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The New Historical Trauma Studies

The New Historical Trauma Studies

Recent decades have seen an outpouring of publications about psychological trauma. With its formal diagnostic category of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Western psychiatric medicine has led the way in opening up this field of study. Many other disciplines of inquiry, including sociology, anthropology, legal studies, and literary studies, also have contributed their distinctive approaches and methodologies to the subject. Most recently, professional historians in Britain, Germany, Austria, Australia, Canada, and the United States have researched the origins of PTSD to great effect. These “new historical trauma studies” draw heavily on pioneering medical research from earlier places and periods. In addition, empirical findings from and analytical insights into humanity’s troubled, traumatic past provide ideas, observations, and insights that may be useful for mental health practitioners today.

As early as 1981, historically informed physicians set out the general historical trajectory of medical investigations of psychotraumatology—from mid-Victorian investigations of “railway spine” (PTSD-like symptoms in passengers involved in railroad accidents) to contemporary debates over workers’ compensation for on-the-job injuries.1,2 Likewise, scholars with specialized interests had trawled medical-historical records to find cases of PTSD-like symptoms that followed acutely stressful, natural or man-made environmental experiences.3-6 What the newer historical trauma studies offer, however, is extensive insight into collective catastrophic experiences that are archivally researched and intricately reconstructed within the cultural and chronological contexts that shaped the traumatic experiences of contemporaries at the time.

World War I

Academically trained historians have recently brought the particularizing power of historical scholarship to bear on the well-known phenomenon of “shell shock” in World War I.7-13 The best-known diagnostic precursor of PTSD, shell shock encompassed a flood of neuropsychiatric symptoms that emerged in almost epidemic numbers among officers and infantry on both sides of the conflict. Studies about this condition drew on the discovery that modern industrialized warfare (which uses machine guns, motorized tanks, long-distance artillery, mustard gas and other chemical weapons, and barbed wire), with its unprecedented, long-distance killing power, was uniquely destructive of human psychic defenses. This was particularly true for soldiers who were involved in lengthy operations that were interspersed with long periods of immobility.14 In psychiatric and military history, the “Great War” brought the advent of modern PTSD as we know it.


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