CfP: War and Illness: Experiences and Patterns of Cultural Interpretation from Antiquity to the Present

Location: Aachen
Date: Thursday, 26 September–Saturday, 28 September 2019

Oganized by Arbeitskreis Militärgeschichte e.V. in cooperation with the Institute for the History, Theory, and Ethics of Medicine at the Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule Aachen

Oganizing committee: Gundula Gahlen (FU Berlin) / Dominik Groß (RWTH Aachen) / Ulrike Ludwig (GU Frankfurt am Main) / Mathias Schmidt (RWTH Aachen) / Jens Westemeier (RWTH Aachen

War brings not only death, but also illness. The experience of battle and the confrontation with violence, death, and injury take a heavy physical and psychological toll. Hunger and epidemic are conflict’s constant companions. Yet the illnesses that follow from war have been subject to significant change. This is due not only to the continually changing nature of war, but also to culturally varying definitions of illness. Illnesses have never been purely bodily, anthropologically stable phenomena, but always conditioned by social and cultural values and contextualizations.

The link between war and illness has rarely been comparatively investigated across historical periods. This conference thus seeks to offer a forum for current research on the subject and to sound out its limits and possibilities. It considers all physical or psychological phenomena that were labeled or treated as illnesses, and that were believed to be connected to war, whether they were understood as ‘war illnesses’ in a strict sense (e.g., as the result of the experience of war, as in the case of shell shock or war wounds) or as common concomitants of war (e.g. epidemics). We hope, in the course of multi- and interdisciplinary discussions, to tease out continuities, ruptures, and shifts in this history, as well as to develop new perspectives on the connection between war and illness.

In order to focus and structure the discussion, we ask for contributions in the following three thematic areas:

1. Concepts and frames, limits and possibilities of communication about war and illness across time. Rather than attempt to retroactively diagnose, we wish to illuminate and compare culturally and historically determined conditions of illness and the language used to describe them. Which cultural codes, symbolic transformations, mental-historical foundations, and discursive contexts can be identified? How and in what contexts were the sensations, symptoms, and behaviors of illness described, interpreted, and re-interpreted? What were the limits of public utterances on and demonstrations of illness? When and how did these limits change, and why? How does the language around illness differ across historical and cultural contexts?

2. The significance of illness to the (military and civilian) participants of war. How did the fear or endurance of illness influence the expectations, experience, and memory of war? When did fear cripple or disrupt the readiness for war? What forms of self- and professional help were employed to protect participants either before or during the war, or to restore their health afterwards? How was the suffering and treatment of illness experienced and remembered? In this context, the question of the long-term effects of war illnesses is also interesting. Papers investigating the role of illness in individual and collective memories of war would be welcome, as would papers analyzing societal approaches to people who suffered from chronic illnesses ‘acquired’ during war.

3. Connections between illness and injury, salvation and healing. This includes considerations of medical care in the military, but also magical or religious methods of healing. How did sanitary conditions and military hospitals develop, and what was their relationship to alternative medicines? What impact did war have as a ‘medical laboratory’ on the development of medicine and the position of doctors? And what self-image and reputation did healers, doctors, caregivers, and other medical professionals – who served both as ‘saviors’ and as instruments of war – cultivate?

We welcome papers on a variety of eras with a military and/or medical-historical focus. In addition to empirical case studies, we also strongly encourage more theoretically oriented papers that demonstrate the potential of different methodological-theoretical approaches and concepts, or thematic comparative studies spanning multiple historical periods.

Please send proposals (up to one page) and biographical information (up to two pages) to Gundula Gahlen ( by 31 July 2018.