Wulff, Erich Adalbert
First name:
Erich Adalbert
20th century
21st century
Field of expertise:
Social psychiatry
Place of birth:
Tallinn (EST)
* 06.11.1926
† 31.01.2010
Biography print

(Pseudonym: Georg W. Alsheimer), German social psychiatrist.



Erich Adalbert Wulff (1927-2010) was born in Tallinn, Estonia, to a Baltic German family. His father, a physician, was German and his mother was of Latvian origin. In 1940, the Wulff family moved to Poznan (then Posen) as part of the so-called “Back Home into the Reich” action in which German nationals were resettled in the wake of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact from areas assigned to the Soviet sphere of influence to the part of Poland that was annexed by Germany. Still a teenager, Wulff was drafted to the German army in 1944 and taken POW in 1945. From 1947 to 1953, he studied medicine and philosophy in Cologne but then chose to continue his studies in Paris. Following his clinical training in psychiatry in Marburg and Freiburg, he went to Hué (in then-South Vietnam) in 1961 to teach physiology at the local university, a partner institution of Freiburg University. During his six years in Hué, he also helped establish a donation-funded clinic of psychiatry and neurology. He returned to Germany in 1967 and was appointed senior physician at the University of Gießen’s psychiatric clinic. He gained the formal qualification for professorship (habilitation) in 1969 and was appointed associate professor of the “Sociology of Mental Illness” at the University of Vincennes (Paris VIII). In 1972, he married Édith Toubiana, an Algerian-born Frenchwoman, with whom he had three children. He transferred to Hannover Medical School in 1974 to become the chair of social psychiatry, which had been newly established upon the initiative of Karl-Peter Kisker. Wulff became emeritus in 1994 and, together with his wife, moved to France in 2003. He died in Paris in 2010 after long illness.


Social psychiatry and research on schizophrenia

Wulff’s approach to psychiatry was reform-oriented and democratic, he was inspired by the Italian psychiatric reform, the concept of the therapeutic community and the Marxist student movement. Already in the late 1960s, well ahead of the psychiatric reform in Germany in the mid-1970s, he opened the doors of a closed ward and established mixed-sex wards. Wulff published numerous texts on socio-political issues. His main work, Wahnsinnslogik (The Logic of Delusion; 1955), presents a theory of schizophrenic delusions based on approaches informed by both phenomenology and activity theory (A. N. Leontjew, K. Holzkamp) combined with in-depth case analyses and autobiographical essays. In its introduction, Wulff uses his own experience of three brief psychotic episodes to lay out the scope of his methodology. He asks how the so-called “incomprehensibility” of schizophrenic delusion (K. Jaspers, K. Schneider) is “generated” by the affected individuals themselves. His model focuses on the fundamental relationship between the conventional, common-sense meaning of things (e.g., a chair as a piece of seating furniture) and possible subjective and situational attributions of meaning (e.g., a chair as a piece of fire wood). According to Wulff, schizophrenic delusion implies the loss of this relationship between objective and subjective (or personal) meaning, which always remain connected in the healthy mind: objective meaning is “negated” and overlaid by fragments of personal meaning. Delusion thus results from an individual’s profound “denial” of human intersubjectivity and sociality.


Ethnopsychiatry and politics

Equally important are Wulff’s contributions to the field of comparative psychiatry. His 1990 text Was trägt die Ethnopsychiatrie zum Verständnis psychischer Erkrankungen bei? (How Can Ethnopsychiatry Contribute to Our Understanding of Mental Disorders) presents a theory of cross-cultural psychiatry. The mutual relationship between culture and mind (“culture as a mirror”) usually provides certainty, yet it may become unstable or be lost altogether in an alien environment. Using the pseudonym “Georg W. Alsheimer”, Wulff’s first major publication, Vietnamesische Lehrjahre (1968), describes life during the Vietnam War from the perspective of the affected population. The book significantly influenced the anti-imperialist, anti-Vietnam War and peace movements. In his 2001 autobiography, Irrfahrten, Wulff takes stock of his life and work in the light of social and political change.



Alsheimer, G. W. (Pseudonym, 1968): Vietnamesische Lehrjahre. Sechs Jahre als deutscher Arzt in Vietnam 1961-1967. Frankfurt on the Main: Suhrkamp.

Alsheimer, G. W. (Pseudonym, 1979): Eine Reise nach Vietnam. Frankfurt on the Main: Suhrkamp.

Schlimme. J. E., B. Brückner (2014): Editorial note and comment on “Erich Wulff: Natürliche Selbstverständlichkeit oder Gemeinsinn?” In: Jahrbuch für Psychotherapie, Philosophie und Kultur: psychologik 9, 2015, (Klassiker der medizinischen Anthropologie), pp. 188-189 and 193-197.

Greve, W. (1993): Zur Emeritierung von Erich Wulff. In: Sozialpsychiatrische Informationen 23, (4), pp.43-44.

Machleidt, W. (2007): Erich Wulff als Ethnopsychiater. Hommage zu seinem 80. Geburtstag. Biographischer Abriss. In: Sozialpsychiatrische Informationen 37, (2), pp. 2-6.

Seidel, R. (2010): Zum Tod von Erich Wulff. In: Sozialpsychiatrische Informationen 40, (2), pp. 3-4.

Wulff, E. (1972): Psychiatrie und Klassengesellschaft. Zur Begriffs- und Sozialkritik der Psychiatrie und Medizin. Frankfurt on the Main: Athenäum.

Wulff, E. (ed.) (1978): Ethnopsychiatrie. Seelische Krankheit, ein Spiegel der Kultur? Wiesbaden: Akademische Verlagsgesellschaft.

Wulff, E. (1979): Transkulturelle Psychiatrie. (Argument Studienhefte 23). Berlin: Argument.

Wulff, E. (1979a): Psychiatrie und Herrschaft. (Argument Studienhefte 34). Berlin: Argument.

Wulff, E. (1980): Der Intellektuelle, die Praxis und die Institutionen. In: F. Basaglia, F. Basaglia-Ongaro (eds): Befriedungsverbrechen. Über die Dienstbarkeit der Intellektuellen. Frankfurt on the Main: Europäische Verlagsanstalt, pp. 117-124.

Wulff, E. (1981): Psychisches Leiden und Politik. Ansichten der Psychiatrie. Frankfurt on the Main: Campus.

Wulff, E. (1987): Paranoic conspiracy delusion. In: C. F. Graumann, S. Moscovi (Hg.): Changing conceptions of conspiracy. New York, Berlin: Springer, S. 171–190.

Wulff, E. (1990): Was trägt die Ethnopsychiatrie zum Verständnis psychischer Erkrankungen bei? In: A. Thom, E. Wulff (eds.): Psychiatrie im Wandel. Erfahrungen und Perspektiven in Ost und West. Bonn: Psychiatrie-Verlag, pp. 96-113.

Wulff, E. (1995): Wahnsinnslogik. Von der Verstehbarkeit schizophrener Erfahrung. Bonn: Psychiatrie Verlag.

Wulff, E. (2001): Irrfahrten. Autobiographie eines Psychiaters. Bonn: Psychiatrie Verlag.

Wulff, E. (2005): Das Unglück der kleinen Giftmischerin und zehn weitere Geschichten aus der Forensik. Bonn: Psychiatrie Verlag.

Wulff, E. (2007): Blankenburgs daseinsanalytische Studien. In: Sozialpsychiatrische Informationen 37 (4), pp. 11-15.


Julian Schwarz, Burkhart Brückner


Referencing format
Julian Schwarz, Burkhart Brückner (2015): Wulff, Erich Adalbert.
In: Biographisches Archiv der Psychiatrie.
URL: www.biapsy.de/index.php/en/9-biographien-a-z/96-wulff-erich-adalbert-e
(retrieved on:17.04.2024)