Geoff Cocks' New Book: History's Tools, Historian's Expertise Fully Utilized

Geoff Cocks previously authored Psychotherapy in the Third Reich.Geoff Cocks previously authored Psychotherapy in the Third Reich.Historians have held to the assumption that Nazi Germany built a society where individualism was stamped out because everyone in the "master race" was subordinated to the collective "racial community." While the racial community was a reality, Albion College history professor Geoff Cocks argues the individuals still looked out for their own material interests and that this was exhibited most significantly in the way Germans were concerned about their health.

Cocks used all of the skills he has developed as a historian to assemble first-person accounts—like a two-volume diary by Victor Klemperer, novels by Christa Wolf and Hans Fallada, and archival documents from Europe, the United States, and Israel—to complete his new book, The State of Health: Illness in Nazi Germany. The book was published by the Oxford University Press in the United Kingdom in January and will be released in the United States this spring.

"After losing the First World War, Germany entered a period of great economic uncertainty as well as psychological and physical suffering. There was an increasing concern about illness and disability, and the government becomes involved," said Cocks, who previously authored Psychotherapy in the Third Reich. "The Nazis made a big deal about how health has to be conceived in racial terms. It was people's duty to be healthy so they could fight against unhealthy races like the Jews, who the Nazis decreed are not just an unhealthy race but in fact a disease organism.

"The Nazis didn't manage to destroy the modern tradition of people thinking in terms of their individual selves and their needs, especially when it came to health and illness," he added. "One of the great continuities in modern German history through the Third Reich is the role of individuals looking out for individual material interest. Everyone was raised in an environment of mass consumption where individuals satisfied their needs and that didn't go away under Nazi Germany. It just got harder to do."

Cocks added the suffering brought on by the war increased individuals' desire to access and hoard medical resources in particular.

By weaving the firsthand accounts and regional health reports, Cocks found trends of what individuals were doing to maintain their health, including the widespread use of prescription drugs.

"This book is a history of not just the incidence of illness but rather of the experience of illness within social, medical, and discursive spaces where people try to manage their lives," Cocks said. "Germany—long before the Nazis came to power—had the most highly advanced pharmaceutical industry in the world. There were lots of drugs in the German market and there continued to be through the Third Reich. Drugs were a major concern of people—getting drugs, using drugs, suffering from the shortage of getting drugs."

The topic of health, it turns out, was ubiquitous in Nazi Germany.

"The Nazis made the matter of racial health and regular health a matter of constant conversation as well as negotiation," Cocks said. "People worried about health because the Nazis were saying, 'You're all great Aryans, that means there are certain standards and you have to stay healthy.' While the Nazis were brutal to their enemies, they had to cultivate as well as discipline their own people to be soldiers and workers."

Cocks said the book, which was edited down to about 150,000 words, was the result of research that started in the 1980s; he wrote the book during a sabbatical he took a couple of years ago. Patience was essential as he fought the temptation to jump to a conclusion while gathering and analyzing the voluminous material.

His overarching hope is that he has successfully combined several of the various methods of analyzing history.

"I really enjoyed writing it because it all fell together," Cocks said. "I had been thinking about it so long that it actually became clearer when I left it alone instead of concentrating on it all the time. It's the best thing I've ever done.

“I hope historians will say it is a book that synthesizes and takes in new directions all of the recent best research. One of the things about writing it over this long period was that the field of German history and history of the Third Reich has gone through various fads of emphasizing certain things in what it means to write good history. We've recently reached a new synthesis of using all these different approaches toward history. I use all the major varieties of history developed since the Second World War and I have combined these methods—the use of psychoanalysis and traditional social and political history—which have often been at war with one another. I like to think we—and I—are doing total history now."