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The Trauma Of War, A Poisoned Guide For Parenting

As a psychoanalyst, Wolfgang Schmidbauer has researched the psychological effects of war on children — and in the process, also examined his own post-War childhood in Germany. In this article, he warns that parents tend to use their experiences of suffering as a method of education, with serious consequences.

A soldier stands by children in Congo.

Parents traumatized by war make their own experiences of suffering a core principle of education.

Wolfgang Schmidbauer*

As a young married civilian, British poet Robert Graves describes his mental state after World War I. "Shells used to come bursting on my bed at midnight, even though Nancy shared it with me," he wrote in Goodbye to All That, his wartime biography. "Strangers in daytime would assume the faces of friends who had been killed."


Graves continued to suffer flashbacks and panic attacks for ten years. He felt he was not a hero but the victim of a senseless killing machine. Few traumatized soldiers had Graves' poetic power to portray what they had experienced and say goodbye.

Been through worse

"The birds that sing best, the cat eats first," was not a witty saying my grandmother or mother occasionally mouthed. It was the attitude with which adults met children after 1945.

A father traumatized by war and imprisonment observes his daughter eating one slice of dry bread during the time of food stamps so she can "properly" enjoy the second one with the few sausages she was allotted in a joyful, playfully staged indulgence. As soon as she finishes the first slice, the father grabs the treat and eats it.

To the crying girl he says, "You ate the first slice dry, you can just about eat a second. That's life, I've been through much worse!"

Behind such scenes, which have been reported to me several times, is the envy of inwardly impaired people for the capacity for happiness. And the jealousy of someone else's naive desire and confidence to still believe in a mini-drama of pleasure.

A fear of adults

Traumatized parents make their own experiences of suffering a core principle of education. They steel their children against their own past and pass this off as preparation for the future.

The power of sensory impressions is almost limitless for a child. The world appears to a child exactly what these impressions convey. The people in their world are the only ones who exist. So if a child is brought up surrounded by stories of trauma, their childhood is snatched away.

Born in 1941, I was convinced for a long time that all children are like that, that they all experience childhood the way I did. I believed that my childhood was quintessentially childlike — not feeling conditioned by time. Gradually, I came to realize that my childhood was much more deeply marked by the war than I knew.

If a child is brought up surrounded by stories of trauma, their childhood is snatched away.

For a long time, I thought that children shared a basic feeling: To them adults were something like joyless giants who had no idea what it meant to have fun. Today — and my experience as a psychoanalyst may have contributed to this — I am sure that this conviction was influenced by history.

My belief was founded on the observation that people around me were destroyed, that my fears of adults was justified, and that my experience of adults not having a clue about children's needs was realistic. So it made sense to hide joy from them as much as possible.

A soldier of the German Armed Forces carries a small child.

War damages survivors' abilities to relax and enjoy themselves, which in turn steals the next generation the possibility of a happy childhood.

Patrick Pleul/dpa/ZUMA

In a value vacuum

Traumatized parents cannot let their children grow undisturbed. They prepare them with subtle admonitions, overt pressure and personal examples to anticipate and adjust to evils. Patients born in the postwar period talk of fathers who were absent, who were "never there, even when they were there."

They describe unhappy, grumpily conformist, neighbor-oriented parents, churchgoers who didn't seem to believe what they preached, who thought highly of conformity and high achievements but couldn't convey to their children what it was all for.

Observations of severely traumatized people indicate that nonstop work is the best means of warding off tormenting memories and numbing feelings of inner emptiness. People who work do not think inappropriate thoughts. These personality changes were so ubiquitous after 1945 that they did not attract much attention.

During and after World War II, German children grew up in a vacuum of values filled by educated bourgeois or religious traditions. Too much was expected of children: To heal the wounds of their parents and to compensate for their mental limitations.

Parents were so preoccupied with survival and material reconstruction that they focused on caring for their children physically. Otherwise, they wanted to know them or talk to them as little as possible. Children were a nuisance when they took up time for such useless things as play or fun.

Children worried the parents because they stood for emotional diversity, vulnerability and openness, qualities which aroused envy and signaled a reality that the parents had lost through mental injuries and unconscious guilt complexes.

Memories of fathers

Doomsaying is as false as its opposite. There were families who were able to preserve love and empathy and draw strength from the carefree nature of their children. I myself have no memories of my father; he lies in a soldier's grave 90 kilometers south of Kyiv.

I did not consciously experience the loss, but felt the lack more often while growing up without understanding it. I owe my reasonable mental stability to the wisdom and energy of my mother. When in my psychoanalytic work I met traumatized fathers in the memories of their daughters and sons, I often wondered what it would have been like if my father had survived the war. But such gaps cannot be filled by fantasies.

My mother never let another man into her life.

My mother never let another man into her life after her six-year marriage. A brother two years older than me and I showed the way to modernity for the necessity-driven matriarchy. We made sure that telephones and TV sets came into the household, stayed under our mother's wing while we studied, and didn't move out until we got married, which in my case coincided with a dropout life in Italy.

Youth stolen

There, in an olive garden, I once met a melancholic man who could have been my father and told me his life story. He had been captured as a soldier in North Africa at the age of 19 and summarized his story thus: La Guerra mi ha rubato la gioventù ... the war stole my youth.

For the children of the traumatized, it does not make much difference whether their parents suffered psychological limitations in a just or a criminal war. Extreme situations such as fear of death, witnessing life-threatening injuries, hunger, thirst, dirt and cold damage the survivors' abilities to relax and enjoy themselves. Thus, a shadow falls on the next generations.

It is one of the cruel truths about complex organisms that it is much faster and easier to damage them than to heal them. This is similarly true for a society. It is easy to arouse hatred, to set groups against each other, but it takes a lot of effort, time and strength to go the other way.

Every hour of war is one too many. It not only costs lives and destroys cities, it also poisons souls and contributes to the emotional coldness that all murderers possess.

*The author works as an author and psychoanalyst in Munich. His book on trauma in families (Er hat nie darüber geredet. Das Trauma des Krieges und die Folgen für die Familie) was published in 2008.


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