When Germany Called Its Soldiers Hysterical

A disabled war veteran in Berlin, 1923 / German Federal Archives, Wikimedia Commons

After WWI, German psychiatrists diagnosed traumatized soldiers as having “hysteria,” othering the men to somewhat disastrous effect.

By Erin Blakemore
Colorado-based Journalist and Author

For many soldiers who returned from World War I, the terror of combat never abated. Though the statistics are still fuzzy, at least one historian estimates that upwards of twenty percent of all soldiers suffered from shell shock, the early twentieth-century name for combat PTSD. But in Germany, “shell shock” was not considered an acceptable diagnosis. Instead, writes historian Paul Lerner, men who came back from the war with psychological trauma were dubbed hysterical—with disastrous consequences.

Male hysteria was not new in Germany. Lerner writes that the first mass instances of traumatic neurosis recorded in Germany happened among industrial workers who survived gruesome railroad and mining accidents. At first, these workers were compensated through pensions. Over the years, however, the public began believing that these accident victims only pretended to be sick in order to seek pension benefits.