The neurological manifestations of trauma: lessons from World War I

Eur Arch Psychiatry Clin Neurosci. 2012 Apr;262(3):253-64. doi: 10.1007/s00406-011-0272-9. Epub 2011 Nov 8.


Changes in the clinical presentation of functional disorders and the influence of social and cultural factors can be investigated through the historical case notes from mental hospitals. World War I (WWI) was a potent trigger of functional disorders with neurological or psychiatric symptoms. We analysed 100 randomly selected case files of German servicemen admitted to the Department of Psychiatry of the Charité Medical School of Berlin University during WWI and classified them according to contemporaneous and retrospective modern diagnoses. We compared the clinical presentations with accounts in the German and British medical literature of the time. Most patients obtained the contemporaneous diagnosis of 'psychopathic constitution' or hysteria reflecting the general view of German psychiatrists that not the war but an individual predisposition was the basis for the development of symptoms. The clinical picture was dominated by pseudoneurological motor or sensory symptoms as well as pseudoseizures. Some soldiers relived combat experiences in dream-like dissociative states that partly resemble modern-day post-traumatic stress disorder. Most servicemen were classified as unfit for military service but very few of them were granted compensation. Severe functional disorders of a neurological character could develop even without traumatic exposure in combat, which is of interest for the current debate on triggers of stress disorders. The high incidence of pseudoseizures accords with the psychiatric literature of the time and contrasts with accounts of war-related disorders in Britain. The tendency of German psychiatrists not to send traumatised servicemen back to active duty also distinguished between German and British practice. Our data contribute to the debate on the changing patterns of human responses to traumatic experience and their historical and social context.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Portrait

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Combat Disorders / complications
  • Combat Disorders / epidemiology
  • Combat Disorders / history
  • Female
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis
  • Mental Disorders / etiology*
  • Mental Disorders / psychology
  • Mental Disorders / therapy
  • Middle Aged
  • Nervous System Diseases / diagnosis
  • Nervous System Diseases / etiology*
  • Nervous System Diseases / psychology
  • Nervous System Diseases / therapy
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Treatment Outcome
  • World War I*
  • Wounds and Injuries / epidemiology*
  • Wounds and Injuries / history
  • Wounds and Injuries / psychology
  • Young Adult