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Margarete Mitscherlich: Psychoanalyst who dealt with German post-war guilt


Margarete Mitscherlich was a German-Danish psychoanalyst and feminist who famously claimed that Germans could not mourn. Often referred to as the "Grande Dame of German psychoanalysis", with her husband Alexander she co-authored Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern ["The Inability to Mourn"] in 1967.

It was an exploration of Germany's attempts to come to terms with the Second World War in the era of the economic miracle, "'restoration" and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. They concluded that not enough had been done to address the crimes of the Nazi era, and called on Germans to embark on more collective attempts to do so. It was provocative and touched on the taboos many Germans had long nourished.

In truth, many ordinary Germans were dazed. They felt they had had no hand in Nazi crimes, that they had paid for them with the destruction of their cities by heavy Allied bombing, the expulsion of millions from their homes in former German territories and eastern Europe, the massive reparations and the dividing-up of the remainder of the country. Had not the criminals been brought to justice in the Nuremberg Trials? They wanted to get on with rebuilding what was left of their country.

The Mitscherlichs noted that in the course of reconstruction many old Nazis had returned to positions of prominence and responsibility. All too often, the past was simply written off. Change came in December 1963 with the start of the Auschwitz trials. The Inability to Mourn became a key weapon for those West German students who, in 1968 took to the streets in protest not only against antiquated traditions at German universities but also to draw the attention of their parents' generation to what had become a collective suppression of guilt in Germany and the false return to an ostensible normality. The book was an instant bestseller and influenced the political debate which helped to bring Willy Brandt's Social Democrats to power in 1969.

She was born Margarete Nielsen in 1917 in the small south Danish town of Gråsten, her father a Danish medical practitioner, her German mother a headmistress. She studied at secondary school in Flensburg, Germany, then took up the study of literature. She later switched to medicine, in Munich and Heidelberg, and trained as a psychoanalyst. Her work began at an anthroposophical clinic in the Swiss canton of Ticino. There she met her future husband, Alexander Mitscherlich who introduced her to the works of Freud.

The Munich-born Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Frankfurt, Alexander Mitscherlich was a co-founder of the Humanist Union and director of the Sigmund Freud Institute in Frankfurt from 1959-76. Margarete was employed at the same institute and the couple spent years working together: in the 1950s Margarete completed her psychoanalytic training at the London institute led by Anna Freud, Melanie Klein and Michael Balint.

Margarete increasingly turned her attention to the position of women in society, declaring in the first issue of her friend Alice Schwarzer's magazine, Emma (November 1977), "I am a feminist". She also took an active part in legal actions against degrading depictions of women in the media. In her successful 1985 book Die friedfertige Frau: Eine psychoanalytische Untersuchung zur Aggression der Geschlechter (The Peaceable Sex: On aggression in women and men), she dealt with the roles of women in politics. This was followed by Die Zukunft ist weiblich ("The future is feminine", 1987) in which she advocated that society's values should become more feminine.

She continued to work into her nineties as a psychoanalyst, advising younger colleagues and commenting on political developments. In her last book, Die Radikalität des Alters: Einsichten einer Psychoanalytikerin (Radical Age: Insights of a Psychoanalyst) she examined her experience of aging.

Margarete Nielsen, psychoanalyst and writer: born Grasten, Denmark 17 July 1917; married 1955 Alexander Mitscherlich (died 1982; one son); died Frankfurt 12 June 2012.