“Inter-national” Suffering and Local Medical Counselling: Dr. William G. Niederland (1904–1993) and the Psychiatric Contours of Empathy

  • Frank W. Stahnisch University of Calgary
  • Christopher G. Kemp University of Washington
Keywords: Compensation Claims, Empathy, Emigre Psychiatrists and Neurologists, Germany, Holocaust Survivors, New York, William G. Niederland, United States Compensation Claims

Abstract

While working for the American and West German authorities as a psychiatric expert in the indemnification trials for Holocaust survivors from the 1950s to the 1980s, German-born physician William G. Niederland not only became an advocate for survivors’ claims for compensation, but worked out the psychiatric contours of empathy in modern psycho-traumatology. Historians often assume that he developed his notion of empathy strictly from clinical diagnostic reports and personal experiences, yet Niederland’s encounters with psychiatric and psychological communities remain scantily understood. However, these encounters formed his interests to a great extent and served in his continuing diagnostic endeavours. Niederland reshaped empathy into a methodological tool and elaborated the definition of survivors’ syndrome — for which he became world renowned. His work as a physician in the British Marine Corps inevitably left its traces in his later psychiatric practice. At the centre of this article lies the development of Niederland’s personal and professional career, with a focus on “inter-national” forms of suffering. Beyond such subjective experiences, Niederland can also be seen as one of many émigrés who brought Central European concepts to North America and adapted them to their new medical and psychological milieu. This process remains tangible in Niederland’s views of Karl Jasper’s (1883–1969) and Eugen Bleuler’s (1857–1939) works in general psychopathology. This article traces the knowledge transfer that occurred in the historical development of empathy. Niederland’s call for modifying the physician–survivor relationship is thereby presented in relation to his scientific and popular writings, while drawing attention to his court testimonies in the context of reparation and restitution claims for Nazi atrocities.

Author Biographies

Frank W. Stahnisch, University of Calgary

Frank W. Stahnisch holds the Alberta Medical Foundation/Hannah Professorship in the History of Medicine and Health Care at the University of Calgary. His current research on the forced migration of neuro-scientists during and after the Second World War has been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Of particular interest to him is how the migration of scientists and physicians has affected the academic migrants and their receiving environments.

Christopher G. Kemp, University of Washington

Christopher Kemp is a PhD Student in Implementation Science and Global Health at the University of Washington in Seattle, United States. He previously received a BA in Social Studies of Medicine from McGill University, Montréal, where he also worked as research assistant to an Alexander-von-Humboldt-Foundation sponsored history of science program. Between 2008 and 2010, he took up an assistant research fellowship in the Social Psychiatry and Population Mental Health Research Unit at the University of Otago, New Zealand.