A house in Darmstadt destroyed by an Allied bombing raid.

Experiencing traumatic events may be associated with greater mental resilience among residents rather than causing widespread angst, suggests a study published this week that investigated the effect of World War II bombing on the mental health of citizens in German cities.

Maybe this stereotype of ‘German Angst’ isn’t entirely valid

Jason Rentfrow

Germans have been stereotyped as being industrious and punctual, but also as being more likely to be anxious and worried, a phenomenon described as ‘German Angst’. Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, widely regarded as one of Germany’s leading post-war intellectuals, once claimed, “The Germans have a tendency to be afraid. This has been part of their consciousness since the end of the Nazi period and the war”.

This personality type is characterised by high levels of neurotic personality traits (more likely to be in a negative emotional state), as opposed to traits of openness, agreeableness, extraversion, or conscientiousness, which together make up the ‘Big Five’ personality traits. It has been suggested that the heavy bombing of German cities in World War II, and the resulting destruction and trauma experienced by residents, may have been a contributory factor in this proposed higher incidence of neurotic traits.

In a study published this week in European Journal of Personality, an international team of researchers from the UK, Germany, USA, and Australia, analysed the neurotic personality traits and mental health of over 33,500 individuals across 89 regional German cities that experienced wartime bombing, and investigated whether people in cities that experienced higher levels of bombing were more likely to display neurotic traits. The researchers measured neurotic traits using the Big Five Inventory personality test as part of an online questionnaire, and focused on measures of neuroticism, anxiety, and depression.

“If the idea of ‘German Angst’ is true, then we’d expect people from cities that were heavily bombed during the war to be more anxious and less resilient to new stresses such as economic hardship,” says study author Dr Jason Rentfrow from the Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge. “Ours is the first study to investigate this link.”

The researchers found that in fact, residents of heavily bombed cities were less likely to display neurotic traits, suggesting that wartime bombing is not a factor in German Angst. The results indicate that residents of heavily bombed German cities instead recorded higher levels of mental resilience and were better able to cope in times of stress.

“We’ve seen from other studies that when people experience difficulties in life, these can provide them with a broader perspective on things and perhaps make more trivial stresses seem unimportant,” explains Dr Rentfrow. “It’s possible that this is what we are seeing here.”

The researchers also looked at how Germany compared to 107 other countries for neurotic traits, to see whether there really was evidence of ‘German Angst’. They found that Germany ranks 20th, 31st, and 53rd for depression, anxiety, and neuroticism respectively. Additionally, other countries that have experienced significant trauma due to warfare, such as Japan, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, also did not score highly for neurotic traits, further suggesting that such traumatic events are not associated with increased neuroticism.

“Germany didn’t stand out as high in anything resembling angst compared with other countries, which suggests that maybe this stereotype of ‘German Angst’ isn’t entirely valid,” says Dr Rentfrow. “Clearly we need to be careful about national stereotypes.”

The researchers emphasise that their findings show only an association, and that this data does not show whether more severe bombing caused greater mental resilience, or whether other factors were at play.

Although this research may have implications for other war-torn countries, including the current situation in Syria cities, the study did not investigate potential neuroticism or resilience in these countries, so no wider conclusions can be drawn from this data.

Study participants filled out online questionnaires provided by the global Gosling-Potter Internet Project, including 44 questions to assess their personality and mental state. Of the sample, just under 60% were female and the mean age was 30 years old. Almost all (96%) of the respondents were White/Caucasian while just under one in three (30%) had a bachelor’s degree or higher, and overall the sample was broadly representative of the populations of the cities assessed. Although the researchers tried to control for the movement of people between different cities, there were limitations with the data available from the online survey and so this movement may have affected the results.

The data also could not tell whether increased resilience was associated with a recent event, or whether it was associated with an event from many years or even decades ago. However, there is broader literature to support the notion of traumas increasing resilience in individuals, and more research in this area would shed further light on the relationship and potential mechanisms at play. 

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