HISTORY OF PSYCHIATRY
The DSM has recognized trauma- and stress-related disorders since its third edition in 1980. Historians of psychiatry have shown that the contemporary concept of a traumatic stress disorder first began to take shape in the wake of World War II, when the debilitating effects of Nazi persecution and murder on its victims began to be looked at as health problems for those affected.1-3 Since then, a wide range of ex-political prisoners—including those from Chile, Iran, Myanmar, Palestine, South Africa, and Vietnam, to name just a few—have been examined and discussed by mental health specialists.
Among the most studied have been former political prisoners of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) or more commonly known as East Germany. The communist state there, founded in 1949, proved to be uncompromising with any citizen who appeared to be out of step with its directives, establishing a relentless state police apparatus (the Stasi) and a system of prisons and youth work camps.4
Though the regime came to an end in 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall, it is estimated that at its height in the 1980s, the GDR held around 200,000 political prisoners. A 2013 follow-up study of 93 such inmates found that “results indicate a trauma-related long-term morbidity,” albeit one that is “less stable than previously assumed.”5
A recent documentary by filmmakers Jürgen Haase and Angela Henkel now provides us with an intimate look at the toll imprisonment has had on some of these former captives. Splinters in the Head (Splitter im Kopf) offers four ex-political prisoners a chance to discuss their experiences frankly and in their own words. In June of this year, I was invited to attend a screening of the film in Berlin, followed by a question and answer session with director Jürgen Haase and two of the film’s featured subjects.
Karl-Heinz Bomberg was a physician and singer-songwriter, when he was charged with “anti-state agitation” and placed in a Stasi-run jail. Writer and human rights activist Siegmar Faust was also arrested for “anti-state agitation” and sentenced to three and a half years detention. Katrin Büchel is now a photographer, but after running away from home in her youth, she was placed in reeducation work camps over four years, deemed to be a girl with “authority issues” and “personality abnormalities.” Thomas Hannemann, a mechanic, was given a sentence of four and a half year for attempting to escape the country. Together, they provide a compellingly stark glimpse into the experiences of political detainees there.
The first part of the film chronicles their initial encounters with arrest, interrogation, and detention. Siegmar Faust, for instance, recalls thinking at the time that everything was like out of a movie one sees about the Nazis. “I didn’t do anything. This can’t be happening,” he remembers saying to himself. Most of them also describe an overwhelming sense of helplessness and loneliness, as they were badgered by interrogators, put in dark cells, and isolated from their families and other inmates.
For those having gone through it, the time spent in solitary confinement proved to be the most torturous. Karl-Heinz Bomberg recalls being beset by sweats and panic attacks. Thomas Hannemann found the absence of anyone to talk to and anything to do especially crippling. The experience was arguably even more vexing for Katrin Büchel, who was still a minor at the time of her confinement. She was sent to the high security youth camp at Torgau at one point, for exhibiting what records show was a dizzying array of red flag indicators, including “deviant behavior,” anxiety, sedition, petulance, bedwetting, thumb sucking, bullying, and feeling insulted. Placed in solitary confinement, wet, cold, afraid, and anxious, she tried to kill herself. While she didn’t succeed, others did.
Dr Eghigian is Professor of History, Penn State University, State College, PA. He is the History of Psychiatry Editor for Psychiatric Times.
1. Goltermann S. The War in Their Minds: German Soldiers and Their Violent Pasts in West Germany. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press; 2017.
2. Brunner J. Die Politik des Traumas: Gewalterfahrungen und psychisches Leid in den USA, in Deutschland und im Israel/Palästina-Konflikt. Berlin: Suhrkamp; 2014.
3. Zajde N. Die Schoah als Paradigma des psychischen Traumas. Tel Aviver Jahrb Dtsch Gesch. 2011;39:17-39.
4. Gieseke J. The History of the Stasi: East Germany’s Secret Police, 1945-1990. New York and Oxford: Berghahn; 2014.
5. Maercker A, Gäbler I, Schützwohl M. Verläufe von traumafolgen bei ehemaligen politisch inhaftierten der DDR: Ein 15-Jahres-follow-up [Course of trauma sequelae in ex-political prisoners in the GDR: A 15-year follow-up study]. Der Nervenarzt. 2013;84:72–78.