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Fink Shrinks

Psychotherapy in the Third Reich: The Göring Institute

by Geoffrey Cocks
Oxford University Press, 326 pp., $24.95

Die Professionalisierung der deutschen Psychologie im Nationalsozialismus

by Ulfried Geuter
Suhrkamp (Frankfurt), 594 pp., $34.00


Pathology afflicts every society, and in the first half of this century, Germans excelled in exemplifying it. They have also excelled in producing thinkers and scholars who analyzed this pathology. Twice in the era of the Great Wars, Germans, driven by dreams and terrified by reality, sought power and redemption. In 1945, the defeat of Hitler brought deliverance and division: the curse of frightened ambition seemed lifted. In the early years after the Second World War, the West Germans were our model wards: hard-working, prosperous, irenic, obedient, and accepting. But a terrible past and a divided and dependent present could not be banished forever. A new mood, at once anxious and assertive, has set in. The present chapter in the history of the Federal Republic could be characterized as “the return of the repressed.”

Some months ago, the Germans went through a collective psychic trauma, occasioned by the fortieth anniversary of V-E Day. To Chancellor Kohl’s chagrin, the Germans had been left out of the fortieth anniversary of D-day in June 1984. All the ambiguities of the past welled up again. V-E day had long troubled Germans. Theodor Heuss, first president of the Federal Republic, called it a day of deep paradox, “because at one and the same time we were saved and annihilated.” Chancellor Kohl felt his adherents’ resentment at always having to apologize for Germany’s past, and with characteristic insouciance thought that he could stage a second ceremony which would exorcise ambiguity. He wanted a gesture of symbolic forgiveness, a wreath from the American president that would demonstrate the moral equivalence of German and Allied soldiers. Kohl hoped to show his countrymen that the world—or at least official America—had detached the German present from the German past He wanted more: today’s moral equivalence should be extended retroactively, an amnesty for the dead.

Bitburg was the expression of a disturbed and disturbing national consciousness, of a yearning for a clear, confident identity. But in their own unease, and oblivious of the feelings of others, Germans achieved the very opposite of what they intended. They wanted reassurance; instead, they heard the outcry from abroad that expressed repugnance for anything approaching an amnesty for the past. They had wanted forgiveness and aroused anger instead. Some Germans, especially those on the right, blamed Jews for the turmoil, and for a fleeting moment anti-Semitism appeared respectable again. It was fortunate that on May 8, the president of the Federal Republic, Richard von Weizsäcker, in a speech of magisterial honesty, reminded his countrymen that the past could not be banished, that the annihilation of 1945 had begun with the national orgy of 1933, but that one could learn from the past and thus live with it, in truth and dignity.

This past summer also saw the International Psychoanalytical Congress on German soil, for the first time since the advent of Hitler.1 In its program, the president of the German host society wrote:

We are aware of the fact that remembrance of our country’s history might make it less easy for a number of people to decide whether they wish to come to Hamburg. At the same time, however, we sincerely hope that the political changes since brought about in Germany may inspire some trust in the attitude of the new generation of psychoanalysts.

Was this a plea for innocence by association, a presumption that the absence of political temptation would automatically inspire trust? Some analysts stayed away, some went with a sense of moral unease. Probably no other profession would today issue such an apologetic note, but German psychoanalysts have a peculiar history—and one that they seem to have repressed until recently.

In the last two years or so, German psychanalysts have been engaged in an intense intergenerational conflict. The younger analysts have been scrutinizing the record of those “Aryan” analysts who in the 1930s remained in Germany, in order to discover what compromises they might have made, what betrayals they committed. Analysts and psychotherapists in Germany have been strangely shielded from a study of their past. So bitter have been some of the charges that a German writer recently noted that today’s analysts “feel themselves sullied by treason and regard themselves as the Jews of today’s psychoanalytical community.”2 Heavy Germanic irony. A balanced study of German therapists under the Nazis has been long overdue.

The program of the psychoanalytical meeting noted that shortly after the last international congress to take place in Germany, in 1932, “the Nazi party came to power and psychoanalysts had to share the fate of all intellectual movements whose structures imply freedom of thought and scientific honesty as highly important elements: it was crushed, condemned and destroyed.” That has been received opinion, the complement, so to speak, of the celebration of German exiles: a regime that expelled or repudiated Einstein and Thomas Mann, James Franck, Max Wertheimer, Erwin Panofsky, and, after the Anschluss, Freud, must have “crushed, condemned and destroyed” science and art. Received opinion has held that in exile there was creativity; inside the Third Reich, sterility, uniformity, nothingness. We now come to realize that—as always in history—the actuality was far more ambiguous and complex.

The history of intellectual life under the Nazis has yet to be written. The two books under review show us that some disciplines prospered professionally, even as they stagnated intellectually. The Nazis appreciated the utility and the prestige of scientists and artists—provided these conformed to the ideological and racial requirements of the party. German professors—with a few notable exceptions—acquiesced. The failure of academics to defend the legal and moral foundations of scholarship, the very elements of freedom and independence that German universities had introduced in the nineteenth century, was probably the most flagrant example of la trahison des clercs in our century.3 We must remember that failure in context, aware that we, the fortunate ones who were not similarly tempted or terrorized, should judge those who were with the cautionary reservation: How would we have responded?

We must also remember that National Socialism was the great temptation. German academics and intellectuals were dazzled by the brilliantly staged pageantry of politics, by the flaunting of power, order, dynamism, by the promise of a new comradeship in struggle. Fear and careerism prompted prudence. The “excesses,” the early murders and the concentration camps, the persecutions of the “undesirable,” were “understandable” accompaniments of a national revolution. The regime and the universities conspired to preserve the trappings of intellectual normality. The universities survived, largely as shells of learning; the professions survived—with compromises. There was shabbiness in survival.

Geoffrey Cocks and Ulfried Geuter have written complementary works on psychotherapy and psychology under National Socialism. Both books demonstrate that these disciplines advanced under National Socialism because they made a point of their usefulness to the regime, offering compromises of their own accord. Both authors supplement published sources with interviews and with archival material. The books deal competently and unimaginatively with competent and largely unimaginative practitioners.


Nazi rule began with an instant challenge to scholars: the elimination by decree of Jewish academics and of outright opponents of the regime. The universities were purged, some decimated. Among academic psychologists and psychiatrists, as among medical doctors generally, the proportion of Jews was high. Geuter estimates that roughly a third of all German academic psychologists lost their posts: the celebrated ones, such as Max Wertheimer, the founder of Gestalt psychology, and William Stern, a pioneer in experimental psychology, were among the first victims. Week by week, “Aryan” professors in all fields and all universities saw their former colleagues vanish: the Nobel laureates, the leaders, the humdrum. Despite their avowed faith in the autonomy and sanctity of learning, these professors watched the departures in silence, some no doubt with relief and others with embarrassment. Some went into “inner emigration,” stayed in Germany, kept their distance from the regime, tried to find space between conscience and compulsion.4 When Ernst Kretschmer, a psychiatrist who had headed the society for psychotherapy, resigned in April 1933, he said, as his distinguished colleague Oswald Bumke recalled, “It’s a funny thing with psychopaths. In normal times we render expert opinions on them; in times of political unrest they rule us.” Probably many academics felt that—and, with the right people, said so in private; but they had never learned to speak openly or to join others in protest against state authority and hence found themselves especially vulnerable to the new rulers.

National Socialism in its ascendancy was seductive, and Zivilcourage—the citizen’s willingness to oppose authority—was not a trait that Germans had been taught. At a time when “thinking had again become dangerous”—to use a phrase from a recent article about the early 1930s by the distinguished German sociologist René König—German academics and professionals, with notable exceptions and equivocations, sought to do their duty, afraid to think, let alone express, heterodox thoughts.5

A few “Aryan” scholars did speak out. One remembers the Nobel laureate Max von Laue, who, even by Einstein’s standards, was unswerving in his decency. In April 1933, Wolfgang Köhler, a co-founder of Gestalt psychology and a close friend of Wertheimer’s, wrote in a German newspaper that

the greatest German experimental physicist at the present time is [James] Franck…a Jew, an unusually kind human being. Until a few days ago, he was professor at Göttingen, an honor to Germany and the envy of the international scientific community…. Intellectual achievement, character, and obvious contributions to German culture retain their significance whether a person is Jewish or not.

Köhler expected to be arrested; the Nazis did not touch him. He fought for the integrity of his internationally renowned Berlin Institute, but in the end he resigned and in 1935 emigrated to the United States. A year earlier, he had written to his friend Ralph Barton Perry that all that had happened meant “the abolition of German psychology for many years. I do not regard myself as responsible. If only twenty professors had fought the same battle, it would never have come so far with regard to German universities.”6 He was right, of course: even twenty professors—out of how many thousands!—would have made a difference. But their silence, submission, acquiescence emboldened the Nazis, who at first were fearful, and helped to confirm their contempt for academics and intellectuals.

Köhler was essentially right about the end of German psychology—as he conceived of it. Psychology as a scientific pursuit, as a passionate, disinterested inquiry, was dead. Practical work continued; the regime wanted and needed functionaries of the mind. Routine tasks were performed, measurements taken, but thoughts remained unthought or unexpressed. The ferment was missing. Professionalism shielded mediocrity.

We now know, partly thanks to Cocks’s book, that even the practice of psychoanalysis survived, if surreptitiously. Both books reveal that the response of German psychotherapists and psychologists to the Nazis was complicated and that both groups not only acquiesced but actively solicited them for greater professional recognition.

  1. 1

    By an odd coincidence, the International Historical Congress also met in Germany this past summer. For both disciplines, the choice of place was a tacit recognition of Germany’s rehabilitation.

  2. 2

    Caroline Neubaur, “Unbewältigtes Trauma: Psychoanalyse im Dritten Reich,” Merkur, vol. 39, no. 5 (May 1985), p. 429.

  3. 3

    It was altogether fitting that Hamburg’s Socialist mayor, Klaus von Dohnanyi, opened the international meeting—and not surprising that he did so eloquently. His father was killed by the Nazis in April 1945 for his participation in the plot against Hitler; Hans von Dohnanyi’s father-in-law was Karl Bonhoeffer, a preeminent psychiatrist whose whole family suffered cruelly for its resistance to the Nazis. In his welcoming speech Dohnanyi delivered an intellectual and moral challenge to the analysts to contribute to the Germans’ grappling with the horrors of the past. He stressed the piecemeal surrender of the analysts: “Every step rational and yet in the false direction. Here a compromise with individuals, there with substance: always in the vain hope to preserve the whole—which had ceased to exist…. In most cases; freedom is lost in tiny steps.” I had written this article before I saw Dohnanyi’s speech or the valuable catalog prepared for the meeting: Hier geht das Leben auf eine sehr merkwürdige Weise weiter…Zur Geschichte der Psychoanalyse in Deutschland, ed. Karen Brecht et al., and containing material that Cocks missed.

  4. 4

    The ambiguities are recalled in Elisabeth Heisenberg’s Inner Exile: Recollections of a Life with Werner Heisenberg (Birkhauser, 1984).

  5. 5

    René König, “Uber das vermeintliche Ende der deutschen Soziologie vor der Machtergreifung des Nationalsozialismus,” Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, vol. 36, no. 1 (1984), p. 35.

  6. 6

    See Mary Henle, “One man Against the Nazis—Wolfgang Köhler,” American Psychologist, vol. 33, no. 10 (October 1978), pp. 939–944.

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