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The Woman Who Helped Germany Overcome Its Nazi Guilt

Margarete Mitscherlich, who died this week at 94, was the Grande Dame of German psychoanalysis, having helped unravel Germany's post-War zeitgeist of denial.

Margarete Mitscherlich, the Grande Dame of German psychoanalysis.
Margarete Mitscherlich, the Grande Dame of German psychoanalysis.
Sven Felix Kellerhoff

FRANKFURT– Margarete Mitscherlich died just before her 95th birthday, in Frankfurt. She was made famous by the title of a book – more than the book itself– The Inability to Mourn. The book, co-written with her psychoanalyst husband Alexander Mitscherlich came out in 1967 and struck a chord in Germany's collective conscience, just 20 years after the end of the war.

How do people with individual and collective burdens deal with their past? Since Sigmund Freud, that question has been psychology's central theme. The Mitscherlichs weren't the first to address this question in relation to German history, but they did so more forcefully than others before them.

The Mitscherlichs recognized that post-World War II society in West Germany was suffering from the fact that the crimes and actions of so many Germans in the Third Reich had been repressed. They postulated that the path to healing lay not in repressing but in facing the past -- and they came up with the term "inability to mourn" to define the problem facing German society as a whole.

Actually, by the time the book came out in the late-1960s, its basic premise was no longer strictly true: with the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem and the Auschwitz trial in Frankfurt, along with the debate in the German Parliament about lifting the statute of limitations for war crimes, Germany had been facing up to its Nazi past.

What the Mitscherlichs were saying, however, had certainly strongly marked the 1950s, when the country put all its energy into rebuilding. At the time, most people in Germany thought of themselves as victims of the War and had blanked out the fact that a significant number of Germans had supported Hitler's rule and the racial fanaticism that led to catastrophe both for Germany and Europe.

But even if its basic premise was less relevant by the time it came out, the Mitscherlich book took on huge importance because it gave a name to the anxiety burdening the first generation born after the war. The phenomenon was reminiscent of the effect of another, very different book that came out in another turbulent time in history: Oswald Spengler's "Decline of the West" (1918) about what more intellectually inclined Germans were feeling after World War I.

Alexander, who died in 1982, became a central figure in the "68er-Bewegung" – the 1968 German student protest movement – but Margarete steered clear of any excess. "To be part of the ‘68 movement, you had to accept the idea that your father might have been a Nazi…but nobody went to the trouble of trying to understand how Hitler could have happened in Germany."

As a psychoanalyst, Margarete Mitscherlich focused on human emotion, particularly aggression, and over the course of her career she wrote much more and conducted research of far more scientific importance than the book that made her name.

Emancipation, feminism and the psyche in older age were also important subjects for her, and her work engendered much discussion in specialized circles. But to the general public, she was mainly remembered for The Inability to Mourn.

When she celebrated her 90th birthday, Mitscherlich looked back on the impact of her famous book and said: "The big question is still whether or not mourning can be learned. But one thing is certain: no nation today remembers its own history as clearly as Germany. Germans have become very courageous. And that makes me happy of course."

She was also modest enough to stress that her book was "one of many catalysts' for the transformation in the way the Germans dealt with their past. But it was a major one indeed.

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