Obituary: William Niederland
Thursday 12 August 1993
The theme of William Niederland's life's work is given in the title of a German biography of him: Psychiatrist of the Persecuted (Psychiater der Verfolgten, 1992).
Niederland's most important work was the study of long-term psychological traumas suffered by concentration-camp survivors. Based upon experience in diagnosing and treating about 800 such people, he said that this was 'a type of traumatization of such magnitude, severity, and duration as to produce a recognizable clinical entity'; he called it 'the survivor syndrome'.
The predominant complaint in this syndrome, he said, is anxiety: fear of renewed persecution, 're-run' nightmares, sleep disturbances, and phobias. He observed disturbances in thinking and memory, especially amnesias; lost and bewildered states; and confusion between the previous persecution and the present. He found chronic depressive states, which he attributed in part to what he called survivor guilt: guilt for surviving while loved ones perished. Such guilt, he argued, was usually not permitted to enter consciousness, but manifested in depressive, persecutory, and psychosomatic symptoms.
He also noted a certain ' 'living-corpse' appearance or behaviour which many of the victims show and which seems to be derived from the prolonged confrontation with death in the camps. This 'walking' or 'shuffling corpse' appearance gives the victim a macabre, shadowy, or ghostlike imprint . . . which seems to be in the nature of an all-pervasive psychological scar on the personality.'
Niederland made his observations in New York where he worked to help victims of Nazi persecution gain financial compensation from West Germany. To do this he had to show causal connections between their present ill-health and their previous traumatic experiences.
Niederland was born in 1904 in Schippenbeil, a town which was then part of Germany, to Russian-Jewish parents. His father's father was a rabbi, and his father was a cantor and a rabbi. In 1913 the family moved to Wurzburg and it was from the University of Wurzburg that Niederland got his medical degree in 1929. He worked in Czechoslovakia and in Italy, and obtained another medical degree in Genoa in 1934. He left Italy in 1939 and lived briefly in England, but found he could not work as a doctor here.
A job as a ship's doctor took Niederland to Singapore, from where he went to the Philippines and taught at the University of Manila. He went to the United States in 1940 and lived there the rest of his life. In 1945 he became an American citizen. In 1947 he entered training to become a psychoanalyst and between then and his graduation in 1953 he underwent his own psychoanalysis with Dr Bettina Warburg. In the United States he worked in private psychoanalytic practice and taught at several New York City hospitals. Between 1958 and 1980 he co-edited the Psychoanalytic Quarterly and from 1971 to 1973 was president of the Psychoanalytic Association of New York.
Niederland married in 1943 and divorced two years later. His second marriage in 1950 was to Jacqueline Rosenberg, and they stayed married until her death a year ago. They had three sons.
Among psychoanalysts Niederland is best known for his papers on the Schreber case. Daniel Paul Schreber (1842-1911) was a German judge who became a mental patient in his forties and published an autobiographical account of his 'nervous illness'. In 1911 Freud wrote a paper explaining Schreber's psychosis as an expression of repressed unconscious homosexual love for his father. Niederland uncovered evidence that the father, an orthopaedist and a medical and social reformer, had advocated pedagogic procedures that seemed persecutory. Niederland showed some striking similarities between the father's methods of rearing children and some of the son's strange experiences for which he was regarded as paranoid. Niederland's concern with the apparently real traumatic experiences in the son's childhood differed markedly from Freud's approach. However, Niederland never criticised Freud, preferring instead to remain a loyal psychoanalytic devotee.
Niederland believed that all his research and clinical work had one theme: a focus on trauma and its psychological after-effects. In 1961 he spent several months in Athens investigating the life of Heinrich Schliemann, the 19th-century explorer who searched in Turkey for the ancient site of Troy and alleged that the excavated ruins he had found were indeed those of Troy. Niederland tried to explain Schliemann's interest in Troy in terms of certain childhood events, such as the death just before he was born of an older brother after whom he was named and his childhood play in a cemetery surrounding a vicarage that was his home.
Niederland wrote about the psychological reverberations of facial disfigurement. He pointed out that the word 'ugly' derives from the Gothic ogan, meaning frightening or terrifying, which is related to the German augen - to stare at intensely and with fear. He related the 'smoothness and conspicuous evenness' of the paintings by the Frenchman Jacques Louis David (1748-1825) to disfigurements in David's own face. Niederland also linked Michelangelo's renderings of 'superb masculine beauty and harmony' to permanent facial damage resulting from his face being crushed at the age of 14. He speculated about 'the integral role of an unconscious thrust toward restitution and acquisition of perfection' in some artists' creative activity. He said that 'as a clinician', he had never seen 'a creative individual who did not have serious, apparently all-pervasive and disturbing conflicts'. He believed that artists have often been exposed in their early lives to 'traumatic, not infrequently tragic and perplexing experiences', which their creativity is an attempt to cope with.
Niederland wrote many articles and several books: Nervositat Gedermanns Krankheit (Everyone's Neurotic Illness), 1935; Man-made Plague: a primer to neurosis, 1948; The Schreber Case: Psychoanalytic Profile of a Paranoid Personality, 1974; Folgen der Verfolgung des Uberlebenden-Syndrom Seelenmord (Consequences of Persecution: the Survivors' Syndrome, Soul Murder), 1980. Wenda Focke translated into German and edited a collection of his previously published articles, which she entitled Trauma und Kreativitat (Trauma and Creativity) 1989, and wrote a biography of him called Psychiater der Verfolgten (1992).
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