How Anti-Semitism and the Shoah Helped Shape Twentieth-Century Psychiatry

  • Sharon PackerEmail author


Anti-Semitism and the Shoah (Holocaust) helped shape the course of twentieth-century American psychiatry. Anti-Semitism against Jewish physicians dates to medieval times, long before Freud’s psychoanalysis was condemned as “Jewish science” and outlawed by the Nazis. Freud’s heir apparent, Carl Jung, son of a Protestant minister, eventually accepted chairmanship of the Nazi-run medical psychology group after the Nazis ousted the Jewish chair and members. To flee the Nazis, hundreds of psychoanalysts emigrated to America, where they established analytic institutes and chaired prestigious academic departments until a paradigm shift occurred in the mid-1980s. Some analysts were already world-famous, and some such as Bruno Bettelheim were outright frauds. Scientific studies in child development by Erik Erikson and Rene Spitz gained ground, while scientifically unsupported analytic concepts such as “refrigerator mothers” and “schizophrenogenic mothers” caused more harm than good. Anti-psychiatry ideas articulated by Thomas Szasz were seeded by his first-hand observations of Nazi-era fascism. Even biological psychiatry was impacted by discoveries of displaced scientists such as Leo Sternbach, Frank Berger, and Nobelist Eric Kandel. Yet biopsychiatry temporarily took a backseat because of associations with Nazi theories about eugenics and inheritable degeneration (and because of publicized abuses in state hospitals). Were it not for the wholesale emigration of analysts in response to the Nazi regime, and the need to explain such evil, it is unlikely that psychoanalysis would have gained such a stronghold in America, and it is likely that American psychiatry would have progressed differently, possibly devoting more resources to the biological basis of serious mental illness. The delayed attention to such serious illnesses may be another indirect casualty of the Shoah.


Sigmund Freud Carl Jung Leo Sternbach Frank Berger Thomas Szasz Eric Kandel Bruno Bettelheim Frieda Fromm-Reichmann Erik Erikson Viktor Frankl Manfred Sakel Otto Rank 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Mount Sinai Beth IsraelNew York CityUSA

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