How did military doctors, one hundred years ago, treat the thousands of soldiers whose minds, rather than their bodies, had been wrecked by the conflict?
In Triumph of the Will? psychologist and author David Lewis describes the therapies they used. Treatments which, today, would be regarded as barbaric and which made the years of war among the darkest in the history of psychiatry.
Electric Shocks for Broken Brains
By David Lewis.
When World War I broke out, in August 1914, doctors believed a few months ‘exhilarating action’, in what they termed the ‘steel bath’ of war, would leave young men stronger, fitter and more mentally stable than ever before.
The doctors could not have been more wrong.
The Front Line 1916
Apart from the thousands of physically wounded soldiers, an equal number suffered terrible disabilities without any physical injuries to account for them. They were paralysed, or blind, or mute, or contorted into grotesque shapes. They stammered, stuttered, or could speak only gibberish.
A German soldier disabled by what was termed ‘hysteria’.
They were suffering from what the doctors called hysteria. Today it would be diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
At that time nobody knew how best to treat this form of mental breakdown. The German psychiatrists used what they euphemistically termed ‘active therapies’. These included the injection of saline solutions, as well as the so-called ‘agony shriek’, which was, if possible, even more beastly than it sounded.
By far the most widely used ‘active therapy’, involved the use of sustained and powerful electric shocks. In 1903, while working at Heidelberg’s nerve clinic, psychiatrist Fritz Kaufmann had observed a young girl suffering from hysteria being cured by a ‘merciless’ ten-minute burst of electric current. Twelve years later he used the same method to treat soldiers whose minds had been broken by the horrors of the Front.
Fritz Kaufmann, second from left, and colleagues in 1916
His Gewaltsuggestionsmethode (method of violent suggestion) involved the ‘application of a strong, alternating current’ in bursts of between two and five minutes for up to two and a half hours. These extremely painful shocks were, whenever possible, applied directly to the affected part of the body. A soldier with a paralysed leg, for example, would have the electrodes attached to his thigh or calf.
Describing his experiences at Kaufmann’s hands one patient wrote: ‘The current was switched on. At first I had a prickly feeling, which suddenly burst into intense pain…’
Kaufmann insisted that in order for his treatment to be effective strict military discipline had to be enforced, with the doctor emphasising his superior military rank and barking out commands as if on the parade ground.
While claiming a high degree of success, Kaufmann also admitted his patients were never fit enough to return to the Front Line.
As historian Paul Lerner comments: ‘The Kaufmann method – analogous to war itself – was conceived of as a battle of wills between doctor and patient, and in his contest with the doctor, the patient had to understand that he could not win.’