History of modern psychology in Germany1 in 19th- and 20th-century thought and society

Lothar Sprung
Humboldt University, Berlin, Germany

Helga Sprung
Free University Berlin, Germany

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This entry surveys the characteristics, stages, and lines of development of modern psychology as an empirical psychology in Germany during the 19th and 20th centuries. These developments occurred in the context of very different political periods in German history, during a time span extending from the period of the Restoration after the Vienna Congress of 1814/15 to the present-day “Berlin Republic”. At the centre lies the question of continuities and discontinuities in the evolution of psychology during the profound sociocultural changes that marked the politically heterogeneous developmental phases of German history. The stages are indicated by headings treating the development of psychology during the period of Restoration after 1814/15, in the German Empire (1871–1918), in the Weimar Republic (1919–1933), during the time of National Socialism (1933–1945), in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG, 1949–1990), in the German Democratic Republic (GDR, 1949–1990), and in united Germany after 1990. The result will be to demonstrate how psychology in 19th- and 20th-century Germany developed from modest beginnings into a richly elaborated scientific field with diverse institutions and a differentiated professional structure. The fate of individual German psychologists during this time can be only tangentially considered.

Cet article décrit les caractéristiques, les stades et les lignes de développement de la psychologie moderne en Allemagne en tant que psychologie empirique, durant les 19e et 20e siècles. Ce développement est survenu dans le contexte de périodes politiques très différentes dans l’histoire de l’Allemagne, s’étendant de la Restauration après le congrès de Vienne en 1814–1815 jusqu’à l’actuelle “République de Berlin”. Les stades sont indiqués par des titres qui reflètent le développement de la psychologie durant la période de la Restauration après 1814–1815, l’Empire germanique (1817–1918), durant la République de Weimar (1919–1933), à l’époque du national socialisme (1933–1945), dans la République Fédérale Allemande (RFA, 1949–1990) et la République Démocratique Allemande (RDA, 1949–1990), et dans l’Allemagne unifiée après 1990. L’ensemble montre que la psychologie au 19e et au 20e siècles a débuté modestement pour devenir une discipline scientifique riche avec diverses institutions et une structure professionnelle différenciée. Le sort des psychologues individuels durant cette période ne peut être qu’effleuré.


Map of Germany

A people cannot choose its history. This is something that has occurred and is irretrievable; but a people can and must create a relationship to its origins…and use history to mobilize or to warn.

Ingrid Mittenzwei


The development of psychology in Germany in the 19th and 20th centuries is embedded in the history of modern psychology as a whole. In a first approach, six features of this evolution can be distinguished:

  1. The constitution of the subject matter and methods of modern psychology as an empirical psychology starting around the beginning of the 19th century.

  2. Institutionalization, i.e., the establishment of psychological seminars, laboratories, institutes, etc. within the framework of the university and college system starting in 1879.

  3. Temporary divisions among the major schools, followed by their gradual integration into the overall system of psychology during the period from ca. 1880 to 1950, resulting in the formation of a pluralistic system of modern psychology.

  4. The development of applied psychology, i.e., the inclusion and elaboration of fields of practice beyond the academic institutions by the close of the 19th century.

  5. Professionalization, i.e., the job description of the academically educated psychologist working outside the university system was developed, anchored in the social structure, and finally certified by the state around the time of World War I.

  6. The development, professionalization, and institutionalization of modern psychology as a service profession. This took on increasing momentum after World War II.


Three methodological stages can be distinguished during the time period from ca. 1800 to 2000: the transfer stage, the dissent stage, and the (relative) consensus stage. These stages did not simply follow one another—they interrelated and at times also ran parallel to one another.

Transfer stage

Typical of the transfer stage was that the theories and methods of the sciences that were predominant at the time were defining for the theories and methods of psychology. Prevailing scientific theories and methods were transferred to the ways in which psychological problems were viewed. For the first two thirds of the 19th century, this meant primarily that the methodology and methods of experimental physics and experimental physiology were applied to psychology. This explains why the majority of the founding fathers of modern psychology in 19th-century Germany had been trained as physicists, medical doctors and, mostly, experimental physiologists—men such as Ernst Heinrich Weber (1795–1878), Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801–1887), Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894), Rudolf Hermann Lotze (1817–1881), and Wilhelm Wundt (1832–1920). The transfer stage reaches to some extent into the present when we think, for instance, of models in today’s cognitive psychology that are being derived from communications and computer technology.

Dissent stage

During the last third of the 19th and early in the 20th centuries, the transfer stage was complemented or replaced by the dissent stage. The formation of the great psychological schools—such as the Göttingen School, the Würzburg School, and the schools of Gestalt psychology, field theory, and depth psychology—characterizes the dissent stage. This stage lasted into the 1950s. Structurally considered, two additional features are significant:

1. Modern psychology began to institutionalize itself as an empirical psychology, i.e., the first psychological institutes, laboratories, seminars etc. were established (see Table 1).

2. Psychology began to professionalize itself as applied psychology; i.e. it started to establish itself as an occupation beyond the walls of the academy.

Examples of early institutionalizationa

Year Founder City Country
1879 W.M. Wundt Leipzig Germany
1881 G.E. Müller Göttingen Germany
1886 H. Ebbinghaus Berlin Germany
1888 G.E. Müller Göttingen Germany
1888 H. Münsterberg Freiburg/Br. Germany
1891 G. Martius Bonn Germany
1893 C. Stumpf Berlin Germany
1894 H. Ebbinghaus Breslau Germany
1894 A. Meinong Graz Austria
1896 O. Külpe Würzburg Germany
1896 H. Cohen Marburg Germany
1897 B. Erdmann Halle Germany
1900 C. Stumpf Berlin Germany
aIn Sahakian, W.S. (1975), pp. 138–139. Additions and corrections by Sprung & Sprung. Multiple citations due to differing criteria of institutionalization. 

Consensus stage

In the 1930s and 1940s, the stage of dissent was replaced by the stage of (relative) consensus, which has lasted until today. Typical of the consensus stage was and is the formation of a canon of empirical methodology. Structurally, four additional features can be described.

1. The genesis of the discipline proceeded intensively, i.e., more institutes, research programmes, areas of instruction, professional societies and journals, etc. were established.

2. The major schools (with the exception of depth psychology) integrated themselves into an overall system of psychology and the pluralistic system of recent psychology was created.

3. Psychology moved into new areas of practice, during the course of which its service function was especially elaborated in the form of counseling, therapy, and educational offerings of all kinds.

4. Psychology entered de jure into its professional stage, i.e., the state recognized psychology as a field requiring professional education for service applications.

Furthermore, three features characterize this stage methodologically.

1. The increasing penetration of new empirical methods into psychology, e.g., statistical methods of data analysis, sampling methods, methods of experimental design. In the last three or four decades, computer-aided modeling and simulation methods have been introduced.

2. The formation of general standards for the development of methods, e.g., principles and techniques of construction, calibration, and standardization of empirical methods. These were created primarily within test theories, psychological measurement theories, and scaling methods. The best-known example of this are the quality criteria in testing, which meanwhile have become general criteria for the standardization and evaluation of methods. During the last four decades, their number has increased from three (validity, objectivity, normativeness) to six (validity, reliability, objectivity or concordance, normativeness, utility, fairness). A canon of empirical methodology was developed.

3. The development of theoretical psychology. Today this includes areas such as methodology, the theory of science, mathematical psychology, and the history of psychology.


Six primary trends characterize the history of psychology in the 19th and 20th centuries:

  1. The emergence of experimental psychological lines of development (during the first two thirds of the 19th century), which functions as the initial spark in the genesis of the discipline of modern psychology as an empirical psychology.

  2. The emergence of alternative and complementary lines of development (chiefly during the last third of the 19th century), which differentiates and broadens the genesis of the discipline of modern psychology as an empirical psychology.

  3. The continuation of this line of development in the 20th century, which leads to the formation of a pluralistic system of psychology.

  4. The rise and fall of the major schools (between ca. 1880 and 1950), which differentiates and broadens the pluralistic system of modern psychology.

  5. The emergence and institutionalization of applied psychology as a profession around the beginning of the 20th century.

  6. The elaboration of the pluralistic system of recent psychology and of psychology as a profession, primarily a service profession, after World War II.


From the standpoint of subject matter and methods, certain lines of development that enabled the breakthrough of institutionalization to be achieved especially fostered the early genesis of modern psychology as a discipline in the 19th century. We designate these as the main lines of development, the most important being the experimental-natural scientific and the dual-oriented lines of development. Here, “dual” signifies that their methodology and methods were both experimentally and nonexperimentally oriented. Their role in the genesis of the discipline was augmented by lines of development that appeared to be alternative or complementary to the main lines of development. Some especially relevant examples from both groups will be briefly introduced.

Main lines of development

Seven examples will be mentioned in their approximate chronological order of appearance:

1. Psychology as the physics of inner experience. Exponents included Johann Friedrich Herbart (1776–1841) and Friedrich Eduard Beneke (1798–1854). Here lie the origins of today’s mathematical psychology.

2. Psychology as objective psychology. Friedrich Albert Lange (1828–1875) represented this line of thinking. Here lie the origins of the theory of higher nervous system activity, behaviourism, the psychology of action control (Handlungspsychologie) and the psychology of activity.

3. Psychology as the physiology of the soul. Among its representatives were Johannes Peter Müller (1801–1858), Rudolf Hermann Lotze (1817–1881), and Hermann von Helmholtz (1821–1894). Here lie the origins of contemporary psychophysiology, biopsychology, and neuropsychology.

4. Psychology as psychophysics. Ernst Heinrich Weber (1795–1878) and Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801–1887) were two exponents. Here lie the origins of today’s psychophysics and scaling methods. Beyond this, psychophysics has developed significant areas of contemporary methodology.

5. Psychology as a dual psychology, i.e. an experimental psychology of elementary psychic phenomena and a nonexperimental psychology of higher psychic phenomena. Two representatives were Wilhelm Maximilian Wundt (1832–1920), with his experimental “physiological psychology” and his nonexperimental “ethnopsychology” (Völkerpsychologie), and Rudolf Hermann Lotze (1817–1881), with his experimental “medical psychology” and his nonexperimental “philosophy-psychology”. It was primarily the dual psychologies that achieved a politico-scientific breakthrough in the early institutionalization of psychology as an independent science. These were more widely accepted within the academic philosophical faculties of that time than the purely natural-scientific experimentally oriented concepts of psychology. The dual approaches to psychology also have had the long-term consequence, however, of fueling repeated controversies between two differing psychologies under keywords such as “psychology as a natural science” vs. “psychology as a social science” or “psychology as an experimental science” vs. “psychology as a subjective science”.

6. Psychology as the psychophysics of higher psychic processes. This was intended to complement classical psychophysics—which was dedicated to the analysis of elementary psychic processes such as perception—with the investigation of higher psychic processes. Subjects such as judgement, memory, or thinking were treated. Exponents included Gustav Theodor Fechner (1801–1887) in Leipzig, Hermann Ebbinghaus (1850–1909) and Carl Stumpf (1848–1936) in Berlin, as well as Georg Elias Müller (1850–1934) and his pupils Friedrich Schumann (1863–1940), Alfons Pilzecker (1865–1949), and Adolf Jost (b. 1874) in Göttingen. Here lie the origins of contemporary cognitive psychology, the psychology of volition, and the psychology of emotion.

7. Psychology as general developmental psychology. This evolved as both “empirical child psychology” and “comparative psychology”. Dietrich Tiedemann (1748–1803) and Adolf Kußmaul (1822–1902) may be considered its forerunners. The actual founders included William Preyer (1841–1897), William Stern (1871–1938), and Clara Stern (1878–1945). Here lie the origins of contemporary developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology, and behavioural biology.

Alternative and complementary lines of development

Alternative and complementary lines of development broadened and differentiated the spectrum of the subject matter, methods, and institutions of psychology. The following five examples are in rough chronological order.

1. Psychologies oriented toward philosophies of life. Exponents included Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860), Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), and Ludwig Klages (1872–1956). Here lie the origins of today’s philosophical psychologies and psychotherapies (such as Daseinsanalytic therapy).

2. Psychologies oriented toward depth psychology. Among its representatives were Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961), and Alfred Adler (1870–1937). Here lie the origins of psychoanalysis, analytical psychology, individual psychology, and their diverse neovariants.

3. Holistically oriented psychologies. Exponents included Franz Brentano (1838–1917), Carl Stumpf (1848–1936), Alexius von Meinong (1853–1920), Christian von Ehrenfels (1859–1932), Felix Krüger (1874–1948), Max Wertheimer (1880–1943), Wolfgang Köhler (1887–1967), and Kurt Lewin (1890–1947). Here lie the origins of Gestalt psychology, the field theory of the psyche, and the conceptual programmes of act and systems theories.

4. Hermeneutically oriented psychologies. Their representatives included Wilhelm Dilthey (1833–1911), Max Dessoir (1867–1947), Eduard Spranger (1882–1963), and Karl Jaspers (1883–1969). Here lie the origins of the psychology of understanding, psychology as a humanistic discipline (geisteswissenschaftliche Psychologie), and historical psychology.

5. Differentially oriented psychologies. William Stern (1871–1938) was one of their proponents. Here lie the origins of differential psychology, psychodiagnostics, and personality psychology.


Along with the trends and lines of development presented thus far, it was the special context of praxis that substantially contributed to the genesis of psychology as a discipline during the latter part of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. World War I accelerated these developments. For instance, aptitude tests for military pilots, transport drivers, and radio operators came into use.

Some additional developments during the first third of the 20th century warrant brief mention: psychopharmacology as practiced by Emil Kraepelin (1856–1926) in Munich; experimental pedagogy developed in Leipzig and then Hamburg by Ernst Meumann (1862–1915) and others; industrial psychology, advanced in Freiburg and later in Boston by Hugo Münsterberg (1863–1916); and forensic psychology, which was developed in Breslau and Hamburg by William Stern (1871–1938) and in Würzburg by Karl Marbe (1869–1953).

The professionalizaton of applied psychology led to its institutionalization in both academic and practical contexts. An example of the latter was the founding in 1906 of the Institute for Applied Psychology and General Psychological Research (Institut für Angewandte Psychologie und psychologische Sammelforschung) by Otto Lipmann (1880–1933) and William Stern (1871–1938) in the town of Neu Babelsberg near Berlin. The Institute contracted to carry out research on a commercial basis for ministries, industrial concerns, and schools. A few more examples illustrate the breadth of the spectrum. In 1918, Walter Moede (1888–1958) and Georg Schlesinger (1874–1949) founded the Institute for Industrial Psychotechnology (Institut für industrielle Psychotechnik) at the Technical College in Berlin-Charlottenburg. There, workplace analyses, ergonomic planning (Arbeitsmittelgestaltung), and aptitude tests were conducted. In 1920, Curt Piorkowski (1888–1939) and Otto Lipmann (1880–1933) founded the Institute for Vocational and Business Psychology (Institut für Berufsund Wirtschaftspsychologie) in Berlin. It was largely responsible for the development of psychological career aptitude tests and career counseling. Hans Rupp (1880–1954) and Carl Stumpf (1848–1936) established a Division of Applied Psychology at the Institute of Psychology at the Berlin University in 1921. It conducted primarily psychotechnical and industrial psychological investigations in cooperation with industrial companies. The work of doctors interested in psychology, such as Albert Moll (1862–1939) and Arthur Kronfeld (1886–1941), led to the development of medical psychology and clinical psychology late in the 19th century and on into the 20th century. At the turn of the century, we encounter the beginnings of psychoanalysis in Germany. For example, Karl Abraham (1877–1925) opened his Berlin practice as a psychoanalytically trained doctor in 1908, and founded the Berlin Psychoanalytic Association in 1910. The first psychoanalytic outpatient clinic followed in 1920. In 1918, Magnus Hirschfeld (1868–1935) founded the Institute for Sexology in Berlin and developed the psychology of sexuality. In the 1920s, Kurt Goldstein (1878–1965) developed the field of clinical neuropsychology on the basis of examinations of soldiers who had sustained brain injuries while serving in World War I.


The formation, from the late 19th through early 20th centuries, of major schools of psychology and currents of thought—like schools, these featured special research agendas—shaped the history of psychology in the first half of the 20th century. The schools were scientific communities with a pronounced internal consensus on subject matter, methods, and theory, and an equally pronounced stance of dissent toward other approaches. The features of consensus involved:

  1. a common understanding of the nature of the psychological as their subject (i.e., consciousness, the subconscious, psychic functions, phenomena, acts);

  2. a common paradigm for the means used to conduct investigations (i.e., laboratory experiments, biotic experiments, field study, dream analysis, achievement methods, interpretation methods); and

  3. a dominant personality as the founder and leader of the school.

Three different aspects characterized the development of schools.

  1. A school started with a special subject area and with a theoretic and methodic approach specific to its problem complex. Gestalt psychology, for instance, began as an experimental psychology of thought and perception, whereas psychoanalysis initially used the analysis of dreams and associations to research hysteria.

  2. A school’s approach was generalized step by step to other subject areas and applications as it evolved.

  3. As the school developed further, it came to claim a monopoly for its theory and method extending to all areas of investigation.

Gestalt psychology

The beginnings of Gestalt psychology are linked primarily with the names Max Wertheimer (1880–1943), Wolfgang Köhler (1887–1967), and Kurt Koffka (1886–1941). Its central premises included:

  1. Holistic thinking (Übersummativität, i.e., “the whole is more than the sum of its parts” and transposability).

  2. The primacy of unitary analysis of phenomena (rather than analysis of stimuli).

  3. Experimental methodology (which had to be congruent with the type of event, or Geschehenstyp, under investigation).

  4. And, to some extent, psychophysical isomorphism (psychological processes are clearly assigned to physical processes).

When National Socialist rule began in Germany in 1933, many leading exponents of the school were forced to emigrate, leading to the spread of the school in the USA. However, Kurt Koffka had been teaching in the United States since the mid-1920s and Wolfgang Köhler’s lectures during the same period had acquainted Americans with Gestalt psychology.

Field theory

Field theory is associated foremost with the name of Kurt Lewin (1890–1947) and those of his Berlin students such as Bluma Zeigarnik (1900–1988), Richard Meili (1900–1991), Tamara Dembo (1902–1993), and Anitra Karsten (1902–1988). It features the following principles:

  1. The principle of dynamic forces: access to the analysis and explanation of psychic events must proceed from the perspective of their dynamic fundamentals (needs, motivations, emotions).

  2. The principle of biotic methodology: every investigative situation must be close to life.

  3. The principle n = 1: truth is unitary, not a multiple state. A single representative case already contains all the necessary information.

  4. The principle of the type of event (Geschehenstyp): the paradigm of investigation must conform to the largest possible class of real-life situations.

  5. The principle of introspection: the experiential representation of the situation under consideration must be included to supplement phenomenal and conditional analysis.

  6. The principle of macroanalysis or molar analysis: the entire relevant event must be brought into the conditional analysis.

Many of the leading exponents of field theory were forced to emigrate, largely for political reasons, after National Socialist rule began in Germany, and so the theory was spread in the United States and, to a lesser extent, in the Soviet Union.

Psychological-anthropological personality theories, characterologies, and typologies

Another school—whose diversity comprises a number of very different currents of thought, each with its own school-like character—is presented by psychological-anthropological personality theories, characterologies, and typologies. These largely shaped the image of 20th-century psychology from the 1930s on into the early 1960s. Such currents sought to elaborate psychologically and anthropologically oriented macro-models of personality, founded in part on biological-constitutional principles, within the areas of normative psychology and also, to some extent, psychopathology. Some macro-models were linked to results from brain research, and chiefly concerned the neuronal localization of psychic functions. Others were linked with findings from constitutional biology and psychiatry or with concepts of racial psychology. Exponents of biotypologies based on constitutional typologies, some of which were expanded into racial typologies, included Ernst Kretschmer (1888–1964) and the brothers Erich R. Jaensch (1883–1940) and Walter Jaensch.

In his biotypology, Kretschmer was concerned with proving the connection between three physical constitutional types (leptosomatic, pyknic, and athletic) and three character types (schizothymic, cyclothymic, and viscous). He postulated intermediate schizoid and cycloid character stages that were connected with illnesses such as schizophrenia, manic-depressive psychosis, and epilepsy.

The Jaensch brothers constructed their typology on the basis of eidetics, whose empirical foundations were later found to be insufficiently grounded. For political reasons, primarily Erich R. Jaensch’s open allegiance to German fascism and his legitimization of the National Socialist leadership elite in his personality psychology, this typology gained widespread recognition during the era of National Socialism in Germany. An eidetic predisposition consisted of the ability of certain individuals to form subjective eidetic images or vivid and persistent memory images and pictures. These could appear in different sensory fields (optical, auditory, tactile, etc.). According to Jaensch and Jaensch, there were two basic types of Eidetikers (people with such imagery): the I-type (integrated type) and the D-type (disintegrated, unintegrated type), and these were linked with specific groups of characteristics.

Psychological-anthropological personality theories and characterologies can furthermore be traced through the authors and titles of books published at the time. Examples include Eduard Spranger (1882–1963) and his phenotypology of Life Forms (Lebensformen, 2nd ed., 1921). Spranger distinguished six basic ideal types of individuality: theoretical, economic, aesthetic, social, religious, and power types. Other exponents of psychological-anthropological personality psychologies and characterologies were Erich Rothacker (1888–1965) with his theory of the Layers of Personality (Die Schichten der Persönlichkeit, 1941), Philipp Lersch (1898–1972) with his theory of Character Construction (Der Aufbau des Charakters, 1938), Kurt Gottschaldt (1902–1991) with his human-ontogenetic approach Methods of Personality Research in Genetic Psychology (Die Methodik der Persönlichkeitsforschung in der Erbpsychologie, 1942), and Albert Wellek (1904–1972) with his theory of Polarity in Character Development (Die Polarität im Aufbau des Charakters, 3rd ed., 1963). These different approaches were more or less linked to qualitative diagnostics of behaviour and action.

The psychological-anthropological personality theories, characterologies, and typologies, and the diagnostics based upon them, were influential as applied psychology in the 1930s and 1940s in the buildup and expansion of military psychology (Wehrmachtspsychologie). After World War II, this heterogeneous “school” substantially determined the image of psychology in Germany for some two decades. The fact that the representatives of other schools and currents of thought had been much more seriously affected by emigration after 1933 also contributed to this situation. Since almost none of the psychologists who emigrated returned to Germany after the war, the exponents of this “school” were almost the only ones available to construct a new scientific landscape in post-war Germany.

Developmental psychological and developmental diagnostic research programmes

Developmental psychology and developmental diagnostic research programmes were currents of thought akin to schools, and had some connections with psychological-anthropological developments. William Stern (1871–1938) and Clara Stern (1878–1945) were the early exponents of such programmes at the start of the 20th century in Breslau and later Hamburg. They were followed in the 1920s and 1930s by David Katz (1884–1953) and Rosa Katz (1885–1976) in Göttingen, then Rostock; Hans Volkelt (1886–1964) in Leipzig; Oswald Kroh (1887–1955) in Tübingen, then Berlin; as well as Heinz Werner (1890–1964) and Martha Muchow (1892–1933) in Hamburg. Kurt Gottschaldt (1902–1991), active from the late 1930s well into the 1960s, carried out longitudinal studies of twins. Gottschaldt’s research programme consisted of human ontogenetically oriented research on the life span. Various hereditarily or environmentally dependent psychological characteristics were examined in their ontogenetic development. Another example was the Vienna Program, within which Charlotte Bühler (1893–1974) and Karl Bühler (1879–1963) conducted developmental psychological and developmental diagnostic testing from the 1920s to 1938. The Vienna School of Developmental Psychology produced psychologists who achieved recognition as child psychologists, developmental diagnosticians, and methodologists. Hildegard Hetzer (1899–1991) and Lotte Schenk-Danzinger deserve mention among the child psychologists and developmental diagnosticians. Paul Lazarsfeld (1901–1976) and Peter Robert Hofstätter (1913–1994) were outstanding methodologists. This research in developmental psychology and developmental diagnostics has substantially contributed to the professionalization of educational psychology and educational counseling.


Much changed politically when the Weimar Republic ended and National Socialist dictatorship began in Germany on 30 January 1933, but little changed at first in the developing field of psychology. As a consequence of economic recovery in the 1930s and in the context of the military arms buildup, psychology went on to develop even more strongly. After 1933 there was a major politically determined breach in personnel with tragic consequences for those involved. The very existence of some psychologists was threatened. Dismissals, racial discrimination, and lives destroyed were terrible realities for some. For many, emigration was the only way out. For others (Otto Lipmann and Martha Muchow, for instance), it was suicide. Some schools and currents of thought were more strongly affected than others, less for reasons of content than because of the persons involved. The history of psychology during the National Socialist period from 1933–1945 can be briefly and succinctly formulated as follows: many psychologists suffered during the Nazi era, but psychology itself profited. The state of research during this time can be briefly summarized in two statements:

  1. The Nazis had nothing against psychology. On the contrary, they supported it when it seemed to be in their interests.

  2. The Nazis were against individual psychologists who were Jewish, political opponents, or otherwise out of favour.

Two groups of facts, one negative and one positive, will illustrate these statements. Negative facts: At the beginning of the Nazi period, nearly one third of Germany’s leading psychologists lost their college or university teaching posts for political, racial, or religious reasons. In terms of numbers, 5 of 15 full professors of psychology were forced out in 1933. Adhemar Gelb (1887–1936) in Halle, David Katz (1884–1953) in Rostock, Wilhelm Peters (1880–1963) in Jena, William Stern (1871–1938) in Hamburg, and Max Wertheimer (1880–1943) in Frankfurt am Main were dismissed under the Law for the Reconstruction of the Civil Service (Gesetz zur Wiederherstellung des Berufsbeamtentums) of 7 April 1933. Associate professors were also affected, including Otto Selz (1881–1943) in Mannheim and Kurt Lewin (1890–1947) in Berlin. In 1935, Wolfgang Köhler (1887–1967) left Germany for the United States because he could no longer prevent political interference in his Berlin institute. Beyond this, some 20 instructors in high-level positions at colleges and universities were forced to leave their positions. Among the members of the German Psychological Association, 14% emigrated from Germany in 1933. This exodus represented a qualitative loss of creative scientific potential.

Positive facts: Organizationally and in terms of subject matter and material technology, however, psychology also made scientific progress, most of all in science policy, during the period of National Socialism. Measured in the numbers of newly created professorial chairs and new instructors’ positions, of money invested in research, research projects completed, and newly acquired fields of research, etc., one can speak, as Geuter (1992) does, of the “professionalization of psychology under National Socialism” during the period from 1933 to ca. 1943. Many of the facts and figures about psychology under National Socialism that we will mention in this section—especially concerning the development of military psychology—have been taken from Geuter’s work.

The economic upswing and armaments policies of the 1930s had an especially positive effect on applied psychology. Psychological teams were formed in many organizations, such as railroads and industrial firms. Most of all, the psychological service of the Weimar Republic’s Reichswehr served as the starting point for a massive elaboration of Wehrmacht (armed forces) psychology. Beyond this, various psychological service establishments, such as the educational guidance centres within the framework of the National Socialist Public Welfare System (Nationalsozialistische Volkswohlfahrt, NSV), were built and expanded. In terms of content, this meant that psychodiagnostic procedures were used in almost every field of application. The use of personality psychology, educational psychology, and the psychology of learning were also affected. These were applied both within the framework of diagnostics and in the professional education and training of trainees, officers, and military specialists. The use of developmental psychology also played a role; it served as the basis for psychological counseling within educational, occupational, and clinical frameworks.

In basic research, fields that were based upon the worldview of National Socialist ideology, such as hereditary environment psychology (Erbe-Umwelt-Psychologie) or race psychology (Rassenpsychologie), also played a role. These nevertheless also served a covering function to some extent for serious psychogenetic research projects. One example of this was Kurt Gottschaldt (1902–1991), who in 1935 was appointed the director of the division of genetic psychology at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Genetics and Eugenics (Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut für Anthropologie, menschliche Erblehre und Eugenik) in Berlin. There he conducted ontogenetic longitudinal studies on identical and fraternal twins to determine the degree to which psychological characteristics depended on genetic or environmental factors. These empirical studies are still considered some of the classic studies of their kind in the German language.

Wehrmacht psychology played a significant role in the professionalization of psychology. On 21 May 1935, the military draft was reintroduced in Germany. This resulted in an increasing number of military centres, and a concomitant increase in the number of military psychological testing centres. Accordingly, more psychologists were employed and more military psychological tests administered. As of 1 July 1935, 69 psychologists were employed in the army and the marines. By 1 July 1938, the number had risen to 170. By 1942, the air force alone employed 150 psychologists. All officer candidates and all officials (Beamte) of the three branches of the military—air force, marines, and army—went through psychological testing. Later, additional testing was put in place for reserve officers, noncommissioned officers, sergeants, and various military specialists, such as transport and tank operators, radio operators, range finders, balloonists, and poison gas tracers. Character diagnostic methods were emphasized in the officers’ tests, whereas in tests used to choose specialists from among the troops, psychophysical procedures were more often used. There was a considerable increase in the number of tests. In 1936/37, 6655 tests of officers and army personnel were carried out. By 1938/39, the number had risen to 10,545. Tests of army specialists increased from 12,750 in 1936 to 66,633 in 1939. By 1941, the number had reached 199,743 tests.

Against this background, the job description of psychologists employed outside colleges and universities had finally profiled itself to such an extent that it became legally established in Germany in the form of the first regulations for diploma examinations (Diplomprüfungsordnung, DPO), which went into effect on 1 April 1941. These regulated university education and the professional employment of psychologists and introduced the degree of certified psychologist. The DPO contained:

  1. a subject catalogue, which listed the areas of study and the teaching hours required;

  2. the examination rules, in which the type and timing of the exams were provided;

  3. the introduction of the legally protected titles for certified psychologists (Diplompsychologe); and

  4. the characterization of job descriptions for degreed psychologists employed in practical fields.

From the standpoint of the history of science, then, within the genesis of the discipline of modern psychology, legal or de jure professionalization occurred in 1941. This came to pass 62 years after the de jure institutionalization of psychology by Wilhelm Wundt in Leipzig in 1879.

The expansion of World War II from 1942 on led to increasing economies in the sciences not directly involved in weapons and waging war. In 1942, the army and air force suspended Wehrmacht psychology activities. There were further reductions after “total war” was declared on 18 February 1943. These limitations, along with the mounting destruction of cities and of many psychological institutes, research, and praxis establishments in Allied air raids, led to the de facto end of the development of psychology in Germany by the spring of 1945.


In portraying the following period, we are more in the role of eyewitnesses and chroniclers than that of historians, since we ourselves experienced and helped to shape the time under consideration. A further problem for the following discussion consists of the fact that this time span has until now received minimal attention from historians of science. As befits this unsatisfactory state of research, we have therefore chosen a more descriptive form of presentation of the developmental trends and lines of development. Beyond this, we have adhered to the principle of discussing contents only and mentioning no names of living persons in our treatment of the history of this period. In accordance with our self-understanding as scientific historians, we leave the choice of persons and institutions representative of this period as well as the interpretations and assessments of the time we have lived through to future historians. However, we will not conceal our own opinions.

Continuity in the development of psychology in post-war Germany: 1945–1961

World War II ended in Europe on 8 May 1945. Universities in the four zones of occupation gradually resumed instruction during the winter semester of 1945/46. The same was true for work in practical psychological establishments. The German Psychological Association (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Psychologie) resumed its activities of coordinating the work of psychologists in the academic world. It was joined in 1946 by the Organization of German Professional Psychologists (Berufsverband Deutscher Psychologen), an association for psychologists employed in applied fields. In 1960, the first world congress for psychology to be held on German soil after World War II took place in Bonn: the 19th Congress of the International Union of Psychological Science (IUPsyS). The 1941 regulations for the granting of diplomas can be said to have outlived the end of World War II in 1945 for about two more decades. They shaped the structure and to some extent the contents of educational programmes in West and East Germany into the early 1960s. The 1930s and 1940s research programmes of leading German psychologists also continued into the early 1960s, primarily in the areas of general psychology, developmental psychology, personality psychology, genetic psychology, educational psychology, industrial psychology, psychodiagnostics, and clinical psychology. Little changed in these conditions after the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) were established in 1949. Serious organizational discontinuities—which had only a limited effect on content, however—appeared after the Berlin Wall between the two German states was built on 13 August 1961.

Political developments and political scientific policy as the context for the development of psychology: 1945–1990

The history of psychology after 1945 was embedded within the general political developments occurring in Europe. The years from 1945 to 1961 were a time of increasing division of Germany into two states. In 1961, with building of the Wall, they were fenced apart. The Wall resulted in an organizational division between psychologists in the two German states. One consequence was that in 1963, a GDR Psychological Association was founded; it was disbanded when the two states were unified in 1990. From 1961 to 1989, official relations between psychologists from the two German states became very difficult. The difficulties arose first due to the FRG’s Hallstein Doctrine2 relating to the GDR and later due to the GDR’s “policy of separation” relating to the FRG. However, on both sides of the Wall, there were psychologists who attempted to mitigate the effects of political division. This occurred first at the private level, and then increasingly also at the official level. Forums of cooperation included international organizations such as the International Union of Psychological Science (IUPsyS). At the 20th congress of the IUPsyS in Moscow in 1966, the GDR Psychological Association was admitted into the International Union. The 22nd congress of the IUPsyS took place in Leipzig in 1980 at the invitation of the GDR Psychological Association. Another form of cooperation was the organization of scientific conferences with international participation in the GDR, to which colleagues from the FRG were also invited. A further means consisted of arranging international sessions in the GDR or in other “socialist states” to which colleagues from the FRG were also invited. Examples included the Ostseesymposien (Baltic Sea Symposia) arranged at the GDR’s initiative and the Treffen der Psychologen aus den Donauländern (Meeting of Psychologists from Danube River Countries) initiated by psychologists from Czechoslovakia, Austria, and FRG. Conferences solely between the two Germanys were not permitted. These would have been counter to the GDR’s policy of separation.

Discontinuities and continuities in the development of psychology in the two German States (FRG and GDR): 1961–1990

During the 1960s and 1970s, a generational change took place among psychologists in both German states. The new generation in both states was especially cognizant of developments in the USA. Many psychologists from the FRG went to the USA for additional study while they were students or assistants. In the GDR, psychologists learned about developments in the Soviet Union as well as those in the USA. A few GDR psychologists had studied in the Soviet Union or gone there for additional coursework. The new generation of students from both states also reconnected more strongly with the experimental tradition of 19th-century German psychology. Among the consequences of this for science policy was the founding of a group parallel to the German Psychological Association: the Psychologists Working Experimentally. They conducted their first conference in Marburg in 1959. Psychologists who favoured primarily microanalytical investigative strategies—conducted using experimental and mathematical methods—gathered here. Such developments ultimately resulted in a general shift in both research concentrations and the methods used.

What were the concrete manifestations of this shift? During the 1960s and 1970s, new psychological fields emerged and demonstrated their change in contents and methods by their terminologies. In book titles, conference programmes, and professional journals, they turned up as information psychology, cognitive psychology, biopsychology, cybernetic psychology, psychology of action control (Handlungspsychologie), or the psychology of action. Beyond this, old areas were reworked on the basis of new theories and methods. These included developmental psychology, personality psychology, psychodiagnostics, differential psychology, social psychology, and psychophysics. New areas of instruction appeared in curricula under headings such as test theory, multivariate statistics, methodology, mathematical psychology, and evaluation and research methods. In the 1960s and 1970s, but most of all in the 1980s, new keywords appearing under the heading of applied psychology illustrated how many new fields of praxis it had ventured into. Traffic psychology, media psychology, leisure psychology, political psychology, ecological psychology, engineering psychology, and organizational psychology were among the examples.

During this period, however, a de-historicization process also took place in many areas of the curriculum. Well into the 1950s, historical chapters had been a standard component in all major teaching programmes. The step by step institutionalization of psychological historiography began around this time as well. Conferences on the history of psychology were conducted more often, working groups on the history of psychology formed, more historiographic publications appeared, national organizations for the history of psychology were founded, and so on.

During the 1970s, there were great political and scientific changes in both German states. These had a positive effect on the further institutionalization and professionalization of psychology. Examples of developments in the Federal Republic of Germany were as follows.

1. The establishment of new colleges and universities, where new institutes of psychology were opened—more than 40 of them during this period.

2. A considerable increase in the number of psychology students.

3. An increase in the number of psychology positions in both academia and applied fields.

4. More research projects in psychology.

5. An increase in publishing opportunities, with new journals and publishers specializing in the field of psychology.

6. The development of testing centres.

7. The founding of the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research in Munich as part of the Max Planck Society.

Examples of developments in the German Democratic Republic were as follows.

1. The introduction of new educational programmes with enlarged practical components at four institutes as part of the 3rd Reforms in Higher Education (1968–1973). In connection with this, new job descriptions were elaborated for the four major areas of praxis where psychologists were employed: clinical psychology, industrial and engineering psychology, educational psychology, and social psychology.

2. The development of a system of postgraduate education for certified psychologists. This augmented diploma studies with a theoretical and practical course of study lasting several years, resulting in accreditation as “specialist in psychology” (Fachpsychologe). This in turn led to additional fields of specialization within applied psychology.

3. Basic research was fortified by the formation of a working group for experimental psychology under the aegis of the GDR Academy of Sciences.

The development of psychology in united Germany: 1990–2000

After the two German states were unified on 3 October 1990, psychology in the new federal states, that is, in the territory of the former GDR, was newly organized. This was carried out exclusively according to the model of the old federal republic. This new organization process had two very different faces. On one hand, it led to the massive transfer of psychological scholars from the old federal republic to the new federal states within united Germany. Only in scattered cases was there a transfer in the opposite direction. After the unification of the FRG and the GDR, only academic psychologists from the former GDR were evaluated professionally by colleagues from the (old) FRG. Academically employed psychologists from the former GDR were the only ones who had to reapply for their own positions, often without success. The transfer, evaluations, and mandatory new application process for positions already held resulted in the loss of many positions for psychologists from the GDR in united Germany (Vilmar, 2000; cf. also Scheler, 2000). However, a still greater loss of psychology positions was caused by the collapse of numerous research, educational, and praxis establishments in the former GDR during the unification process. Estimates of personnel and institutional losses for all the reasons cited here lie between 60 and 70%. On the other hand, the new organization of psychology in the new federal states was linked with a significant expansion in personnel, facilities, and technology at existing academic institutions and departments of psychology. Also, new institutes and departments were established at new and old academic institutions, for example in Potsdam, Greifswald, Halle-Wittenberg, Rostock, Magdeburg, and Zwickau. A new Max Planck Institute for Psychology was also established, the Max Planck Institute for Neuropsychologic Research in Leipzig. To summarize this aspect of the unification of the two Germanys, it can be said that more was achieved quantitatively and, to a certain extent, qualitatively, during the years from 1990 to 2000 in the part of Germany once called the German Democratic Republic than during the previous 41 years of the GDR’s existence.

If one applies formal criteria for the genesis of a scientific discipline to the development of psychology since the unification of both German states, then the development as a whole can be evaluated very positively at the start of the 21st century.


Modern psychology began in 19th-century Germany according to the scientific model of the experimental natural sciences. This was later augmented by culturally, humanistically, and social historically oriented currents of thought. These developments led to today’s pluralistic system of psychology. At the start of the 21st century, it can be assumed that further professionalization and institutionalization in the field will proceed in three main directions:

  1. an orientation toward fundamental research and cooperation on a multidisciplinary basis;

  2. an expansion of applied psychology; and

  3. an increasingly strong service function for psychology in ever more broadly conceived areas of praxis.



Germany’s geographical borders and its political framework have changed several times during the 19th and 20th centuries. We therefore use the term “Germany” or “German” in the sense in which it was used by the German Psychological Association since its founding as an Association for Experimental Psychology in 1904, that is, for the community of German-speaking psychologists regardless of their place of work or their nationality.


According to the Hallstein Doctrine, any state that maintained diplomatic relations with the FRG would have to reckon with sanctions should it treat the GDR as an independent state.

Thanks are owed to Andrea Lerner MA (Berlin, Germany) for help on the English version.


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© 2001 International Union of Psychological Science
DOI: 10.1080/00207590143000199

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