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Theses Doctoral

Psychiatry at War: Psychiatric Culture and Political Ideology in Yugoslavia under the Nazi Occupation

Antic, Ana

This dissertation examines the social and cultural history of psychiatric concepts and definitions of "normalcy," "deviation" and mental illness in German-occupied Yugoslavia in the Second World War, and the way those were conditioned by both the extreme (and amoralizing) circumstances of the Nazi occupation and the local Yugoslav social and political conflicts. I pay particular attention to the impact of the occupation on the development of psychiatric thinking and practice, as well as on ways in which psychiatrists reacted to and conceptualized the criminality and violence that they encountered with increasing frequency in their meetings with patients. In my research, I have three overarching objectives. The first is to examine the construction of psychiatric knowledge and authority during a tumultuous period of inter-war state and nation building, intense political conflict, German occupation, and the emergence of the Communist state. The second is to analyze how these different governments utilized the psychiatric profession itself in their projects of state building. The third is to use previously unexamined psychiatric records to recover the social history of the wartime era, focusing on the perceptions of peasants and the urban lower classes who made up the bulk of psychiatric patients.
The effect of the war on the practice and ideology of the profession was deeply counter-intuitive: for reasons I go on to examine in detail, the occupation encouraged the development and ultimate predominance of environmentalist psychiatry and psychotherapy, at the very moment when German psychiatry was undergoing Nazification and a further drift towards organicist, biological and hereditary theories of mental illness. In that sense, my dissertation offers a revision of the common historical understanding of WWII psychiatry (and indeed of Nazification generally) in Eastern Europe, and argues that even collaborationist psychiatrists gradually rejected organicism and racial theories, and came to embrace psychogenic approaches and relied on the psychotherapeutic, re-educational effects of psychiatry.
Psychiatry, far from being a marginal profession in Yugoslavia, was viewed as central to the state during the interwar, wartime and postwar periods. In the wake of the First World War, it was considered to be providing essential scientific guidance to the inter-war state's attempts to implement a civilizing project of sorts and overcome what was perceived as the widespread popular "backwardness" or "primitivism;" after the outbreak of the war, psychiatrists again turned out to be central to the task of political and ideological (re-)education. Thus, psychiatry played a pivotal role in efforts at political education of the (largely illiterate) masses because it directly addressed the issue of reforming the national character and molding the "mind of the nation." Collaborationist politicians sought to use the profession to develop their own brand of reformatory, therapeutic fascism, while the Communist Party worked through the psychiatric concept of war trauma in order to come to terms with some of the more problematic implications of its own social revolution after 1945.
The core chapters of the dissertation focus on close-reading of psychiatric patient files, and utilize various theories and approaches of literary criticism to analyze these case histories. Psychiatric records have been completely neglected as windows into Eastern European social history. Consisting of intensive, detailed interviews with patients, these documents include patients' speech and contain independent writings by patients, which provide a unique (albeit highly mediated) insight into the lower classes, workers and peasants, and their understanding of ideology, politics, violence, illness and normality. In that sense, this is an attempt to write the inter-war and wartime history of Yugoslavia from below, and to understand what ideology and political affiliation meant to those who were not members of the elite, how they thought of their own position, choices and possibilities in an atmosphere in which political or ideological indifference was simply not an option.

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Thesis Advisors
Mazower, Mark A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 15, 2014