American PTSD and German PTBS

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Posttraumatische Belastungsstörung

Rainer Kohler (December 2009)

Recently, I had an experience connecting my life as a Jungian psychoanalyst in America with German psychotherapy of war trauma, specifically the World War II trauma of children born between 1930 and 1945, of which I am one. The connection was made when Alois Rademacher, a German internist and my contemporary during high school, sent me the book Die vergessene Generation; Die Kriegskinder brechen ihr Schweigen (The Forgotten Generation; The War Children Break Their Silence), © 2005. The author, Sabine Bode, was born in 1947 and lives in Cologne. She started her career as an editor for a Cologne newspaper and today works as a freelance journalist giving lectures and making contributions to German public radio. During the last thirty years she has published several books.

Because of the collective German guilt and shame of being the nation which produced and enabled Hitler and the Nazis, which started World War II, and which was the perpetrator of the Holocaust, the effects of the war and the dictatorship on the children born during that time were not explored until very recently, when most of these children are in their 60s and 70s. As Luise Reddemann, who herself wrote a book Imagination als heilsame Kraft (Imagination as a Healing Force), says in her postscript to Bode’s book:

“Can I allow myself – myself a war child – to see that there is a critical aspect for [war] children which has nothing to do with the fact that there had been a Hitler or that the Germans had started the war, but which has to do with being abandoned, with the loss of home, with bombs, with hunger, with deprivation, with shame, with being a refugee and hence an outsider, with the anxiety of the parents and their inability to provide a safe environment, in other words with all the daily fears and needs of a small child?”

In the last twenty years or so, German psychotherapy and, more slowly, the German medical establishment and German society at large have begun to recognize that many of the symptoms of the war children are due to PTSD or, as Germans call it, Posttraumatische Belastungsstörung or PTBS which, when retranslated – does it surprise anyone? – means Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Bode presents several case vignettes in her book tracing a variety of symptoms, such as depression, rage, violence, the inability to feel or to show empathy, addictions, and on and on, to the child’s experiences of being in air raids, spending days and nights in cellars and bunkers, hearing and feeling the bombs and the flak, seeing the burning and destroyed houses and the resulting rubble, losing a parent or sibling, being orphaned, expelled or abandoned, and so on and so on.

Rather than present one of Bode’s cases in more detail, I will share a personal experience: During the 1970s and 80s my family and I would frequently spend our summer vacation on Cape Cod. We were at the beach near Hyannis, where the planes from Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket land and take off. When the first plane flew over the beach where we were sitting, I suddenly became almost paralyzed with fear; I looked around for the nearest air raid shelter or bunker. It took me a while to figure out that these small planes landing and taking off in Hyannis made the same sounds and were roughly the same size propeller planes which dropped the bombs on us during World War II. This emotional reaction happened thirty and forty years after the end of World War II and had not happened before then. – I shared this experience with a class mate from high school who still lives in Germany and he responded that he was having similar flash backs. [It is amazing how dry this sounds on paper; how does one communicate the terror and emotion which I even feel now as I write this?]

I am pleased to see that German insurance companies recognize depth psychology as one of the modalities of treatment for PTSD (the other is behavioral). I am also pleased to see that Judith Lewis Herman’s book Trauma and Recovery has been translated into German and is being quoted. Finally, I am pleased to see that German psychotherapy is also attentive to the new insights from neuroscience with physiological changes in the brain being related to emotional changes.

I am not claiming that the fate of German war children is unique. As far as their traumata resulting from war are concerned, they are no different than all war children throughout history, including the more recent wars in Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and all the other war zones around the world.

Nor am I claiming that a family, a group or a nation does not share responsibility for the misdeeds of its members, as Jung so eloquently set forth in his 1945 article After the Catastrophe. There is certainly something in the character of the German people which contributed to the appearance of Hitler and the Nazis. Volumes have been written trying to analyze what that might be. I would merely point, symbolically and pars pro toto, to a statement by Friedrich Wilhelm Graf von Schulenburg, who told the people of Berlin in 1852 on the occasion of public unrest: “Ruhe ist die erste Bürgerpflicht” which I would translate as: “The highest civic duty is to remain quiet and to be obedient,” thus elevating unquestioning obedience to government to the highest moral value. It is not without reason that this phrase became a frequent quote and admonition in German society.

Worse still, this mentality found its way into child rearing through Johanna Haarer who in her 1934 book Die deutsche Mutter und ihr erstes Kind (The German Mother and her First Child) instructed German mothers to leave their children alone, i.e. “quiet” and in solitude, as much as possible and to avoid showing too much affection. Haarer admonished: When the child is crying in the crib, “Mother, be hard! Do not pick him up, do not carry or rock him, do not cuddle him on your lap and especially do not feed him.” I suspect that Haarer’s education theory is but a continuation of educational methods going back hundreds of years, but it was specifically endorsed by the Nazis. Even in the family the emphasis is on forcing the child to remain quiet and be obedient.

To repeat, I am not claiming that the German war children are unique in suffering from the trauma of war, and I am not claiming that the preoccupation of adult German society after World War II with its collective guilt and shame for enabling Hitler and the Nazis is inappropriate. But I am claiming, and Bode’s book makes the point, that what is unique to German war children is that for a long time their traumata were buried and hidden under the thick layer of German guilt and shame. And because of this secrecy the traumata have festered in the unconscious of these children, who are now parents and grandparents, and are continuing their effects into succeeding generations.

It appears that the time is right, that indeed it has become necessary and urgent, for the war children to have an opportunity to process their war traumata. My experience on the beach in Hyannis (together with many more not related here) and the experience of my friend in Germany, as well as the experiences of the samples from the hundreds of thousands of children described in Bode’s book, make it abundantly clear that humanity ignores the consequences of PTSD and PTBS at its peril. I am relieved, therefore, that German psychotherapy is making the benefits which I received from my analysis in this country available to war children – who are now no longer children but in their 60s and 70s – in Germany. Perhaps the emotional impact of, for example, the images of destroyed houses – like the picture of the house a few blocks from my home (shown above) – can then begin to diminish.

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