.

The deadline for these review articles, which should be between 4,400 and 8,800 words, is December 1.

Film Review – Séraphine

1942, Senlis is at dawn and it’s dawn for Séraphine. The cleaning lady is not famous yet, except for being eccentric, but she paints already. The film begins and follows a 48 year old Séraphine cleaning in her days and painting at night.

Very little is known about her and especially about her painting methods. All we know is that she was using Ripolin, but the production of her colours is still obscure. Thus we follow her picking flowers and mixing pigments but no one ever saw her paint or creating her colours. The film makers obviously had to deal with missing information and decided to use interpretations, taking some ‘obliged’ freedoms with her life.

Those unknown parts of her life give a strong romantic content to the story. Indeed, the mysteries that surround her character and W.Udhe, her mentor and discoverer, creates a very literal atmosphere which is already present in the story itself. In fact we are here dealing with a mocked cleaning lady that becomes an important ‘attraction’ of Paris avant-garde art scene thanks to an art critic who was in Senlis only to find peace away from the capital city.

The two main characters are beautifully well defined and played. Yolande Moreau shows without prejudices the passion of this woman who is worn down by mental illness and who ends up prostrated in paranoia, in a mental hospital.

The description of the conditions of 2nd World War French asylums are very accurate. Whereas asylums were working on their own with form to lead the patients, the work made the staff flee until there were too many patients and too few funds. As a matter of fact illness and instability became common and patients, such as Séraphine, were dying of hunger.

Whereas there are plenty of examples of inmate artists, Séraphine always refused to paint as she entered the asylum. She was considering herself as a true artist and the condition of the mental institute did not fit with her idea of a work of art. On top of that, in her delusion she was not any artist, but the artist chosen by God.

Her fantasy of fame and fortune were however synonym of a frenetic work. Séraphine started to work less as a cleaning lady and spent most of her time painting incredible trees and flowers. She had listened to Udhe who, before fleeing from the Germans at the beginning of the Great War, had told her to work on her art as much as possible and before long Séraphine had reached an artistic level that not even Udhe had hoped her to attain.

She was now painting, on two meters high canvas, plants that seemed strangely alive. Those plants she painted could be a blend of the nature that she had always been surrounded by and where she loved to spend time watching the wildlife and countryside, as well as from the church decorations and processions. However she would explain her talents through God’s will. She said she had witnessed an apparition of the Virgin who asked her to paint. Séraphine’s relationship with God was extreme to the point that she painted kneeling on the floor while singing canticles.

Séraphine’s religious fever can be related to the time when she grew up, the French Church was in crisis and trying to appeal too more believers by a simplification of the discourse and an exaltation of the cult of the Virgin, in order to touch a more simple population. To some extent we can see an analogy between Séraphine, a real person, and Félicité, G.Falubert’s heroine from“ A simple Heart”, published in 1875. Félicité was a cleaning lady who worshipped a stuffed parrot to a point that it was for her the incarnation of the Saint Spirit. Flaubert’s story takes place at about the same time as Séraphine’s childhood.

Séraphine’s paranoia seems to increase when W.Uhde could not pay for all her expenses anymore because of the international economy crisis of the 1930’s. Her refusal to understand that her protector would not afford her extravagances increased her already existent delusions and her feeling of persecution and abandonement. The film also mentions Séraphine’s mysterious lover, a soldier from the Spanish Army. Another ‘mystery’ for us, another frustration for Séraphine.

Here the film does not reflect one important part of Séraphine’s delirium. As her illness grew she claimed to be pregnant and later in the asylum she would complain about the lack of food for her twins. The cult of the virgin is almost certain, identifying a woman’s need to give birth. Some of her paintings have hidden but obvious sexual symbols. Carnal screams of a childless forever virgin woman, pregnant for life of her own art.

The film being about Séraphine, it could not give too many details about the second main character Wilhelm Uhde. I would like to emphasize on this person because it seems to me important to place him in the history of Art Brut and outsider art. Thanks to his work as an art critic, a collector and here mainly as a talent discoverer, he can be seen as a precursor of the debate that will animate the Art’s world of the next generation. Indeed he recognized as artists people that were seen as outsiders. W.Uhde was an eccentric main figure of the Parisian avant-garde and discovered artists such as Picasso and the Douanier Rousseau. He was seeking for a primitivism of feelings developed by simple methods, as well as frenzy and instinctive outburst. His theory was that in art there should be a mix between the earthy roman architecture and the elevated gothic one.

His battle was to have these artists and their art recognized as so. One can’t deny here the link to Dubuffet’s later development notion of Art Brut. There is no evidence of a meeting of the two men. However it seems obvious that they would have heard about each other’s work.

Yet W.Uhde’s theory is too literal and romantic to be embraced and understood by anyone else but himself, while J.Dubuffet established a true definition of the art he defended. This definition, was for him, anything but a form of art standing against the academicals canons.

Thus Dubuffet was more striven by a quest than Uhde. In order to fight the academy’s prejudices, the inventor of Art Brut had to come up with a strong, scientific definition of a different form of art.

As a piece of art the film is strong, the atmosphere intimate and the acting of Y. Morreau so persuasive that you believe in every part of Séraphine’s delusion and become convinced that she has been both blessed and cursed by her obvious talents. There is a sad twist to the story of the film which has since been accused of 35 acts of plagiarism for having copied parts of Alain Vircondelet’s book about Séraphine. The verdict, that in nine specific cases it noted a similarity in the wording used between the screenplay for the film and the book, such that copyright had been infringed, was finally given in November 2010.

Coline Loison (Université du Maine)

Colloque “Le théâtre des nerfs” – Lausanne, 24-26 novembre 2011




VIIe colloque du Centre des Sciences historiques de la culture

Jeudi 24 au samedi 26 novembre 2011, UNIL

Organisateurs: Vincent Barras (Institut universitaire d’histoire de la médecine et de la santé publique, CHUV/Faculté de biologie et de médecine, UNIL) – Mireille Berton (Section d’histoire et esthétique du cinéma, Faculté de Lettres, UNIL) – Céline Eidenbenz (Section d’histoire de l’art, Faculté de Lettres, UNIL)

« Le théâtre des nerfs » se propose d’examiner une thématique située au croisement de trois champs : l’histoire des sciences et de la médecine, l’histoire des arts visuels, l’histoire des cultures corporelles et du spectacle. Le tournant des XIXe et XXe siècles offre un terrain d’exploration extrêmement fécond qui permet de mobiliser un faisceau de savoirs appliqués à l’étude d’objets-carrefour aux frontières de la littérature, du cinéma, de la photographie, de la médecine, de la psychopathologie, des technologies, sans oublier les sciences occultes ni la tradition du café-concert, du cabaret et de la danse. Récemment, différentes études emblématiques ont attiré l’attention sur ces interactions (J. Carroy, D. Gamboni, R.B. Gordon, J-C. Valtat et d’autres).

Placé sous les auspices du Centre des sciences historiques de la culture, ce colloque vise à présenter les travaux de ces chercheurs-euses confirmé-e-s et de jeunes chercheurs-euses partageant intérêts et méthodologies connexes, afin d’enrichir l’état présent de la recherche. Il convie également des artistes contemporain-e-s dont les démarches font écho à ces thématiques. Il s’inscrit ainsi dans le développement d’approches historiques soucieuses d’épistémologie et guidées par une vision à la fois intermédiatique et interdisciplinaire, conjuguant analyses des discours, des représentations, des pratiques et des objets.

Les organisateurs souhaitent que ce colloque contribue à rassembler et à mieux faire connaître des travaux originaux et dispersés, tout en dynamisant le débat autour des questions complexes et plurielles qu’il soulèvera.

Les propositions de conférence sont à envoyer avant le 30 avril à, et

Have American Psychiatrists Given Up on Psychotherapy?

Psychiatric Times recently featured two responses to a 5 March 2011 piece in The New York Times that outlined what it called “the switch from talk therapy to medications” among practicing psychiatrists in the United States.  The New York Times article cites a 2005 government purportedly finding “that just 11 percent of psychiatrists provided talk therapy to all patients, a share that had been falling for years and has most likely fallen more since. Psychiatric hospitals that once offered patients months of talk therapy now discharge them within days with only pills.”

Two psychiatrists and contributing writers to Psychiatric Times, however, expand upon and take issue with at least some of the portrait painted by the news story.   Ronald Pies (editor in chief emeritus of Psychiatric Times and professor in the psychiatry departments of SUNY Upstate Medical University and Tufts University School of Medicine) agrees that “the declining use of psychotherapy in psychiatric practice is unquestionably worrisome,” noting that the shift away from psychotherapy between 1996 and 2005 has coincided with changes in reimbursement, managed care, and medication prescriptions.  What The New York Times article neglected to mention, he argues, however, was that evidence shows that most psychiatrists provide psychotherapy to at least some of their patients.  Moreover, the 2005 study defined “psychotherapy” in such a narrow fashion as to leave out forms of “very brief psychotherapy” (J. Gustafson) as well as other forms of patient contact.

James Knoll IV (editor-in-chief of Psychiatric Times, and director of forensic psychiatry at SUNY Upstate Medical University), in his response, rejects what he refers to as “the implications that psychiatrists must now ‘play the game,’ and resign themselves to a bleak future of harried pill dispensing.” Instead, he encourages colleagues and students to consider taking up the historical mission of caring for those in institutional settings, albeit under the changed circumstances of today:

Many of our patients have been relocated. Jails now house more persons with serious mental illness than do psychiatric hospitals. Perhaps we might consider a return to the original ideals of our path–the care and well being of persons suffering with serious mental illness, and especially the many who are now in our ‘new asylums.’ The fact is that such jobs are plentiful, lucrative and rewarding. One can practice without any false partitions. Medical concerns, medications, psychotherapy-– all may be attended to by the psychiatrist. The patients are grateful for competent care, and time constraints are far less of an issue. Here is a noble calling and return to psychiatry’s roots. There is great honor in following this path that was originally traveled by names such as Rush, Ray, Pinel, and Menninger, among many others.

Keep in mind, you must register to read articles in Psychiatric Times, but registration is free.

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