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Call for Papers: Nerves and War. Psychological Mobilization and Experiences of Suffering in Germany, 1900-1933

News from Oct 26, 2016

(Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut der Freien Universität Berlin, 28.-30. September 2017)

Conveners: Dr. Gundula Gahlen (Freie Universität Berlin), Dr. Björn Hofmeister (Freie Universität Berlin), Dr. Christoph Nübel (Zentrum für Militärgeschichte und Sozialwissenschaften der Bundeswehr, Potsdam)

„Nerves“ enjoyed a central place in German debates about the nature of war since the beginning of the 20th Century. Discussions about the importance of physical strength as well as the psychological cost of future wars had been prevalent in politics, science, the military, and the public. During WWI concepts of the weakness and the strength of nerves entered the language of politics and developed into embattled interpretations of Germany´s performance during the war – at the military front as well as on the home front. The experience of psychological injuries on a massive scale only added to these diagnoses on the impact of modern total warfare and its cultural, social, and political implications. The socio-political management and the psychological treatment of mental war injuries became a crucial subject of political, scientific, and social debates in postwar Germany about the fragmentation of Weimar´s society as the radical Right propagated a new mental mobilization for war, which, finally, consumed all levels of society after the enforced coordination (“Gleichschaltung”) of the state in the Third Reich.

This planned conference is devoted to the relationship between nerves and war in Imperial and Weimar Germany. The conference for the first time aims to analyze systematically continuities and caesuras in contemporary discourses of nerves in politics, science, the military, and the public as well as individual and collective experiences of war mobilization and suffering between 1900 and 1933.  On the level of “discourses”, nerves will be analyzed by looking closer at decision-makers (political and military elites), medical experts, and the media. On the level of „practice“, the experiences of war mobilization and suffering will be examined in contributions dealing with the military front and the home front during WWI and the relationship between the military and society in the aftermath of the war.

Five themes will guide the analysis of war and nerves:

1. What was the importance of the concept of „nerves as resources for successful warfare“ in contemporary debates in politics, science, the military, and the public?

2. What was the extent to which the war worked as a laboratory of stress and a mental endurance test for individuals as well as for entire nations? What was the significance of Social Darwinist influences or gender in these narratives?

3. What were the long-term consequences of the destructive nature of the war for the psyche of combatants and civilians? What impact did the war have on the perception of social, cultural, and political cohesion/fragmentation of German society between 1914 and 1933?

4. Which efforts were invested to mobilize the “nerves” of German society and to regenerate them? What was the influence of the professionalization of psychiatry as a scientific discipline with its new sub-disciplines of war psychiatry, war psychology, and defense studies?

5. How can we measure the significance of “nerves” in national narratives and individual interpretations of the meaning of wars?

The conference focuses on Germany from around 1900 to 1933. However, proposals dealing with non-German influences, transfer relations, and parallel developments in other countries or placing German developments in international contexts are welcome. We also invite proposals that look at long-term developments exceeding the period of Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany - into the 19th Century or beyond the caesura of 1933.

Subject to the funding of this conference transportation and hotel expenses costs will be covered. The publication of the proceedings of this conference is planned. Please send us your proposal (working title and abstract) with a maximum of two pages in addition to your CV and a list of publications to:


Gundula Gahlen (gundula.gahlen@fu-berlin.de) and

Björn Hofmeister (bhofmeister@zedat.fu-berlin.de)


The deadline for proposals is 7 November 2016.

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