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The emergence of a medical peace movement in the last few decades, culminating in the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985 to one of its most prominent organizations, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), has stimulated interest in tracing the earlier, largely, forgotten, history of that movement.
This article introduces the work of Dr. Emil Flusser, a pediatrician from Budweis/Ceské Budejovice (southern Bohemia), whose book Krieg as Krankheit
(War as Illness) appeared in 1932.
If later generations have apparently, been without any knowledge of Flusser, this should not be seen as a matter of mere omission but, on the contrary, as one of wilful commission. For the author, his book, and his publisher all felt victim to the Nazi terror which was unleashed as soon as Hitler came to power early in 1933.
The Nazis set out to destroy the kind of pacifist literature which the book exemplified and, beyond it, the entire race to which also its author belonged. The burning of Krieg als Krankheit
in 1933 was followed by that of the author himself in 1942.
Having been published only months before the Nazis took power, it seems that only a very few copies of Flusser's book have survived. It can therefore be said that the Nazis succeeded pretty well in their attempt to eliminate all traces of the life and work of Dr. Flusser.
Drawing attention to his ideas and efforts is, first and foremost, a matter of historical justice, of restitution (no matter how modest and inadequate), and of rendering homage to a noble and tragic life. But it is also recognition of the continued importance of Flusser's insight into the root causes of war and of his practical proposals, addressed to his fellow doctors, to organise a campaign to combat war.
War: A Psychic Epidemic
Flusser saw war as a psychic epidemic, a manifestation of mass psychosis in which the faculties of reason and will power are greatly reduced while the effects are inordinately enhanced. He elaborated on the principal endogenous and exogenous causes of the illness which are responsible for war, and regarded the human propensity to form a collective, the herd instinct, and the group's susceptibility to affects, as the most important of the endogenous causes.
The author made very interesting observations on such subjects as the sublimation of the concept of the fatherland, political hatred of the enemy, the lust for sensation and excitement, and the intoxication of war. He regarded everything which stimulates the preparedness for war - ranging from military propaganda to economic deprivation - as exogenous factors which increase the receptivity for mass psychosis.
Flusser argued that in war, soldiers became the helpless, powerless instruments Of a superior authority. and this was the result of their pathological servility to this authority (itself frequently composed of individuals with murderous tendencies). He devoted one chapter of his book to parading pathological character types in war, drawing on his own observations.
Flusser served four years as a doctor in the First Word War, both at the front and behind it, for some time as the personal physician of a high-ranking and much-decorated commander (pp-104-106). In this entourage he encountered many prominent (especially elderly) gentlemen, both military and civilian, as well as women, who often dissimulated their blood-thirstiness.
More generally, Flusser observed that few people - also in the hinterland - kept their sanity and even fewer raised their voices in protest. Flusser pointed out that after the war the notion of 'war psychosis' entered all languages and in his opinion this confirmed that to some extent people had come to recognise that war is an illness (p.82).
Moreover, the war literature which emerged in all belligerent countries after the war frequently amounted to a sharp protest against the insanity of war, a sentiment widely shared by its readership. Flusser pointed out the irony of the fact that the abnormality of people in war has been documented and commented upon by novelists, but not by doctors (p.107).
A pathological mass event
The author does not tire of reiterating his view that war is a mental illness which the medical profession is both qualified and morally obliged to address. Anything which harms the lives of people and society is pathological. War is a pathological mass event which, when it occurs, is also likely to infect the medical profession (p.20).
However, as soon as the profession will have recognised the pathological nature of war, it will be able to stand firm and henceforth warn the public when it is threatened by another lethal epidemic of its own making. Flusser argued that the millions of victims which war claims 'should be mentioned not only in the medical textbooks but also in the many popular works about public health' (p. 87).
Only when systematically organised would medical assistance be able to confront a mental epidemic, and this now had to become an urgent and prime task of the profession: it was useless and senseless for doctors to continue to preoccupy themselves with finding cures for specific illnesses or with perfecting their surgical skills when the whole of humanity was in danger of perishing in a psychic epidemic (pp.91-1992).
In the last pages of his book Flusser justified again how he, a pediatrician of twenty years' experience, felt called upon to also address war as part of his medical profession:
"Every day and every hour I am faced with the task of explaining the crying of helpless babies. ... In war, people at the front and at home are suffering as helplessly as a child or an animal. ... As a pediatrician I am almost as puzzled as a layman when confronted with the insanity, the mental illness, that is war.
But my profession is to understand the cries and wailings. Confronted with people who are suffering helplessly and innocently, I dared to enter a field which is closer, perhaps, to other disciplines than my own; I have dared, because I heard the Cry for help and my attempt to help is likely to amount to more than doing nothing. ... Let doctors realise that they are here to help the sick (pp.149- 150)."
Download the German book Krieg als Krankheit
together with the unabriviated review by Peter van den Dungen.
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Tom Vilmer Paamand