Shell shock has gained considerable attention from historians dealing with the history of memory. As historian Jay Winter observed, shell shock was a form of ‘embodied memory’, as tics, tremors, nightmares and other symptoms of traumatic violence made an indelible mark on the bodies and minds of men shattered by modern war.1 This wound, newly diagnosed during the First World War, symbolized the deeply traumatic effects of industrialized combat on not only individuals, but also European culture and society. War neurosis, as it was called by German doctors, became a central site for post-war debates over the memory of the war in a fragmented and deeply divided Germany. Historians explore a number of interrelated questions on the significance of shell shock and memory: what did the proliferation of ‘hysterical men’ responding to the horrors of war signify about masculinity and the effects of modern combat on male bodies and minds? How did mentally ill veterans fit into debates over the memory of the war as a brutalizing or regenerative experience for individuals and societies? The focus of this chapter is on Germany’s experience with mental trauma and debates over memory. In particular, it concentrates on how mentally traumatized men constructed the memory of the war experience through the prism of psychological illness. Letters by traumatized men provide historians the opportunity to explore

dissident voices of those who rejected prevailing medical and political attempts to wield authority over their minds and memories of the war. The perceptions of military doctors and political leaders coping with the epidemic of ‘war neurosis’ have been well documented.2 Doctors often characterized ‘hysterical men’ as weak, unmanly and a contagious threat to the nation’s fighting strength and resources, and they denied men status as war victims who deserved pensions. Prejudices about traumatized men as malingerers and welfare burdens intensified in Germany’s first experiment with democracy, the Weimar Republic. Though the new democracy created a progressive system of welfare for war victims, including veterans who suffered psychological injuries, the republic rarely convinced doctors, or the public, that these men were productive or even authentic victims of war. After 1933, the Nazi regime targeted ‘hysterical’ war victims as enemies of the nation because they allegedly tarnished the sacred memory of the war and threatened the health of the

nation.3 Nazi ideologues remembered the trench experience as a healthy, rejuvenating cornerstone on which to build masculine virtues, and the regime attacked mentally traumatized men as enemies of the ‘national community’. While memories of the war constructed by medical and political authorities

are readily available to historians, individual memory proves to be more difficult to locate and analyse. The perspectives of mentally traumatized individuals are a challenge to historians because they are elusive, complex and do not neatly fit into the ‘official’ memories constructed by medical and political elites. Fortunately, the voices of men who claimed to be psychologically shattered by the war survive in German archives, as they wrote to doctors, political elites and welfare bureaucrats about their plight in the years after the war. After 1918, traumatized men often saw themselves as still at war over the memory of the trench experience, with the battlefield shifted from the trenches to doctors’ offices, welfare lines and the streets. ‘Hysterical men’ who survived the trenches, armed with typewriters and driven by intense bitterness aimed at doctors, welfare officials and politicians, fiercely contested the Nazi regime’s official memory of the war, and they attempted to take control over the narrative of traumatic memory. Approaching the history of mental trauma from the perspectives of German veterans highlights how the battle over the significance of shell shock was not only a contest over medical theories and economic welfare, but also a battle over the ‘authentic’ memory of the war experience. The often tortured voices of traumatized veterans are an essential part of the history of shell shock because they reveal that there was no ‘master narrative’ of German trauma. Rather, traumatic memory was fiercely contested by ordinary veterans who criticized authorities’ attempts to sanctify a collective memory. In their letters to welfare bureaucrats, doctors and politicians, it is difficult

to determine where ‘truth’ resides regarding the origins and nature of their wounds. Instead of trying to uncover veracity in the debates between doctors and patients, it is arguably more important to analyse how traumatized men perceived their injuries, and how they constructed memory within the framework of at least three overlapping forces – in response to the categories and prejudices imposed by military and medical authorities, in relation to cultural attitudes about masculinity, and through the filter of competing political ideologies of the interwar landscape. They used their individual traumatic memories to articulate theories on a whole range of German society’s overlapping traumas, including the experiences of militarism, class warfare, welfare and society’s treatment of ‘social outsiders’. In this way, the memory of the original trauma in the trenches was redefined through layers of secondary trauma, namely post-war ostracization, economic suffering and the suppression and official denial of their traumatic memories.4 In some cases, the secondary traumas supplanted the horrors of the trenches, and informed how these men remembered their combat experiences. Veterans’ desires to attack military and political authorities and gain resti-

tution often displaced their ability objectively to reconstruct memories of their

original trauma at the front. Historian Peter Barham developed an interesting way to deal with this dilemma.Using case studies of ‘forgotten lunatics’ in Britain, he argues persuasively that their letters to authorities were filled with such anger and hatred of medical-political elites that they reveal as much about the emotional universe of men traumatized by war as their medical, economic and political circumstances.5 This does not delegitimize the existence of real, terrifying wounds incurred by many of these men. However, their memories were distorted by the cultural and political tensions that dominated their environment after 1918. They directed such corrosive rage at doctors and politicians for rejecting the authenticity of their wounds, or suggesting that they were unmanly for failing to recover, that their letters cast more light on their post-war psychological condition, full of resentment and loathing, than the nature of their original trauma. In a desperate attempt to assert some control, traumatized men tried to assert authority over what they saw as the ‘authentic’ memory of the war, which they claimed was trampled by medical and political elites. By focusing on the perspectives of war neurotics, it is possible to reconstruct a history of trauma, memory and masculinity ‘from the margins’, as men contested their status as ‘social outsiders’ who allegedly threatened collective memories of the war.6