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Remembering in old age

New interdiscplinary study on the generation of german war children
Endless nights of air-raids, harrowing treks after being driven out of the family home, rape and threats: the generation of german people born between 1930 and 1945 suffered terrible things.

However, not everyone was traumatized by experiences of such cruelty. The way experiences of recent history can mark people and society has been examined in an interdisciplinary project carried out by the psychosomaticists and psychotherapists Prof. Gereon Heuft and Prof. Gudrun Schneider as well as the sociologists Prof. Matthias Grundmann and Dr. Dieter Hoffmeister, all from the german "Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster".

The generation of war children is gradually dying out, and so it was a problem to find suitable candidates for the quantitative and qualitative survey of the Münster University. A total of 122 people were questioned: 90 of them had experience of being shot at, 80 of being bombed. A quarter were evacuated to the countryside as children. Of those questioned in the Evangelisches Krankenhaus hospital in Münster, 40 percent were evacuated; in the case of those who answered an advertisement in the newspaper it was 70 percent. A random sample taken in the hospital and among those who responded to the newspaper advert showed that the arrival of the Allies was experienced by 65 and 90 percent respectively. Over half in each group lost a close relative. "32 percent of the people we spoke to said that these events weighed heavily on them," reports Gudrun Schneider. "But, conversely, this means that the remainder no longer feel these situations to be traumatic."

"One and the same event is experienced and seen in very different ways," explains Matthias Grundmann. "What can happenis that the help that people got from others is more in the foreground, or that bombing, for example, is experienced as the starting point for a great catastrophe." It cannot be predicted, he says, whether a wartime event will become a heavy burden for a person with an impact on his or her life. "More precisely," says Gereon Heuft, "events hit widely differing people with widely differing mental strengths."

In this respect two factors play a role. Grundmann, a sociologist, stresses the importance of background: "People from the upper classes always find it easier to get back to normal life. They have better patterns of coping, more knowledge of how to get help and better experience of networking." This, he says, was especially important after the war. Gudrun Schneider, a medical doctor, also puts a focus on the bonding experienced in early years. People who were loved when they were small and developed trust in other people find it easier to get through difficult times with optimism and hope. "People lacking in confidence will not be at all able to recognize the resources which their background has given them," says the psychotherapist. "A stable personality is very important of course, but a higher level of resources makes it easier to process experiences," adds Matthias Grundmann. Schneider and Grundmann both agree that an event is not felt to cause so much stress if it is shared with other people. So the proverb "a problem shared is a problem halved" contains an element of truth.

German society today still shows effects of the Second World War. These include consumer behaviour - anyone who has experienced hunger will handle resources in a more careful manner - as well as the value of family, practising religion and politics. Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, for example, never made a secret of the fact that his policies towards eastern Europe were influenced by the loss of his brother in the war. Post-war politicians such as Herbert Wehner and Willy Brandt were marked all their lives as a result of having been persecuted and driven into exile.

In post-war years, however, things that had been experienced collectively were repressed, not talked about. People got on with rebuilding Germany and had other things on their minds. Now, as the generation of war children has to come to terms with growing old, some people again experience stressful memories intensively. "We call this 'trauma reactivation in old age'," explains Gereon Heuft. "Some people cannot come to terms with growing old because they feel helpless and vulnerable. And then memories come back of situations in which they felt just as helpless, even though these had no recognizable significance for 50 years."

This can lead to fear and depression. However, geriatric patients seldom get any help. Although the over-60s are affected by mental problems just as often as younger patients, only one percent of all applications for psychotherapy are made for them. "Many therapists find it difficult to take on an older patient," explains Heuft, who is the director of a clinic. Therapists, he said, have managed their own development from child to adult - but the final, central task of coming to terms with physical ageing is something that such people providing treatment still have before them.

But, as Gereon Heuft points out, old people can be treated just as successfully as younger ones - contrary to all prejudices. Indeed, he adds, older people often know more precisely what they want. "They work more stringently and keep to the matter in hand," says psychosomaticist Heuft, referring to his experience. "Psychotherapeutic work with them is very rewarding."

Brigitte Nussbaum | idw
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