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  • The War in Their Minds, German Soldiers and Their Violent Pasts in West Germany by Svenja Goltermann
  • Eric Perinovic
The War in Their Minds, German Soldiers and Their Violent Pasts in West Germany. By Svenja Goltermann Translated by Philip Schmitz. (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017. viii plus 428. pp. $80.00).

In The War in Their Minds, German Soldiers and Their Violent Pasts in West Germany, historian Svenja Goltermann makes an ambitious and fascinating effort to further our understanding of the morally delicate topic of the postwar mental traumas, experiences, treatments, and attempted "normalization" of those that took part in the Third Reich's atrocities. Her work contributes not only to our understanding of the experiences and recollections of Second World War German veterans and the war's toll on West German civil society, but also to the broader history of postwar psychiatry, mental health, and trauma. Goltermann interweaves the histories of science, experience, and memory to create a complex yet cohesive narrative in three thematically distinct and mutually supporting parts.

Goltermann states that one of her overarching aims is in broadening post-1945 history to better incorporate the history of science and production of knowledge. To this end, she utilizes a substantial and robust primary source base including psychiatric journals and handbooks as well as the minutes from state-sponsored medical conferences, which allow her to track the evolution of psychiatric practices. She incorporates mass media-particularly films-heavily into her narrative to gauge both how trauma was expressed as well as the media attention it received. She employs numerous legal and governmental documents, particularly internal correspondence from the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs and Ministry of Finance to underscore which psychiatric victims, traumas, and practices the government officially approved of and provided material support for. Her most unique source base lies in the previously unutilized collection of 450 psychiatric files containing patients' personal accounts that provide the bulk of her evidentiary "memory fragments." These compellingly insert the human element into her narrative while allowing her to "make statements about the deeper layers of memory" including dreams, disorientation, anxiety over new beginnings, and emotional "normalization" (13).

In Part I, Goltermann examines how violence and trauma experienced by veterans altered the West German family structure. She addresses this topic in three chapters that respectively analyze the evolution of soldiers' discourse about [End Page 996] the war and themselves; their search for stability and new identities during the early postwar years; and the great tensions that existed between many of these men and their families. She relates these experiences by employing "memory fragments" that are largely derived from psychological evaluations conducted on men born between 1897 and 1929. In so doing, Goltermann challenges prior perceptions of postwar German mentalities in historical scholarship. Notably, she rejects the victimization discourse as both hampering longstanding problems with public memory construction and being artificially narrow in its lack of attention to the use of art and literature to process war experiences. She also rejects what she perceives as an overly optimistic narrative of the family being a stable emotional haven for returning POWs.

In Part II, Goltermann shifts the focus to psychiatry, particularly how West German psychiatrists evolved in their understanding of how the psyche processes intense stress. She asserts that historians have largely overlooked West German psychiatric medicine in favor of analyzing practices pre-1945, but she brings her research into line with the work done by Sabine Hanrath, Cornelia Brink, Volker Roelcke, and Ruth Klocke. Goltermann states that most historical analyses have been based around a small group of studies published in the 1950s, which argued that the profession's shortcomings lay in inadequate denazification, as West German psychiatrists focused mostly on Eastern Front POWs to feed into the victimhood discourse; further, they highlight West Germany's unique national intransigence in refusing to acknowledge mental trauma as a medical concern.

Goltermann posits instead that West German psychiatrists inherited doctrines and assumptions about mental health from First World War-era practices, which emphasized hereditary causes and the controllability of psychological disorders. She also shows that a similar practice of dismissal toward mental trauma was exhibited by psychiatrists throughout Western...


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