Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
Berlin Electropolis

Berlin Electropolis: Shock, Nerves, and German Modernity

Andreas Killen
Copyright Date: 2006
Edition: 1
Pages: 303
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Berlin Electropolis
    Book Description:

    Berlin Electropolisties the German discourse on nervousness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to Berlin's transformation into a capital of the second industrial revolution. Focusing on three key groups-railway personnel, soldiers, and telephone operators-Andreas Killen traces the emergence in the 1880s and then later decline of the belief that modernity caused nervous illness. During this period, Killen explains, Berlin became arguably the most advanced metropolis in Europe. A host of changes, many associated with breakthroughs in technologies of transportation, communication, and leisure, combined to radically alter the shape and tempo of everyday life in Berlin. The resulting consciousness of accelerated social change and the shocks and afflictions that accompanied it found their consummate expression in the discourse about nervousness. Wonderfully researched and clearly written, this book offers a wealth of new insights into the nature of the modern metropolis, the psychological aftermath of World War I, and the operations of the German welfare state. Killen also explores cultural attitudes toward electricity, the evolution of psychiatric thought and practice, and the status of women workers in Germany's rapidly industrializing economy. Ultimately, he argues that the backlash against the welfare state that occurred during the late Weimar Republic brought about the final decoupling of modernity and nervous illness.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93163-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    For a long time, to be modern meant to be “nervous,” whether that modernity was located in the emergent capitalist nations of eighteenth-century England and France or in the fully industrialized nineteenth-century Germany and United States. It meant to live in a sped-up world, one saturated with new stimuli, demands, risks, messages, and pleasures, requiring constant adaptation to a wealth of new experiences. For Friedrich Nietzsche, writing in the 1880s, modernity and nervous complaints were virtually synonymous: “The whole burden of culture,” he wrote, “has become so great that there is a general danger of over-stimulation of the nervous and...

  5. ONE Berlin Electropolis
    (pp. 15-47)

    During the summer of 1896 the attention of Berlin’s populace was captured by the Trade Exhibition held in the Treptow Park along the banks of the Spree. For five and half months that summer Berliners thronged to the grounds of the exhibition to marvel at the accomplishments of industrial civilization. Held to commemorate Berlin’s twenty-fifth anniversary as the capital of unified Germany, the exhibition also offered its citizens an opportunity to take pride in their city’s entry into the ranks of “world cities.”¹ To the visiting crowds, the exhibition’s brilliant array of transportation and communications equipment, dynamos, lighting displays, and...

  6. TWO Electrotherapy and the Nervous Self in Nineteenth-Century Germany
    (pp. 48-80)

    Among the many astonishing objects on display at the International Electrical Exhibition held in Frankfurt in 1891, a device known as the influence machine, which used static electricity to treat nervous disorders, held a particular fascination for the public. While a marvelous array of new contraptions competed for the visitor’s attention—telephones, arc lights, an electrically powered waterfall—this device stood out for the uncanniness of its construction and for the discharges and weird sparks it emitted. Berlin nerve doctor Albert Eulenburg described its impact on visitors in the following way: “[O]ne can see here in the exhibition ....

  7. THREE Railway Accidents, Social Insurance, and the Pathogenesis of Mass Nervousness, 1889–1914
    (pp. 81-126)

    In an opinion commissioned in 1897 by the Reich Insurance Office (Reichsversicherungsamt, RVA), the psychiatric faculty of Berlin’s Charité hospital surveyed the case of a worker who had been treated there on three separate occasions in the late 1880s. The patient had been the victim of a railway accident and was thus eligible for a pension under Germany’s insurance laws. Initially diagnosed with neurasthenia, he had subsequently been examined by neurologist Hermann Oppenheim and diagnosed with traumatic neurosis. A third and final examination by another doctor led to the restoration of the original diagnosis. Each opinion had been based on...

  8. FOUR Electrotherapy and the Nervous Self during Wartime
    (pp. 127-161)

    A medical opinion issued in 1925 by the Psychiatric and Neurological Clinic of Berlin’s Charité hospital reviewed the case of war veteran Franz M. In the course of his service M. had suffered a nervous breakdown and been treated with electricity at Haus Schönow in Berlin-Zehlendorf in 1917. After the war he received a modest pension from the welfare bureaucracy that administered psychological disability claims, yet throughout the 1920s, his condition grew progressively worse as he became entangled in repeated exchanges with that bureaucracy in an effort to have his pension adjusted to a level commensurate with his disability. Frustrated...

  9. FIVE Psychiatrists, Telephone Operators, and Traumatic Neurosis, 1900–1926
    (pp. 162-211)

    In his history of the giant electrical firm founded by his father, Georg Siemens records the following incident. The installation of a new switchboard system in Berlin’s Lützowstrasse—Number 4, the biggest of its kind yet, with ten thousand subscribers—was interrupted one day in the summer of 1902 when the female operators succumbed to a collective nervous breakdown:

    Everything went well at first. But as the morning wore on and the hour of maximum traffic density approached . . . it became evident that the operators, not being familiar with the new apparatus, were unable to cope with the...

  10. Conclusion
    (pp. 212-218)

    The discourses of risk of modern times represent an aspect of what the sociologist Ulrich Beck calls “reflexive modernity”: the scientifically grounded response to those existential risks unleashed by industrialization.¹ Virtually since the moment of German unification, the new nation’s social policy assumed a relation between modernization and risk and assumed, moreover, that it lay within society’s ability to rationally manage the shocks, accidents, and afflictions of the modern era. The cornerstone of this program was social insurance, which proponents saw as the answer to the social question: a means of addressing the social pathologies associated with industrialization and urbanization;...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 219-274)
  12. Selected Bibliography
    (pp. 275-290)
  13. Index
    (pp. 291-296)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 297-298)