Electroshock: The Nazi Heritage

How did electroshock, with no history of having done anybody any good, venture into countries like the United States and United Kingdom with “authoritative” recognition? How was it that it continued to be used, despite its link to Nazi atrocities?

In a 1992 paper, “The Introduction and Spread of Shock and the Emigration of Psychiatrists,” German physicians credited Germany with the exportation of shock and its practitioners to countries around the world.[1] One of the psychiatrists cited was Lothar B. Kalinowsky, an honorary member of the German Society for Psychiatry and Neurology (DGPPN). He left Germany for Italy in 1933 and became a student of Ugo Cerletti, the “father of ECT,” attending the first electroshock treatment in 1938. He then immigrated to the United States in 1939 where he heavily promoted the use of ECT. Forty years later, Kalinowsky admitted that the action of ECT continued to be “shrouded in mystery.”[2]

This mystery brings us to one of the most brutal secrets of Nazi Germany and even earlier in WWI: the use of ECT for implanting and removing the will of the individual.

When soldiers complained of battle fatigue or neurosis from a fear of attack (shell shock), German psychiatrists found a way of overriding their fears. They overwhelmed the individual with painful electric shock while simultaneously giving them hypnotic suggestions.

The developer of this practice was Fritz Kaufmann, a neurological and medical officer with the German army during World War I. He summarized his procedure as follows:

“…We are now in a position to produce in a sick person…such a shock through treatment with a strong electrical current, artificially produced…in conjunction with the help of appropriate verbal suggestions in the form of commands. Our process is made up of four components:

  1. Preparing the patient with pre-shock suggestions.
  2. The application of a strong alternating current combined with plentiful verbal suggestions.
  3. Suggestions in the form of military-style commands.
  4. The strict enforcement that they must be healed in one session.”[3]

Psychiatrist Leo T. Alexander was with the U.S. Army Medical Corps during World War II and was directly involved with American Intelligence after the war to determine if certain Nazi doctors should be tried at Nuremberg. In his paper, “Neuropathology and Neurophysiology, Including Electro-Encephalography, in Wartime Germany,” Alexander wrote of the technique used by German psychiatrists:

“… regarding neurosis problems, Dr. Jahnel [a psychiatrist from the Kaiser Wilhelm Research Institute] feels that in the First World War one had confronted this problem in a helpless manner. He feels this problem has now been solved by means of suggestive treatment with the aide of painful electric currents, as well as by the policy of not letting the patients attain the goals which the illness served. In the last war, the patients definitely felt that they could attain things by their illness, while in this war they could not.”[4]

In August 2017, a paper published in History of Psychiatry documented how “The Nazi political and medical establishment” regarded ECT as a means “to empty psychiatric institutions, thereby relieving the state of the burden….” Psychiatrist Emil Gelny “added four extra electrodes to existing ECT machines, which were attached to patients’ wrists and ankles to deliver the lethal shocks after patients were knocked unconscious by the initial current applied to the head.”[5]

An electric shock box had been developed for use on German soldiers near the front. With this instrument, it was not uncommon for soldiers to be killed not by the war, but by their attending psychiatrists. Dr. Gelny, a member of the Nazi party since 1933, founded the procedure known as “electro-executions,” described as follows:

“Once a patient went unconscious from the effects of electricity, the caretakers then had to attach four electrodes to the hands and feet of the patient. Dr. Gelny ran high voltage through them and after ten minutes at the most the death of the patient would set in.”[6]

From the very beginning, electroshock was a method of discipline and a means to cover up embarrassing breaches in the nobility and honor demanded of German military service. It was used on soldiers for the simple reason that they believed that everyone who suffered psychological problems caused by the war were inferior and therefore had to be punished.

Leo T. Alexander studied psychiatry in Austria and Germany in the late 1920’s, and completed his residency in Frankfurt during the pre-Nazi nationalist fervor. In 1934, he emigrated to the U.S. and in 1942 joined the American military as consultant to the Secretary of War. He was an adviser to the Office of the Chief Counsel for War Crimes in Nuremberg and contributed a great amount of documents to the Nuremberg trials. His failure to name a number of the psychiatrists involved in the concentration camps meant that many who should have been tried at Nuremberg went free. Many of these psychiatrists went on to be greatly respected in German universities after the war.

Alexander interviewed and studied the research of Nazi doctors and reported his findings directly to the Combined Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee (CIOS), an organization made up of members of the intelligence community from several nations, including the United States. His dispassionate detachment in describing the cruel medical experiments of the Nazi psychiatrists could only have assisted in giving them more acceptability.

He was one of the first to analyze documents taken from Heinrich Himmler’s files that were found by U.S. troops in a salt mine in Hallein, Austria at the end of World War II. These files contained extensive information on the freezing experiments performed on concentration camp victims in Dachau.[7] It was Himmler, as head of the notorious SS, or state security police, who in 1939 had ordered that all “inferiors”—then a psychiatric catchword—be eliminated.

In Alexander’s report: “Neuropathology and Neurophysiology, Including Electro- Encephalography, in Wartime Germany,” he also dispassionately reported on such atrocities as the injecting of horse serum into humans[8] and certain tests performed on the brains of mental patients, some of whom were children between the ages of seven and 18, that had been murdered in the killing centers. Dr. Hallervorden, head of the Special Pathologic section of the Kaiser Wilhelm Research Institute, examined the brains, after ordering 500 of them shipped to him in Berlin. He told physicians: “Look here now, boys, if you are going to kill all these people, at least take the brains out so that the material could be utilized.”[9]

Alexander’s description of Hallervorden’s use of the brains obtained from these murdered mental patients was less than condemnatory: “Interesting cases in this material….The brains, however, were always well fixed and suspended in formalin, exactly according to his instructions.”[10]

In the same manner that he discusses the killing of children with gas and electricity at Grafenek and Hadamar centers in 1940 and 1941. Alexander wrote: “The killings by gas and electricity had been objected to by legal experts of the government. They held that unless a ‘law for annihilation of valueless lives’ was [passed], these killings were illegal….” [11]

Not only did Alexander fail to condemn the atrocities of electroshock treatment, euthanasia, sterilization and psychosurgery, he actively promoted them, perpetrating electroshock on his own victims after the war. He went on to lead the U.S. Electroshock Research Association as its president in 1951 and 1952.

Alexander must have known that between 1939 and 1941, German psychiatrists responsible for the euthanasia programs had made a film called The Mentally Ill in which electroshock and gassing procedures were discussed. Incredibly, the film proved the “scientific” incurability of the insane by electroshock and justified gassing them to death as the only other valid option. [12]

Alexander described the conditions for one of his own post-war experiments in which he used electroshock on a person who had just been in an auto accident. “I realized that this was a perfect experimental situation, and decided to proceed with the treatment then and there.” The man’s memory of the accident was completely obliterated by the electroshock. It was not until Alexander’s nurse read the man’s own story about the accident back to him that he “remembered” what had happened.[13]

The psychiatrist found that when he raised the electrical current too quickly during the shocks, it caused the patients to contort to such an extent that they fractured their spines. His attitude toward this is particularly revealing: “I produced painful, though otherwise fortunately harmless, spinal fractures (2 of them multiple) in 3 patients in fairly rapid succession.”[14]

In November 1948, Alexander introduced an alternative to “normal” ECT in which a second non-convulsing shock was given immediately after the patient stopped convulsing from the first one. [15] Later documents released through the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that this method favored by Alexander, was made known to the military intelligence community by a psychiatrist who used the process for mind-control experiments, but whose name was conveniently blacked out on the documents. [16]

Alexander had never wanted exposure of the Nazi psychiatric experiments because the “public mistrust” of psychiatry that would ensue would be a “tragedy.”[17] With even greater arrogance, he railed against legislative measures taken in the 1970s that limited the number of electroshocks to be administered to any one patient.  Alexander stated: “Should we submit to the capriciousness of temporary-temporal political laws, or stick to our immutable [unchangeable] laws of medical ethics?  It is my firm belief that the latter outranks the former, as Divine law outranks government law, a fact unanimously established by the Nürnberg War Crimes Court.” [Emphasis added][18]

The fact that one of the origins of ECT is military and Nazi/WWII use begs the question why electroshocking veterans today is even an allowable practice. Many hundreds of vets are given electroshock treatment every year, according Veteran Administration statistics obtained by CCHR.[19] Between 2008 and 2018, the VA purchased about 35 ECT devices—their predecessors known as “electro-execution” boxes—that have never been clinically proved to be safe and effective.


[1] Uwe Henrik Peters, “Die Einfuhrung der Schockbehandlungen und die psychiatrische Emigration,” Fortschritte der neurologie, Psychiatrie, Sept. 1992, p. 356.

[2] Richard Abrams, M.D., “Interview with Lothar Kalinowsky, M.D.,” Convulsive Therapy 4(1): 39.

[3] Dr. Thomas Röder, Volker Kubillus, Anthony Burwell, Psychiatrists–The Men Behind Hitler (Los Angeles, Freedom Publishing, 1995), pp. 26-27: footnote 13.

[4] Leo Alexander, “Neuropathology and Neurophysiology, Including Electro-Encephalography, in Wartime Germany,” CIOS Item 24, Medical, File No. XXVII-1, 25 July 1945, Combined Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee, G-2 SHAEF (Rear) APO 413, pp. 42.

[5] https://psmag.com/news/nazis-ruin-everything; G Gazdag, GS Ungvari, and H Czech, “Mass killing under the guise of ECT: the darkest chapter in the history of biological psychiatry,” In History of Psychiatry, Sage Publications, 2017.

[6] Op. cit., Röder, Kubillus, and Burwell, pp. 207-8: footnote 12.

[7] Barry Siegel, “Nazi Data: A Dilemma for Science,” Los Angeles Times, October 30, 1988;  Waldemar Kaempffert, “German Experiments in Freezing and Reviving Prisoners at Dachau Concentration Camp,” The New York Times, November 18, 1945.

[8] Op. cit., Alexander, “Neuropathology and Neurophysiology…” p. 41.

[9] Ibid, p. 20.

[10] Ibid, pp. 20-21.

[11] Leo Alexander, “Public Mental Health Practices in Germany: Sterilization and Execution of Patients Suffering from Nervous or Mental Disease,” CIOS Item 24, Medical, 19 August 1945, Combined Intelligence Objectives Sub-Committee, G-2 Division, SHAEF (Rear) APO 413, pp. 33-34.

[12] Op. cit., Röder, Kubillus, and Burwell, p. 62.

[13] Leo Alexander, M.D., “The Effect of Electroshock on a ‘Normal’ Person Under Recent Stress:  An Experiment Elucidating the Influence of Electroshock on the  Defensive Operations of the Ego,” American Journal of Psychiatry 109(9), (March 1953): pp. 696-98.

[14] Leo Alexander, M.D., “The Suppression of the Clonic Phase in Electrically Induced  Convulsions in Man,” Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology 11(2), (April 1952): p. 182.

[15] Leo Alexander, M.D., “Nonconvulsive Electric Stimulation Therapy,” American Journal of Psychiatry (October 1950): p. 243.

[16] Document obtained via the Freedom of Information Act dealing with the Central Intelligence Agency’s MK-ULTRA program “Artichoke” dated 3 December 1951 entitled, “Artichoke”–… (blanked out).

[17] Op. cit., Leo Alexander, M.D., “Public Mental Health Practices in Germany,” pp. 29-30.

[18] Leo Alexander, M.D., “Temporal Laws and Medical Ethics in Conflict,” New England Journal of Medicine (9 August 1973): pp. 324-25.

[19] Ibid.

Leave a Comment