restricted access Hysterical Men: War, Psychiatry, and the Politics of Trauma in Germany, 1890-1930 (review)
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Hysterical Men: War, Psychiatry, and the Politics of Trauma in Germany, 1890–1930. Paul Lerner. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2003. Pp. xi + 326. $39.95 (cloth).

A couple of years before the outbreak of World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm II told the cadets and officers at the Naval Academy of Flensburg-Mürwick that "the next war and the next battle at sea will demand of you healthy nerves. It is through nerves that its outcome will be decided" (40). With his invocation of the concept of "healthy nerves," the Kaiser linked military success and, hence, German victory with the psychological fitness of the individual soldier. He cited an idea that had its roots in the cultural and medical landscape of a rapidly modernizing Imperial Germany, and would become the touchstone by which masculinity, national strength, and patriotic duty were evaluated during World War I and in the Weimar Republic. Lerner's book attempts to unpack and reconstruct the complexities of this trajectory of thought by examining how the practice of psychiatry came to define modern German masculinity in terms of a healthy psychological disposition, patriotic service to the nation, and economic productivity.

It is the figure of the male hysteric—"Hysteria virilis"—who consistently haunted the German imagination as the nation progressed on the path to modernity, and who symbolized its various failures and shortcomings. Because the male hysteric was unable to work or serve in the military and, according to the argument of German psychiatrists, shirked his patriotic duties in order to acquire a pension, he undermined Germany's economic power, political stability, and [End Page 830] military strength. Lerner argues that the psychiatric writings on male hysteria, especially during the war, had less to do with an explicit feminization, as one might expect from such a diagnosis, and more to do with "medically manufacturing proper German subjects" (7), an argument that builds on Michel Foucault's histories of psychiatry. A proper German masculinity was connoted by health, work, military service, and patriotism, while a hysteric masculinity was connoted by pathology, idleness, malingering, pension collection, and, after the war, support of the revolutionary cause.

In terms of the historiography of his compelling study, Lerner is not interested in tracing "the roots" of Nazi psychiatry in World War I, as has been amply done already. Rather he attempts to understand how the diagnosis of modern male hysteria arose in Germany as a specific rejection of the trauma model of psychological suffering. He examines a confluence of economic, political, scientific, and social anxieties reaching back to the late 1880s, in which German psychiatry began pathologizing working-class Germans by locating the source of their suffering in their individual constitutional weaknesses rather than in an external trauma. In Lerner's study, Hermann Oppenheim, a leading neurologist of Jewish heritage, occupies a central place in this reconfiguration of trauma (Oppenheim's theory of traumatic neurosis had originated at the end of the nineteenth century to describe the pathogenic effects of accidents and shocks). Because his theory placed the blame for a neurosis on the traumatic event, patients were essentially exculpated for their suffering; they became entitled to a pension and were no longer considered fit for the workforce or military service.

Both before and during World War I, Oppenheim's theory triggered intense debates, which finally culminated in 1916 at a special War Congress of the German Association for Psychiatry. The doctors concluded that war neuroses were hysterical reactions caused not by the trauma of war but by a pathological predisposition of certain feeble-minded soldiers who ultimately lacked the patriotism to serve Germany and were seduced by the possibility of a pension. Oppenheim was ousted from the profession, and traumatic neurosis became unabashedly "associated with anti-German values, which were often conceived of as socialistic, Jewish, or both" (85). As Lerner remarks, it was hardly fortuitous that Oppenheim's fall coincided with the notorious "Jew count" of 1916, a military census designed to cast doubt on Jewish patriotism.

With this fundamental shift in the diagnosis, war hysteria became a treatable malady: isolation chambers, electroshock therapy, hypnosis, bathing regimens, and other techniques were developed to turn...