Category Archives: war

Under Siege and Under Fire: German Angst, the Second World War and the Long-Term Psychological Impact

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 bombing of Dresden was seen as a pivotal turning point in bringing a conclusion to the Second World War.


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.

dresden 2

Dresden in 2002 – some parts of the city were not reconstructed to serve as a reminder of the horrors of war


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.


Don’t Panic!! War, Money and Stability, 1914-45

Confidence, Fear and a Propensity to Gamble: The Puzzle of War and Economics in an Age of Catastrophe 1914-45

by Roger L. Ransom ( (University of California at Riverside)

This paper uses the notion of animal spirits introduced by John Maynard Keynes in the General Theory and more recently employed by George Akerloff and Robert Shiller in their book Animal Spirits, to explain the speculative bubbles and decisions for war from 1914 to 1945. Animal spirits are “a spontaneous urge to action rather than inaction” that produces decisions which are not bounded by “rational” calculations. My analysis shows how confidence, fear, and a propensity to gamble can encourage aggressive behavior that leads to speculative “bubbles” in financial markets and military or political crises. Elements of prospect theory are added to demonstrate how the presence of risk in crises tend to produce a very strong bias towards taking gambles to avoid economic or military loses. A basic premise of the paper is that war and economics were inexorably joined together by 1914 to a point where economic strength was as important as military might in determining the outcome of a war. The final section of the paper deals with the problem of measuring military and economic strength by using the composite index of national capability [CINC] created by the Correlates of War Project to evaluate the riskiness of the Schlieffen Plan in 1914 and the changes in military capability of major powers between 1914-1919


Distributed by NEP-HIS on: 2016-03-17

Reviewed by Mark J Crowley

This paper surveys the impact of war on economic stability, and the role that confidence and fear plays in the nature of the economy and economic development.   It provides an interesting addition to the historiography, especially since numerous similar studies have concentrated on the social ramifications of war, most notably the correlation between armed conflict and social change first identified by Arthur Marwick in the 1970s.


John Maynard Keynes is still regarded by many as the architect of modern economics in war and peace

Using the framework of ‘animal spirits’, first advanced by John Maynard Keynes in his classical General Theory study of 1936, Ransom shows how emotion and rationality have governed many of the economic cycles that ensued as a result of war and peace. He shows that decisions based on instinct were often the driver of many deep-rooted changes that would impact on long-term economic stability.  With the perception among policymakers that interwar years (i.e. the period after the First World War) would lead to a period of significant economic instability, he shows how major world leaders often took gambles – some of which paid off, but some of which had deep consequences that not only changed the course of war, but also affected long-term economic performance.

In identifying the limitations of economic history analyses in this area, Ransom argues that the uncertainties caused by war and the transition to a peacetime economy leads to several difficulties. For economists, no real models exist for the predictions of uncertainty or volatility, whereas outcomes can, to a certain degree of accuracy, be predicted. Furthermore, he claims that in countries where the economy was growing and the war effort was achieving positive aims, leaders were thus operating in a ‘confidence bubble.’ Yet while this progress could be regarded as positive for the nation, the implications for the economy were not always fruitful, especially since the impact of emotion on leaders’ psyche meant that despite these developments, leaders and planners did not always act rationally. In explaining this phenomenon, Ransom draws on Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tverskey’s 1979 ‘Prospect theory’ in which they argue that many leaders have focused on the results they think are really possible while also seeking to avoid large losses. This, in turn, has served to cloud judgement with regard to the possibilities open to make significant gains.


Hoovervilles in the USA became a common sight of the Great Depression of the 1920s

In the final part of the paper, Ransom shows how historians have used the Composite Index of National Capability in order to assess a nation’s capability to wage a war.  The test, comprising six areas includes: military personnel; military expenditure; total population; urban population; primary energy consumption; and iron and steel consumption.  This approach looks at these aspects and divides each nation by the overall global variable.   While not totally reliable, it can offer possibilities to explain why leaders, in preparation for, and in prosecution of, war have changed strategies according to national needs.  Using the Battle of the Marne during the First World War as an example, Ransom shows how this acted as a ‘tipping point’ in the German prosecution of the war effort – the failure of which saw confidence turn into fear and the widely-regarded failure of General Schlieffen to discharge Germany’s military capability in the most effective way. Thus the idea that economics formed the foundation a nation’s military capability after the First World War has now received greater attention.


General Schlieffen’s economic decisions during the First World War have now been seen as a possible reason for German’s failures.


This paper is fascinating for the way that it shows the impact of emotion and human rationality on economics.  In terms of economic policymaking, little attention has been dedicated to the role of emotion and human behaviour on the economic decisions taken that, in turn, had a fundamental impact on the trajectory of war.

The interesting aspect of this paper lies in the way that Ransom uses case studies to show how wars, and the pressures placed on leaders, could have influenced their state of mind concerning their economic decisions.  The approach is geo-political.  This is particularly useful, since the importance of international relations would have impacted severely on a nation’s economic capability.  However, what could also be of interest is a consideration of the response on the home front to the challenges brought about by war and peace, and how the opinions of ordinary citizens may or may not have influenced those in positions of power.  For example, in the British case, the Ministry of Information during the Second World War commissioned surveys of the home front to ascertain people’s opinions on a wide range of topics, of which the condition of the economy featured heavily.  The social research organisation, Mass Observation, also conducted similar surveys so as to inform the government of the home front’s condition, and how it could be maintained to ensure solidarity for the war effort.  At the core of many citizens’ grievances was the nature of the economy, especially rising food prices.  While ascertaining this information in a transnational study such as this may not be easy, perhaps a little more focus on citizens’ opinions of economy and the prosecution of the war effort would provide a wider framework in which to understand the influences on world leaders when making decisions controlling the trajectory of their nation’s economies in war and peace.



Jefferys, Kevin (ed.), War and Reform: British Politics during the Second World War (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994).

Marwick, Arthur, War and social change in the twentieth century: a comparative study of Britain, France, Germany, Russia and the United States (London: Macmillan, 1974).

Milward, Alan S., War, Economy and Society, 1939-45 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987).

Minns, Raynes, Bombers and Mash: The Domestic Front, 1939-45 (London: Virago, 1980).