Psychiatrists, Telephone Operators, and Traumatic Neurosis, 1900–1926

Andreas Killen

in Berlin Electropolis

Published by University of California Press

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780520243620
Published online March 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780520931633 | DOI:
Psychiatrists, Telephone Operators, and Traumatic Neurosis, 1900–1926

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  • Modern History (1700 to 1945)


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This chapter, covering the years 1900–26, looks at medical discourses about female telephone operators and the role of electricity as pathogen in their nervous disorders. It examines the position occupied by operators both in the rationalization movement that animated Weimar social policy and in the postwar backlash against social insurance. Along with shell-shocked soldiers, operators played a central role in the medical recasting of traumatic neurosis as a condition caused not by an external event (a shock) but by morbid internal conditions (fright or hereditary weakness). Reconceptualized as a pseudomalady, traumatic neurosis was ultimately disqualified as a compensable illness in 1926 by the revision of Germany's social insurance legislation. By the late 1920s, when Freud was theorizing neurosis as a universal condition of modern civilization, mainstream German psychiatrists were dismantling the social contract built around neurasthenia. Losing its anchorage in the individual body, nervous illness became inscribed in more collectivist notions of heredity and mass psychology, even as medical experts shifted the burden of diagnosis away from the technological discontents of modern life to the pathologies of the bureaucratic social state.

Keywords: medical discourse; female telephone operators; electricity; nervous disorders; Weimar social policy; social insurance; neurasthenia

Chapter.  20503 words. 

Subjects: Modern History (1700 to 1945)

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