- The Great War and German Memory: Society, Politics and Psychological Trauma, 1914-1945
The trauma caused European soldiery by the twentieth century's two world wars has recently been depicted in strikingly different ways: James J. Sheehan wonders Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? (2008) since the end of World War II and marvels in his work by that title at the "the transformation of modern Europe" caused by a prevailing pacifism. Jason Crouthamel's The Great War and German Memory harbors no such wonderment about a German "transformation," at least, after the Great War. Essentially, he examines the war, Germany's collapse in 1918, and its Weimar and Nazi aftermath in the context of war neurosis. His multifaceted exploration of this theme—medical, social, ideological, and political—provides a new dimension to Weimar history.
Crouthamel's work tracks the diverse reactions to combat trauma-those by an array of persistent veterans, by sometimes well-meaning, sometimes suspicious welfare administrators, by politicians and ideologues, and by psychiatrists. In this undertaking he examines separately how these various constituencies reacted to ideology and policy and engaged one another in the process. In what is perhaps his most enlightening chapter, Crouthamel attributes the timidity of Social Democrats and public skepticism about the legitimacy of veterans' neuroses claims for undermining not only the National Pension Law (1920), but for casting a shadow on the veteran in German society. In successive chapters Crouthamel describes the Communist and Nazi take on war neurosis; despite their high-sounding rhetoric, both let politics and ideology trump individual need. The Nazis tried straddling the fence by claiming sympathy for "legitimate" psychologically disabled veterans but not for "hysterics." Crouthamel's long and really brilliant narrative on "Nazi Germany's Hidden Psychopaths" (Chapter 6) is a case study of two traumatized veterans. Determined simply "not to let go," these men badgered Nazis no less than they had Weimar bureaucrats in order to procure what they regarded their entitlements.
So what is one to make of all this? Many themes emerge here: on one hand, the tortured lives of combat survivors, conflicting views about war neurosis as evidenced by these disabled veterans and their supporters, and on the [End Page 1162] other hand those views held by conservative psychiatrists, the military, and other celebrants of the comradeship and the "manliness" of trench warriors.
Those romanticizing war in the trenches readily subscribed to the notion that in 1918 a nation of heroes had been undone by Jews and Communists on the home front and sadly diminished afterwards by "whiners" and "grumblers" seeking remuneration for their wartime trauma. As Crouthamel put it,
Depending on politics and experience, war neurotics were seen alternately as empathetic victims of total war's extreme brutality or symptoms of psychological weakness that led to the nation's collapse(220).
Such differing recollections of warfare—horrors, heroism, comradery—led each side to invent its own memory of what had transpired during the war and in the autumn of 1918.
Although the Nazis were initially thought to be sympathetic to traumatized veterans (after all, Hitler had been one of them), they were not. As Crouthamel observes (202), just before World War II the Nazis resorted to a program of "euthanasia," which targeted mentally and physically impaired. The author suggests that some grumblers and whiners from the earlier war were among its victims.
This is a superb study, focusing on an unexplored theme in Weimar/Nazi history which greatly amplifies and clarifies what we had known. The author's delving into medical records bypassed by other historians, and his handling and articulating the significance of such materials makes this work immensely important in understanding both Weimar and Third Reich history. To return to this reviewer's introduction, one cannot but be impressed by the contrasting behaviors of Germans after the last century's two world wars. This work, like Sheehan's, helps immeasurably in deciphering that anomaly.