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Mitscherlich, Alexander (1908-1982)


The German physician and psychoanalyst Alexander Mitscherlich was born in Munich on September 20, 1908, and died in Frankfurt on June 26, 1982.

He grew up in Hof, a district in northern Bavaria, the only child of Harbord Mitscherlich, an industrialist, and his wife, Clara. As a youth, Alexander was raised under his father's severe and authoritarian discipline, common in Germany at the time. Graduating from high school in 1928, he first studied history, art history, and philosophy in Munich and Prague. After failing to obtain his doctorate, he went to work in a Berlin bookstore. He developed left-wing political contacts with writer Ernst Jünger and the "National Bolshevik" Ernst Niekish. (National Bolsheviks favored Germany's rapprochement with the Soviet Union against the rest of Europe.) In 1932, he entered medical school.

Opposed to National Socialism, Mitscherlich was arrested by the Gestapo in 1937 and spent eight months in prison awaiting trial. Afterwards, he was able continue his medical studies in Heidelberg under physician and philosopher Viktor von Weizsäcker, and successfully defended his doctoral thesis in 1941. Until the end of the war, he worked mainly in the area of psychosomatic medicine at the Ludolf Krehl Clinic in Heidelberg.

Thanks to his clear opposition to the Nazis, Mitscherlich was among a minority of German physicians whom the victorious Allies considered politically trustworthy. As a consequence, he briefly served as minister in the post-war government. He also enjoyed a measure of moral authority among psychoanalysts, many of them Jewish, who, after the rise of National Socialism, had fled to England and the United States. The esteem in which he was held by colleagues abroad, including Anna Freud, proved a great advantage for psychoanalysis in Germany.

Beginning in the 1950s, Mitscherlich succeeded in bringing representatives of the psychoanalytic community to Germany, including Franz Alexander, René A. Spitz, William G. Niederland, Peter Blos, Willi Hoffer, Jeanne Lampl-de Groot, Piet Kuiper, Michael Balint, John Klauber, Paula Heimann, Fritz Morgenthaler, and Paul Parin. He was able to create new credibility for German psychoanalysis, which since the Nazi era was widely thought to be politically retrograde and scientifically discredited. It was principally due to Mitscherlich's prestige that the German Psychoanalytic Association (Deutsche Psychoanalytishe Vereinigung), founded in 1950, was recognized by the International Psychoanalytic Association (IPA); he was one of the organization's directors from its inception. Mitscherlich himself had a training analysis with Paula Heimann in London.

Mitscherlich's relationships with German medicine remained problematic, however. In 1947 he published Doctors of Infamy: The Story of the Nazi Medical Crimes, written in collaboration with Fred Mielke; it was the fruit of his work as head of the German Medical Commission, which reported to the American Military Tribunal. Mitscherlich effectively transgressed an institutional taboo by reporting on experiments that German physicians conducted on concentration camp prisoners in a unique document that finally won attention in Germany when it was republished in 1948 under the title Medizin ohne Menschlichkeit (Medicine without humanity). Mitscherlich also founded, with Hans Kunz and Felix Schottlaender in 1948, the review Psyche, which as of 2005 remains the most important psychoanalytic publication in Germany. As director of the series "Literatur der Psychoanalyse" Mitscherlich helped to raise professional standards of psychoanalysis in Germany to a par with those in other countries.

The high point of Mitscherlich's institutional work was his helping to found, in Frankfurt in 1960, the Sigmund Freud Institute, where physicians, non-physicians, psychoanalysts, and social scientists could conduct interdisciplinary research on individual and social issues related to psychological disorders. He remained the institute's director until 1976, and from 1973 to 1976 was on the faculty of philosophy at Johann Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt. As an author, Mitscherlich's reputation and influence extended well beyond psychoanalytic and philosophical circles. His psychosociological works include Society without the Father: A Contribution to Social Psychology, published in 1963 and translated into English six years later. His Die Unwirtlichkeit unserer Städte (The inhospitality of the modern city) appeared in 1965. In 1967 he and his wife, Margarete, published The Inability to Mourn: Principles of Collective Behavior ; translated into several languages, the theme of this controversial work was the failure of Germans to acknowledge the crimes committed in the name of National Socialism.

Mitscherlich was one of the rare scholars and writersnot just in Germany but around the worldwho was constantly taking a stance on social and political issues. Philosopher Jürgen Habermas called him "the people's pedagogue." To the extent that psychoanalysis was able to revive and ultimately to thrive in post-World War II Germany, is due in great measure to Mitscherlich.

Hans-Martin Lohmann

See also: Germany; Marxism and Psychoanalysis; Psyche. Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse and ihre anwendungen ; Sigmund Freud Institute; Studienausgabe ; Switzerland (German-speaking).


Lohmann, Hans-Martin. Alexander Mitscherlich mit Selbstzeugnissen und bilddokumenten. Reinbek: Rowohlt, 1987.

Mitscherlich, Alexander. (1965). Die Unwirtlichkeit unserer Städte. Frankfurt am Main: Anstiftung zum Unfrieden.

. (1980). Ein Leben für die Psychoanalyse. Annerkungen zu meiner Zeit. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.

. (1983). Gesammelte Schriften. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1983.

. (1992). Society without the father: A contribution to social psychology. New York: Harper. (Original work published 1963)

Mitscherlich, Alexander, and Mielke, Fred. (1949). Doctors of infamy: The story of the Nazi medical crimes. New York: H. Schuman.

Mitscherlich, Alexander, and Mitscherlich, Margarete. (1975). The inability to mourn: Principles of collective behavior. New York: Grove Press.

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