by Liane Watzel

Update: August 02, 2021, 1:21 p.m.


The echoes of totalitarian systems reverberate for a long time. A research group from Leipzig, Jena, Rostock and Magdeburg is investigating the long-term consequences that surveillance, interrogation and decomposition still cause today.

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Political persecution makes people ill. Not only at the moment when injustice occurs. The echo of the injustice experienced reverberates for a long time, both physically and mentally. In the worst cases, it digs deep into the lives of those affected. But what do we actually know about the long-term consequences of experiences such as surveillance, unwanted participation in medical experiments, and substitution measures? This is exactly what a research network with specialists from Leipzig, Magdeburg, Rostock, and Jena wants to find out.

One of the specialists is Professor Dr. Jörg Frommer. "I know, for example, from expert opinions that consequential damages of political imprisonment were not recognized in court. Because the court was not informed about historically impeccably proven conditions of imprisonment." If a year of imprisonment in Hoheneck or Bautzen II was equated with a year in the prison of today. This is not a new phenomenon in judicial history: Those who go further back in history come across parallels. Frommer refers to Holocaust compensation trials in which it was denied by the courts that a stay in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp had anything to do with the loss of the family.



One could also say that this was all a long time ago, yesterday's news. Do we have to go over it again and again? With a view to the next generation(s), this makes perfect sense.

Professor Frommer: "In the past, people thought it was like post-traumatic stress disorder, with flashbacks, when dramatic experiences are relived.

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With severe traumatization, this goes on for a long time. For politically traumatized people, that's not true. We have been able to demonstrate the whole spectrum of mental illness, up to and including suicide risk. Physical illnesses like cardiovascular, pain syndromes."


With this group of people is not just a matter of isolated individual health problems, the psychiatrist explains, but of complex multiple illnesses with a course that has lasted for decades in the meantime. Those seeking help, just like the medical staff, are then faced with a puzzle when it comes to diagnosis. Or as Frommer says, "Affected persons then often experience second injustice due to improper diagnosis, counseling, treatment, assessment, and uninformedness on the part of some contact persons."



The physical damage is one thing, the psychological another. Frommer enumerates, "There is the creeping change in personality. Withdrawal behavior with distrust of people and institutions, a turning away from reality. A loss of trust in interpersonal relationships and institutions."

Specifically, this can mean that physically ill people don't go to the doctor, people in financial distress don't seek assistance from the social welfare office. Behavior with which traumatized people harm not only themselves but also their relatives, their children. Politically traumatized people are not islands floating alone in the sea but are integrated into family systems. Their nicks and crannies shape their offspring.



These are not GDR-specific long-term consequences. Frommer points to research on Holocaust survivors and the effects of their trauma on generations after them: "We know about the long-term effects on the second generation. Traumatized people, for example, seem cold to relatives, as if petrified, emotionally frozen. When children experience this, they relate it to their own person and think they did something wrong. These are attempts at compensation. The second generation can also be damaged by this." Their symptoms are then different, such as depressive syndromes or a lack of self-esteem.



These are phenomena that also affect the generation of war heirs, for example. War grandchildren? People whose parents grew up as children in the war, who never spoke about their experiences, at least not in words. As a result, their children, such as those born after 1970, grow up in a fog of silence and repression, unable to name what ails their family, their relationship with their parents, their siblings or their own self-esteem. And who have been asking themselves for some years now, "What is wrong with me?

They still find few answers in academia, but they do find answers in online forums, for example, where they exchange ideas with others. Addressing this group, Frommer says, "In fact, one of my main motives, when I initiated this project, was the mistakes made in coming to terms with World War 2. There were big mistakes made there." Not reappraising according to the motto, 'What I don't know doesn't make me hot,' had negative consequences, the researcher says. For him, it is important to take a different approach now, to establish with regard to the GDR that there were historical omissions here, too, and that this is now being addressed. He admits: "This is often a painful process, the insight into the conflict, everyone likes to refer to their perfect family. Coming to terms with family history means taking responsibility for your own life."



Because transmission, as it is called in technical jargon, does not have to be, one does not necessarily have to pass on the unspoken legacy of one's own trauma to the next generation. For this to happen, however, the need for reappraisal must be recognized. But there has been a lot of effort since 1990 to come to terms with the fall of the Berlin Wall in this direction, federal commissioners and state commissioners? "We are concerned with bundling this knowledge, putting it on a scientifically tested footing, making it accessible to those affected," says Professor Frommer. In a perfect world, what would be at the end of the three years of research? "A permanent competence center with contacts who recognize the long-term consequences of political traumatization."