Rittmeister, John Friedrich Karl (1898-1943)

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John Rittmeister, a German neurologist and psychoanalyst, was born in Hamburg on August 21, 1898, and was guillotined in Plötzensee prison, outside Berlin, on May 13, 1943. The last of three children in a long-established and well-to-do family of merchants, he studied the humanities before joining the armed forces in 1917 during World War I and serving on the Italian and French fronts. From 1920 to 1925 he studied medicine at the universities of Göttingen, Kiel, and Hamburg. He specialized in neurology with Max Nonne and received his state doctorate at Hamburg. After three years of neuropsychiatric training in the hospitals of Munich, he began practicing psychotherapy there. He gave conferences and demonstrations of hypnosis and familiarized himself with the teachings of Carl Gustav Jung.

In 1929 he settled in Zurich, staying there for two years before acquiring a post as a voluntary physician at the polyclinic for nervous diseases of the Burghölzli Psychiatric Clinic, under the directorship of Erich Katzenstein, where he also conducted neurological research. From 1935 to 1937, with a few interruptions, he worked as an assistant psychiatrist at the Münsingen cantonal hospital under Max Müller, where he developed an excellent personal and philosophical relationship with senior lecturer Alfred Storch, who had been driven out of Germany.

During his stay in Switzerland, he joined socialist groups for students and workers, went on a study trip to the Soviet Union, and became a convinced Marxist, for which the Swiss authorities often threatened to deport him. In Zurich he quickly distanced himself from Jung's psychology club because of its "suffocating, mystical and obscure atmosphere." He explained his position in a scientific lecture titled "Voraussetzungen und Konsequenzen der Jungschen Archetypenlehre" (The presuppositions and consequences of teaching Jungian archetypes; 1982). In 1922, while still a student in Munich, he sought psychological help from Hans von Hattingberg, and in 1935 he commenced his analysis with Gustav Bally in Zurich. In "Die psychotherapeutische Aufgabe und der neue Humanismus" (Psychotherapeutic duty and the new humanism), published in Holland in 1936, he advocated a comparison between the Freudian and Jungian schools and "a humanism of decision, which establishes joint, concrete goals." He attacked, in a barely disguised way, the political situation of National Socialist Germany, and he returned to this theme at the end of 1937.

In Berlin he was chief medical officer in a psychiatric clinic. He trained in psychoanalytic work group A of the Göring Institute, more formally known as the Deutsches Institut für psychologische Forschung und Psychotherapie (German Institute for Psychological Research and Psychotherapy), doing his training analysis with Werner Kemper. After he married Eva Knieper in July 1939, he obtained a position in the polyclinic in September and later became its director. He played an active part in the scientific life of the Göring Institute, giving lectures and conferences for candidates. His report on the current state of the polyclinic appeared in the Zentralblatt für Psychotherapie in 1941, and his last conference in the spring of 1942, "Die mystiche Krise des jungen Descartes" (The mystical crisis of the young Descartes) was published as late as 1961, when it appeared in Confinia psychiatria.

During the last years of his life in Berlin, he gathered around him a circle of young people (mainly his wife's fellow students), teaching them philosophy and politics and organizing them to help Jews and foreign workers recruited by force. On Christmas 1941, with the help of Harro Schulze-Boysen, he managed to join the Red Orchestra, a resistance group organized around Schulze-Boysen and Arvid Harnack. Rittmeister participated in clandestine political work, designing and distributing pamphlets and propagandizing for foreign workers, but he did not spy for the Soviet Union, as was claimed. After being arrested on September 26, 1942, he was condemned to death by the war tribunal of the Reich, along with most of the members of his group, and was executed in May 1943.

Ludger M. Hermanns

See also: Deutsches Institut für Psychologische Forschung und Psychotherapie (Institut Göring); Germany; Marxism and psychoanalysis; Second World War: The effect on the development of psychoanalysis; Kemper, Werner Walther.


Bräutigam, Walter. (1987). John Rittmeister: Leben und Sterben. Ebenhausen bei München: Langewiesche-Brandt.

Hermanns, Ludger M. (1982). John F. Rittmeister und C. G. Jung. Psyche, 36, 1022-1031.

Rittmeister, John F. (1936). Die Psychotherapeutische Aufgabe und der neue Humanismus. Psychiatrische en neurologische Bladen, 5, 777-796.

. (1961). Die mystische Krise des jungen Descartes. Confinia psychiatrica, 4, 65-98.

. (1982). Voraussetzungen und Konsequenzen der Jungschen Archetypenlehre. Psyche, 36, 1032-1044.

. (1992). Hier brannte doch die Welt: Aufzeichnungen aus dem Gefängnis, 1942-1943 (Christine Teller, Ed.). Gütersloh, Germany: Jacob van Hoddis.

Schulz, Manfred. (1981). Dr. John Rittmeister, Nervenarzt und Widerstandskämpfer. Medical dissertation, Humboldt University, Berlin.