- Disability in Twentieth-Century German Culture
Carole Poore’s book is the first comprehensive work on the topic of disability in German history and culture in any language. Starting out with an analysis of discourses on disability during and after World War I, she integrates discussions of medical debates about disability, interpretations of disability themes in German literature, art and film, arguments about euthanasia in Nazi and post World War II Germany, explorations of the experiences of disabled people, as well as a retrospective analysis of her own experience as a visibly disabled woman living in Germany in the early 1970s, into a well-organized and stimulating narrative. In many ways, her book is an exploration of 20th-century German social and cultural history through disability-related themes. It traces conflicting and shifting meanings of health, illness, impairment, and disability in specific historical contexts, relates them to mechanisms of social inclusion and exclusion, and in [End Page 514] this way sharpens historical understandings of normalcy, otherness, bio-politics, economic productivity, citizenship, and the role of the welfare state.
The author has decided to cast her net widely. She explores discourses about all kinds of disabilities whether of a physical or cognitive nature and has also not confined herself to specific cultural fields such as art or literature. This breadth of scope is one of the strengths of this book. Her chapter on disability in the Weimar Republic discusses the role of disabled veterans and their organizations during the Weimar Republic as well as the meanings which artists and writers attributed to physical disabilities. In the works of the painter Otto Dix, for example, the grotesque representations of the bodies of disabled veterans served as a provocative political critique of persisting militaristic attitudes.
Poore’s analysis of rehabilitation discourses shows how medical professionals such as Konrad von Biesalski and Wilhelm Würtz were challenged by early disability activists for ignoring or misrepresenting the experiences and attitudes of the disabled. Biesalski was the founder and director of the Oskar-Helene Home for “crippled” children in Berlin who used his expertise to develop an extensive program for the physical rehabilitation of disabled soldiers. Together with Würtz, the education director of the Oskar-Helene Home, he argued that deformed bodies shaped the psychology of the disabled in characteristic ways. He asserted that the physically disabled would become withdrawn, suspicious, and bitter which is why rehabilitation also had to overcome the deficiencies of the “cripples’ souls”. In Poore’s view, such arguments stigmatized the disabled. Since rehabilitation experts posited a connection between disability and a weakened “will” to work, they further marginalised those who were unable to work. Here it would have been interesting to explore further how the productivist biases in such rehabilitation discourses related to contemporary visions about the efficient use of human resources in work physiology and other bio-medical debates. The frequent use of the term “minderwertig” (literally: of inferior value) in Weimar medicine, psychiatry, and eugenics points to wide-spread economic assumptions that—similar to the discourses examined by Poore—assigned values to human beings based on their productivity.
During the Nazi period propaganda campaigns against severely disabled people prepared the way for forced sterilization and ultimately mass murder in the euthanasia program. This is a well-known story. What is less well-known is the range of ambiguous and often contradictory attitudes towards different forms of disability during the Third Reich. Throughout the 1930s, the regime stigmatized people with severe disabilities in popular exhibitions and films using a simple binary visual aesthetic that contrasted the healthy and “racially pure” with “degenerate” asylum inmates. At the other end of the spectrum disabled World War I veterans were courted by the Nazis and venerated as the first citizens of the Reich because of their sacrifices for the racial “People’s Community”. In exploring the complexity of such attitudes, Poore advances the historical understanding of disability under Nazism in often surprising ways.
The second half of the book deals with living situations and representations of...