German Battle Casualties: The Treatment of Functional Somatic Disorders during World War I


World War I witnessed the admission of large numbers of German soldiers with neurological symptoms for which there was no obvious organic cause. This posed a considerable challenge for the military and medical authorities and resulted in an active discussion on the etiology and treatment of these disorders. Current historiography is reliant on published physician accounts, and this represents the first study of treatment approaches based on original case notes. We analyzed patient records from two leading departments of academic psychiatry in Germany, those at Berlin and Jena, in conjunction with the contemporaneous medical literature. Treatment, which can be broadly classified into reward and punishment, suggestion, affective shock, cognitive learning, and physiological methods, was developed in the context of the emerging fields of animal learning and neurophysiology. A further innovative feature was the use of quantitative methods to assess outcomes. These measures showed good response rates, though most cured patients were not sent back to battle because of their presumed psychopathic constitution. While some treatments appear unnecessarily harsh from today’s perspective and were also criticized by leading psychiatrists of the time, the concentration of effort and involvement of so many senior doctors led to the development of psychotherapeutic methods that were to influence the field of psychiatric therapy for decades to come.