As the standard bearer of the Federal German peace movement psychoanalyst, Horst-Eberhard Richter, was highly regarded all over the world and beyond the boundaries of his field. The native Berliner was considered to be Germany’s most popular psychoanalyst. Equally as eloquent as he was productive, as a humanist and pacifist he still took a valiant stand on issues right to the very end – as a critic of the war Iraq or of the “War on Terror”.
Horst-Eberhard Richter | © Lorenz Vierecke
Horst-Eberhard Richter, born in 1923, won many awards and is considered to be one of the great German intellectuals of the post-war period. Regarding his education and various professions, he was a philosopher, doctor, psychoanalyst and therapist. He did not just find words and put them together in the form of prose, he took the floor on issues and intervened in the public sphere, contributing to the way post-war Federal German society reflected on itself politically like no other. Richter was a pioneer of family and group psychotherapy, as well as the author of numerous standard works on psychology that are still being read today. At the same time however he was the “Psychotherapist of the Nation” (as former Federal President Johannes Rau said), one of its most thorough analysts and staunchest critics. He was someone who viewed psychoanalysis not only as a method of treating individual persons, but also as an instrument for social and political enlightenment – an instrument that he knew exactly how to use.
A traumatic youth
Richter’s decision to devote himself to psychoanalysis and its socio-political applications, along with his lifelong commitment to a world without war, can be traced back to the traumatic experiences of his youth. After doing his Abitur
(German university entrance qualification) he was called up to the Wehrmacht
(the army of the Third Reich), in the Second World war he served in an artillery regiment on the Eastern front. This was to be his first encounter with death which he, as a gun aimer, was instrumental in causing. Purely by chance he avoided being sent to Stalingrad and was deployed in Italy where just before the war ended he deserted. After this he spent four months as a French prisoner of war because he was suspected of being what they called a “werewolf” (one of those Nazi fanatics who carried on guerrilla warfare). After his release he learned of the death of his parents who had been murdered by Russian soldiers two months after the end of the war - this second traumatic experience being possibly the more disturbing of the two.
Richter drew both personal and political consequences from these experiences that were reflected in his academic and professional career: he studied philosophy, medicine and psychology, in 1949 he completed his doctorate on the philosophical dimension of pain and in 1950 he began a supplementary course in psychoanalysis that he finished two years later. In 1957 he got a doctorate in medicine and from 1952 onwards Richter ran a consultation and research centre for mentally disturbed children and teenagers in Berlin. From 1959 to 1962 he also managed Berlin’s Psychoanalytical Institute. In 1963, without any post-doctoral thesis or professorship, Richter was appointed to the newly founded Chair of Psychosomatics at the medical faculty of the University of Giessen. He held the chair in Giessen until 1991 and succeeded in setting up one of the leading centres for psychosomatic medicine and, on top of that, he also established a Psychoanalytical Institute. After he retired, becoming a professor emeritus, he took over the management of the Sigmund Freud Institute in Frankfurt that had been threatened with closure and gave it a secure future.
Don’t run away, stand firm!
Richter’s literary output was equally as impressive as his biography. Over 200 scientific treatises and almost 30 books testify to a persistent assiduity that is second to none. No way are his works academic flashes in the pan, either. Many of his books - for example, his first work Eltern, Kind und Neurose
(Parents, Child and Neurosis, 1962) that was rejected as his post-doctoral thesis, his works entitled Patient Familie
(The Family as Patient, 1970) and Die Gruppe
(The Group, 1972) or his philosophical magnum opus Der Gotteskomplex
(All Mighty: A Study of the God-Complex in Western Man, 1979) - have become veritable classics and have been issued anew many times. They were almost always not only aimed at a specialist group, but also at a broader readership that might possibly be won over to psychology and psychoanalysis and their analytically emancipatory power.
Like the psychoanalysts, Margarete und Alexander Mitscherlich, Richter was also one of the pioneers of psychoanalysis in the early years of the Federal Republic of Germany - a field which had been suppressed by the Nazis. And, as was the case with them, his main focus, if not his only focus, was on explaining and making people aware of unresolved guilt, on the analysis of the correlations between pain, guilt and hatred, on individual and collective forms of strife. One of Richter’s fundamental insights based on his own experience was as follows - the only thing left for you to feel, if you don’t acknowledge your guilt and suppress your pain, is hate (and even more suffering). Don’t run away, stand firm - the idea is to actively overcome one’s own guilt, one’s own fears, along with all the harmful impositions that get at you from outside. It is one of Richter’s strongest convictions that mental pain is always “social” pain, too; mental distress stems from social and political causes. This is why he thinks that forms of collective practice and/or successful solidarity are the best ways to overcome individual pain and suffering.
All this talk about peace
Richter himself took part in this practice: he was a critical observer of the social reform movements of the 1970s and was actively involved in the movements of the 1980s. In 1981 his satire Alle redeten vom Frieden
(All Talked of Peace) turned him into one of the leading figures of the German peace movement, which even in later periods welcomed impulses that Richter was providing. The German section of the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which Richter helped to set up, was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1985. This was primarily due to the work Richter had put in and was certainly one of the highlights of his involvement in working for peace.
Right up until his death Richter did not shy away from any form of public debate in the Federal Republic of Germany, be it as critic of the two wars in Iraq and the “War on Terror”, be it on genetic engineering or on the battle to improve psychosocial health care. For him it was always about using his commitment to contribute to a “culture of peace” i.e. to a better, and fairer world - a world worth living in. He always appealed to the individual to feel a joint political responsibility. As a doctor and psychoanalyst, as well as a citizen, Richter lived and breathed social responsibility. He died on 19th December 2011 at the age of 88. The example he set lives on!