Abstract Martin Wieser

The “surgeon’s knife” – cultures of justification and critique in the history of psychology 

This presentation analyzes the role and function of psychological knowledge and practice in two distinct places in German history:

Between 1933 and 1945, psychological knowledge played an important role during the rise of National Socialism and World War II, as it was extensively used to categorize thousands of soldiers and forced laborers to put “the right man at the right place” in the war machinery. Although the “Wehrmachtspsychologie” was mostly disbanded in 1942, it helped academic psychology to free itself from the dominance of academic philosophy and claim its own chairs, diplomas and curricula from 1941 onwards. After the end of World War 2, psychologists developed several lines of argumentation to defend their actions during the war: while some plainly admitted that they were happy they avoided fighting at the front, others celebrated the success of applied psychology as a lasting achievement of the discipline and claimed that the German Wehrmacht was in fact a “hideout” for political dissidents. Critical voices were also raised, such as Franziska Baumgarten’s appeal from 1949, who argued that psychologists have repeatedly failed to meet their humanistic obligations in times of war. However, almost forty years went by until German psychologists were ready to critically evaluate the involvement of their discipline in Nazi war crimes.

Secondly, the role of “operative psychology” in Eastern Germany from 1965 to 1990 is highlighted. At the Juridical High School in Potsdam, psychologists introduced psychological theories, concepts and methods to upcoming Stasi agents and taught them how to use psychological knowledge for interrogation and surveillance, how to acquire “unofficial informers” how to “disintegrate” oppositional individual and groups. After the collapse of the German Democratic Republic and the occupation of the Stasi headquarters, new strategies of justification and critique emerged: a social psychologist who worked at the chair for operative psychology argued that he was trying to teach “clean” scientific methods to agents who would otherwise base their assessments on “stereotypes” and “prejudices”. His former academic teachers at the state university argued that they were merely teaching “humanistic” clinical-psychological methods and so could not be held responsible for how their students would use this knowledge – although they admitted that they knew which students were sent by the Stasi. The only major historical analysis of “operative psychology” by Holger Richter mainly focuses on proving that this branch of psychology was in fact merely “ideological” and therefore “unscientific”, thereby suggesting that “operative psychology” was in fact not “real psychology”.

Both episodes reveal an ongoing struggle between different rhetorical strategies, wherein ethical, pragmatic, methodological and epistemological arguments are often mixed up to attack and justify psychologist’s actions within totalitarian systems. By focusing on these “culture of justification”, this presentation underlines the necessity for critical historiographers to focus on the ways in which academic psychologists in past and present defended their doings in oppressive dictatorships.



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