How Salinger’s Nervous Breakdown Twisted His View of Nazis
Following his visit to a concentration camp, J.D. Salinger suffered a mental collapse related to PTSD. He thereafter entertained very odd ideas about the Nazis and the US Army.
My new book J.D. Salinger and the Nazis deals with Salinger’s changing attitude toward the Nazis as expressed in his fiction, letters, and conversations between his first story (1940) and The Catcher in the Rye (1951). That attitude changed from initial unconcern about the Nazis, toward a gung-ho “Kill the Nazis” attitude, and from there to a final non-judgmental stance. The first signs of that non-judgmental attitude begin to appear in his fiction shortly after D-Day. Eventually Salinger started to be less critical toward the Nazis than toward the U.S. Army. Ernest Hemingway wrote that Salinger told him, “he hated the Army and the war.”
A week after the end of the war in Europe in 1945, Salinger had a nervous breakdown and wrote an unhinged letter describing his attitude toward the U.S. Army as being “edgy with treason” and calling the war “a tricky, dreary farce.” His breakdown also seems to have caused a change in his personality. How else to explain that he saw nothing wrong with bringing home a German war bride to live with him in the home of his Jewish parents? The most telling sign of his conflicted attitude toward the Nazis is the fact that there is only a one-sentence reference to a concentration camp in his fiction. In short, Salinger all but ignored the Holocaust.
A week after the end of the war, J.D. Salinger suffered a mental collapse. But it took him two months, until July 1945, to seek help in the psychiatric ward of a civilian hospital. He mentions his nervous breakdown in a letter he wrote to Ernest Hemingway from that hospital, and in “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor” he describes the symptoms of the nervous breakdown that the CIC agent Sergeant X suffers.
It is widely assumed that Salinger’s nervous breakdown was a case of combat fatigue or shell shock. But Salinger was not a combat soldier. Also, he did not suffer his breakdown immediately after a life-threatening event but after the end of the war. Moreover Salinger uses the term nervous breakdown and not combat fatigue in his story about his alter ego Sergeant X.
Combat fatigue was fairly common among the soldiers of Salinger’s Twelfth Infantry Regiment. For instance, in the combat history of the regiment, Colonel Gerden Johnson reports that after the Battle of Mortain in France “there were many cases of combat fatigue even among our older men.” And when war correspondent Ernie Pyle described the aftermath of the air force’s accidental bombing of American troops at Saint-Lô, he mentioned that the Eighth Infantry Regiment—the outfit Salinger landed with in Normandy—had been hit especially hard by the bombing: “Their casualties, including casualties in shock, were heavy. Men went to pieces and had to be sent back.”
Salinger himself describes a case of “Battle Fatigue” (he spells it with capital letters) in his unpublished story “The Magic Foxhole.” The story is about Lewis Gardner, a former lawyer, whose mind cracks during a two-day battle in which most of the men of his company were killed.
The main symptom of Gardner’s nervous breakdown is a recurring hallucination. In a “magic foxhole,” he claims to have met his as-yet-unborn son who is now 20 years old and is fighting in a war of the future. Two other symptoms of his nervous breakdown are that Gardner moves as though he is partially paralyzed and he looks as gray as a corpse. When he is evacuated to a field hospital on Utah Beach, he doesn’t want to lie down on a stretcher but stands there like a statue holding on to a pole that the medics stick in the sand for him.
The cases of battle fatigue described by Colonel Johnson, Ernie Pyle, and Salinger have two things in common: the nervous breakdowns occurred immediately after the soldiers experienced life-threatening situations, and these breakdowns made the men unable to fight. What was called battle fatigue or shell shock in World War II is now officially called acute stress disorder. It is an acute condition because it sets in immediately or very soon after a traumatic event.
A publication of the Committee on Gulf War and Health explains that if there is “a delayed onset of the symptoms” of acute stress disorder or “if the symptoms persist beyond a month, the person might meet the criteria for PTSD [posttraumatic stress disorder].” This publication further states that “most people who have PTSD also have other psychiatric disorders, such as major depressive disorders.” And the book that most psychiatrists regard as their bible, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, mentions that the traumas suffered by individuals with PTSD “include, but are not limited to, exposure to war as a combatant or civilian” and “witnessing atrocities.”
Salinger’s nervous breakdown did not occur immediately after D-Day, nor after one of the other times he came under fire, nor immediately after his traumatic visit to the Kaufering concentration camp. This makes it a likely case of PTSD, especially since Salinger himself mentions “despondency” as one of its symptoms. And as I will explain later, even more severe effects of Salinger’s PTSD were two related personality disorders.
In his letter to Hemingway, Salinger says that his nervous breakdown made him turn to “a General Hospital in Nuremberg.” Because in 1945 no other hospital in Nuremberg had a psychiatric clinic, that hospital must have been the Klinikum Nord, then called the Allgemeines Städtisches Krankenhaus, the Municipal General Hospital. (By the way, this Nuremberg hospital happens to be where I was born six years before Salinger was treated there).
In July 1945, two months after the end of the war, Dr. Ulrich Fleck, a prominent Nazi, still remained director of the psychiatric clinic at this Nuremberg hospital. Dr. Fleck’s file in the Nuremberg city archive shows that he had been a Sturmbannarzt (storm trooper doctor) of the paramilitary SA from 1933 to 1934 and a member of the Nazi Party from 1937 to 1945. In addition, he had been a member of several other Nazi organizations, including one that was affiliated with the SS. And a who’s who of important people in the Third Reich quotes the following statement from a letter Fleck wrote to a colleague in 1940: “It is true after all, with some patients who have been retarded since birth one thinks again and again it would almost be more humane to end their lives.” Here it seems that Fleck is advocating Hitler’s euthanasia program, which ordered doctors to administer “mercy deaths” to the incurably sick.
Because Fleck must have been on the CIC’s “Automatic Arrest” list, Salinger should have arrested him, but he didn’t. The CIC finally took Fleck into custody on September 3, 1945, two months after Salinger had been a patient at his clinic. As soon as Fleck was gone, the clinic removed his portrait from the gallery of previous directors on the walls of the central staircase.
I visited the Nuremberg hospital with Anthony Savini, a camera operator for Shane Salerno’s movie Salinger, and I interviewed the current head of psychiatry, Dr. Bernhard Jahn. Jahn told me that Haus 31, the building in which the psychiatric clinic is located, had changed very little since 1945, except that Fleck’s portrait had been removed and so had the bars from most of the windows of the patients’ rooms. Jahn could not confirm that Salinger had been a patient at his clinic because the hospital keeps its patients’ records for only 50 years. He was pleased when I told him that I had proof that Salinger was treated there because in a letter to Hemingway he discussed his interaction with one of the clinic’s psychiatrists.
In his letter to Hemingway, Salinger explained why he checked himself into that Nuremberg hospital. He said, “I’ve been in an almost constant state of despondency and I thought it would be good to talk to somebody sane.” Salinger did not tell Hemingway what caused his nervous collapse, but he dropped some hints that point to the U.S. Army as having caused his breakdown. When the German psychiatrist asked him if he liked the army, so Salinger told Hemingway, he answered, “I’ve always liked the Army.” But later in the letter, Salinger reveals that he was kidding when he claimed he liked the Army. He said, “I’d give my right arm to get out of the Army, but not on a psychiatric, this-man-is-not-fit-for-Army-life ticket.” This comment explains why Salinger did not check himself into a U.S. Army hospital. He did not want to risk the stigma of a psychiatric discharge from the army.
Salinger’s deep disaffection for the army is revealed even more clearly in an earlier letter he wrote to his friend Elizabeth Murray. This letter, written five days after the end of the war, reveals that the despondency he told Hemingway about was only a minor symptom of his nervous breakdown. Instead of appearing despondent in that letter, Salinger comes across as angry. Also there is a lunatic quality to the letter that makes me suspect Salinger wrote it right after his nervous collapse.
Near the beginning of the letter, Salinger refers to his “own little war over here” and says that it “will go on for some time.” At first it’s not clear what he meant by his “own little war.” But then Salinger wrote, “My most casual thoughts over here are edgy with treason. It’s a mess Elizabeth. Wonder if you have any idea.” This suggests that his “own little war” was with the U.S. Army.
The next paragraph of the letter explains why Salinger felt his thoughts were treasonous. He said that he was “delighted” that he had missed the VE-Day celebrations in the United States. He was especially happy that he had missed the ticker-tape parade in New York and “the sight of thousands of patriotic garment workers throwing raw woolens out of windows.” And then Salinger explained what he did on the day Germany surrendered: “I celebrated the day wondering what close relatives would think if I fired a .45 slug neatly, but effectively through the palm of my left hand, and how long it would take me to learn to type with what was left of my hand.”
At this point in the letter, we can have no idea why Salinger was not elated by the victory in Europe. His negative attitude toward the VE-Day celebrations seems not only unpatriotic but indeed “edgy with treason.” Actually, the self-mutilation he contemplated would have been an act of treason because it would have landed him in a hospital and would have prevented him from doing his work as a CIC agent.
The next to last paragraph of the letter is even more subversive and more critical of the army than the previous ones. Salinger wrote: “I have three battle participation stars and am due a fourth, and I intend to have them all grafted onto my nostrils, two on each side. What a tricky, dreary farce, and how many men are dead.” This passage shows that Salinger had no regard for the way the army rewards soldiers with medals. This is understandable because as a CIC agent he did not participate in any battles, and yet he was given four battle participation stars. But more important, Salinger ended that passage by calling World War II “a tricky, dreary farce.” I take this to mean that Salinger did not believe that fighting Nazi Germany justified the deaths of so many men.
Now here is the paradox. Salinger’s nervous breakdown was most likely triggered by his visit to the Kaufering concentration camp, the most recent traumatic event in his life. But the sights and smells of the burned corpses there did not convince Salinger that World War II was a “good war” or that the U.S. Army had been fighting an evil of monstrous proportions.
The more I reread Salinger’s crazy May 13, 1945, letter, the more I became convinced that his nervous breakdown was more damaging to his personality than the nervous breakdown of Sergeant X in “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor,” and almost as serious as the nervous breakdown of ex-sergeant Seymour Glass, who commits suicide in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish.”
“For Esmé—with Love and Squalor” is one of Salinger’s two most autobiographical stories. It deals with the nervous breakdown of Sergeant X, a counterintelligence sergeant at the end of World War II. In part one of the story, Sergeant X is being trained for the D-Day invasion at a British military intelligence school in the south of England. Part two takes place after the end of the war, when Sergeant X is part of the Army of Occupation and is stationed in Gaufurt, Bavaria, the fictional counterpart of the small town of Weißenburg, where Salinger was stationed.
Even though Sergeant X’s nervous breakdown is the main topic in “For Esmé—With Love and Squalor,” we do not find out what caused that breakdown. This is because the story skips from a few days before D-Day to a time “several weeks after VE-Day.” But we do learn that Sergeant X’s regiment fought “from D-Day straight through five campaigns of the war.” We also learn that Sergeant X’s jeep driver, Corporal Clay, had his picture taken in the Hürtgen Forest “with a Thanksgiving Turkey in each hand.” The U.S. Army did indeed ship Thanksgiving turkeys to the soldiers in the Hürtgen Forest.
In part two of “For Esmé,” Sergeant X has just returned from a two-week stay at an Army hospital in Frankfurt, Germany. There he has been treated for what the narrator calls a “nervous breakdown” (rather than combat fatigue). Whatever treatment Sergeant X received at the hospital did not help much because upon his return he still feels as if his mind were about “to dislodge itself and teeter, like insecure luggage on an overhead rack,” and when he tries to write, his writing is “almost entirely illegible.” He also feels so nauseated most of the time that he keeps a wastebasket handy to vomit into. And Corporal Clay tells him, “the goddam side of your face is jumping all over the place.”
It is likely that in describing the after-effects of Sergeant X’s nervous breakdown Salinger was drawing on his own experiences. Salinger shared at least one of Sergeant X’s afflictions: the uncontrollable trembling of his hands. In her memoir, Dream Catcher, Margaret Salinger reports that she examined the letters that her father wrote during the spring and summer of 1945 and that his handwriting became “something totally unrecognizable.”
The nervous breakdowns of Sergeant Salinger and Sergeant X illuminate each other. “For Esmé” illustrates the after-effects of the nervous collapse, the feeling of vertigo, the nausea, the facial tic, and the trembling hands. And Salinger’s visit to a concentration camp suggests that his and Sergeant X’s nervous breakdowns were triggered by the harrowing experience of becoming Holocaust witnesses.
Salinger’s concentration camp experience can also shed light on the suicide of Seymour Glass, the central character in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Seymour: An Introduction.” In the latter story we learn that like Salinger, Seymour Glass was a sergeant in the army, served in Europe, and wound up in Germany at the end of the war. In “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” a psychiatrist says about Seymour that “it was a perfect crime the Army released him from the hospital” because there is “a very great chance he said—that Seymour may completely lose control of himself.”
No one who has written about the suicide of Seymour Glass has commented on the unusual length of time—almost three years—that he spent in an army hospital. He killed himself on March 18, 1948, and his brother Buddy Glass mentions in “Seymour: An Introduction” that Seymour returned from Germany on a commercial flight “a week or so” before his suicide. That means Seymour did not come home to the United States until almost three years after the end of the war. Buddy also says that Seymour spent “the last three years of his life both in and out of the Army, but mostly in, well in.” In short, Seymour’s mental illness was so severe that the army psychiatrists did not simply release him with a psychiatric discharge—which is something that Sergeant Salinger was eager to avoid—but decided to keep him “well in.”
Seymour’s extended stay in an army hospital raises the question of what it was that caused his nervous breakdown and mental illness. Unless we assume that Seymour and Sergeant X are the same person (which some Salinger scholars have done), there is no information in Salinger’s fiction about Seymour’s war experiences. Seymour may have been a combat infantryman and may have suffered from combat fatigue like Lewis Gardner in “The Magic Foxhole.” Or he may have been one of the few survivors of a massacre like the one at Malmedy in Belgium, where the SS killed dozens of American prisoners of war. But since none of this happened to Salinger, it makes more sense to assume that Seymour’s nervous breakdown—like Salinger’s—was not caused by combat fatigue but was triggered by the gruesome sights and smells of one of the many concentration camps that the U.S. Army discovered in Germany.
When we consider the horrors that Salinger observed at the Kaufering concentration camp, we would assume that in his fiction he would create characters who unequivocally condemn the Nazis and abhor all things German. But Sergeant X and Seymour Glass never show an antagonistic attitude toward Germany and the Nazis. For example, Sergeant X expresses less contempt for the Nazis than for his American fellow soldiers, and he has great sympathy for a Nazi woman he has to arrest. And in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” Seymour Glass reveals his admiration for German literature when he sends his wife a book of German poems, saying that “the poems happen to be written by the only great poet of the century.” Because the poems are in German, Seymour tells his wife that she “should’ve bought a translation or something. Or learned the language.”
If Sergeant X and Seymour Glass are indeed Holocaust witnesses like Salinger, then their nonjudgmental attitude toward the Nazis is as perplexing as Salinger’s. In trying to understand this paradox, I keep coming back to Salinger’s nervous breakdown.
Salinger’s May 13, 1945, letter to Elizabeth Murray shows that his nervous collapse had a more profound effect on his mind than mere despondency¾that it impaired his judgment and his rationality. The letter does not mention his concentration camp experience, but it suggests two additional reasons for his nervous breakdown.
Salinger hints at one of these two additional reasons when he says the war is “a tricky, dreary farce, and how many men are dead.” I believe that he is here referring to the many corpses of combat soldiers he saw every time after a battle when he and the other field agents of his CIC detachment had to collect information from abandoned Wehrmacht command posts and from dead German soldiers.
The sights Salinger saw while doing his work are described by Colonel Gerden Johnson, the historian of Salinger’s Twelfth Infantry Regiment. Here is what Johnson said about the aftermath of the battle near Longueville in Normandy: “The carnage was frightful and the enemy dead lay in heaps about their shattered vehicles... The next morning it took three two-and-one-half ton trucks to remove all the German bodies.”
But often Salinger saw just as many dead Americans as Germans. For instance, during the battle for Saint-Lô—one of the worst battles Salinger’s Twelfth Regiment fought—the number of American casualties was horrific. In that one-week battle, the U.S. Army suffered five thousand casualties including twelve hundred dead.
To face the battlefield carnage, Salinger and the other field agents of his CIC detachment had to develop a mental mechanism that allowed them to cope. This belief of mine is corroborated by the war historian Paul Fussell, himself a veteran of D-Day and of the fighting in Normandy. In his autobiography, Doing Battle, Fussell writes: “Before we’d finished in Europe, we’d seen hundreds of dead bodies, GIs as well as Germans, civilians as well as soldiers, officers as well as enlisted men, together with ample children. We learned that no infantry-man can survive psychologically very long unless he’s mastered the principle that the dead don’t know what they look like. The soldier smiling is not smiling, the man whose mouth drips blood doesn’t know what he’s doing, the man with half his skull blown away and his brain oozing onto the ground thinks he still looks O.K. And the man whose cold eyes stare at you as if expressing a grievance is not doing that. He is elsewhere. The bodies are props on a set, and one must know that their meaning now is that they are props, nothing more.”
But unlike Paul Fussell, who did not blank out the horrific images of death but reinterpreted them, Salinger seems to have adopted a coping strategy of avoidance. That is, he seems to have worked hard to avoid thinking of the thousands of corpses he saw while doing his work as a CIC agent, and especially to avoid thinking of the burned bodies he saw and smelled at the Kaufering concentration camp.
The disturbed letter Salinger wrote less than a week after the end of the war points to one more reason for his nervous breakdown. Salinger refers to that reason when he talks about his “own little war.” The context of the letter and a comment he made to Hemingway suggest that this is a reference to his adversarial feelings toward the U.S. Army. I believe that the reason why Salinger hated the war and the army was his anger at the military leaders who caused the thousands of unnecessary American casualties at Slapton Sands, Saint-Lô, and the Hürtgen Forest. It seems, then, that the sights and smells of the charred corpses at the Kaufering concentration camp were not the only causes for Salinger’s nervous breakdown but only the trigger that set it off.
More important than the causes of Salinger’s nervous collapse are its effects on his mind. As his reference to the war as a “tricky, dreary farce” shows, the nervous breakdown impaired his judgment. There is arguably something wrong with the judgment of a World War II soldier who dislikes the U.S. Army more than he does the Nazis and who sees nothing wrong in bringing a German wife home to live with him in the household of his Jewish family. This was more than bad judgment. Salinger’s family must have felt that he had undergone a personality change.
A number of studies have established that posttraumatic stress disorder can result in personality changes. One of these studies is titled “Personality Disorders in Treatment-Seeking Combat Veterans with Posttraumatic Stress Disorder.” The authors of this study conclude that “chronic war-related PTSD is often accompanied by diffuse, debilitating, enduring impairment in character.” This impairment frequently takes the form of an avoidant personality disorder or a borderline personality disorder. Salinger seems to have experienced both.
With Salinger, the more pronounced of the two disorders appears to be the avoidant kind. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, one of the essential features of avoidant personality disorder is “hypersensitivity to negative evaluation.” Individuals with this disorder “avoid making new friends unless they are certain they will be liked and accepted without criticism… If someone is even slightly disapproving or critical, they may feel extremely hurt.” As a result, “these individuals may become relatively isolated.” Salinger’s decision to stop publishing and to hide from the public in rural New Hampshire can therefore be explained as a result of his hypersensitivity to criticism. His sister, Doris, has confirmed this notion. She said: “Not publishing all these years. What a crazy business. It’s because he can’t stand any criticism.”
In addition to an avoidant personality disorder, Salinger also seems to have been afflicted with a borderline personality disorder. Despite its name, borderline personality disorders do not hover on a borderline between two other psychiatric disorders but have their own unique set of symptoms. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the most prominent symptom of borderline personality disorders is “a pattern of unstable and intense personal relationships characterized by alternating between extremes of idealization and devaluation.” Other symptoms are “co-occuring depressive disorders.”
Salinger himself has mentioned depression as one of the symptoms of his nervous breakdown. And his relationships with women that Shane Salerno documents in his 2013 book and movie about Salinger show that shifts from idealization to devaluation were a definite pattern in Salinger’s attitude toward females.
Excerpted from J.D. Salinger and the Nazis by Eberhard Alsen. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2018 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.