Hysterical Men


Lerner, Paul.  Hysterical Men: War, Psychiatry, and the Politics of Trauma in Germany, 1890-1930.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.

Lerner’s book centers on a German debate over how to interpret the “debilitating shakes, stutters, tics and tremors, and dramatic disorders of sight, hearing and gait” that were plaguing the nation’s veterans of the Great War (1).  Throughout his book, he traces the shift from describing such ailments as the result of “trauma” to being the outward symptoms of a deeper, inner “hysteria.”  This shift represented a growing power of psychiatrists in Germany, and Lerner shows that it also had ramifications on Germany’s laws, economy, and notions of masculinity.

The work of psychiatrist Hermann Oppenheim in the 1870s and 1880s demonstrated that the stutters, tics, and tremors that some men were experiencing were symptomatic of “trauma,” which was caused by external shocks and accidents.  Oppenheim’s work was successful enough that Bismarck included trauma as a legitimate reason for claiming insurance pensions in 1889 (pg 9).  The discourse was quickly replaced by a newer generation of psychiatrists and policy makers, though, who claimed that such a connection would “pension neurosis,” or a debilitating addiction to pensions (33).  In other words, a diagnosis of “trauma” would cast the men as victims and allow them to feel entitled to pension payment from the state.  Instead, a new diagnosis emerged:  men’s tics and tremors were manifestations of “hysteria”, a deeply rooted flaw of the person’s character.

When the Great War broke out in 1914, the nationalistic, conservative psychiatrists saw the conflict as a chance to harden up Germany’s weak and hysterical men.  But, by the time that hundreds of thousands of men were complaining of trauma during WWI, the situation became more serious, particularly as the state faced paying out insurance claims to all of its veterans.  The psychiatrists used their superior social stances to launch another “war on hysteria,” which included new therapies like “suggestive preparation” (103) and other “active treatments” like electro-shock therapy.  Lerner asserts that by claiming that these hysterical men were themselves flawed, psychiatrists absolving the state of any responsibility since these men’s ailments were not caused by any traumatic event of the war.  More importantly than saving the state any moral responsibility, a diagnosis of “hysteria” (versus “trauma”) would save the state money since it no longer had to pay out insurance pensions.  So, in imperial Germany, economic concerns overlapped with scientific changes, and economics always remained intertwined with the debate (85).  Once the men were deemed “cured” they were sent to support the war effort not on the front line, but in the labor force on the home front.

But Lerner reveals that much more was a stake here than money.  “Psychiatry was at once a product of modernity and a forum for critiquing modernity” (15).  In other words, while psychiatry was itself a modern science, psychiatrists saw themselves as trying to cure the weaknesses caused by modernity.  “Curing male hysterics meant medically manufacturing proper German subjects” (7).  They attempted to define a renewed German masculinity centered on patriotism, self-sacrifice, and economic productivity.  “The specter of the male hysteric, then, haunted the German imagination as the nation progressed along the path to modernity…To the conservative, stridently nationalistic psychiatric profession, male hysterics symbolized Germany’s social, political, and economic catastrophe” (250).  Psychiatrists then attempted to shape the national memory of the war and its conclusion in clinical terms.  The loss of 1918 was then portrayed as the result of Germany’s exhausted nerves, and the November revolutions were depicted as outbursts of mass insanity.

For more books on modern German history, see my list of book reviews here. 

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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