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  • Incurable Madness:War Trauma, Hypnosis, and Robert Wiene's Orlacs Hände
  • Barbara Hales

The First World War is generally considered the first technological war, its instruments of destruction resulting in ten million dead on the battlefield and many more injured physically and mentally (Keegan 3; Winter 15-53). In response to the brutality experienced on the battlefield, many soldiers developed hysterical symptoms, ranging from paralysis of the extremities to deafness and distortions of sight. Hypnosis was increasingly employed during this period as a treatment for psychological maladies of this sort. Although this form of treatment was considered legitimate by many in the medical community, others remained skeptical. Physician Ernst Simmel questioned the ethics of hypnosis, claiming that the doctor had the ability to mentally overpower the patient in a manner comparable to rape (Kriegs-Neurosen 23). Simmel, along with other doctors, noted the high rate of returning symptoms in patients treated with hypnosis for hysteria (Simmel, Kriegs-Neurosen 23; see also Niessl von Maiendorf 236). This article will analyze how the debate concerning the treatment of hypnosis for the war neurotic, culminating in a negative assessment, is played out in Robert Wiene's expressionist film Orlacs Hände, following the typology outlined by Anton Kaes of conveying loss and trauma akin to that of the war without showing details of the battlefield. In order to contextualize this argument, the following analysis will explore the cultural debates on hypnosis as a treatment for the neurotic, exploring the relationship of hypnosis to a Weimar discourse of criminality and telepathy. Finally, it will show that hypnosis is part of a wider debate on the primacy of organic disease over the functional, with consequences for both the medical and legal communities and for society at large.

After 1918, the neurotic was considered to be a drain on the economy. Recidivism rates paired with the negative public reaction to war pensions created a dismal perception of the returning hysteric. Paul Lerner notes that war pensions covering nervous disorders totalled one billion marks in 1922, much of this sum going to hysterics (228). In addition, many of these recipients were believed to be feigning illness (Singer 952). The medical establishment grew more critical of the war neurotic as time progressed, noting that physiological weaknesses were to blame. If the neurotic was born with a weak constitution, then it was a case of Darwinian logic that he was biologically defective from the start; the war was only one of many triggers that could unleash his symptoms [End Page 578] (Lerner 242). This attitude led to an overturning of the 1889 ruling that granted a pension to individuals who suffered from traumatic neuroses. In 1926, the National Pension Court and the Imperial Insurance Office ruled that pensions for war hysterics were cut off; these individuals instead were encouraged to return to work (Lerner 243). This 1926 ruling was validated in Nazi Germany in 1939.

The First World War brought with it an intensified discussion of war neurosis and its treatment — with hypnosis playing a controversial role. Neurologist, psychiatrist, and publicist Ludwig Scholz, who died in battle during the First World War, left behind a collection of observations entitled Seelenleben des Soldaten an der Front (1920), in which he discusses the notion of the hysterical soldier. According to Scholz, soldiers take on symptoms such as paralysis after the occurrence of a fear-inducing event, for example a mine explosion or grenade attack (15). He goes into detail documenting the neurotic state of these soldiers: "Sie liegen da, blaß und zitternd, manche haben die Sprache ganz oder teilweise verloren, können kaum gehen und stehen, weinen oder sind völlig teilnahmlos" (226). These symptoms are not attributed to organic injury, but in fact have a psychological origin. Scholz notes that because of a shock experienced near the front, the soldier has unconsciously decided that he "wants out," if possible for good (15). In this sense the soldier flees into illness without the conscious knowledge that he has taken this action.

Like Scholz, Sigmund Freud considered neurosis to be a flight from the trauma of war. He notes that civilization's peacetime prohibition of killing keeps powerful instinctual urges in...


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