The Wall Got in His Head”. Construction of the Berlin Wall and the Fall into Sickness (East Berlin, 1961-1968)

Psychiatric Weakness and Political Crisis
By Fanny Le Bonhomme

Although several authors have used the expression “Wall Sickness” (Mauerkrankheit) to designate the pathological reactions to the construction of the Berlin Wall, no study has focused yet on the actual symptoms, nor on the psychiatric interpretation that could be made of these symptoms. This article aims to fill in the missing pieces by focusing mainly on an analysis of psychiatric and psychotherapy records of the era. These sources contain traces of patients’ experiences and enable us to investigate the ways in which the Wall “got into their heads”, pushing some individuals into depression, anxiety or madness. Beginning in the 1960s, the Wall became a source of sadness, confusion or fear, to such a degree that the expression “Wall Sickness” was born. Thus the wall was considered to be a pathogen, in total contradiction with propaganda from the Communist authorities. Although patients could speak of such a sensitive subject as part of their discussions with their therapists, their words were locked in a rationale of “diagnostic circularity”. Paradoxically, the words of these individuals were able to leave traces in their medical records precisely because they were considered to be signs of mental illness – regardless of their political dimension. Through these sources, which record the subject’s voice while reducing him or her to the status of a mentally ill person, historians can gain access to personal experiences that were ordinarily kept silent.

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