Nostalgia: paradises lost and the strength of recruits

Oswald Klingler


In the course of history, endurance reactions of male soldiers, and lately of female soldiers as well, have arrested varying, but as a whole increasing, attention as both a human and a military problem. While recently the ÖMZ reported on the general dealing with such endurance reactions, now the issue of a special, originally as “Nostalgia” termed phenomenon is to be addressed in more detail. Even if this phenomenon perhaps has been overestimated so far, it ought not to be underestimated in its present relevance, in as much as it shows the limitations of adaptability and the ability to cope with strain by man, thus representing an antithesis to the desires and yearnings of some military theorists.

The first medical assessment of a soldierly endurance reaction which must pass for Nostalgia is that which the Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer elevated into the status of an illness in his dissertation in 1688 – homesickness (nostalgia). It had been known as “Swiss Sickness” as a problem earlier already, considered to be a serious danger for the normally very cherished fitness to fight of Swiss mercenaries. An epidemic occurrence of the disorder was reported later, especially among the Napoleonic troops and during the American Civil War, when nostalgia had been the most frequent reason for losses such as secondary diseases, hospitalisations, repatriations, and suicides. On the other hand, during the World Wars, in comparison to the much more palpable disorders like “shell shocks” and “war tremor”, the “silent” nostalgia hardly found any attention. In contrast to the notorious post-traumatic stress disorder, it is not regarded a proper disorder in international diagnosis systems. According to the International Classification of Diseases, today it is supposed to be denoted one of many possible adaption disorders, in the sense of a disturbed adaptation to living conditions, characterized by respective depressive or dysphoric malaise and psycho-vegetative reactions. Even among recruits consulting the psychological services of the Austrian Armed Forces, reactions to homesickness represent the commonest problems. Their character and peculiarities show that currently among recruits considered fit for military service a considerable number lacks sufficient ability to cope with the strain of military service with the corresponding training.