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How is Second World War Trauma Passed to the Next Generation?

How does the trauma of World War II affect future generations? For the first time, in public and in research work, this question is being discussed in depth. There are a lack of systematic studies, but psychoanalytical interviews indicate that the trauma of that time is not only a difficult emotional legacy for those who witnessed it, but also for their children.

"The parent generation bears the burden for sure. About half of the people born before the end of the war report at least one traumatic experience," explains trauma researcher Prof Dr Heide Glaesmer from the University of Leipzig to Medscape's German Edition.

In a recent publication, she cites studies showing that today's older generation are more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) than younger generations. Symptoms include recurring agonising memories, irritability, aggressiveness, alienation, social withdrawal, emotional apathy, and sleep disturbances.

But to what extent have psychological shocks caused by World War II been passed on to their children? "There is evidence of such trans-generational transmission, and it seems plausible, but the extent is difficult to determine," says Prof Glaesmer.

Post-war Generation Now Taking Stock of Their Lives

Secondary traumatisation is currently a well-recognised topic in books and magazines and on Internet forums. "There are probably so many people eager to discuss it, because on the one hand, there is now a large time gap and on the other hand interaction between the generations has improved. It is a liberating experience, to be able to talk about guilt, victims, and perpetrators," explains Prof Glaesmer.

The amount of interest can also be explained by the fact that those who were born in the post-war years are now watching their grandchildren grow up and are subsequently confronted with their childhood once again. In addition, they have now reached an age that lends itself to reviewing and balancing, especially as content from the long-term memory moves into the foreground. After retiring from work and raising children, they now have time to study their family history.

"People feel the need to meaningfully link episodes of their biography, to discover causalities," explains Prof Glaesmer. She defines three phases when dealing with the past:

1. From 1945 to the mid-1960s when the horrors of the Second World War were banished behind a wall of silence in the Federal Republic of Germany, and in the German Democratic Republic behind an "anti-fascist protective wall". This denial prevented any processing.

2. The 1968 student movement reacted with anger to the ignorant and self-righteous handling of the Holocaust. Focal points were formed by the 1964 Eichmann process and the 1964/65 Frankfurt Auschwitz processes.

3. In the third phase, which extends to the present day, the taboo eases off, and discloses this dark chapter. Children and grandchildren react in a more unbiased way, the confrontation becomes more honest, with reunification providing an important impetus.


For about 15 years there has been scientific research into whether and how the war still affects the next generation. In Prof Glaesmer's view, the interdisciplinary team led by psychoanalyst Dr Ulrich Lamparter from Hamburg has succeeded in developing a very convincing approach to secondary traumatisation.

In the "Witnesses of the Hamburg Firestorm and Their Families" project, psychoanalysts and historians carried out semi-structured interviews with eye witnesses and their adult children. Among the survivors, they found "traumatic damage that was subtle, yet at the same time had a profound effect on personality, such as anxiety, depression or loss of empathy."

In the offspring they noted "a profound foreboding of the horrors of war, of chaos, fear and menace". The experiences remain a virulent fixture in family memory up until this day.

The term "Hamburg Firestorm" relates to several days of airstrikes in the summer of 1943, when about 35,000 people died. The 60 study participants from the parent generation were between 3 and 27 years old at the time, and between 66 and 91 years old during the survey period – 2005 to 2010. The authors reported that their memories were extraordinarily vivid and their descriptions precise. The sight of often horribly disfigured dead lying around en masse or others sitting there alive was deeply imprinted in their minds.

War Atrocities – A Biographical Turning Point

Scientists describe such experiences as a biographical turning point: "For many witnesses, the firestorm was a fundamental experience of terror and existential threat." They suffered emotional wounds that never healed and caused a lasting instability, especially among women.

Typical statements: "There's something in me that doesn't go away" or "These are things that haunt you all your life." The shock cannot be recovered from, even by successful processing of differing degrees, but acts like a magnet to which everything else aligns itself. Often, not just the experience of the firestorm, but of the war as a whole, is referred to as drastic.

Previous Scales Unable to Adequately Measure the Consequences

Symptoms recorded with questionnaires were in the subclinical range: The Hospital Anxiety and Depression (HADS) scale showed slightly higher levels of anxiety and depression compared to a reference group. With the Posttraumatic Stress Diagnostic Rating (PDS) scale, only four eyewitnesses exceeded the critical values.

But the authors emphasise however, that according to the clinical impression, all were significantly more traumatised than the scores reflected. They mention the following reasons: The questions only related to the previous week and they did not detect symptoms outside the given spectrum.

Moreover, many eyewitnesses are not even aware of underlying injuries, or deny them. On the contrary, they consider themselves fortunate, because they have survived. Therefore, Lamparter  and colleagues argue for their own method of clinical differentiation.

Transfer Is Carried Out According to Certain Patterns

Interviews with 45 daughters and sons of eye witnesses, born in the era of 1952 to 1962 and aged between 55 and 65 years old in the study, show how the experiences have been passed on to the next generation. A third had concrete knowledge of what had happened to their mother or father during the firestorm, in addition to emotional knowledge, which means they could understand their feelings.

Lamparter and colleagues concluded: "Most children see psychological consequences, which they attribute to the experiences of their parents in the Hamburg firestorm, in the war and in the post-war period."

From the conversations they have worked out these transmission paths:

Barriers: The parents are defensive and either do not bring up the horrors or gloss over them. They are unable to acknowledge the needs of their children, and instead of interaction and reconciliation, resignation and reproach prevail.

Mutual agreement: There is a mutual and tacit agreement between the generations to avoid emotions and to limit themselves to objectivity.

Direct effects: The experiences and feelings of the parents during the war are shared and depicted with their children and are reproduced in them, for example in the form of fear and a diffuse atmosphere of discontent – this is the classic mechanism of transmission. "Relics", or items that have been saved, despite the chaos, such as a cup or a piece of jewellery, are often significant.

Functionalisation as a "container": Some parents burden their children with pain and frustration or see them as a replacement for lost relatives.

Misunderstanding: Parents interpret care from a purely material viewpoint, as supplying food, housing, clothing, money, but their children want empathy. Parents care about education as a means of independence, the children want security and closeness. Parents try to create security through prohibitions and restrictions, the children strive for freedom.

Legacy: Parents renounce their own goals and desires so that their children have a better life. For example, they push them to achieve good school grades and careers, or to behave modestly and show gratitude.

Attitudes and ways of life: Disturbing experiences are reflected in family dynamics, such as via "explosiveness", ie, excessive aggression. Some children refuse to start a family due to these bad experiences.

Joint processing: The two generations are able to cope with the terror by talking about it and accept the impact it has on themselves. Such people are more likely to view themselves as mentally healthy.

An Appeal to Doctors: Consider War Trauma

Lamparter and colleagues argue that there is proof that private memories are strongly influenced by public images, monuments, TV documentaries and newspaper reports.

They consider the results of their study to be symptomatic: "It can be assumed that comparable psychomental effects of the Second World War can be found in the birth years 1925 to 1945."

This also applies to those people who were not exposed to the extremes of a firestorm, but "only" had to endure bombings whilst in bunkers, for example. And this is especially true if they lost relatives, houses or belongings, as happened to two thirds of eyewitnesses.

The researchers write: "We would like to encourage you to consciously perceive and take into account the effects of the Second World War in your daily work as a doctor or psychotherapist."

Systematic Studies Fail Due to Complex Methodology

With systematic investigations it is difficult to clarify to what extent parental PTSD overshadows the lives of their children. The failure is due to methodological challenges, Prof Glaesmer explains.

The design is too complicated, due to the many variables: There are large differences depending on year of birth, gender, previous history, relevant experiences, environmental conditions such as in FRG or GDR, social factors and personality traits such as resilience. Last but not least, events date back decades.

For example, studies on specific groups, such as descendants of Vietnam veterans, refugees or Holocaust survivors, do not provide any reliable evidence. "Actually a good message, if there is no clear evidence for emotional abnormalities or PTSD. The incident is often absorbed into the general noise, so to speak," comments Prof Glaesmer.

Children of 'War Children' Are Also Mentally Vulnerable

Clinical samples, however, showed an increased vulnerability to mental disorders in children of traumatised parents, as reported by the psychologist in her publication. Low self-esteem, fear of annihilation, nightmares, difficulties with conflict management, excessive identification with their parents’ victim status, and pursuit of achievements to compensate for their suffering, were all observed.

According to the psychodynamic model, transmission is not only direct, but takes place additionally via body signals such as gestures, facial expressions, voice, touch or even coldness and beatings.

The following are considered central to projection: Parents are unable to cope with negative emotions – grief, anger, weakness, guilt – from them personally, but attribute them to their children. In this way, they can observe, control and reduce these undesirable traits in another person.

Conversely, by identifying with parents so as not to open up old wounds, children can be overly careful – going as far as role reversal, so that they eventually mother their parents.

Traumatised Parents Have a Confused Parenting Style

Systemic family approaches focus on binding patterns, according to Prof Glaesmer. For traumatised parents, disorganised-disoriented upbringing is typical: They behave helplessly and inconsistently, are afraid and frightened, are unable to recognise their children appropriately and are not emotionally available.

Communication is compromised, right down to a "silence" that remains like a wall between generations. It springs from an unspoken pact of silence: Parents do not want to burden their children, the children in turn avoid sensitive issues.

However, trauma can also be transmitted through rigorous uncovering - detailed descriptions are frightening to young listeners.

In addition, biological mechanisms may promote transgenerational transmission. For example, epigenetic changes are possible: According to findings from developmental medicine, a corresponding intrauterine imprint increases a disposition to illness.

Central disturbance of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal cortex axis would appear to be central to this: For example, in pregnant women, who are under stress or have contracted PTSD, the cortisol level is lowered, as is later the case in their children. "However, these findings come mainly from animal models, in humans, there is much less evidence," said Prof Glaesmer.

Translated from Medscape German Edition.

Glaesmer H, et al: Medical Psychotherapy 2019;14:85-91