Did Strategic Bombing in the Second World War lead to ‘German Angst’? A Large-Scale Empirical Test across 89 German Cities.
Martin Obschonka (Queensland University of Technology, Australia), Michael Stützer (Baden Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University and Ilmenau University of Technology, Germany) , P. Jason Rentfrow (University of Cambridge, UK), Jeff Potter (Atof Inc., USA), Samuel D. Gosling (University of Texas at Austin, USA, and School of Psychological Sciences, University of Melbourne, Parkville, VIC, Australia)
Abstract: A widespread stereotype holds that the Germans are notorious worriers, an idea captured by the term, German Angst. An analysis of country-level neurotic personality traits (Trait Anxiety, Trait Depression, and Trait Neuroticism; N = 7,210,276) across 109 countries provided mixed support for this idea; Germany ranked 20th, 31st, and 53rd for Depression, Anxiety, and Neuroticism respectively suggesting, at best, the national stereotype is only partly valid. Theories put forward to explain the stereotypical characterization of Germany focus on the collective traumatic events experienced by Germany during WWII, such as the massive strategic bombing of German cities. We thus examined the link between strategic bombing of 89 German cities and today’s regional levels in neurotic traits (N = 33,534) and related mental health problems. Contrary to the WWII-bombing hypothesis, we found negative effects of strategic bombing on regional Trait Depression and mental health problems. This finding was robust when controlling for a host of economic factors and social structure. We also found Resilience X Stressor interactions: Cities with more severe bombings show more resilience today: lower levels of neurotic traits and mental health problems in the face of a current major stressor – economic hardship.
Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2018-02-06
Review by: Mark J. Crowley (Wuhan University)
This paper is an interesting addition to the literature on the Second World War, and contributes to many areas concerning the impact of the war on civilian population. It builds on much of the British literature that has now served to coin the phrases “the people’s war” and the “stiff upper lip” to describe the way in which the British responded to the hardships caused by rationing and enemy bombings, and focuses on the nation that was seen as the aggressor in the conflict – Germany. While many studies have focused on the resistance of civilians against bombings and invasion, fewer have focused on the mental impact of such events on its citizens and future generations, least of all on the nation that was judged to be the loser in the conflict. The authors deftly trace how the impact of bombing could be traced to what is now commonly referred to as “German angst”– a phenomenon that is believed to have been created by the Second World War, but one that still endures today.
The authors clearly outline how the different strategies adopted by the varying militaries in the war led to different results. Their claim that the Americans used strategic bombing while the British indiscriminately targeted civilian areas is one that has received less attention in the historiography, especially among British military historians, but is one worth exploring further. While the bombing of Dresden is often seen as one of the last major raids of the Second World War, inflicting massive civilian casualties and effectively breaking the German resistance, the psychological impact on German citizens has received little attention. Moreover, the ensuing debates about national identity and nationhood that dominated German history in the post-1945 era have focused more on ideological and political factors rather than the perception of individuals and “the self” about their position in the nation, or indeed the position of their nation in the world.
One very illuminating aspect of this article is how the authors trace that German angst can be correlated to regional and economic factors. Certain areas of Germany suffered disproportionately from the effects of bombing, and it is this, together with the impact of collective memory and the notion of national mourning that has affected the way in which angst is transmitted, perceived and perpetuated among communities. The decision for certain areas to preserve buildings in their damaged state from the war serves as a reminder of the horrors of war, while also serving to perpetuate the collective sense of angst and grief caused by the conflict. Furthermore, the correlation between economic hardship and sense is, according to the authors, influenced by region. It is clear that this argument has traction, and this can be correlated to other events, excluding war, where this phenomenon is clear. One need not look further than the impact of the mass closure of industries in Britain in the 1980s to witness the disparities among British regions caused by the anomie generated by the economic distress ensuing from the realignment of the economy to show how negative economic experiences can have a powerful impact on the human psyche.
This article is deeply researched, and seeks to make many connections across a range of different possibilities for the rise and incidence of depression, together with its consequent impact on the supposed notion of German angst. However, the authors concede that while it is possible to surmise that a connection exists, the lack of data suggests that it is not possible to prove definitively. In this respect, this article will hopefully provide fertile ground for further research and debate. The references to other countries that experienced bombings in wartime are apposite, and could be explored further in additional research. Moreover, the correlation between the end result of war and the long-term psychological effect could be the subject of further analysis. For example, propaganda both during and after the Second World War enforced the belief, in Britain at least, that the armed forces were fighting for freedom and were on the “right side” of the conflict. However, the post-war situation enforced the belief among the international community that the Germans were the aggressors and the guilty party. The annexation of the country at the end of the war was symptomatic of the international community’s response, and how, to a great extent, their punishment and future destiny was in the hands of other international actors. Thus, while the British could couch their feelings of anxiety within the larger national narrative that they had undergone their struggles to secure national freedom, and were operating within a framework of righteousness, the Germans, adjudged as the evil party at the end of the war had to deal with two difficult realities. The first being that they had lost the war, and the second that suggested the German “Sonderweg” and “Weltanschauung” was one that led it on a path to its own destruction, and one that would leave the rest of the international community seeing Germany as a negative force for some time.
- Brakman, Steven, Harry Garretsen, and Marc Schramm. “The Strategic Bombing of German Cities during World War II and its Impact on City Growth.” Journal of Economic Geography 4.2 (2004): 201-218.
- Tiratsoo, Nick. Reconstruction, Affluence, and Labour Politics: Coventry, 1945-1960. Routledge, 1990.
- Schaffer, Ronald. “American Military Ethics in World War II: The Bombing of German Civilians.” Journal of American History (1980): 318-334
Note of the Deputy Editor: This post was originally called “The Spitfires are Coming! German Angst, the Second World War and the Long-Term Psychological Impact.” Alain Guery (EHESS) and Avner Offer (Oxford) kindly told us the Supermarine Spitfire was a plane that could escort bombers, but did not have the range to get to Germany. Accordingly, Mark Crowley changed the title of the post.