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.