Posts Tagged ‘ Germany ’

Dissertations – Curing the Soul of the Nation

David Freis: “Curing the Soul of the Nation: Psychiatry, Society, and Psycho-Politics in the German-speaking Countries, 1918-1939

     Since the emergence of the discipline, the diagnostic concepts of psychiatry – more than those of any other medical field – have always been closely connected to normative debates about society at large. This link never was more apparent than in the two decades between the world wars. Amidst the political and social unrest, German-speaking psychiatrists attempted to directly interpret, diagnose, and treat society and politics from the perspective of their own clinical experiences. Leading members of the discipline redefined its boundaries and its area of authority to target larger populations beyond the mentally ill, and even the body politic as a whole. While this expansion of psychiatry’s area of expertise in the first third of the twentieth century has been noted by numerous scholars in the field, this is the first study that analyzes this process systematically and comprehensively.

Thesis Abstract FREUS 2015-12-14 IMAGE

Front cover of Erwin Stransky, Subordination, Autorität, Psychotherapie (Vienna: Julius Springer 1928).

     Using the concept of “psycho-politics” to describe the changing relation between psychiatrists and society in the period between the world wars, I maintain that these developments were neither monolithic nor disembodied processes. By situating different approaches in historical context, the thesis demonstrates how the social and political expansion of psychiatric expertise was motivated by very different reasons and took very different forms. I discuss three examples in detail: the overt pathologization of the 1918/19 revolution and its protagonists by right-wing German psychiatrists; the project of professional expansionism under the label of “applied psychiatry” in interwar Vienna; and the attempt to unite and implement different approaches to psychiatric prophylaxis in the German-speaking branches of the international movement for “mental hygiene.”

     Throughout these three interconnected case studies, I make a point for the importance of individual agency in the history of the psy-disciplines. I use the example of a number of eminent psychiatrists to show how the projects mentioned above were linked to their individual biographies and careers, and how their approaches were shaped by individual experiences of the political events in the first third of the twentieth century. Moreover, the study contributes to a broader understanding of the twentieth-century history of the psy-disciplines in at least three ways. First, I unearth the almost forgotten histories of some of the most important scholars and ideas that defined psychiatry in the first half of the twentieth century. Second, I explore the early history of some the concepts that still shape the field to the present day, namely mental health, deinstitutionalization, and psychiatric prophylaxis, as well as the history of psychiatric notions of social and political life that still circulate today. Third, I also examine psychiatry’s utopian promises, and show how the idea that the knowledge of the maladies of the human mind could pave the way to a better society could cut across contemporary political divides. The loftiest promises and the worst abuses of psychiatry were more closely connected than one might expect.

The thesis was defended on 11 December 2015 at the European University Institute in Florence.

David Freis is a research associate (Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter) at the Institute for the Ethics, History, and Theory of Medicine at the University of Münster.

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Dissertations – Electroconvulsive Therapy and Its Devices

Max Gawlich: “Electroconvulsive Therapy and Its Devices”

In 1939 a wave of enthusiasm swept through the asylums of Europe. Machines and circuit diagrams originating from Italy, but often only the idea of electrically induced convulsions seized the imagination of psychiatrists. In this dissertation project I study the years of 1938 to 1950 as the period of early adoption and beginning routinization of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). The history of somatic therapy in mid-century psychiatry remains under-studied, often undervalued as mere precursor of psychopharmacological therapies since the development of Chlorpromazine in the 1950s. On the other hand, next to Lobotomy ECT continues to be the infamous therapy of a disciplining and punishing psychiatric regime, dominating as such the critical discourse about psychiatry since the 1970s. The historical question what ECT was, how the machines were built, what those devices did and how they were adopted in the contexts of asylums remained unanswered.

The study compares three large asylums in Europe which were among the earliest to adopt therapeutic innovations in general and ECT in particular: Eglfing-Haar, south-east of Munich in the German Reich; Münsingen near Bern, Switzerland; and Warlingham Park Hospital in South-London, England. Eglfing-Haar was one of the largest asylums in Europe at the time, infamously known for both its function as relay-station for the transfer of patients into asylums where they would be killed as well as its establishment of so-called starvation units in which patients were murdered through neglect and overdoses of opiates. Münsingen was an internationally acclaimed centre for the so-called somatic therapies like insulin-coma therapy or sleeping-therapy and served as a hub for medically trained refugees fleeing the persecution in the German Reich or Italy. Warlingham-Park Hospital was the first British asylum to adopt ECT besides the Burden Neurological Institute. Its Super-Intendent Thomas P. Rees was famous for his reformist zeal opening the gates of his clinic in 1936.

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Siemens Konvulsator II – booklet

The source-material of my project is structured mainly by two institutional contexts. First there is the archival material from asylums, meaning mostly patient-files and therapy-registers. The second group are files, correspondence, brochures, and circuit-diagrams created in the development-process either at the Ediswan Co. in Britain or the Siemens-Reiniger-Werke in Erlangen. The opportunity as well as challenge was to develop a framework in which both kind of source materials complement each other and enable new questions and perspectives on clinical therapy with machines in asylums. To achieve this, I focus on 1) records and inscriptions of ECT, 2) the technical evolution of ECT-Devices in the period from 1938 to 1950, and 3) the therapeutic practices utilizing those devices. I further argue that with somatic therapies also the evaluation of those therapies was introduced. Contrary to previous research, my dissertation will show how psychiatrists involved in somatic therapies developed methods to record therapy, add up data and present statistical evidence supporting their claim of clinical success. Not only were the development and utilization of devices deeply entangled, but also questions of dosage, security, or wanted and unwanted effects were technically as well as practically addressed. Institutional settings, personal preferences and the design of ECT –devices produced specific adaptations of ECT in the local spaces of each asylum. The Second World War hindered the exchange of ideas and concepts of ECT, and rather strengthened the position of Swiss psychiatrists as intermediaries in the international transfer of knowledge. The War created a situation of largely isolated developments, producing specific technical and therapeutic solutions, which demands a comparative perspective and explicative approach.

Illustration: SRW Erlangen Technische Entwicklung, Konvulsator II für die Elektrokrampfbehandlung von Psychosen. 1949, in: Veröffentlichungen a.d. Technischen Entwicklung Bd. 4. SRW 1948-1961 p54, Siemens MedArchiv Erlangen, Nr. 71. (Reproduced with the kind permission of the Siemens MedArchiv, Erlangen)

Max Gawlich is a PhD Candidate at the Historical Institute in Heidelberg, were he also studied history and Jewish studies.

Contact: @MaxGawlich on Twitter or

New Book: Greg Eghigian, The Corrigible and the Incorrigible: Science, Medicine, and the Convict in 20th Century Germany


Greg Eghigian – Associate Professor of Modern History at Penn State University and co-editor of h-madness – has just published a new book with University of Michigan Press that explores the application of psychiatry, psychology, and psychotherapy in the correctional rehabilitation of prisoners in Germany.

The Corrigible and the Incorrigible explores the surprising history of efforts aimed at rehabilitating convicts in 20th-century Germany, efforts founded not out of an unbridled optimism about the capacity of people to change, but arising from a chronic anxiety about the potential threats posed by others. Since the 1970s, criminal justice systems on both sides of the Atlantic have increasingly emphasized security, surveillance, and atonement, an approach that contrasts with earlier efforts aimed at scientifically understanding, therapeutically correcting, and socially reintegrating convicts. And while a distinction is often drawn between American and European ways of punishment, the contrast reinforces the longstanding impression that modern punishment has played out as a choice between punitive retribution and correctional rehabilitation. Focusing on developments in Nazi, East, and West Germany, The Corrigible and the Incorrigible shows that rehabilitation was considered an extension of, rather than a counterweight to, the hardline emphasis on punishment and security by providing the means to divide those incarcerated into those capable of reform and the irredeemable.

New Article: Eghigian on the History of Psychopathy in Germany

So-called "Asocials" in Nazi Germany. From: Foto: Der nichtseßhafte Mensch, München 1938

So-called “Asocials” in Nazi Germany. From: Google Images. Foto: Der nichtseßhafte Mensch, München 1938

The latest issue of the journal Isis features an article by co-editor of h-madness Greg Eghigian entitled “A Drifting Concept for an Unruly Menace: A History of Psychopathy in Germany.” The abstract reads:

The term ‘psychopath’ has enjoyed wide currency both in popular culture and among specialists in forensic psychiatry. Historians, however, have generally neglected the subject. This essay examines the history of psychopathy in the country that first coined the term, developed the concept, and debated its treatment: Germany. While the notion can be traced to nineteenth-century psychiatric ideas about abnormal, yet not completely pathological, character traits, the figure of the psychopath emerged out of distinctly twentieth-century preoccupations and institutions. The vagueness and plasticity of the diagnosis of psychopathy proved to be one of the keys to its success, as it was embraced and employed by clinicians, researchers, and the mass media, despite attempts by some to curb its use. Within the span of a few decades, the image of the psychopath became one of a perpetual troublemaker, an individual who could not be managed within any institutional setting. By midcentury, psychopaths were no longer seen as simply nosological curiosities; rather, they were spatial problems, individuals whose defiance of institutional routine and attempts at social redemption stood in for an attributed mental status. The history of psychopathy therefore reveals how public dangers and risks can be shaped and defined by institutional limitations.

Religion & Anti-psychiatry in Imperial Germany

111146d0H-Madness co-editor Eric Engstrom will be speaking on “Pastoral Psychiatry and Irrenseelsorge: Religious Aspects of the Anti-psychiatry Debates in Imperial Germany.” at the BPS History of Psychological Disciplines Seminar Series on Monday, 20 April. The abstract reads:

Historians of psychiatry have often enough interpreted the relationship between psychiatry and religion within narrative frameworks that focus on diagnoses and treatments (religious madness, exorcism) or that emphasise broader historical processes such as secularisation, medicalisation, and biologisation. While there is considerable merit to such frameworks, recent critiques of the secularisation paradigm have suggested a larger place for religion and spirituality in late 19th-century urban culture than is often assumed. The work of the American historian Edward R. Dickinson in particular has reminded us of the enduring influence and inertia of conservative Christian organisations in shaping moral discourse and social policy in the Kaiserreich.

My paper examines more closely the interdisciplinary topography between psychiatric and religious professionals, mapping out some of the common terrain on which they cooperated and/or disagreed with one another. In particular, I will examine debates about the place of religion in 19th-century asylum culture and the role of the so-called ‘Irrenseelsorger’. Against this backdrop and drawing especially on examples from Berlin, I will then explore efforts by religious organisations to expand their role in psychiatric after-/extramural care and show how those efforts contributed decisively to a nascent ‘anti-psychiatry’ movement in the years leading up to World War One.

For more information have a look at the blog Advances in the History of Psychology.

The Endurance of Graphology in France


Hugh Schofield at BBC News Paris has posted an interesting article on the continued use of the field of graphology in France.  In contrast to much of the rest of the world apparently, French employers continue to rely on this form of handwriting analysis. Schofield cites a 1991 independent study that found “that a massive 91% of public and private organisations in France were then making use of handwriting analysis.”

In France, the field is associated with the work of the French Catholic priest, Jean-Hipployte Michon (1806-1881).  In Germany, graphology has been historically connected to the characterologist Ludwig Klages  (1872-1956).   And, in fact, historian Per Leo has just published a book examining the tangled history of graphology in Germany, along with its ties to anti-semitism.

A new book on the so called ‘T4 operation’

The so called „T4 operation“, so titled for the street address of the office in charge, was the centrally organized „euthanasia“ of national socialist which brought death to more than 70.000 people. This operation was the first systematically planned and realised extermination against a week minority within the „Third Reich“. Mainly inmates and patients of asylums were murdered at six, especially for the purpose equipped hospital grounds, the so-called extermination sites. The people were killed by gas in newly constructed gas chambers. The T4 operation must be seen as a central part of the patient killing during the Nazi period which counted more than 300.000 victims and which was connected with the holocaust due to the fact that the physicians and nurses involved in the patient murder were taken as experts to concentration camps in Eastern Europe for their advise.

This publication presents the current state of research on the organisation of the T4 operation as well as the first results of a large-scale study focussing on the victims and their biographies.

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