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Soul Murder’

In response to:

Grand Delusion from the March 3, 1994 issue

To the Editors:

I am grateful to Ms. Dinnage for her thoughtful review of my In Defense of Schreber: Soul Murder and Psychiatry [NYR, March 3] and the sympathy she shows Paul Schreber, who during his life time and posthumously has reaped more condemnation than compassion. She is not as convinced by my defense of his father, my documented corrections of the historical record notwithstanding. Let me comment on some lingering myths and misconceptions concerning Moritz Schreber’s role in his son’s illness and the origins of Nazism.

Niederland’s 1959 myth of demonization of Moritz Schreber as a paranoidogenic sadist, copied by Schatzman and rehashed countless times since, had already been partially refuted by Han Israëls, who received this curious reaction from Schatzman: “Israëls did not prove that the father was not as ‘vicious’ as I have painted him, but even if Israëls had, that would also be irrelevant” (letter to the NYR). But Ms. Dinnage still endorses Schatzman’s confusions, conflations and contradictions.

Take the much maligned Geradehalter, with which Paul Schreber was allegedly tortured as a young child. It was then definitely not “a contraption of boards and straps” but a T-shaped bar screwed to the edge of the table to prevent a slouching posture in school children, and trials were made on one of the children—which?—when Paul was already ten years old, thus long past the age of traumatization as cause of future morbidity. The other example of sadism is also questionable: Moritz Schreber recommending obedience training in the first year of life, as preparation for the education for responsibility in the older child, when punishment was to be replaced with an appeal to reason, justice and honor. True, this grates on modern sensibilities, but strictness and sadism are not the same. Schreber had nothing to do with the child beating practices portrayed, say, in the Wilhelm Busch cartoons in the Fliegende Blätter. Besides, in the strongly matriarchal Schreber household there were others who brought Paul up: his mother, maternal aunt Fanny who lived with the family until 1851, and female domestics. In his critical review of Schatzman’s book, D. W. Harding noted that in spite of the apparently cruel upbringing of Charles and John Wesley by their mother, “and though they had their peculiarities they escaped Judge Schreber’s fate” (NYR, June 14, 1973).

There is no justification for Ms. Dinnage’s sweeping conclusions: “Moritz Schreber had a system for and a manual for everything”; “the playing together had a certain grim quality”; and, least of all, for praising Schatzman’s egregious claim that “Hitler’s generation was growing up at the time when Moritz Schreber’s books of ‘household totalitarianism’—Morton Schatzman’s good phrase…were still popular.” This is just not so.

The generation that became the German Army or the SS Corps in World War Two, born around 1910, was unlikely to have been raised on Moritz Schreber’s books, forgotten by that time. According to Walter Hävernick’s 1964 monograph “Beating as Punishment,” in the post–World War One years there was a decline in household beating and an increase in school beating (ages 9–14) correlated with fallen fathers, not to mention the harsh and cruel training practices in the German Army. It is character assassination to apply the label “totalitarianism” to the Schreber’s household or books, considering the complex causes of Nazi anti-Semitism, militarism, and totalitarianism and the results for Jews and others.

Schatzman believed that Fichte was a “philosophical forefather of Nazism.” But why not blame Kant, since Eichmann cited Kant as an excuse for obeying Hitler’s order of the “final solution” for the Jews. Schatzman also believed he was “not alone in intuiting a possible link between the micro-social despotism in the Schreber family and the macro-social despotism in Nazi Germany. Elias Canetti…also did.” But Canetti did nothing of the sort. However, it did not disturb Schatzman that Canetti “does not mention Schreber’s father; he thinks of the link with Nazism using only the Memoirs as data.” But what justifies comparing the noble Memoirs with outlawed Mein Kampf? What kind of data are the Memoirs for the origins of the Nazism, except in the scape-goating by Canetti and Schatzman? What does an innocent like Schreber, think him mad as much as you like, have to do with the crimes against humanity perpetrated by Hitler and his henchmen? If “paranoid” and “delusions of omnipotence” are labels that fit in equal measure both Schreber and Hitler, then I find this to be triple soul murder, or abuse, perpetrated on the Schrebers, on psychiatry and psychoanalysis, and on the reading public. Ms. Dinnage thinks I find it “exaggerated and unhistorical.” I find it much worse: a perversion of history and a breach of ethics.

Zvi Lothane, M.D.
New York City

Rosemary Dinnage replies:

Dr. Lothane seems to be raising two main arguments. The first—that Moritz Schreber, father of the author of Memoirs of My Nervous Illness, was not a difficult father nor involved in his son’s psychotic breakdown—is really at this date a matter of opinion. Having a father who is a dogmatic expert on child-rearing is probably a disadvantage, and one who becomes mentally ill himself a double disadvantage. The fact that Schreber père advocated some moderate treatment of children as well as various forms of Germanic discipline does not rule him out as an oppressive father; writers such as Bateson and Laing have described the type of family where oppression is cloaked in benevolence. My impression, from the text of the Memoirs, remains of a son who grew up baffled by an omnipotent and rigid father figure. Of course relations with his mother, his wife, and others must have had a part in Schreber’s despair. I should add that I have not read Morton Schatzman’s book since it came out; I am not endorsing other people’s views. Lothane’s second charge, relating to German authoritarianism, is more confusing: Schatzman, Canetti, Kant, and Fichte, myself as reviewer, seem to be lined up for arraignment together. I agree that to be linked in any way with Nazism is a serious matter; in my review I merely reported that Canetti, in his Crowds and Power, saw a similarity between the Schreber type of upbringing and the blind obedience inculcated by German militarism and Nazism. All such sociological speculations are of course vague, but does not an author who said children’s obedience required that “the idea should never cross the child’s mind that his will might prevail” lay himself open to such a suggestion? When I added that the Nazi generation was growing up when Schreber’s books were still available, I was basing this on the admittedly anecdotal evidence of a German friend of mine who was being threatened with Schreber’s Geradehalter in the 1930s. I accept that hers must have been a very untypical household. I was scarcely suggesting—I would have to be quite mad myself to do so—that Moritz Schreber’s books caused World War II.

Lothane continues, rather wildly, “What justifies comparing the noble Memoirs with outlawed Mein Kampf?” Nothing, I should say. He asks what an innocent like the Schreber son has in common with Hitler; again, nothing at all. If Canetti and others have extrapolated as far as this, they certainly need snubbing. The description of Paul Schreber that I quoted was that of his adopted daughter: “Loving, just and kind.”

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