Ricciardi-von Platen, Alice
Ricciardi von Platen
First name:
20th century
21st century
Field of expertise:
Place of birth:
* 28.04.1910
† 23.02.2008
Biography print

German-Italian psychoanalyst and psychiatrist


Alice Ricciardi-von Platen (1910–2008), née Countess von Platen-Hallermund, was born on 28 April 1910 on the Weissenhaus estate in Holstein as the youngest of the three daughters of Count Carl Julius Erasmus von Platen-Hallermund (1870–1919) and his wife, Elisabeth Karoline Friederike von Alten (1875–1970) (Köttgen 2008: 40). She spent her childhood moving between the family estate, England, Saint Petersburg, The Hague and Berlin. After the premature death of her father, she attended the newly founded boarding school Schloss Salem from 1922/23 (Schlüter 2012: 8). The school’s headmaster, Kurt Hahn (1886–1974), advocated the principles of progressive education and of learning democracy and responsibility. For someone who had experienced a rather volatile childhood, the boarding school offered ideals, role models, and reliable structures in a community (Schlüter 2012: 42). During her time at Schloss Salem, young Alice once visited the psychiatric asylum in Reichenau on an excursion. She also made friends with Golo Mann (1909–1994) and Marion Gräfin Dönhoff (1901–2002).


Medical school and exile in Italy

Alice von Platen-Hallermund graduated from school in March 1928, lived in Berlin until the beginning of 1929, and then studied medicine in Heidelberg, Munich, Freiburg, and Königsberg. She completed her practical year at the Oskar Ziethen municipal hospital in Berlin-Lichterfelde, graduated from medical school in Munich in June 1934, and received her license to practice medicine in February 1936. On 3 June 1935, she started working at the regional asylum in Potsdam, the director of which was the child and youth psychiatrist Hans Heinze (1985–1983), who later played a decisive role in “euthanasia” measures. Appalled by the treatment of patients there, she reported sick and returned to Munich from where she resigned her Berlin post once she had received her license to practice (Weindling 2003: 81 f.). 


She lived in Florence until 1939, then in Rome until 1940. There she became associated with circles of intellectual artists. During the same time, she spent weeks in Munich to make up for missing internships (Schlüter 2012: 76) and completed her doctorate in Berlin with a thesis on nutritive allergies (von Platen-Hallermund 1938). In 1940, she started a relationship with Ernst Homann-Wedeking (1908–2002), an archeologist whom she had met at the house of his colleague Ludwig Curtius (1874–1954). Although she became pregnant, marrying Homann-Wedeking was out of the question as he was not of aristocratic descent. She gave birth to her son, Georg Ernst von Platen-Hallermund (1941–2009), in Radolfzell on Lake Constance before initially returning to Munich. Since she preferred to provide for herself and her son independently, she worked as a country doctor between 1942 and 1945, first in Bavaria and then in Upper Austria. In the course of this work, she learned about the systematic killing of patients at the Hartheim euthanasia center and about transports to Mauthausen concentration camp (Sörgel 1996: 1).


Post-war period and the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial

After the end of the war, von Platen-Hallermund worked as a voluntary assistant to Viktor von Weizsäcker (1886–1957) at Heidelberg University’s psychosomatic clinic (Ricciardi-von Platen 2008: 58). On Weizsäcker’s recommendation, his assistant Alexander Mitscherlich (1908–1982) appointed her to the committee to observe the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial on behalf of the German medical associations between December 1946 and August 1947 (Weindling 2001: 326). The Doctors’ Trial was the first of the so-called “Subsequent Nuremberg Trials” following the International Military Tribunal against the major war criminals of Nazi Germany. One of the main charges brought up by the US Military Tribunal against the twenty leading doctors (including seven SS doctors) and three high-ranking officials was “crimes against humanity”.


The members of the medical committee were Alexander Mitscherlich as its head, the Heidelberg physician Wolfgang G. Benstz (born 1914), Alice von Platen-Hallermund, the medical student Fred Mielke (1922–1959), the neurologist Wolfgang Spamer and the physican Friedrich Jensen (Peter 1998: 58; 2015: 32). Spamer and Jensen resigned from the committee at the beginning of 1947. From 15 February 1947, the group consisted of Mitscherlich, von Platen-Hallermund, and Mielke as the permanent team. Von Platen-Hallermund was present on all days of the trial, but when the sentences were announced against the 23 defendants, Mielke was the observer committee’s only representative in the court room (Schlüter 2012: 146). In the verdict of 20 August 1947, the court handed down seven death sentences (Karl Brandt, Rudolf Brandt, Viktor Brack, Karl Gebhardt, Joachim Mrugowsky, Wolfgang Sievers, Waldemar Hoven), nine prison sentences (lifetime: Siegfried Handloser, Karl Grenzken, Gerhard Rose, Fritz Fischer, Oskar Schröder; 20 years: Hermann Becker-Freyseng; 15 years: Wilhelm Beiglböck; 10 years: Herta Oberheuser, Helmut Poppendick) and seven acquittals (Paul Rostock, Konrad Schäfer, Wolfgang Romberg, Siegfried Ruff, Georg August Weltz, Kurt Blome, Adolf Pokorny) (cf. von Platen-Hallermund 1948: 48).


Von Platen- Hallermund also observed the so-called Euthanasia Trials, held at the Frankfurt high court between 1947 and 1948. In January 1947, for example, she attended the so-called Kalmenhof trial and the Hadamar trial (Weindling 2001: 328).


Publications: The Killing of the Mentally Ill in Germany

In Nuremberg, Alice von Platen-Hallermund contacted the sociologist and writer Eugen Kogon (1903–1987), a survivor of Buchenwald concentration camp, who had testified as a prosecution witness at the Doctors’ Trial about typhus experiments at Buchenwald (Sörgel 1996: 2). When she analyzed the medical crimes on her own and wanted to publish her findings independently, she got into fierce conflict with Mitscherlich, who planned for a publication under his name. He reminded her that she was working under his direction and threatened to replace her on the committee with someone else: “As far as literary use is concerned, I would like to remind you that you did the work on my behalf and were paid for it by the medical commission. I was already wondering the other day about your single-handed negotiations with Kogon” (letter of Mitscherlich to von Platen-Hallermund, 27 October 1947, AMA II 2/115.4, in Weindling 2003: 81 f.; translated from German). On 7 December 1947, von Platen-Hallermund submitted the finished manuscript of her report to Mitscherlich and was able to send her text, proofread and approved by him, for final editing still before Christmas.


Kogon had been the co-editor of the Frankfurter Hefte since 1946, a journal seeking to provide a platform for the democratization of Germany. This journal published von Platen-Hallermund’s book Die Tötung Geisteskranker in Deutschland [The Killing of the Mentally Ill in Germany] in July 1948 in an edition of 3,000 copies. Most of these copies, however, disappeared from public circulation, and only around twenty of them were preserved in libraries. The medical press, like the German press in general, showed little interest in reports on the Doctors’ Trial (Sörgel 1996: 2), which led von Platen-Hallermund to conclude that “… the medical journals seem rather reluctant to provide space for such unpleasant reports” (letter of von Platen-Hallermund to Mitscherlich, 10 January 1947, AMA, II 2/115.1, in Peter 1998: 60; translated from German). Her book was hardly noticed by the general public, nor was the report Das Diktat der Menschenverachtung [The Dictate of Contempt for Humanity] presented by Alexander Mitscherlich and Fred Mielke in 1947. Von Platen-Hallermund also published four articles on the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial in the medical journal Hippokrates (1947; 1947a; 1948; von Platen-Hallermund, Mitscherlich & Mielke 1947), while Mielke (1947) wrote another article for the journal Bayerisches Ärzteblatt. These publications met with harsh resistance from the German medical profession, especially from Ferdinand Sauerbruch (1875–1951) and Hermann Rein (1898–1953). This rejection was also experienced by Werner Leibbrand, the Trial’s only German expert witness for the prosecution (Seidel 2012: 60; Seidel & Söhner 2016).

From October 1947, von Platen-Hallermund was gainfully employed at the mental hospital St. Getreu in Bamberg as an assistant doctor to the psychiatrist and clinic director Georg Zillich (1911–1950), who was very open to psychoanalysis and encouraged her professional development. In response to the publication of her book, Nicolai Rubinstein (1911–2002), an historian and friend from the Florence days, obtained her an invitation to the International Congress on Mental Health taking place from 16 to 21 August 1948 in London (Ricciardi-von Platen 2004: 58). She was the only woman in the twenty-strong German delegation and later published a report in the psychoanalytic journal Psyche to provide the professional audience in Germany with an insight into the content and proceedings of the congress (cf. von Platen-Hallermund 1949). Anna Freud (1895–1982) and Lady Florence Priscilla Norma (1881–1964), the patroness of the Mental Health Congress, advocated for von Platen-Hallermund to be offered a scholarship in England (Brody 1998: 305; Schlüter 2012: 155).


Career as a group analytic psychotherapist

When her contract in Bamberg expired in 1949, von Platen-Hallermund went to London for further psychoanalytic training – this was in accord with Zillich, whom she was to follow to Würzburg as a senior physician after having completed her training. But in August 1950, Zillich unexpectedly died in an accident. This shattered her plans for a professional return to Germany. Von Platen-Hallermund then remained in London for several years (Schlüter 2012: 11). Instead of the promised scholarship, however, she was only granted a work permit and an interim position at Shenley Hospital. From February 1950, she worked at a psychotherapeutic marriage counseling center with Michael Balint (1896–1970) and at various psychiatric facilities while completing her training as a psychoanalyst. Inspired by the idea that humans define themselves as social beings, as members of a group, she focused on group analysis (cf. Winkelmann 2005: 5).


In April 1950, von Platen-Hallermund met the Italian aristocrat Augusto Barone Ricciardi (1915–1982), a freelancer for the newspaper Corriere della Serra and the BBC. After years of complicated relationship, she married Ricciardi on 29 December 1956 at her family’s Austrian country estate in Altausee and accompanied him during his business stays in Brussels and Tripoli, Libya. From 1967, she worked as a psychoanalyst in Rome and, after her husband’s death, in the town of Cortona in Tuscany.


At the Second Group Analytic Summer Symposium in 1972 in London, Siegmund Heinrich Foulkes (1898–1976) asked her to set up regular workshops on his group-therapeutic approach in collaboration with the London-based Group Analytic Society. The first workshop of this series took place in January 1973. In 1975, Ricciardi-von Platen was the first to offer group analysis in Italy. In 1976, she founded the Internationale Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Gruppenanalyse (IAG; International Working Group for Group Analysis) in Altausee, Austria, together with Michael Hayne (born 1937) and Josef Shaked (born 1929) and established a twice-yearly self-awareness and training workshop. The first IAG workshop in Altausee took place in spring of 1976 (Schlüter 2012: 189). Ricciardi-von Platen also co-founded the Centro Italiano Gruppo Analisi in 1982 in Rome. From then on, she regularly staged workshops on group analysis at Villa Platen in Altausee (Seidl 2000:141). Although already 87 years old, Ricciardi still travelled to Ukraine in 1997 to establish a group analysis training program at the psychiatric clinic of Kiev University (ibid.: 145).


Late recognition in Germany

Alice Ricciardi-von Platen gained international renown only late in her life when her work on the medical committee observing the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial became more widely known. It was through the commitment of social psychiatrist Klaus Dörner (born 1933) that her book on Nazi patient killings was rediscovered and reissued in 1993 and that it was received by new audiences in Germany during the 1990s. The reprint of the volume as well as the honorary chairwomanship at the Nuremberg IPPNW congress “Medicine and Conscience” in 1996 earned her late-life recognition. In August 1997, the medical historian Paul Weindling visited her in Cortona to interview her about her experiences at the Doctors’ Trial (cf. Weindling 2004). In recognition of her work and merits, she was awarded the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1997 and the honorary citizenship of Cortona in 2000. In November 2007, Ricciardi-von Platen was the guest of honor at the annual meeting of the German Society for Social Psychiatry in Munich where she discussed the developments in psychiatric and psychoanalytic care in the 20th century during a panel discussion with the social psychiatrist Michael von Cranach (Seidel 2012). There she invited the participants to come to her congress in Rome, which was planned for May 2008 (Köttgen 2008: 41). She stayed in touch with representatives of German social psychiatry, such as Charlotte Köttgen, Thomas Bock, Niels Pörksen and Klaus Dörner until the very end of her life (ibid.). Alice Ricciardi-von Platen died in Cortona, Italy, on 23 February 2008.


Social commitment and positions on medical ethics

Von Platen-Hallermund’s documentation of the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial highlights the inhumanity of Nazi medicine through the example of patient killings in psychiatric facilities. Her work, based on materials from the Doctors’ Trial and the Frankfurt euthanasia trials, goes way beyond merely giving an account of the crimes revealed during the court proceedings.


While the report compiled by Mitscherlich and Mielke (1947) mainly focused on documenting the medical crimes and on discussing legal and political aspects of the Doctors’ Trial (“… that the authors rely on documents, testimonies and reports alone …”; von Platen-Hallermund 1947a: 82; translated from German), von Platen-Hallermund also addressed the ideational roots and prerequisites of the patient killings, analyzed the roles and responsibilities of the doctors involved as well as their potential interpretations and motives, and acknowledged the suffering of the victims (Weindling 2001: 328). Her article published in Hippokrates concluded: “The anonymity of the organization spared its members the feeling of being responsible for the death of millions of human beings” (von Platen-Hallermund 1947: 30; translated from German). And in the preface to her report, she wrote: “In reality, the deplorable ‘empty human shells’, who have to be relieved of their torment out of compassion are nowhere to be found. They are a fiction of biological utilitarianism, to which the sick person who does not work is not a human being” (von Platen-Hallermund 1948/2006: 8; translated from German). In her opinion, the so-called “euthanasia” was the product of a biologistic thinking that considered some lives as “unworthy of life”: “Each stage of development follows logically from the previous one: if is it permitted to violate life, there is no limit to be drawn. One has the impression that the medical authors of the euthanasia program were themselves appalled by the consequences of their actions and closed their eyes to them” (von Platen-Hallermund 1947: 31; translated from German). But she also paid tribute to those members of the churches and asylum staff who had offered passive resistance (Sörgel 1996: 2; Schlüter 2012: 151). To von Platen-Hallermund, the idea of humanity and the respect for “differentness” was at the center of both medical and social action.


In her later work, too, this pioneer of group analysis consistently advocated for adopting an appreciative attitude towards people with mental illness (Schlüter 2012). On the occasion of her 90th birthday, she was honored as a “courageous woman who shed light on and admonished us of crimes against humanity” (Seidl 2000: 143; translated from German). As an observer at the Nuremberg Doctors’ Trial, von Platen-Hallermund saw her mission as reporting without reservation: “We wanted to enlighten the entire medical community in Germany about what had happened. We saw this as a distinctly moral and political obligation” (von Platen-Hallermund, in Sörgel 1996: 1; translated from German).




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Felicitas Söhner


Referencing format
Felicitas Söhner (2017): Ricciardi-von Platen, Alice.
In: Biographisches Archiv der Psychiatrie.
URL: www.biapsy.de/index.php/en/9-biographien-a-z/286-ricciardi-von-platen-alice-e
(retrieved on:24.05.2024)