1891: The Boulanger Suicide

September 30, 1891 – This morning, exiled French army General Georges Boulanger (54) shot himself through the head in a spectacular suicide that made headlines in newspapers all over the world.

Georges BoulangerGeorges Boulanger, by famous Paris photographer Nadar (1820-1910)

Can we say this suicide was pure despair, nothing to do with mental instability? I’m not sure. There’s a thin line between the one and the other.

A few years earlier, the charismatic General had made a great career in politics with his populist-nationalist-conservative ideas, aiming at restoring the monarchy and taking revenge at Germany for their 1870 victory over France. He had gathered scores of enthusiast followers, won local elections, and had come close to taking over the country.

But Boulanger also was a very impulsive, emotional man with little self-control. In 1888 he even had fought a saber duel with one of his political opponents (who left Boulanger with a slash wound in the neck). And after having won an important 1889 election, he missed his best chance to actually take power: just because that evening he was too enthusiastically partying in celebration.

Later that year, accused of preparing a coup to overthrow the French government, he went into exile.

Infatuated Lover

Boulanger had also made a mess of his marriage, trying in vain to get his wife to divorce him because he was totally (and publicly) infatuated with his mistress.

His great love was Marguerite de Bonnemains (born Crouzet), a former Comédie-Française actress and ex-wife of the Count de Bonnemains. She had joined the General in his exile in Brussels, Belgium.

Marguerite de Bonnemains-CrouzetMarguerite de Bonnemains-Crouzet was photographed by Nadar, too

Unfortunately she got ill with tuberculosis – the feared “consumption” disease that in the 19th century could be fatal. On 15 July 1891, the young woman (35) died in the General’s arms. He was inconsolable.

Marguerite was buried in the Brussels Ixelles cemetery. On her tombstone, Boulanger put the inscription “A bientôt”: “See you soon”.

As testified later by friends and servants, he became deeply depressed: hardly eating, he began to look worn and emaciated. He visited Marguerite’s grave every day, making sure it was continuously covered with fresh flowers. After one failed suicide attempt, friends kept a close eye on him.

Marguerite de Bonnemains-CrouzetBut on this September day, while standing at Marguerite’s tomb in plain view of his coachman, an accompanying friend and some grave diggers, he suddenly drew his army revolver and shot himself through the temple.

When later his body was undressed to be laid out, the undertaker discovered that Boulanger had a (now bloodied) photo of Marguerite pinned to his undershirt.

He left a last will and various farewell letters, including one to his wife in France that he had addressed to “Madame the Widow Boulanger”. This proved that his dramatic suicide was not as impulsive as it had looked.

In the News

Because Boulanger was a political celebrity, his death was covered in a way that was almost as dramatic as the suicide itself:

boulanger-suicide

In the wake of Boulanger’s death, among his many followers in France there also was a really curious tendency to idealize and romanticize the love between the General and his Marguerite.

Just see this popular picture commemorating the couple:

General Boulanger and his lover

Others, especially outside France, were much less given to idealization.

Here is how a righteous American newspaper covered Boulanger’s suicide: “Vanity and Women the Cause of a Wasted Life”.

Exit Boulanger

Grave

Boulanger was buried right where he had killed himself: at the side of his beloved Marguerite.

On the tombstone, below the “See you soon”, a new inscription was added. It looks like it was aimed at supporting the idea that this had been a romantic suicide, one inspired by pure love and loss.

The added inscription read “Ai-je bien pu vivre 2 mois et demi sans toi?” meaning “Was I really able to live 2 and a half months without you?”

The tombstone of the two lovers can still be seen at the Ixelles cemetery in Brussels today:

Grave of Bonnemains and Boulanger

Questions

Many questions remain unanswered here. Can we say, as some suggested at the time, that Boulanger was temporarily possessed by some kind of deep depression or even a bout of insanity? Or should we assume that his suicide was perhaps more the result of regret over his political mistakes, and in fact a fairly rational decision? I guess we will never know.

Another question that interests me: was this suicide followed by copycat ones, as is so often the case with celebrity suicides today? Were there other Frenchmen in the 1890s who, when mourning the loss of a loved one, thought it best to follow the widely-advertised “romantic” example of General Boulanger?

I cannot help thinking here also of Goethe’s Werther, the well-known literary case of love-inspired suicide. Between 1775-1800, this book caused one of the first instances of a wave of copycat suicides.

In the case of Boulanger, given the romantic idealization of his love and his death, I wouldn’t be surprised if something similar happened. But to be honest, I just don’t know.

Footnotes:

  • The Paris newspaper Le Petit Journal gave a description of Boulanger’s death and its aftermath, with many details: such as the fact that the Catholic authorities, in line with established church policy in suicide cases, refused to allow a formal religious ceremony.
    A somewhat rough English translation of this 1891 Petit Journal coverage is online (of all places) at the site of the Marxist Internet Archive: Suicide of General Boulanger.
  • The American newspaper clipping is from the Illinois newspaper The Rock Island Argus, 1 October 1891, online at the Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections site of the University of Illinois library.
  • The photo of the Brussels grave of General Georges Boulanger and Marguerite de Bonnemains was taken in 1994 by Dutch blogger Androom for his celebrity graves website The Androom Archives.

 


551 BC: Confucius

September 28, 551 BC – Assumed birth date of Chinese philosopher Kǒng Qiū, better known as Confucius which is the Latin version of Kong Fuzi, “Master Kong”. He is thought to have died in 479 BC (aged 71 or 72).

During his lifetime no portraits were made of him, so any Confucius portrait is just an idealized guess:

Confucius

He developed a life philosophy strongly based on social, ethical behavior and virtues with the central value of “benevolence”. His view of people being defined by their position as a part of larger social structures (from family to village to kingdom) enabled him to offer practical guidance rules.

Confucius was probably the first to formulate the universal rule of reciprocity, with his saying “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”

After all these ages he remains a valuable source of moral inspiration. Confucianism is no religion, but a traditional philosophy that keeps permeating daily life in large parts of Asia today.

Ancient manuscript about Confucius

Confucianism and Mental Health Care

Some researchers have pointed out that there is a cultural difference between the traditional social-centered Confucian values and the more individual-centered values in a Western psychiatric approach, and that sometimes this may cause problems when treating Chinese patients.

A 2008 article by F.H. Hsiao and others (see footnote) states:

 
(1) Because of the influence of Confucian ideals, interpersonal harmony was the key element of maintaining the Chinese patients’ mental health;
(2) Chinese patients’ failure to fulfill cultural expectations of appropriate behaviors as family members contributed to disturbance of interpersonal relationships;
(3) Chinese patients’ failure to fulfill their familial obligations contributes to their diminished self-worth and increased sense of guilt and shame.”
 

They concluded:

 
“Psychotherapy which aims to understand the impact of cultural values on the development of interpersonal conflicts and on the sense of guilt and shame in order to restore the harmony of interpersonal relationships, may need to be provided for Chinese patients and their family members.”
 

There also has been research (again, see footnote) concluding that a traditional Confucian attitude may lead to people with a mentally ill family member wanting to “save face”, thereby hindering effective psychiatric help.

Confucius as seen in the WestConfucius as seen when introduced in the West:
picture from the 1687 French book Confucius Sinarum Philosophus
(“Confucius Chinese Philosopher”)

Positive Side

It is important to add here that on the more positive side, Confucian values may actually also be useful as guidelines in psychotherapy.

In 2008, Shanghai professor Yan Heqin (who in 1979 was the first Chinese mental health specialist to officially visit America) wrote an interesting article about how common psychotherapy might benefit from Confucian principles.

In his article (again: see footnote) he detailed how the following Confucian ideas can enhance therapist-client interaction and be of practical help:

  • establishment of benevolent love toward others;
  • harmony as the principle for interpersonal relations;
  • the golden mean as the principle for dealing with problems;
  • performing proper roles as the basis of stable social order;
  • emphasizing empathy toward others;
  • self-cultivation as a means for achieving a mature personality.
     

He concluded that this perspective might be relevant not just for the Chinese, but also in Western-culture psychotherapy:

 
“It is also a challenge to determine to what extent and in what ways basic Confucian thought can be applied in therapy for Asian people as well as people of the West, who tend to ignore the importance of maintaining the integration of their own minds, establishing and maintaining a functional marriage and family, harmony among people, and the value of seeking the Golden Mean in resolving problems in life.
Psychotherapy practiced in the West, particularly individually and analytically oriented dynamic therapy, tends to focus primarily on the activation of the self. Learning how to integrate the interpersonal and social system aspects of Confucian thought into individually focused therapy, to expand the scope of family therapy and produce socially rooted, mature individuals, is a waiting challenge for psychotherapists.”
 

In other words, what he’s saying here is that it might be a good idea to introduce a little more “interpersonal” Confucianism in our individualistic Western psychotherapies.

Confucius Song

To get you in the proper mood for actually reading the PDFs linked in my footnotes below, here is the trailer soundtrack of the 2010 Chinese movie Confucius, the romanticized story of his life:

Confucius film still 
Confucius movie song

Footnotes:

  • The document shown in the text above is an ancient Chinese manuscript about Confucius, but please don’t ask me for a translation.
  • Research article noting that Confucian views may cause some problems in the care for Chinese mentally ill: Cultural attribution of mental health suffering in Chinese societies: the views of Chinese patients with mental illness and their caregivers, by F.H. Hsiao (Taiwan) and the Australians S. Klimidis, H. Minas, and E.S. Tan, in Journal Of Clinical Nursing, 2008 (PDF at Researchgate).
  • Study about how Confucian views may lead to counterproductive family reactions in cases of mental illness: Saving Face: Effects of Stigma on Korean Migrant Families Associated with the Relatives with Mental Illness, an Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis Study, by Dominic Jukyen Hwang (New Zealand). Two different summaries of this work can be found here and here (both PDFs at the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand).
  • Article about how Confucian principles might in fact be helpful both in Chinese and in Western psychotherapy: Confucian thought and its implications for Chinese in therapy, by Yan Heqin (Shanghai Mental Health Institute) in World Cultural Psychiatry Research Review, 2008 (PDF, this is from the journal of the WACP, World Association of Cultural Psychiatry).

 


1924: Ernest Becker

September 27, 1924 – Birth date of psychoanalytic anthropologist Ernest Becker, best known for his 1973 book The Denial of Death – and for his independent, original mind.

Ernest BeckerIn the 1960s Becker worked as a cultural anthropologist, first at Syracuse University and next at the University of California, Berkeley. In both places he had to leave after an academic row (in Berkeley, his dismissal caused thousands of students to sign a petition to retain him). Since 1969, he was anthropology professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.

When in 1973 The Denial of Death came out, Becker had already been diagnosed with colon cancer. He died the next year (in 1974, at the age of 49) two months before the book won the Pulitzer Prize.

Perhaps the best summary would be by these two quotes:

 
“To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.”
 
“The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”
 

Basing himself partially on the work of famous Austrian psychoanalyst Otto Rank (1884-1939), Becker saw the awareness of mortality and the fear of death as an essential force in human existence.

According to Becker, we all develop our own “immortality project”: a strategy (and a resulting self-image) that will give us a sense of transcending our own mortality. We can do this on an almost individual level but also more socially, like we clearly do when accepting shared religious beliefs.

So what he said was basically that in order to remain sane and functional human beings, to some extent we do need denial of death. We do need some kind of illusion that helps us to make sense of our own temporary existence, that makes us see ourselves (in Becker’s words) as fulfilling the role of “heroes”.

Death Anxiety and Mental Illness

Ernest BeckerIn an earlier 1964 book, The Revolution in Psychiatry, Becker had already criticized a purely medical view of mental illness. He pleaded for a wider, more social view (which explains why established psychiatry at the time had trouble to accept him). But in his book about death, he gave this a specific dimension.

According to him, depression and schizophrenia patients might just have a far too acute sense of their own mortality: they might be people whose personal “immortality project” is somehow broken – people who acutely experience their own mortality, instead of obfuscating or transforming that unmanageable truth like other people do.

So mental illness could be defined here as the inability to accept those illusions that we all need to remain sane. This inability would cause depressed people to suffer more intensely from the burden of their own mortal insignificance; and this might cause schizophrenic people to construct their own private, alternative, less unacceptable reality.

If you think about all this, it is clear that Becker in fact saw religion as an important shield against mental illness. And because the role of science appeared to be gradually replacing the role of religion in our society, this could pose something of a problem.

ernest-becker-3For according to Becker, science by itself cannot provide the kind of beliefs we need to transcend our own mortality. Science by itself cannot produce the kind of less-mortal “heroic” self-image we need to remain sane and functional.

So if religion is falling away and science does not help, then perhaps we urgently need something else to support some sense of immortality: something else to keep us from being overwhelmed by death anxiety and perhaps even insanity. But what?

Becker offered no clear solution for this problem, which is why some consider him a cultural pessimist.

My Personal Question

I myself happen to be suffering frequently from serious depression. Now is this really because I’m less able to create my own immortality illusions than other people? Or is the primary reason something else, something more banal, like a problem with my brain’s neurotransmitters?

Maybe the one has to do with the other.

Footnotes:

  • There is an organization that focuses on propagating Becker’s views: The Ernest Becker Foundation. For their view on Becker’s life and ideas, see here: A four-part sketch of Ernest Becker and his work.
  • For a brief, more critical analysis of Becker’s “pessimistic view” see the online article The Melancholic Existentialism of Ernest Becker by psychoanalyst and York University scholar Donald L. Carveth, 2004.
  • Back in 2010, I myself wrote a somewhat simplistic blog post arguing that in daily life most mentally healthy people have just a “fuzzy view” of their own limited life span, and that this fuzzy view shields people from continuous death anxiety. Conversely, I thought that depressed people may have a clearer perception of their own limited life span, and that this is the reason why depression comes with more intense every-day feelings of anxiety or despair. See Death Awareness 1: Anxiety (at StayOnTop).
  • Becker’s The Denial of Death is not yet public domain. A few sites do offer a free PDF edition for download, but beware: these are illegal copies. Here is a link to the Amazon page for the print edition of the book: The Denial of Death.
  • Finally, a request. When looking for Becker photos I found only small ones. If you happen to come a across a larger, better picture of him (one that I could include here) then please let me know.

 


1877: Ugo Cerletti, the Shocker

September 26, 1877 – Birth date of Italian neurologist Ugo Cerletti, who in 1938 invented electroshock therapy (known today as ECT, electro-convulsive therapy).

Ugo Cerletti

Experiments

In the 1930s many neurologists and psychiatrists already shared the idea that epileptic fits might help to cure extreme cases of schizophrenia, mania, depression. The problem with this idea was how to artificially induce such convulsions in a non-harmful way.

This led, for example, to Manfred Sakel’s 1933 invention of insulin shock therapy which however was a very unpleasant and risky procedure. Or, around the same time, experiments with chemicals such as metrazol to create the same effect: but with this treatment, once violent convulsions began, they often proved hard to stop.

Cerletti, who since 1935 was the head of the Department of Mental and Neurological Diseases of the La Sapienza University in Rome, was looking for an easier and safer method to induce such epileptic seizures, and he thought electric shocks might be the answer. He first experimented with electricity by putting electrodes in the mouth and rectum of dogs, but without much success.

In a Rome slaughterhouse he witnessed how butchers used electrodes right on the sides of the pigs’ heads to numb the animals before killing them. He began experimenting in this way on pigs and dogs, while varying voltages, duration, and electrodes placement.

In April 1938 Cerletti felt sure enough to try this electroshock method for the first time with a human being.

Cerletti's ECT equipmentCerletti’s ECT equipment, now a museum piece         
(head clamps half-hidden on the cabinet’s left side)         

Guinea Pig

His first electroshock patient was an anonymous 40-year-old schizophrenic vagrant who had been picked up by the police at a Rome railroad station in a very confused, incoherent, hallucinating state. No one knew what to do with him, and Cerletti got the opportunity to try something new with this patient.

At the first try the voltage turned out to be too low. The second time Cerletti and his assistant Lucio Bini got it right and managed to induce the convulsions they wanted:

 
“A 110 volt discharge was sent through for 0.5 second. The immediate, very brief cramping of all the muscles was again seen; after a slight pause, the most typical epileptic fit began to take place.
True it is that all had their hearts in the mouths and were truly oppressed during the tonic phase with apnea, ashy paleness, and cadaverous facial cyanosis – an apnea which, if it be awe inspiring in a spontaneous epileptic fit, now seemed painfully never-ending – until at the first deep, stertorous inhalation, and first chronic shutters, the blood ran more freely in the bystanders’ veins as well: and lastly, to the immense relief of all concerned, was witnessed a characteristic, gradual awakening by step.
The patient sat up of his own accord, looked about him calmly with a vague smile, as though asking what was expected of him. I asked him “what has been happening to you?” He answered, with no more gibberish: “I don’t know, perhaps I have been asleep.”
 

Popularity

This experiment was deemed a great medical success when after 10 more such electroshock treatments, the patient had become stable and clear-headed enough to be released.

The very next month (May 1938) Cerletti gave a first public presentation of his technique. Very soon, psychiatrists all over the world were eager to try out this new miracle treatment. In the early 1940s it became standard procedure in many clinics.

Ugo CerlettiIn the next years improvements were made, such as using muscle relaxants to prevent the bone fractures that sometimes were caused by the force of the convulsions. Later, full anesthesia was introduced to further reduce the unpleasantness of the still sometimes rather violent experience.

In 1963 when Cerletti died (at the age of 85) his ECT had become a generally accepted procedure; it was less controversial than it is today. But at that very same time, in the 1960s, new forms of psychiatric medication became available that seemed to promise alternative therapy options even for serious cases.

People began to wonder if ECT was really effective, and if it was perhaps being over-used, or even used in very wrong ways. Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and especially the 1975 movie based on that book, represented a kind of turning point – at least in public opinion. Ever more critical voices could be heard.

ECT as depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s NestApplied under full anesthesia, ECT is not quite the horrid experience as depicted in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. But it seems certain that this public image of ECT as a brutal, inhumane treatment also contributed to the rise of the anti-psychiatric movement in general.

In spite of all criticism, for serious cases where medication didn’t work, ECT remained in use. Around 1980 about 2,5% of all hospitalized psychiatric patients in the USA were treated with ECT, and it looks like this has not fundamentally changed today.

My Two Cents

One of the ECT side effects can be serious long-term memory loss; I’ve experienced this myself after a series of ECT treatments. Psychiatrists are reluctantly beginning to take such side effects more into account, and researchers are now trying to develop more subtle alternatives. But controversial as it may be, many of them still consider old-fashioned ECT an effective kind of last-resort therapy.

Because I’ve had electroshocks myself, people sometimes ask me for my personal opinion. Of course I cannot give advice for individual cases, but what I often tell people is this: to me, ECT is a bit like swatting flies with a sledgehammer. It may work for some, but at a cost.

Footnotes:

 


1897: William Faulkner

September 25, 1897 – Birth date of famous American writer William Faulkner.

William Faulkner

One of his best known novels is The Sound and the Fury, written in 1929. The second part of this book was about young Harvard student Quentin Compson, who gradually sinks away in a deep depression, and in the end kills himself by drowning.

Faulkner described this in a style reflecting the mental disintegration: the language itself disintegrating into one rambling, continuous stream of incoherent thoughts.

The resulting “depression prose” may have helped him to get his Nobel Prize (1949) but it is difficult to understand. Blush…  To my deep shame  I must confess that just thumbing through this book daunted me enough to never even begin reading it. So I have forfeited the right to say anything more about it.

Anyway, Faulkner’s Quentin Compson is one of the few literary characters who got his own suicide monument. It is a small metal plaque in place of one of the bricks in the sidewall halfway the Larz Anderson Bridge over the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts:

Quentin Compson plaqueQUENTIN COMPSON
Drowned in the odour
of honeysuckle
1891-1910

Drinking

Faulkner himself suffered from incurable alcoholism; he frequently drank himself into a stupor. Because of this, in 1936 he was admitted to Wright’s Sanatorium, a small private institution run by Dr. Leonard Wright in a white clapboard house in Byhalia (Mississippi).

Wright’s specialism was “Alcohol and Drug Addiction and Mild Nervous Disorders”:

Wright's Sanatorium, 1956Wright’s Sanatorium (1956 ad)

After twenty-four more years of drinking, in 1960 Faulkner returned to this place. And two years later, in the evening of July 5, 1962 he was once again admitted to this very same sanatorium for the very same reason.

In the early hours of the next day (seven hours after his arrival) here he died from a heart attack while trying to get out of his bed.

Footnotes:

  • You guessed right: James Joyce’s Ulysses is another book I never managed to finish. I tried, but no.
  • The photo of the Quentin Compson plaque comes from the Harvard and Cambridge page at Yoknapedia, a site about Faulkner’s work.
  • I was pointed to the Wright Sanatorium ad, in the 1956 Texas State Journal of Medicine, via the Sort Quench & Dump blog by Christine Lehner. Please go to her page Nothing in Common goes South, the Last Day, and click the picture there to see a larger, better readable copy.
  • After closure of the Wright Sanatorium, in the 1980s the building was used for some time as a private school. Later it was demolished to build a gas station in its place.

 


1991: Peter Bellamy

September 24, 1991 – Suicide of British folk singer Peter Bellamy (47). According to his family, he killed himself with an overdose of tranquilizers and alcohol. But what actually killed him, was the deep depression that he suffered from in the last few years of his life.

Peter Bellamy

Bellamy was a great folk singer in the British folk style. He had started out with the group The Young Tradition in the 1960s, and after that he had recorded over 15 solo albums. Several albums were based on the poetry of Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936): Bellamy converted nearly a hundred of Kipling’s poems into songs.

Another Bellamy creation, considered by some his true masterpiece, was the unique 1977 “folk opera” (or “ballad opera”) The Transports. It was based on the story of two young criminals who about 1790 were deported to Australia, fell in love with each other, got a child, and eventually were allowed to marry. This opera is still staged occasionally today.

cover The Transports

In the 1980s, while he still was successful in many respects and very productive in recording, interest in Bellamy’s live performances appeared to diminish. This worsened his depression, and in turn his depression eroded his self-confidence and self-respect. This made it even more difficult for him to get booked: a kind of vicious circle.

At the same time, even though many kept loving him and his work, he began to feel that somehow people didn’t value his talents anymore. His widow later told how shortly before his suicide he had spent a whole day listening to all his own records, and then said to her “But I am good. What the hell has gone wrong?”

I wonder if Bellamy ever sought adequate help for his depression. Obviously he had a stack of tranquilizers, but did he also try true antidepressants? Did he see a psychiatrist? I really wonder, but I was not able to find out.

Here he is with his folk song Oak, Ash and Thorn (based on a Kipling poem) from the 1970 album with the same title.

cover Oak, Ash & Thorn      
Peter Bellamy – Oak, Ash & Thorn

Footnotes:

  • A very extensive discussion of Peter Bellamy’s life and work can be found at the Properganda Online music website: In-Depth: Peter Bellamy, by Colin Irwin, 2011.
  • As a curiosity, here is the brief obituary that the New York Times published two days after his death: Peter Bellamy, 47; British Folk Singer Who Wrote Opera.
  • Peter Bellamy’s folk opera was re-released on CD in 2004 and got its own website: The Transports. This site appears to be not entirely functional anymore but some of its pages, such the one with extracts from the 1783-1786 chronicles that inspired the opera, still work.

 


1942: Margarete Hilferding

Murdered

September 23, 1942 – Elderly Vienna physician-psychologist Margarete Hilferding (71) dies in a German freight train while being transported from the concentration camp Theresienstadt in Bohemia to the extermination camp Maly Trostinets, near Minsk in Nazi-occupied Russia (today Belarus).

Margarete Hilferding, about 1920Margarete Hilferding, about 1920         

Now before you read on, please do take a few seconds and try to really imagine a 750-mile (1200 kilometer) long journey in a rumbling pitch-dark railroad car crammed with terrified people, with no windows, no seats, no food or water.

Yes? Did you?

She just happened to be Jewish. Maybe you want some family history.

Her sister (Clara Scherer) was murdered in 1942 in a concentration camp. Margarete’s ex-husband, socialist politician Rudolf Hilferding (they had divorced in 1922) had tried to flee from the Nazis. But in February 1941 they had found him in France. He was taken to the Gestapo headquarters in Paris, where he died after two days of brutal torture.

Margarete’s son Karl (37) was murdered in 1942 in a camp at Gross-Strehlitz, in Silesia. Only her second son Peter (Peter Milford) survived; famous philosopher Karl Popper helped him to emigrate to New Zealand.

Margarete and Rudolf Hilferding, 1904Margarete and Rudolf Hilferding: marriage photo, 1904

Work

In 1903, Margarete Hilferding (born Hönigsberg) had been the first woman to graduate in medicine at the University of Vienna. For a while she cooperated with Sigmund Freud.

In 1910 she was elected as the first female member of Freud’s psychoanalytical association, the Mittwoch-Gesellschaft. Her first lecture there was about “The Roots of Motherly Love”. It began with the question: to what extent is motherly love an innate reflex?

In 1911, when Freud and Alfred Adler broke up, Hilferding (who was a close friend of Adler) chose Adler’s side. As a psychotherapist Adler (1870-1937) was the founder of “individual psychology” which considered any individual as one whole.

What most attracted Hilferding in Adler’s ideas was that he had an eye for the psychological relevancy of social hierarchies and of people’s social environment. She became the first female who worked as a counselor on the basis of Adler’s psychotherapeutic views.

Rudolf and Margarete Hilferding, about 1928Margarete Hilferding with her ex-husband Rudolf in Berlin, about 1928

Hilferding soon became an important figure in Vienna, involved in very varied activities. As a convinced socialist, she wanted to help people who had trouble affording health care. She worked as a doctor for the poor and as school doctor, and as specialist at an infirmary for the poor (the Mariahilfer Ambulatorium). She also ran an “Erziehungsberatungsstelle”, a kind of child guidance clinic where parents could get free advice along the lines of Adler’s individual psychology.

She was especially important in organizing all kinds of help for women, such as sexual counseling. In 1926 she wrote a book Geburtenregelung (“Birth Control”) with an afterword by Alfred Adler. One of the things that made the book stand out was her plea for a more liberal government policy regarding abortion.

Birth control book by Margarete Hilferding, 1926

Hilferding did not just participate in international congresses about sexual reform, but at the same time she also wanted to be a teacher at the community level: she organized popular courses for women about educational, health, sexual and mental problems.

Shoah

In 1938 the Nazis took over Austria and began their persecution of everyone who was Jewish. That same year, Hilferding was driven out of her home. In 1939, when continuing her normal medical practice had been made impossible, she began to work as a doctor at the Rothschildspital in Vienna, an old Jewish hospital (founded in 1873).

Since the Nazis had forbidden Jews to use regular medical services, this Rothschildspital was the only Vienna clinic one still open to Jews (until late 1942). Following the Nazi policy of strict segregation, it was open to Jews only: non-Jews were not allowed to enter this hospital. Except SA storm troopers, who frequently came around to check for people who might be hiding there to evade “deportation”.

For a couple of years Margarete Hilferding, then almost 70, kept working here under increasingly difficult circumstances. The last known photo of her was taken about 1940 and shows her as one of the staff at the Rothschildspital. She’s the second one from the left:

Margarete Hilferding at Rothschildspital, 1940

On June 28, 1942, the Nazis picked her up and transported her from Vienna to the Theresienstad concentration camp. There, three months later, she was pushed into the rail car where she would perish.

It looks like the train’s destination, the small Maly Trostinets camp, had no regular crematoriums like the larger camps. But when in the summer of 1944 Russian soldiers arrived there, they discovered at least 34 huge grave pits: many were over 160 feet long and 12 feet deep (in meters: each one 50 long, 4 deep).

Perhaps among all the human bones that filled those pits, a few were the remains of Margarete Hilferding.

We should not forget her life and work. And it’s just as important to never forget how and why she was killed.

Footnotes:

 


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