Bonhoeffer, Karl Ludwig
First name:
Karl Ludwig
19th century
20th century
Field of expertise:
Place of birth:
Neresheim (DEU)
* 31.01.1868
† 04.12.1948
Biography print

German neurologist and psychiatrist with a leaning towards neuropathology.



Karl Ludwig Bonhoeffer (1868-1948) was born in Neresheim in the then Kingdom of Württemberg as the son of a judge. He spent his childhood years in Heilbronn and Ravensburg. After completing his school education in Tübingen, he studied medicine in Tübingen, Berlin and Munich from 1886 to 1892. He held his first position at Breslau University Hospital as an assistant to Carl Wernicke, under whom he also gained the formal qualification for professorship (habilitation) and became director of the forensic department in 1897. Bonhoeffer was appointed a professor at Königsberg University in 1903. He transferred to Heidelberg the following year to become the chair of psychiatry in succession to Emil Kraepelin, but soon returned to Breslau to assume Wernicke’s former post as director of the university clinic, presumably because he preferred the latter’s neuropathological approach over the Kraepelinian tradition upheld in Heidelberg (Schott & Tölle 2006: 227). In 1912, he was appointed chair of psychiatry at Charité Berlin where he remained until becoming emeritus in 1938. Karl Ludwig Bonhoeffer died on 4 December 1948 in Berlin.


Bonhoeffer and his wife Paula (née von Hase) had eight children; two of their sons, Dietrich and Klaus, were actively involved in resistance to the Nazi regime and executed by the Nazis only shortly before the end of the war.


Exogenous types of reaction

Bonhoeffer’s model of “exogenous types of reaction” offered a significant contribution to the psychiatric concept of mental disorder. While his teacher Carl Wernicke assumed that damages to particular brain areas were each associated with their own specific symptoms (such as in Wernicke’s aphasia), Bonhoeffer spoke of “a multiplicity of underlying diseases” with fairly uniform clinical pictures. He concluded that “there are typical forms of mental reaction that are relatively independent of the noxious agent by which they are caused” (1910: 123; our translation). These “typical forms of reaction” referred to clinical pictures such as, for instance, delirium, dementia and amnestic syndrome. Bonhoeffer’s “reaction type” is relevant to the diagnosis of psycho-organic syndromes still today.


During the Nazi era

According to Dirk Blasius (1994: 127), Bonhoeffer was “among the key figures of scientific psychiatry who were drawn into the course of history during the ‘Third Reich’” (our translation). Thomas Beddies (2010: 280) even accuses him of “complicity” in Nazi public health politics due to his interpretation of the 1933 Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring and his approval of forced sterilisations. Bonhoeffer gave training courses on the proper execution of this law (“Erbgesundheitskurse”) and served as a senior consultant to the so-called Genetic Health Court. He is, however, said to have been rather cautious in his assessments. Helmchen (2014: 80) concludes that “his assessments saved individuals from being sterilised in more cases than usual, while he still approved of the measure in other cases” (our translation).


In 1933, Bonhoeffer and his colleague Jörg Zutt were officially in charge of assessing the mental state of the alleged Reichstag arsonist Marinus van der Lubbe. According to their report (published in 1934), the defendant was fit to stand trial and legally accountable for the crime, while independent experts suggested that van der Lubbe may have been mentally disturbed or under the influence of drugs (cf. Pfäfflin 2008; Gerrens 1991; Bahar & Kugel 2001: 485 f.).


Bonhoeffer’s last book, Führerpersönlichkeit und Massenwahn (Führer Personalityand Mass Hysteria), written in 1947 and published in 1968, presents a culturally pessimistic view on fascist ideology and can be considered a self-critical review of his experiences during the 1930s.



Bahar, A., W. Kugel (2001): Der Reichstagsbrand. Wie Geschichte gemacht wird. Berlin: Edition q.

Beddies, T. (2010): Zwangssterilisation und “Euthanasie”. Die Psychiatrische und Nervenklinik der Charité unter Karl Bonhoeffer und Maximilian de Crinis. In: H. Helmchen (ed.): Psychiater und Zeitgeist. Zur Geschichte der Psychiatrie in Berlin. Lengerich: Pabst Science Publishers, pp. 275-287.

Blasius, D. (1994): Einfache Seelenstörung. Geschichte der deutschen Psychiatrie 1800-1945. Frankfurt on the Main: Fischer.

Bonhoeffer, K. (1900): Ein Beitrag zur Kenntnis des großstädtischen Bettel- und Vagabondentums. Eine psychiatrische Untersuchung. In: Zeitschrift für die gesamte Strafrechtswissenschaft 21, (1), pp. 1-65.

Bonhoeffer, K. (1901): Die akuten Geisteskrankheiten der Gewohnheitstrinker. Jena: Fischer.

Bonhoeffer, K. (1908): Zur Frage der Klassifikation der symptomatischen Psychosen. In: Berliner Klinische Wochenschrift 45, (51), pp. 2257-2260.

Bonhoeffer, K. (1909): Zur Frage der exogenen Psychosen. In: Zentralblatt für Nervenheilkunde und Psychiatrie 32, pp. 499-505.

Bonhoeffer, K. (1910): Die symptomatischen Psychosen im Gefolge von akuten Infektionen und Inneren Erkrankungen. Leipzig, Vienna: Deuticke.

Bonhoeffer, K. (1917): Die exogenen Reaktionstypen. In: Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten 58, (1), pp. 58-70.

Bonhoeffer, K., K. Albrecht (eds.) (1934): Die psychiatrischen Aufgaben bei der Ausführung des Gesetzes zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses. Mit einem Anhang, Die Technik der Unfruchtbarmachung. Klinische Vorträge mit erbbiologischem Kurs. Berlin: Karger.

Bonhoeffer, K., K. Albrecht (1936, eds.): Die Erbkrankheiten. Vorträge im 2. erbbiologischen Kurs. Berlin: Karger.

Bonhoeffer, K., J. Zutt (1934): Über den Geisteszustand des Reichstagsbrandstifters Marinus van der Lubbe. In: Monatsschrift für Psychiatrie und Neurologie 89, (4), pp. 185-213.

Bonhoeffer, K. (1940): Die Geschichte der Psychiatrie in der Charité im 19. Jahrhundert. In: Zeitschrift für die gesamte Neurologie und Psychiatrie 168, (1), pp. 37-64.

Bonhoeffer, K. (1947): Führerpersönlichkeit und Massenwahn. Manuskript aus dem Jahre 1947. In: J. Zutt, , E. Straus, H. Scheller (eds.): Karl Bonhoeffer zum 100. Geburtstag. Berlin: Springer 1969, pp. 108-114.

Bonhoeffer, K. (1941): Lebenserinnerungen. Geschrieben für die Familie. In: J. Zutt, , E. Straus, H. Scheller (eds.): Karl Bonhoeffer zum 100. Geburtstag. Berlin: Springer 1969, pp. 8-107.

Bürgy, M. (2009): Zur Geschichte und Phänomenologie des Psychose-Begriffs. Eine Heidelberger Perspektive (1913-2008). In: Der Nervenarzt 80, (5), pp. 584-592.

Gerrens, U. (1991): Zum Karl-Bonhoeffer-Gutachten vom 30. März 1933 im Reichstagsbrandprozess. In: D. Unverhau (ed.): Berlin in Geschichte und Gegenwart, pp. 45-116.

Gerrens, U. (2005): Medizinisches Ethos und theologische Ethik: Karl und Dietrich Bonhoeffer in der Auseinandersetzung um Zwangssterilisation und “Euthanasie” im Nationalsozialismus. Munich: Oldenbourg.

Gestrich, C., J. Neugebauer (eds.) (2006): Der Wert menschlichen Lebens: Medizinische Ethik bei Dietrich Bonhoeffer und Karl Bonhoeffer. Berlin: Wichern.

Helmchen, H. (2014): Bonhoeffers Position zur Sterilisation psychisch Kranker. In: Der Nervenarzt 86, (1), pp. 77-82.

Scheller, H. (1968): Karl Bonhoeffer, 1868 - 1948. In: Archiv für Psychiatrie und Zeitschrift für die gesamte Neurologie 211, pp. 234-240.

Pfäfflin, F. (2008): Zur Aufhebung des Todesurteils gegen den Reichstagsbrandstifter Marinus van der Lubbe. In: Recht & Psychiatrie 26, pp. 106-118.

Neumärker, K.-J. (2001): Bonhoeffer und seine Schüler. In: R. Holdorff, B. Wienau (eds.): Geschichte der Neurologie in Berlin. Berlin, New York: de Gruyter, S. 175-193.

Schott, H., R. Tölle (2006): Geschichte der Psychiatrie. Munich: Beck.


Julian Schwarz


Photo: anonym / Source: Wikimedia / [public domain]. 


Referencing format
Julian Schwarz (2015): Bonhoeffer, Karl Ludwig.
In: Biographisches Archiv der Psychiatrie.
(retrieved on:17.04.2024)