Conference Report: Psychiatry in Europe after WWII

Over 30-31 October, Heidelberg University’s Cluster of Excellence: Asia and Europe in a Global Context played host to conference that brought together historians and clinical practitioners from across the world to discuss psychiatry in the post-WWII context.  Held at the Karl Jaspers Centre, Psychiatry in Europe after World War II (Psychiatrie in Europa nach dem Zweiten Weltkreig) grappled with a simple but important question: was WWII a turning point for the development of psychiatry?  If so, what about the war shifted European psychiatry into a new direction? What were the primary changes brought about and were these changes reflected across Europe?

The meeting was introduced by Maike Rotzoll, herself a psychiatrist and historian, who presciently highlighted some further questions that were addressed by most of the presenters.  How and how much did the East-West conflict affect psychiatric development?  What role did supranational entities like the WHO play in shaping mental healthcare?  What hallmarks, if any, mark “postwar psychiatry?”  She placed much stress on the need for historians to consider issues of continuity and discontinuity when assessing mental healthcare after 1945.


Nearly twenty countries were touched upon by participants, with CEE-related papers given on the GDR (Gerrit Hohendorf, Deitmar Schulze, Ekkehardt Kumbier, Christof Beyer), Estonia (Ken Kalling and Erki Tammiksaar), Czechoslovakia (Michal Simunek and Milan Novak), Poland (Darius Myszka), Yugoslavia (Mat Savelli), and Russia (Frank Gruner).  The global nature of the conference (extending beyond Europe to include presentations by scholars working on Japan (Akihito Suzuki), the United States (Marion Schmidt), and Israel (Rakefet Zalashik)) highlighted the need to approach psychiatric history transnationally.  For example, the presentation on Yugoslavia linked up closely to Duncan Double’s work on the UK-based Maxwell Jones and John Foot’s research on Italy’s Franco Basaglia.  Postwar Japanese psychiatry, on the other hand, cannot be understood separately from American and German developments.

Recurring topics across papers included the importance of studying the prewar (and in some cases, postwar) eugenics movement, the brutal mistreatment of the mentally ill in Nazi Germany and occupied territories, and psychiatry’s desire to establish itself as a material science in the postwar period.


Moving forward, the papers made clear the central importance of the social psychiatry movement to postwar developments in mental healthcare, despite its relatively low historiographical profile.  It also became apparent that far more work must be done on the transmission and reception of ideas linked to critical psychiatry and anti-psychiatry; these movements were received (and unfolded) very differently depending on context.

The conference concluded with a guided tour of Heidelberg’s famous Prinzhorn collection – paintings, sculptures, and other art created by individuals diagnosed with mental illness – which was originally given to the university by psychiatrist and art historian Hans Prinzhorn.  Many thanks to the chief organizers (Maike Rotzoll and Frank Gruner) for a wonderful meeting.

(Images take from the Prinzhorn Collection: www.



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