Paul Lerner traces the intertwined histories of trauma and male hysteria in German society and psychiatry and shows how these concepts were swept up into debates about Germany's national health, economic productivity, and military strength in the years surrounding World War I. From a growing concern with industrial accidents in the 1880s through the shell shock "epidemic" of the war, male hysteria seemed to bespeak the failings of German masculinity. In response, psychiatrists struggled to turn male-hysterical bodies into fit workers and loyal political subjects.
Medical approaches to trauma valorized work and productivity as standards of male health, and psychiatric treatment—whether through hypnosis, electric current, or suggestion—concentrated on turning debilitated soldiers into symptom-free workers. These concerns endured through the Weimar period, as "nervous veterans" competed for disability compensation amid the republic's political crises and economic upheavals.
Hysterical Men shows how wartime psychiatry furthered the process of medical rationalization. Lerner views this not as a precursor to the brutalities of Nazi-era psychiatry, but rather as characteristic of a more general medicalized modernity. The author asserts, however, that psychiatry's continual skepticism toward trauma resonated powerfully with the radical right's celebration of war and violence and its supposedly salutary effects on men and nations.
"An absorbing account of the human toll of World War One, exhaustively researched, engagingly presented, and infinitely topical. Lerner sees medical history as cultural history, and his case studies are as poignant as they are terrifying. The monstrosity of war becomes palpable in these pages."
Anton Kaes, University of California, Berkeley
"The subject of Hysterical Men is of considerable relevance to communities of readers interested in the history of psychiatry, war psychiatry, and hysteria. Among the many books published on these subjects, Lerner's is original, lucid, well organized, and superbly documented."
Allan Young, McGill University
"Hysterical Men traces the development of ideas about hysteria in Germany (and more broadly in Europe) throughout a period that saw a vast change in the understanding of mental illnesses and their treatments. Lerner focuses in particular on the thorny problem of male hysteria, rather than on the far more studied complaint in the other gender. In doing so, Lerner contributes a significant study to the expanding interest in masculinity, as well as engaging thoroughly with recent interest in science, medicine, and war, and with the focus on trauma that is growing among historians of psychiatry.... Lerner's achievements are many and his flaws very few. Hysterical Men is one of the most significant publications in the history of psychiatry to date. As such, my recommendation of this book is unreserved. My only advice is to read it."
"A book-length study of the German experience of World War One psychological trauma has been conspicuously lacking until now. Lerner's book does more than simply fill this gap; with its rich analysis and mastery of the archival material it is sure to become the standard text on a topic of central importance for anyone seeking to understand the tangled relations among war, psychological trauma, medicine, welfare, and masculinity in early twentieth-century Germany. Lerner convincingly documents that the specter of the male hysteric who, out of personal weakness, shirked his duty (military or economic) to the state 'haunted the German imagination as the nation progressed along the path to modernity.'."
German Studies Review
"In the summer of 1914, as the German army swept through Belgium and into France, its commanders were shocked when what Paul Lerner calls an 'epidemic' of 'shakes, stutters, tics, and tremors' and a host of other disabling behaviors swept through the ranks. Fortunately for the army, Germany's psychiatrists galloped to the rescue, and what they did and what it meant is the story of this finely written and rigorously researched book.... Lerner's study contributes importantly to the history of psychiatry and medicine and to the histories of Germany, modern Europe, and the Great War; it examines issues important to social policy and gender studies. By this standard, too, it is very well done. The topic is large, complex, and important, and Lerner handles it with rigor, skill, and clarity. This is a very good and very important book."
Robert Weldon Whalen
American Historical Review
"Paul Lerner's long-awaited book fills a substantial hole in war literature by providing the first scholarly, authoritative account of German psychiatry's role in the First World War: a story just as dramatic as the familiar British 'shell-shock' saga, and historically far more significant. Lerner has distilled his material into a clear, well-organized and thoroughly documented narrative, an achievement to which non-German speakers will be particularly indebted."
Times Literary Supplement
"Even today the question of trauma as an explanation of symptoms as against the diagnosis of the 'disease' of hysteria reflects an ongoing public and professional debate. Is trauma a disorder of the self or of society? Is its victim a victim of himself or of the social order? Paul Lerner's wonderfully erudite book is essential reading for thinking through this ongoing question."
Institute for the History of Psychiatry Annual Report
"This historical study takes on the critical issue of whether soldiers who suffer trauma on the front lines are to be treated as unfortunates who have reached their breaking point or malingerers who have failed a test of character.... This is a first-rate book, speaking to issues that return with every war."
Lawrence D. Freedman