Anna M. Parkinson, An Emotional State: The Politics of Emotion in Postwar West German Culture, University of Michigan Press, 2015, $30 (paper) $70 (hardcover), 264pp. Paper ISBN 978-0-472-03681-3.


Also see the Society & Space Open Site book review of Ben Gook’s  Divided Subject, Invisible Borders

Many people are still fascinated by West Germany’s postwar reckoning with the Nazizeit. Each year, massive volumes of historical research and endless films about the period seem to appear. It was, indeed, a strange period, a national remaking that was not a rebirth, despite its “zero hour” designation. That metaphor was always wishful thinking, an attempt to disavow the inevitable weight of history in a tepidly denazified national space. The ambivalence of this moment and its moral ambiguity seems to hold people’s attention even today—it was an uneasy social space made up of Nazis, dissenters, foreign soldiers, the deeply traumatized and everyone in-between. How does a society like that function? And, for us today, a further question seems to be: how has it managed to regain its power in Europe?

One answer is that a consensus of various sorts—emotional, political, social, historical—was reached quite quickly after the war. The fragile, tenuous democratic settlement of the early postwar years seemed to preclude open or public conflict around how to value the two social formations forced together after peace was declared: namely, the (West) German and Atlantic. In a letter to film director Fritz Lang in 1950, Theodor Adorno, then commuting between positions in California and Frankfurt, remarked of West Germany:

“The most amazing aspect is that although the destruction of the country has been virtually complete, social and economic damage is almost nowhere to be seen. Instead, despite everything, ‘normal life’ seems to have reasserted itself, at least on the surface. A certain universal de-politicization, as a reaction against the Nazis, appears to prevent both the resurgence of genuine conflict situations and the general realization that Germany has become a colonized country.”

A transatlantic Adorno, flicking through the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on the return leg, would no doubt have noticed how, for example, West German newspaper coverage of US affairs and Hollywood films promoted positive representations of “the American way of life” during that period. Such representations illustrated how much fun democracy could be: North American cultural forms took pride of place in the psychosocial task of re-educating the suspect German population.


Honoring the desire of Allies ideologues in 1945, the recent three-part TV drama Ku’damm 56, produced by German public broadcaster ZDF, saw West Berlin stylized to look like the USA on the river Spree. Ku’damm 56 is set in a family-run dance school on West Berlin’s middle-class shopping street, just as rock’n’roll is breaking through in the United States and spreading to West Germany. The mid-century scene is set for intergenerational spats along sociocultural lines—between dancing, consuming youth enamored of Atlantic capitalist modernity and bürgerlich anti-American European traditionalism. Ku’Damm intimates that the repressed conflicts noticed by Adorno were redirected under the watch of Allied authorities, not least into disputes about those American cultural forms at the heart of the series.

While accurately depicting postwar re-education dynamics in cultural politics, the historical setting of Ku’Damm also betrays a cultural (industry) impulse closer to our own time, leading it into some interesting territory. After Mad Men’s success, mid-century interiors and clothing seem to have replaced nineteenth-century Europe as the proving ground of period-drama production design. Ku’damm at first seems content to deliver successive hits of this just-so visual pleasure, with Kurfürstendamm around 1956 offering more material for the “premium TV” enjoyment machine. But the overload comes to seem symptomatic. Genteel, upper-middle-class sumptuousness feels suffocating; history bears down in this setting, in this ideologically divided city, in the story’s suspiciously wealthy circle of heirs and strategic marriages. It makes sense that Monika Schöllack, the series’ protagonist, desires the release of rock’n’roll dancing, no matter how transparently calculated the contrast may be in the narrative.

In the second episode, difficult aspects of Germany’s recent history turn up—and when they do, they break the surface, as domestic walls crack and uncanny returns appear. These returns, these ruptures, are visible to the most empathetic characters—namely, the younger ones. Where the young run emotionally hot, the old run cold; if this is a dramatic platitude, then a decade after the war and Nazi genocide, the differing emotional intensities betray different interests in confronting the past. Unfortunately, Ku’Damm’s subterranean layer beneath the surface of the Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) never stays visible for long. The series’ well-meaning forays into deeper historical reckoning recede behind melodramatic, unremarkable treatments of family dramas and divisions. The (western) parents of late adolescent and twentysomethings are portrayed as stiff-backed, tight-lipped business owners afraid of their pasts and unable to understand their children. TV truisms win the day.

Nevertheless, the series almost makes good on Anna Parkinson’s chief claim in An Emotional State: On the topics of Nazism, the Holocaust, and WWII, West Germany’s public culture of the postwar period was not, as received opinion would have it, silent and emotionally locked. The apparent consensus can be reimagined as dissensus. Public culture was not only channeled in predictable directions. A dynamic affective structure instead undergirded it, including expressions of shame, guilt, anger, defensiveness, joy and much else besides. Some—such as Adorno, Karl Jaspers, and willful upstart Monika in Ku’Damm—were more concerted than others in giving voice to multivalent postwar emotions. As Parkinson shows, well-known claims about an inability to mourn in West Germany were partial at best in their representativeness and counterproductive at worst in their effects on German self-understanding.

An Emotional State not only nuances our stock generalizations but offers new interpretations of the affective structure of postwar West German life. Above all, Parkinson wants to thaw what we have come to see as a frozen emotional landscape. She leaves behind paradigms of coldness, rigidity and blockage, arguing that an intense psychic energy was moving through this landscape. Informed by psychoanalysis, Parkinson pays attention to this intensity through unconscious processes and their ambivalences and ambiguities. As such, she also wants to transcend cartoonish binaries of good and bad Germans. The postwar period continues to produce dramatic “teachable moments” for those who think the past offers easy lessons. As Ku’Damm shows, these sturdy clichés hold appeal in part as they bolster melodramatic, redemptive portrayals of (emotionally warm, empathetic) heroes and (emotionally cold, over-rational) villains. The very point of an affective structure, however, is that it cannot be so easily embodied in isolated individuals.

Parkinson offers three case studies of successful books published in West Germany: Karl Jaspers’ The Question of German Guilt (1946), Ernst von Salomon’s The Answers of Ernst von Salomon (1951), and Margarete Mitscherlich and Alexander Mitscherlich’s The Inability to Mourn (1967). She places each text in a constellation of other related sources: lectures, journal articles, autobiographical narratives, correspondence, popular literature, as well as the book’s contemporary reception. The publications thus appear as products of an era, as disputed cultural objects. This approach allows Parkinson to draw out aspects that “have been considered less important, or appear to be more ambivalent” (page 5). If she makes her task difficult by analyzing texts pored over at length elsewhere, then she also convincingly portrays many analyses as inattentive to the complexities of emotional life and feeling subjects in postwar Germany. Parkinson is also ambivalent about desires to find a single, stable and clear emotional tenor in the culture: for instance, Arendt’s description of West Germany’s “blankness” and Adorno’s seeing in West Germany the apex of bourgeois “coldness.”

The postwar example offers a particular affective structure to the social, in which emotions had historical and ethical significance attendant on the new state’s founding. Parkinson’s case studies help articulate her key claim about “the limits and consequences of the normative role played by emotions in imagining the contours of “reeducated” democratic subjectivity in Allied-occupied postwar West Germany” (page 2). For her, the stress on emotion and affect “is vital for underscoring the normative and social role that emotions play in everyday life, which is even more starkly evident in a state of exception, such as that of postwar Germany in its so-called zero hour” (page 13). So aside from its fascinating historical setting, Parkinson’s focus on emotion and affect in this volatile culture has theoretical aims. If “emotions” are feeling (or affect) descriptors, then she wants to shift towards understanding them as “legible social signs in a larger affective structure, with multivalent symptoms, opportunities for creating community or subcultures, and plural sites of political struggle” (page 1).

Particular emotions, to put it crudely, are what show their face to social life but their apparent univalence (happy, sad, angry) betrays a multivalence in the feeling subject and sociopolitical structure. In all varieties of sociality—from intimate one-on-one discussion to geopolitical diplomacy—we contend with emotions: those familiar, nameable bits visible on the surface; the socially legible dimension of affective structures. The French psychoanalyst André Green helps Parkinson clarify her distinction between affect and emotion: “I define affect as a force that structures a subject without necessarily finding resolution in socially recognizable and linguistically legible emotion” (page 12, emphasis added). Parkinson immediately qualifies this distinction, allowing moments of overlap between affect and emotion or the idea that emotion might be congealed affect. More, affect may be in excess of the subject, not delimited to a sole subject’s possession (as an emotion would be). Affective structures are a dynamic field and, thus, difficult for any normative authority to control, or at least more difficult to control or monitor than the emotions of a single subject.

Using this framework to approach the postwar period, Parkinson pulls away from predominant readings of Germany’s emotional state. She proposes that we need to look for “processes of emotional labor that undergird and sometimes even obscure dynamic affective constellations that are ambiguous or difficult to read” (page 5). In other words, no easy answers. Emphasizing struggle, multivalence, and the emotional productivity of communities means underlining emotional reflexivity: certain emotions demand an emotional response (or affect responding to affect). Emotions do not happen once, in isolation; they keep happening, in a compounding series of exchanges. Their relationality means they always carry a politics, however minor, as well as a social force. This force gives feeling a structure in and beyond its individual instances. In times of crisis, which may displace or dissolve naturalized points of view, this structure of intersubjectivity becomes at once more labile and more regulated.

Setting out the richness of postwar emotional life in contrast to common “flat” affective presentations, Parkinson turns to a striking, little known account by Stig Dagerman, a young Swedish author sent by the Expressen newspaper to Germany in 1946. Parkinson is drawn to the complexity of emotional states that Dagerman depicts in German Autumn, as well as his sharp observations and rare reluctance to moralize. Dagerman uncovers how complicated semantics in this period meant that what appeared as indifference and stolidity often betokened the reverse. Reticence resulted from an excessive demand that Germans account for themselves—above all, that they talk about their situation in proscribed terms. The demand, particularly from the Allies, to show “signs of remorse” or signs of repentance and emotional suffering produced emotional scripts that the authorities expected to see enacted. These templates then became an affliction. Parkinson is clear about what this and other accounts show: “Germans did not evince an inability to feel so much as experience a flood of overwhelming affect to be kept at bay” (page 8). Dagerman shows that “emotions may be illegible and remain unarticulated although or even because they are part of a complex affective and even reflective structure” (pages 8-9). An inability to feel or express emotions through appropriate speech, comportment or gestures could be condemned via the re-education project. The Allies’ normative emphasis on emotions shows how they measured moral capacity or gauged humanity through these orientations, either for individual subjects or Germany (or Germanness) in toto. Such assessment was readily apparent, producing discontents when subjects realized they did not or could not measure up.


Parkinson thus conceptualizes affect and emotion as central sociopolitical forces that occupy and address subjects in various ways. Emotions are the integral hinge between the individual and society. To show this, she focuses on key scenes across the postwar period, examining texts within the larger postwar affective structure. These texts and the discourse surrounding them become an archive of feelings (following Ann Cvetkovich). The scenes, drawn from this archive, “represent important historical moments in the emotional trajectory of the early Federal Republic of Germany” (page 4). These are prefaced too with postwar Germany’s primal scene: the horrific suffering and death in the concentration camps. The Allies quickly put into circulation photographs and film of this historical wrong, sometimes forcing whole towns to attend civic screenings. These affectively intense early encounters with Allies’ re-education material had an ambiguous effect. Quite a few Germans reacted defensively to the admonishment their circulation carried.

In a situation such as postwar West Germany, questions of defenses, ambivalence and ambiguity in emotionality became an acute concern, given where the public had invested psychic energy just a few years earlier. The stress on ambiguity and ambivalence signals that Parkinson’s book comes “after Freud.” Freud’s insights into ambivalence contribute important resources—a set of core hermeneutic tools and interpretive manoeuvres—to the current affective/emotional turn. They enable a complex understanding of the vicissitudes of affect, underscoring its relational quality. Conceptually indebted to psychoanalysis, Parkinson offers a strong account of how the subject relates to social norms, a relation taken as the knot of sociality and subjectivity. Psychoanalytic approaches are also alert to the decentring necessary in accounts of emotional experience—once admitted into the analysis, the concept of the unconscious requires that affect and emotion not be taken at face value. Subjects may report being “sad” or “angry” or “content” but self-understandings of emotional experiences can be inaccurate. And for the psychoanalytic approach, these unconsciously motivated inaccuracies are of central interest.

Parkinson begins her case studies with Jaspers’ The Question of German Guilt. Jaspers’ book emerged from his lectures at the University of Heidelberg, the first West German university to reopen after 1945, under intense Allies scrutiny. Lecturing to halls with an unknown mixture of returned soldiers, prisoners, resistors, conservatives, progressives, all in various stages of reckoning with Nazism, Jaspers calmly—an emotional self-presentation Parkinson makes much of—set about discussing the “German question.” In public discourse freighted with mutual suspicion and guilt plus their volatile admixture, Jaspers presented publicly as the “north German block of ice,” a frozen landscape embodied. Privately, things were different. If Jaspers’ text remains well-known and foundational for understandings of the period, then Parkinson nevertheless brings to attention “a darker affective undertow [that] characterized Jaspers’ complex relations to Germany, ultimately finding expression in his private correspondence, in keeping with his classical cognition/feeling binary and his division of the private from the public sphere” (page 60). Jaspers’ frequent correspondence with Arendt—his former student—here becomes an important resource for Parkinson’s argument.

In fact, Arendt is an interlocutor throughout An Emotional State. Her status as a German-Jewish exile in North America gave her a position of intimate distance in analyzing the moral, ethical and political dimensions of the Nazizeit and postwar processes. Arendt and Jaspers were prominent voices in public debates, and they sequestered from public expression some of their ideas and attendant affects. The letters between Arendt and Jaspers offer “a dense affective web through which the reader encounters an ‘emotional refuge’—a space allowing for the existence of affective structures at odds with or differing from the [then] current normative emotions of society, such as Jaspers’ trademark rational sobriety” (page 60). Arendt and Jaspers shared a melancholic yet hopeful exchange, trading their losses, anger and disappointment, their doubts about the future and their fears for West Germany.

If one of Parkinson’s key claims is that the emotional norms of public life were under acute negotiation in postwar Germany, then Jaspers’ public/private split and his letters prove how the “re-education” of Germans entailed foreclosing certain kinds of emotional expression in public: “Jaspers’ apparently imperturbable demeanor and coolly rational approach to the question of guilt conceal an affective structure housing shame and grief, which remains latent and contained in the public lecture forum” (page 27). The discontents of re-education and emotional foreclosure could not be contained for long—what is notionally erased by taboo nevertheless lives on. Jaspers left Heidelberg for Switzerland. This retreat to the land of “neutrality” left many in Germany feeling disappointed, angry and betrayed.

Parkinson shows the discontents of postwar West Germany starkly with her second case study: von Salomon’s Der Fragebogen (The Answers). Von Salomon’s autobiographical account “defines German historical and political events in the first half of the long twentieth century, offering the reader detailed insight into the affective scarification von Salomon credits to the US military government’s denazification practices and other processes of democratic occupation” (page 69). Von Salomon’s book was the first “nonleftist,” as Parkinson puts it, bestseller of the postwar period. In West Germany, 10,000 copies sold on the first day, the second print run sold out on preorder—tallying to some 230,000 copies by 1953. The book, written around the conceit of responding to an actual Allies questionnaire distributed during denazification, was translated quickly into several languages. Its indication of the emotional temperature and ideological status of German debate made the book of global interest. If the German debate was under-played domestically, then it fit international preoccupations with “Germans” as unreformed nationalists and antidemocrats.

Von Salomon’s book provides another window on the affective structures constitutive of postwar Germany. Parkinson sees through it a perverted guilt, revealing pockets of passive aggressive emotional resistance—mostly conservative or ultraconservative—to external government control. These nationalist scars festered, a reaction to the prevailing emotional regime of imposed guilt and often hypocritical democratic strictures, as well as a deep sense of historical injustice.

Von Salomon’s life—as described in The Answers—is a fascinating weaving in and out of conservative movements. He is a nationalist political authoritarian but not a National Socialist: he sometimes equates US democracy and National Socialism, disparaging both. Von Salomon dates Prussia’s demise to the failed Hitler assassination attempt by conservatives within the inner circle of state-military apparatus. Before the war, he orbited Ernst Jünger, who inspired von Salomon to write several militaristic novels in the early 1930s. By then, von Salomon had served five years in prison for being an accessory to the 1922 murder of Jewish-German foreign minister of the Weimar Republic, Walter Ratheneau. The Allies then imprisoned him after the war for perceived antidemocratic leanings.

A book like The Answers was possible by 1951 because some early postwar restrictions on speech loosened. The Federal Republic of Germany (i.e. West Germany) was founded in 1949, marking the advent of what would become the Cold War, as well as immediately freeing publication bans and Allied media control. A nascent “counterregime” appeared, responding to Allied “re-education” with a strong nationalist, emotional subculture—what Parkinson calls a “community of ressentiment.” Von Salomon’s book could amplify this community’s voice. The silencing by Allied control made the prescription perversely productive, fuelling a pleasure of apparent rebellion against democratic-moral pedagogy’s prohibitions.

To track The Answers’ “affective charge” for the many Germans who identified with its author’s experiences and opinions, Parkinson examines emotions produced in readers (e.g. the book’s reception, in letters and public events), symptoms of textual repression and—her key claim—by “reading for a less definitive affective undercurrent that ultimately manifests itself as the structure of feelings constitutive of ressentiment” (page 70). Its eight-hundred pages offer an “affective cartography of the postwar subject in terms of what Friedrich Nietzsche called ressentiment” (page 69). In other words, the text helped form or articulate a previously diffuse community of ressentiment: “pockets of a lingering antidemocratic, militant, and nationalist emotional subculture” (page 70). These individuals despised the democratic emotional imaginary of early West Germany. Among them, German guilt or frustration went underground, remerging as ressentiment.

Ressentiment is characterised by actual or imagined humiliation, a sense of impotence or helplessness and reversals in power structures. Illustrating the power structure reversal, Parkinson provides a remarkable reading of The Answers in parallel with Horkeimer and Adorno’s analysis of anti-Semitism. She reads ressentiment’s motility in the way perpetrators can unconsciously usurp the victim position, defensively displacing unconscious envy and guilt. “In the postwar context,” she writes, “the sudden shift in power relations meant that although ‘the Germans’ occupied the position of the perpetrators in the eyes of the world, German individuals facing privation, loss, and the contempt of the international community perceived themselves as disempowered victims vis-à-vis the occupying forces” (page 157). Von Salomon and his public fixated on the US. Anti-semitism and conservative-nationalist ressentiment are, as Parkinson shows, both based on false projections: “If mimesis makes itself resemble its surroundings,” Horkheimer and Adorno write, “false projection makes its surroundings resemble itself” (page 157 in Parkinson). The resentful subject, in other words, is rancorous, converting his or her guilt into suffering at the hands of others, with the latter taken as the sole authors of this suffering.

Parkinson’s reconstruction of ressentiment—an implosive affect, as she calls it—convinces. For Nietzsche, ressentiment was a “complex of affective interreactions, many of which are not conscious” (page 70). Ressentiment describes a cluster of strong emotions, all undergirding that comportment towards others held responsible for the subject’s suffering. Ressentiment’s temporality makes it fit the postwar context too: it focuses on yesterday to secure revenge tomorrow. It may emerge not only in society’s genuine victims but among those who fixate upon a moment in which the actual or perceived injury was received. This resentment compels the group to revalorize their identity, often culminating in identity claims of woundedness. The logic of reversal and projection brought to bear in Horkheimer and Adorno’s analysis becomes useful here. Through this lens, Parkinson reads von Salomon’s autofictitious book as an exemplar of a negative “politics of emotions” in postwar Germany.

The book clearly brought to the public sphere dimensions of German experience previously circulating in private. Its public manifestation of ressentiment fascinated Jaspers, whose estate carries clippings and notes about the book. Jaspers annotated and archived commentary on ressentiment’s political danger and consequences for the nascent democracy. Around the same time—1950 and 1951—Adorno, Frederich Pollock, Horkheimer and other researchers with the Frankfurt School undertook opinion surveys and group experiments in West Germany. Franz Böhm, in the foreword to the volume that publicized their results in 1955, famously wrote that the empirical research showed “non-public opinion . . . can diverge strikingly from the official public opinion, but whose propositions run alongside public opinion like the banknotes of a second currency.” Von Salomon cashed out that second currency to considerable effect.


The book’s third case study is The Inability to Mourn, published in 1967 by the psychoanalyst Margarete Mitscherlich and her husband, Alexander Mitscherlich. In its first two-and-a-half years in Germany, it sold over 75,000 copies, tipping over 100,000 by the third year. In both English and German, this unlikely psychoanalytic bestseller is often cited, little read and even less frequently criticized.

The book’s argument, as Parkinson sees it, is that Hitler became “the unmourned object creating an affective blockage in the postwar German population” (page 113). Defeat and occupation in 1945, which entailed confronting the loss of self-worth, meant West Germans could not digest their difficult past. Ideally, Germans should have mourned the loss of their leader, their Führer, “in whom the German population had invested an enormous sum of narcissistic affect” (page 117). Hitler’s death should have deflated this narcissism and led to mourning after 1945. It did not. Germans didn’t mourn. They weren’t melancholic. They weren’t even guilty or depressed. Instead, they broke all affective bridges to the past. They “derealized” the past, allowing for a strong or manic investment in the present. This was the present of the Wirtschaftswunder—a reorganisation of the libidinal economy, in multiple senses, which also sought to restore what had been destroyed. The Mitscherlischs’ write:

“What should a collective do when it finds itself exposed to the naked realization that in its name six million people have been murdered for no reason other than to satisfy its own aggressive urges? It has hardly any choice but to continue to deny its motives or else to retreat into depression” (page 118 in Parkinson).

Importantly, then, the crux of this analysis focuses on a trio: lost leader (ego ideal), lost ideal and national destruction. As the authors saw it, this devastating loss produced emotional rigidity, unreflective identification with the Allies and an absence of guilt, empathy and mourning.

While the book’s sloganesque title seems to sum up its contents, it is given to symptomatic slippage in what it signifies. Indeed, the title is often taken to mean that Germans could not mourn or display empathy for the victims of National Socialism—and it was this half-remembered sense that Margarete Mitscherlich herself used in 1993 when restating the idea after German re-unfication. For Parkinson, “this displacement seems fully in line . . . with the manner in which the Mitscherlichs’ text has become a reified paradigm within discourses on German memory and the Holocaust” (page 113). Psychoanalyst and sociologist Christian Schneider, commenting on its place in German literary and cultural studies as well as psychosocial studies more broadly, believes the book has become a slogan rather than a diagnosis, bearing a spectral afterlife of its own. The part-digested book thus helps deliver moralizing analyses of postwar West German objects as good or bad: good objects, which enable mourning of victims (such as the Holocaust television series from 1979), produce positive analyses; bad objects (such as von Salomon’s book) induce discomfort in critics due to their moral ambivalence, and lead to critical neglect.

Parkinson claims this model has outlived its usefulness, and the approach to postwar Germany’s affective landscape needs to be reconceptualized. For An Emotional State, this chapter does the work of exploring normative emotions in postwar West Germany and the affective structures obscured by a concentration on “morally correct emotional comportment” (page 115). The manifestation or expression of certain emotions could become a matter of moral regulation. For Parkinson, the question becomes: which emotions are appropriate or encouraged, and which unwanted emotions emerge as a response? An Emotional State lays out some fascinating ways the Allies’ implicit and explicit theories of emotion informed their moralizing view of the West German population. The theoretical stakes here become manifest, since they help regulate prevailing ideas about the legitimacy of particular emotions. These may be present and regulated in either external form, open to moral scrutiny, or internal form, subject to superego surveillance.

This was not only the work of imported authorities. Arguably the Mitscherlischs’ text established taboos in West Germany, particularly around emotional ambivalence. The book often dichotomizes critical insight or reason as distorted by affect. In this binary between reason and affect, they repeat Jaspers’ divide between intellect and feeling. This is a strange position for Freudians: what is psychoanalysis but the insight that unconscious forces, especially our torrid affective life, shape conscious behaviour? However, the Mitscherlischs do not claim, as received wisdom now has it, that the Federal Republic was marked by a lack of feeling subjects so much as an inability to find correct emotional orientations. People exhibited strange disjunctures between feeling, emotion and cognition. Nevertheless, the Mitscherlischs’ frame stops short of examining how something like von Salomon’s The Answers, for example, can be motivated by ressentiment, an affective structure that rationalises its logics of aggression.

As with her two other case studies, Parkinson has also brought into English some contextual matters around the book’s publication—including biographical details about its chief author, Alexander Mitscherlisch—that make sense of its place in postwar Germany. She shows Alexander’s hesitant acceptance, for example, of postwar democracy, which contrasted with his participation in Conservative Revolution factions from the interwar period through to the era of early National Socialism. Alexander erased much of this and other less favorable aspects of his life from self-narration. By the forties, he was training in neurology at Heidelberg, where he lionized Jaspers (a rhapsodic letter to Jaspers remains in his archive). We also discover the Frankfurt School scholars’ ambivalence about Alexander. The Frankfurt sociologists and philosophers, who knew their Freudian psychoanalysis, struggled with conceptual aspects of his work, which they thought were hasty and loose. However, they had (grudging) respect for his character, including the ability to forge institutional links beyond Germany with the aim of resurrecting psychoanalysis in the Federal Republic.

Alexander’s interest in psychoanalysis was phenomenological and anthropological, and he made very little scholarly impact in clinical matters. Inability to Mourn bears this out. The book blurs boundaries between technical psychoanalytic interpretation (the authors’ professed goal) and a moral framework of judgement. Again, such moral censure sits awkwardly with the psychoanalytic method, in which openness (famously: “say whatever comes into your mind”) is where the analyst and analysand begin. As Parkinson puts it, the Mitscherlischs’ “assumption of the position of moral arbitrator renders them closer to the role of the judging superego and implies an immense emotive investment in a largely unexamined countertransferential position from which they form their diagnosis in relationship to their ‘patient,’” the German people (page 124). The authors’ textual position exhibits manifestations of rage, moralising and disappointment, particularly around the failure of an unattained ego ideal they postulated for postwar West German citizens. This probably contributed to the book’s success in Germany. As with Jaspers’ “collective guilt” hypothesis, those Germans who took up the “inability to mourn” diagnosis received a narcissistic gain. As Schneider puts it, identifying with these authors was a “ticket to raising oneself as part of the … moral elite over and against the mass of the guilty” (page 127 in Parkinson).

Nevertheless, Parkinson’s task here is not to downplay what this book did for reintroducing Freudian psychoanalysis to West Germany. Alexander Mitscherlischs’ strength, as biographies attest, was in his ability to mobilize public attention. This enabled a continuing interrogation of how serious and sincere West German democratic sentiments were: the press described him as West Germany’s “soul doctor” (Seelenarzt), the “enlightener” (Aufklärer) and the emancipator.


The last decade has seen a reassessment of the postwar period. An Emotional State is an excellent companion, for example, to Dirk Moses’ German Intellectuals and the Nazi Past, a book about the polarised debates of postwar West Germany. Moses analyses claims about stained, stigmatized and polluted identities in intellectual discourses, revealing an underlying set of political emotions in these pitched battles. German Intellectuals outlined how political ideas have existential significance for their holders—and integrating personal histories with intellectual positions was an important task in postwar German debates. Moses’ and Parkinson’s books work together because they display the diffusion of psychosocial dimensions across a range of topics, including university reform and the student movement. On the other side of the German divide, Julia Hell (Post-Fascist Fantasies: Psychoanalysis, History, and the Literature of East Germany) and Anke Pinkert (Film and Memory in East Germany) have written excellent books on East Germany’s psychosocial situation, which diverged from West Germany. Parkinson’s An Emotional State will join the list of essential reading for those who wish to understand the cultural politics of West Germany after Auschwitz. It also provides a compelling case for psychoanalysis’ invaluable role in affect and emotion studies.

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Ben Gook is a postdoctoral fellow in the Staatswissenschaftliche Fakultät at the University of Erfurt. He also holds honorary positions at the University of Melbourne, as a fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences, and as an investigator with the ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions. In 2015, he published Divided Subjects, Invisible Borders: Re-unified Germany after 1989 (Rowman & Littlefield International).