Against the grain

I’ve just discovered the powerful story of the German psychiatrist Alice Ricciardi-von Platen. She refused to take part in the growing eugenics movement in the 1930s Germany that targeted people with mental illness for sterilisation and euthanasia, resisted the Nazi party and wrote a book documenting Nazi medical abuses of psychiatric patients after being asked to observe the Doctors Trial at Nuremberg.

As a result, she was ostracised from the German medical community and her book was repressed. It wasn’t rediscovered by German historians until thirty years after it was published in 1948.

Afterwards she became highly respected for her work developing group therapy and worked in Britain and Italy right into her late nineties.

There is surprisingly little about her online or in the academic literature although she received two glowing obituaries in the British press when she died in 2008.

We like to think that each of us would stand up to human rights abuses even if everyone else around us was involved but we know from countless social psychology experiments that it is an incredibly difficult thing to do. Consequently, I always have immense admiration for people like Ricciardi-von Platen who did so in the most difficult of circumstances.

We also like to think that the Nuremberg trials put an end to the political abuse of psychiatry but a recent article in Schizophrenia Bulletin tracked the history of these abusive practices noting that they have been regularly used throughout the 20th century and into the 21st.

From the Soviet use of sluggishly progressing schizophrenia to silence dissidents, to the Nazi’s incorporation of psychiatry into eugenics, to psychiatrists’ collaboration with torture during dictatorial regimes in Latin America, to China’s use of psychiatric hospitals to persecute Falun Gong members and to the collaboration with ‘war on terror’ torture in the US (albeit in the light of outright condemnation from the American Psychiatric Association).

Sadly, psychiatry has been co-opted many times over as a tool of oppression. Complacency is the enabler of these abuses and people like Alice Ricciardi-von Platen are a reminder that even the most powerful forces can be resisted.

Link to obituary from The Times.
Link to obituary from The Guardian.

4 Comments

  1. Bernadine von Platen
    Posted August 18, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Watch this space! Reinhard Schlüter (Campus Publishers) is currently writing a biography of my mother-in-law, Alice Ricciardi von Platen. There was more to this woman than her involvement in the Nuremberg Trials. It should be available in 2012, and hopefully translated into English shortly thereafter. I am currently looking for financial sponsors of this project.

  2. Helen Tomkins
    Posted January 15, 2011 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

    Dear Bernardine,

    I am an old friend of Alice’s (your mother in law) going back to the 50s and was very pleased to find this article about her. I last saw Alice in 2003 in Cortona and I have a watercolour she painted and gave to me. It was a great shock to hear that Georg had died and I offer you my condolences. I knew him too, first in Tripoli and later in Malta when he came on a visit. Please could you reply to me on the above email as I wish to write to you at greater length.

    With my kind regards
    Helen

  3. Posted January 16, 2011 at 1:16 am | Permalink

    Although you have to enter your email address to comment it isn’t revealed to readers, although it is available to those who run the blog.

    Bernadine, if you’d like to contact Helen you can send me an email through this online form and I’d be happy to pass it on.

  4. Bernadine von Platen
    Posted January 24, 2012 at 12:11 pm | Permalink

    Just wanted to follow up on the biography of Dr. Alice Ricciardi von Platen. Reinhard Schlüter has written an excellent book which will be available as of March 12 (Campus Publishing House). Unfortunately it will be available only in German, but I am expecting that Campus will offer it in English and Italian shortly afterwards.


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