Medical Memories and Experiences – Part I of a Concept

Memory studies and the invention of new terminology, which supposedly captures different facets of the complex structure of remembrance, are booming since the last couple of decades. Not least, it is the connection with psychology and new insights in neuroscience, which enriches this field of historical research and provides fruitful approaches. However, many of its terms – like ‘cultural memory’, ‘collective memory’, etc. – remain blurry, and most authors in this field offer their interpretations and definitions, tailored towards their studies. Subsequently, one may ask if ‘medical memories and experiences’ is just another one of these terms, only useful for my dissertation.

However, the purpose of my Ph.D. thesis is to develop an analytical tool, which can be applied to different contexts and time periods. To achieve versatility in the concept, the creation of this tool occurs throughout the dissertation, within different settings in post-war East Germany (1945-1961): First, it will explore the transition of medical personnel between the Third Reich and the German Democratic Republic [GDR]. In this regard, medical memories and experiences are used to expose the diversity of coping strategies of doctors and the negotiation with the socialist state about their past. Both state and medical personnel were eager to establish  a narrative which served their respective ends – one which served the antifascistic paradigm of the GDR as well as the self-interests of the individual.

In a second step, the claim will be verified that with the continuity of medical personnel between the systems, certain medical concepts, stigmatisations, clichès, the use of language and symbols survived as well. Therefore, this chapter analyses the medical and social treatment of patients with sexually transmitted diseases [STDs] to reveal the continuity of medical practice and views with the help of medical memories and experiences of the doctor, the nurse and the patient. The analytical tool will allow the conclusion that a ‘system of denunciation’ was in place, which was purposefully maintained by the GDR as well as used by doctors and the social environment to stigmatise patients with STDs and deter the people from becoming ‘promiscuous’.

The third chapter discusses the issue of traumatised war children, their subsequent public behaviour and the reaction of the state authorities. Archival sources and statistics reveal an appalling amount of sexual violence against minors – not only from occupying soldiers but also from East Germans. Without falling into the current discussion of victimhood in Germany, this thesis will use medical memories and experiences to explore the psychological effects on the memory of the individual, who was exposed to traumatic events during the war and in the post-war era, and its consequences. The latter can be reconstructed from archival evidence and compared with studies of today’s war children. Interestingly, the state concentrated their policies on the criminal, promiscuous or delinquent behaviour of its youth and transferred them either into prison, educational homes or mental asylums, thereby neglecting the actual cause of their actions.

In the last chapter, the case study of a care home in Dresden will be utilised, where all three themes of the previous chapters are combined: in this institution, the medical personnel with an NS past, the ‘promiscuous’ woman with latent syphilis and the ‘delinquent’ teenager could be found. This study will lead into a prologue, which establishes the general theory of medical memories and experiences with the help of conclusions drawn from my research.

After providing this overview of how the concept will be developed in the curse of my dissertation, the next posts about medical memories and experiences will discuss the theoretical framework and give a glimpse into some of my findings.

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