Trauma Research: Inherited Wounds

A war leaves its mark on the soul - even on people who have not experienced it. Because psychological wounds can be inherited

33 percent of the war children experienced severe stress

© dpa Picture Alliance / LDoerfert; istock / RapidEye

Germany in the 1970s: things are still looking up in the economic miracle. The color TV is finding its way into German living rooms and takes the children into colorful adventure worlds. You save your pocket money for ice cream and comic books. "You don't even know how good you are." Many heard this from their parents at the time.

The children of this carefree time are 50 or 60 years old today. But when you look back, the ideal world of your young years often seems fragile. Some report a fear of life that still accompanies them, as if everything was built on quicksand.

Traumatic legacy

Many of them remained strangely strangers throughout their lives. "War grandchildren" or "War legacy in the soul" are the names of books in which members of this generation search for the causes of this attitude towards life.

But do the horrors of the nights of bombing really have an effect on people who have never experienced them, have hardly heard a word about it from their parents? Can a psychological trauma be inherited? The question now occupies psychological research.

"There is great interest," reports Professor Heide Glaesmer, trauma researcher at the University of Leipzig. It was a long way to go before the topic was even dealt with - and not just for science.

The silence of the parents

What the war had done in German souls was not discussed for a long time. "It was a mined area," said the psychotherapist. To see the Germans as victims, didn't that mean to trivialize the Holocaust? The perpetrators did not seem permitted to mourn their own suffering.

After the war, many adults stubbornly looked ahead. And so did the war children born between 1930 and 1945 when they became parents themselves. "In many families there was a conspiratorial silence," reports Glaesmer. The parents suppressed the experience.

The children felt that important things remained unsaid. But they too were silent so as not to burden their parents. "There was no exchange," says the trauma researcher. And therefore no opportunity for processing and understanding.

Burden for children and parents

The war children often refused to admit that the trauma their parents suffered continued to have an effect on them. "You were still too young to notice it all." Many have heard this very often - and in the end believed it themselves. Psychologists now know, however, that the opposite is the case.

Children's souls are difficult to deal with traumatic experiences - especially when there is no protective support. Nights by bombs, displacement and flight, hunger and cold. Fathers who fell in battle or returned emotionally shattered. Overstrained, self-sufficient mothers.

"Studies have shown that around a third of war children in Germany experienced severe stress," says Professor Gereon Heuft, Director of the Clinic for Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy at the University Hospital of Münster, who himself organized a congress on this subject.

Transgenerational trauma transmission

As a result, not all of them suffer from what is known as post-traumatic stress disorder. However, the experiences can shape the personality without the person concerned being aware of it. For example, many war grandchildren report a strange emotional emptiness in their parents' home, a lack of sympathy.

Did other feelings get buried in attempting to bury the pain? An emotional flattening is at least typical of trauma victims.

How all this continues to have an effect in the war children is difficult to research systematically. The experiences and also the mental resilience of the individual are too different. Today, however, many experts take it for granted that unprocessed trauma can be passed on from parents to their offspring. They call it transgenerational trauma transmission.

Changed Ebgut

"There is no reliable scientific evidence that the second generation is more likely to be mentally ill," says Glaesmer. However, some studies show: If additional stress is added, the likelihood of falling ill increases. The soul is more vulnerable.

There are now indications that psychological wounds are inherited from biology. Heavy loads can cause changes in the genetic make-up. The next generation is then more prone to anxiety and stress-related illnesses. Traces of it can even be found in the genes of the third generation, as researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psychiatry in Munich have shown.

History repeats itself

Many case histories from psychoanalysis point to a passing on. "If a trauma is not dealt with, the next generation tends to re-enact the story of the parents," says Professor Angela Moré, social psychologist at the Leibniz University of Hanover.

One of them finds no rest anywhere, as if he were on the run. Another is determined to do reparation work, driven by a deep sense of guilt. History repeats itself unconsciously - that of a person, sometimes that of a nation. "You have to deal with the traumatic experiences," explains the group analysts. Even the inherited ones. Only then can you escape the loop of repetition.

Children are very sensitive to emotional messages

But how is trauma passed on at all? "People don't just communicate with words," says Moré. But also with gestures, looks, the sound of the voice, their behavior. For example, when images of war can be seen on television and the father switches off immediately.

"A child grasps these emotional messages very strongly," says the social psychologist. The more it feels that something remains hidden and unspoken, the more it absorbs it. This creates inner images that appear in fantasies and dreams and can unconsciously control behavior.

In order to decipher this, it helps to start a conversation - with therapists, but also with parents. Even if they have already passed 80, it is by no means too late for that. Especially in old age, the painful past becomes present again for many, as Heuft has shown in his work.

Traumas come back in old age

Active professional life is over, the children are out of the house. What remains is time to reflect, also about your own roots. The need to look back and order life increases. In addition, there are losses: the partner, friends, relatives die. Sometimes it is enough that old age robs you of physical strength and health. "You feel helpless, at the mercy," says Heuft. Like back in the war.

Science has shown: In the later years of life, the risk increases that an early trauma will rise to the surface of the soul again. Those affected are not always aware of the connection. "If the bombs fall again in dreams, this is clear," says psychotherapist Heuft.

Often, however, people also suffer from depression, anxiety or pain for which no cause can be found. The question of war experiences is therefore important in the treatment of older patients in any case, emphasizes Heuft.

Conversations can help

For the descendants, however, the awakened memories can be a chance to start a conversation. "I consider breaking the silence to be something absolutely important," says trauma expert Glaesmer.

She advises not to ask directly about terrible experiences, but simply to let yourself be told about the past. "If the war is dealt with too superficially, one can inquire." Sometimes this results in a new look at the parents, their becoming and being - and thus also at their own life.

"If I had known that my mother was buried after a bomb attack, I would certainly have seen a lot differently." The psychotherapist hears sentences like these more often. "Conversations can lead to better understanding, greater closeness," she says. And they can reinforce an important insight: how great is the value of peace.

Even if the horrors were long ago, traumatizing images of the Second World War can return, especially in old age. You can also find information online at: