Psychology and National Socialism

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Our text by Lilienfeld deals only briefly with the history of psychology, and appropriately so, as it is not a book specifically about psychology's past but rather its foundational principles and present state of knowledge. As a student of European history, I find myself quite interested in how psychology, a discipline with important German roots, including the work of such figures as Wilhelm Wundt, Oswald Külpe, Hermann Ebbinghaus, and the (German-speaking) Austrian Sigmund Freud, developed in the German-speaking world in the tumultuous first half of the twentieth century. Specifically, how did the Nazi regime view psychology in terms of ideology and policy?

I'd known that Freud was treated harshly by the Nazis: his books were burned; his property was confiscated; he was more or less expelled from Vienna, his longtime home; his four sisters were all killed in the death camps. It seemed to me that this treatment might very well extend to other prominent psychologists as well. In fact, according to Sprung & Sprung at the International Union of Psychological Science, with the ascent of the Nazis, nearly a third of Germany's full professor's of psychology were forced out of their positions. Among these was Max Wertheimer, one of the founders of Gestalt psychology. By the end of 1933, 14% of the members of the German Psychological Association had left the country. They were followed later by others such as Wolfgang Köhler, also a founder of Gestalt. Yet both the Sprungs and Ulfried Geuter, author of The Professionalization of Psychology in Nazi Germany, argue that these trends were indicative not of a general antipathy towards psychology on the part of the Nazis, but rather persecution of individual psychologists on racial or political grounds. Interestingly and contrary to what one might expect, the number of psychological dissertations produced in an average year in Germany reached its highest point during the Nazi years (Geuter citing Treuheit 1973). Additionally, the Nazis were keen to exploit the potential of psychology in the training and selection of military personnel. With the increasing militarization of Germany in the later 1930s, the number of psychologists employed by the government increased substantially as officer candidates were subjected to psychological testing. This developed a sub-field of psychology unique to Nazi Germany: so-called Wehrmacht psychology, which applied psychology to increasing the effectiveness of the armed forces. Geuter, echoed by Sprung & Sprung argue that this large-scale employment of psychologists by the government actually led to the professionalization of psychology in Germany - an effect which presumably survived the Nazis and the war.


I suspect that these findings would surprise many (including myself) and that they might even cause some controversy, but Geuter seems to build his case on substantial evidence. To finish, I think this suggests numerous research questions that could be tackled by historians of psychology, including:

- To what extent (if any) did the prevailing Nazi ideology affect the types of research conducted in Germany? Were ideologically "incorrect" results suppressed?

- What do post-war developments in psychology in either of the two Germanies owe to experience gained during the war years and Wehrmacht psychology?

- How did psychology fare as a discipline under the other great dictatorship of the era - Stalin's Soviet Union?

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The world wars also impacted the field of psych in the US. The area of testing and measurement grew during this time because the government needed a way to test recruits to see where in the military they would be best suited. Very interesting perspective. Not many psych students are interested in the history of the discipline...

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This page contains a single entry by J. Whitebread published on October 4, 2011 7:03 PM.

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