German cities traumatized in WWII show distinct psychological resilience today

June 21, 2017, Saarland University
Martin Obschonka. Credit: Universitaet des Saarlandes/Joerg Puetz

Pensions will soon be a thing of the past, demographic change is forcing Germany to its knees, and all the refugees will be the downfall of Western Christian civilization. There is a common perception that Germans are fundamentally pessimistic in outlook and suffer from existential anxiety about the future. This view is so widespread that it is frequently referred to in other countries by the term German Angst. Up until now, however, German Angst has not been the subject of scientific study. The first major study examining specific aspects of the German Angst phenomenon has been undertaken by psychologists in the group headed by Martin Obschonka, until recently Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Psychology at Saarland University and currently Associate Professor at Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane (Australia), in collaboration with the economist Michael Stützer from the Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University (DHBW) in Mannheim (Germany) and researchers from the University of Texas in Austin (USA) and the University of Cambridge (UK).

The researchers set out to examine the hypothesis that German Angst could have its roots in the bomb warfare of the Second World War (WWII). The traumatizing experience of the massive bombing raids, and the destruction of whole cities, could have led to an anxious and sceptical disposition that could be transmitted to subsequent generations via epigenetic mechanisms and the persistence of local cultures and mentalities.

Comparing self-assessed neurotic personality traits within a global personality sample including more than 7 million respondents worldwide (collected in a large-scale online study) indicated that the German participants did not rank especially highly on neurotic traits such as anxiety and neuroticism. What is interesting, however, is how experience of the allied bombing of Germany might have impacted neurotic personality traits. The researchers filtered out around 33,500 people living in 89 German cities and tested the historical link between the local intensity of the WWII strategic bombing and today's regional level of neurotic traits and related clinical problems such as depression disorders in each of these cities. They thought it plausible that people living in those cities that suffered the greatest destruction in WWII would today show of neurotic traits and related clinical psychological problems.

Interestingly, the opposite proves to be the case: 'We found that in those cities that were subjected to more substantial wartime bombing the people living there exhibit fewer neurotic traits than the populations of cities that suffered less destruction and trauma caused by bombing raids,' explains Martin Obschonka. The results also show that a more severe bombing did not impede entrepreneurship in the region, as one could have expected if massive strategic bombing indeed leads to higher levels of German Angst (which, in turn, should hamper the positivism and energy needed for a strong entrepreneurial culture and thus economic growth in the region). Another striking finding of the study is that regions that face a major stressor today, for example because they are struggling economically at present, are protected against higher levels in neurotic traits and higher rated of clinical depression disorders if they had experienced major destruction during WWII air raids. The researchers conclude that this seems to indicate a striking historical resilience process. 'It is possible that the experience of severe bombing in WWII has made the people and the local culture there more resilient in the long-term, which is for example relevant when coping with major stressors and challenges today such as economic hardship,' says Michael Stuetzer, co-author of the study.

The researchers provide a list of potential mechanisms behind this historical resilience process. 'One possibility is that the major destruction of cities could have made the local population "tougher," serving as an impetus for the remaining residents to pull together,' argues Martin Obschonka. The reconstruction of the destroyed houses and infrastructure of the bombed German cities in the years following the war was a remarkable effort as Germany literally rose from the ruins. Interestingly, this toughness approach fits to research on the effect of 9/11 on the mentality of New Yorkers, which found similar psychological resilience effects. 'Research also indicates that external threats strengthen social support within threatened groups, thereby boosting their psychological adjustment,' explains Martin Obschonka. He continues: 'Our results can also be explained by means of research on the neurobiology of resilience, which emphasizes resilience effects of adversity'. Michael Stuetzer adds: 'It is also possible that the more severely bombed German cities enjoyed a better economic upturn in the post-war years since the whole infrastructure needed to be modernized immediately'. However, the present study could not find indications that accelerated growth in the more heavily bombed cities could help explaining their psychological resilience. Likewise, the authors could not find any indication in the data that migration patterns, including influx of war refugees after the war, could explain this resilience pattern. These and other questions arising from the current study provide interesting starting points for future research projects examining the long-term psychological consequences of historic trauma.

Explore further: Resilient personality of cities could help in a recession

More information: Amplified summer warming in Europe-West Asia and Northeast Asia after the mid-1990s, DOI: 10.1002/per.2104 , http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/per.2104/full

Related Stories

Resilient personality of cities could help in a recession

September 29, 2015
In recent years, psychologists established that regions and cities differ in their prevalent personality make-up. The resilient personality of a city's residents could help determine whether cities bounce back or languish ...

Where entrepreneurship is at home

May 31, 2013
Entrepreneurship plays an important role for the prosperity of today's modern societies. Those who want to found a company under their own steam and who want to make it an economic success, need more than a good idea and ...

More can mean less when it comes to being happier -- especially if you are neurotic

June 9, 2012
New research from the University of Warwick suggests getting more money may not make you happier, especially if you are neurotic.

Lower socioeconomic status is linked to obesity through distress and emotional eating

May 18, 2017
New research presented at this year's European Congress on Obesity in Porto, Portugal (17-20 May) shows that lower socioeconomic status is associated with higher body-mass index (BMI) through its effects on distress and subsequent ...

Recommended for you

Study of learning and memory problems in OCD helps young people unlock potential at school

January 22, 2018
Adolescents with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) have widespread learning and memory problems, according to research published today. The findings have already been used to assist adolescents with OCD obtain the help ...

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

Babies' babbling betters brains, language

January 18, 2018
Babies are adept at getting what they need - including an education. New research shows that babies organize mothers' verbal responses, which promotes more effective language instruction, and infant babbling is the key.

College branding makes beer more salient to underage students

January 18, 2018
In recent years, major beer companies have tried to capitalize on the salience of students' university affiliations, unveiling marketing campaigns and products—such as "fan cans," store displays, and billboard ads—that ...

Inherited IQ can increase in early childhood

January 18, 2018
When it comes to intelligence, environment and education matter – more than we think.

Modulating molecules: Study shows oxytocin helps the brain to modulate social signals

January 17, 2018
Between sights, sounds, smells and other senses, the brain is flooded with stimuli on a moment-to-moment basis. How can it sort through the flood of information to decide what is important and what can be relegated to the ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RobertKarlStonjek
not rated yet Jun 22, 2017
Wouldn't the more neurotic individuals be more inclined to move to another city after bombing, increasing the number of neurotics in unbombed cities and reducing it in those that were bombed. There was very significant social mobilisation after the war, many Germans left the country altogether (very significant migration to, for instance, Canada and Australia).

Upon reading the paper I see that they did consider this possibility and did not quantify it noting that:
"We should note that our data do not permit us to distinguish between the four mechanisms described above. We present them here merely to argue that there are plausible mechanisms by which the effects of bombing raids carried out over 70 years ago could still be felt today."

Where the fourth of those mechanisms is the one I outlined above vis "For example, the more neurotic residents may have been more alert to the possibilities of bombing raids and the first ones to seek safety when the raids came;"

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.