The War in Their Minds: German Soldiers and Their Violent Pasts in West Germany by Svenja Goltermann (review)
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The War in Their Minds: German Soldiers and Their Violent Pasts in West Germany. By Svenja Goltermann (trans. Philip Schmitz) (Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2017) 436pp. $80.00

Goltermann traces the almost endless arguments in German psychiatry, compensation administrations, and courts about the long-term [End Page 260] psychological effects of World War II on German soldiers. Based on extensive research not only in government archives and various publications but also on careful analysis of, and extensive quotations from, medical records, Goltermann explores a subject hitherto largely neglected in the literature about the war and about postwar Germany. She first appropriately reviews the decision to treat soldiers for what was often called “shell-shock” during World War I in military hospitals near the front instead of sending them home, as well as the assumption that good food and relaxation were adequate remedies for this psychological condition.

As it turned out, the many German prisoners of war who returned to a divided and heavily damaged Germany after World War II had far greater problems adjusting to life than did those discharged from the German army who returned to an essentially undamaged country after World War I. Furthermore, those who in subsequent years, especially the 1950s, were released from imprisonment in the Soviet Union suffered even worse from the hunger and general deprivation that they had endured both prior to and during their internment.

Goltermann properly stresses, and covers in substantial detail, two of the ways in which the problems of the returnees defied the then-current official and generally accepted professional view. In the first place, substantial evidence indicated that the vast majority of soldiers’ mental and physical problems were not simply attributable to hereditary deficiencies. Although she does not press the point, most readers will ascertain that this peculiar medical notion betrays the continued influence of racist thinking in Germany’s professional circles.

In the second place, Goltermann covers in considerable detail the discovery that those who had survived the Holocaust and other forms of Nazi persecution in Germany and other German-occupied countries often suffered from, and claimed reparation for, long-term traumatic mental effects. Ironically, the competition between German soldiers and survivors of persecution for compensation was not the reason why, by the end of the 1960s, professionals had come to recognize the legitimacy of post-traumatic syndrome. Instead, international pressure to compensate the victims of persecution led to better treatment of the returnees—even those who had been perpetrators of horrors while in the military before their capture.

The central theme of this book is the reluctance and internal squabbling with which German officials dealt with the difficulties of the returning soldiers and their families over time. Goltermann rarely mentions the specific ordeals that the men had discussed in the interviews that she cites. She leaves the “war in their minds” as a generalized experience of combat, occupation, or imprisonment. The book’s bibliography is certain to be helpful to anyone interested in its subject, though the absence of Stephen G. Fritz, Endkampf: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Death of the Third Reich (Lexington, 2004) is regrettable. The notes include extensive discussions about some of the sources. In some cases, such as n. 10 (319), Goltermann would have been better advised to incorporate the information in the [End Page 261] main text, but the novelty of much of this work justifies the copious annotation.

The emphasis on the integration of millions of German expellees from German territories that the Soviet Union, Poland, and other countries confiscated after the war, as well as of those who fled from East Germany to West Germany before re-unification, has led to a neglect of the millions of German soldiers who had to be re-integrated into German society and their own families. Goltermann’s book is an excellent, thought-provoking study of a critical element in that process.

Gerhard L. Weinberg
University of North Carolina
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