Kurt Erich Moser (1895–1982): A Life “Between Worlds”

by Jan Armbruster

Periodical of the German Society
for the History of Neurology

[Schriftenreihe der Deutschen Gesellschaft
Fuer Geschichte der Nervenheilkunde]

2010, Issue #16

In 1970, after long hesitation, Professor of Medicine Kurt Moser wrote his memoirs, which he dedicated to his son Klaus (born in 1939)[1]. Underlying this endeavor was the tragedy, in Moser’s subjective view, of his family’s transgenerational disunity, culminating in the fact “that his grandchildren knew neither the country of their paternal heritage nor their father’s parental home....” (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 181). Particularly the societal breakdowns in Germany in the first half of the 20th century render Moser’s memoirs a historically important document. Its character, discerned by Parak and Schreiber in many places as “a vindication of his own life” (Parak/Schreiber 2008, 200), suggests that there was more than mere want of narrative talent behind his hesitation. The purpose of this paper is to trace the stages of his life chronologically and to examine the background circumstances that made it so hard for the mature man of 75 years, who could look back on a very successful life, to come to grips with his own history.

Parentage, Childhood, and Youth

Owing to a professional engagement of his father, conductor and musical director Robert Moser (1856­–1937), Kurt Moser was born in Wiburg[2], Finland. He grew up with his two sisters as the youngest child of Robert Moser, who was of a “decidedly artistic nature, in the best sense” (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 4). Kurt Moser remembered his father as outwardly calm and even-tempered but temperamental and impulsive when it came to his art; “of the mercantile spirit, he had not a trace.” (ibid., 5). His mother, Marie Moser (1861–1944), came from an old Königsberg mercantile family that had once been quite well-to-do but had lost its fortune. She still had a lavish streak when it came to “external lifestyle,” which often stood in marked contrast to reality in the conductor’s family. The parents showed a “rather insouciant attitude toward the distant future,” and consequently the family repeatedly found itself in dire straits (ibid.).

When Kurt Moser was 2 years old, the family left Finland for Greifswald, where Robert Moser’s plans for starting his own orchestra failed, and then moved on to Berlin. There Kurt Moser “grew up in the embrace of a harmonious family life” (ibid., 11). He attended the parish school, while his father, who had founded a philharmonic wind ensemble, was often away for guest performances in other cities and countries. After his father lost his job, the family returned to Greifswald, where Robert Moser became conductor of the newly formed “Moser Orchestra” (ibid., 7–12).

In the small university town of Greifswald Kurt Moser attended secondary school and, after transferring to the Gymnasium [academic high school], passed his Abitur (ibid., 23–31). This was the setting for his formative years, up to 1919. It was here, surely encouraged by his father’s profession, that his love of music had its roots. He spent as much time as he could with the musicians in the orchestra, to absorb new knowledge. As he later recalled, “Everything having to do with music flowed over into my flesh and blood, even more so when I played violin myself and was allowed to perform with the orchestra in the great symphony concerts” (ibid., 17). In addition, he developed an interest in nature, coupled with a marked love for animals and for reading, but also an extraordinary bent toward electrical engineering (ibid., 17–22).

These solitary penchants are certainly not surprising against the backdrop of the very reclusive life the family led. The reason for this was a constant financial plight, especially after the orchestra was dissolved and his father had to resort to giving violin lessons, and in extreme cases playing skat for additional income to provide for his family. This rankled Kurt Moser, who had the unpleasant task, for example, of collecting outstanding lesson fees for his father;for even at that early age, “the happy-go-lucky life” was not his lot. He had to miss out on anything that cost money, in school as well; even his violin vanished at the pawnbroker’s. In his school­days, he was already trying to earn money himself. He did private tutoring and gave violin lessons, and some of his pupils were those his father had turned down. With increasing frequency his own earnings became the nest egg from which the family lived. As a youth he already felt the weight of responsibility for his family. He later summed it up: “...the chronic money shortage and its consequences, which embarrassed me, probably cast a light shadow on my youth.” (ibid., 16).

The Lifelong Shadow of a Birth Unbefitting His Station

A lifelong shadow fell on the 20-year-old Kurt Moser with the outbreak of the war: In the course of his army physical, it was revealed to him that he was an illegitimate adopted child and his natural mother was not Marie but Clara Moser: “I just wanted the ground to open up and swallow me, and I went home totally distraught” (ibid., 36). There he learned that Marie Moser had taken her sister Clara into her home to keep the scandal of the illegitimate pregnancy secret. Later she had raised the newborn along with her daughters (PAKM, Moser I 1964/1982, 38).[3] Kurt’s natural father was the businessman Max Maync, who was already deceased at the time of the revelation (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 36).

In retrospect, Moser classified the experience as a “significant emotional trauma” that led to a feeling of self-alienation and rootlessness on the one hand and of defamation on the other. The latter reflected the mores of the time, whereby an illegitimate birth carried a stigma. Consequently his chances for a professional career were theoretically limited. He felt “outclassed” and later believed himself to be “... in a professional career to which I am not entitled. I felt rather like a criminal who was afraid of being discovered, and rightly so. I developed a regular inferiority complex.” (ibid., 38)

His insecurity was perpetuated by the constant actualization of the dilemma — through the Nazi racial laws, for instance. “In spite of everything,” wrote Moser, “a thorn continued to plague me, I was repeatedly confronted with realities that brought me into new conflicts, and I was powerless to drive out the specter of the fact” (ibid., 39). Obviously he never succeeded, in his entire life, to live down the disgrace he had experienced. Evidence of this is the fact in 1950 Kurt Moser was still giving inconsistent information about his parentage in his personal papers,[4] and until his dying day he spoke of the matter only reluctantly and self-consciously (Moser-Maync 2009).[5]

Higher Education and Military Service

In view of his wide range of interests, selecting a field of study was not a easy task for Kurt Moser. His wish to study electrical engineering had to be ruled out, because without local connections, education at a technical university was not financially feasible. His father vehemently opposed the idea of his studying violin or musicology, because he saw no prospect of material security for his son here. Medicine, as a way to combine his scientific and philosophical ambitions, was also ruled out because the course of study was too long and costly. Thus the choice tentatively fell to dentistry as a shorter compromise. Moser enrolled at the university in Königsberg and took lodging with sister [first cousin] Wera (1886–1945) and her husband, Reinhold Alsen (1873–1931). When the war broke out, he had to return to Greifswald, where he registered for medicine after all, since dentistry had not appealed to him. But despite a financial grant, he was still able to attend only the most important lectures. He became interested in anatomy and the developmental history of the brain early on, a first indication pointing to his eventual focus on psychiatry and neurology (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 31–35).

His induction into the army in 1915 was a turning point for Moser, having resulted in the revelation of his parentage on the one hand and the interruption of his studies on the other. After his initial assignment to the medical corps in Stettin, Moser was transferred to the northern front in 1916 as an infantryman. Then, following an interim continuation of his studies, he passed the Physikum (examination ending the pre-clinical stage of his training) in 1918 and returned to his unit with the rank of Feldunterarzt [subordinate field physician]. In September 1918 he was sent with his unit to the western front, where he remained until the ceasefire of November 9, 1918 (ibid., 43–54).

Kurt Moser’s descriptions of his experience of the First World War reflect virtually nothing of the horror of war. This may well be partly due to his youth — some of the reports read like a juvenile adventure, with riding and card playing. But it is more likely attributable to the fact that, because he was sent to continue his studies and then stationed at quiet sectors of the front, he spent only the last two months in the actual combat area and survived the war unscathed. His descriptions offer no critical analysis but rather tend toward idealization in regard to the morality of the “old imperial army.” He wrote, “...the sad outcome of the First World War is not at all comparable to the catastrophe of 1945. In the fall of 1918, not a square foot of land was occupied by the enemy. The retreat was very orderly, a strategic masterpiece on Hindenburg’s part...” (ibid., 54). Of the 8.5 million killed in action, over 21 million wounded, more than 8 million POWs and MIAs in the armies alone, as a result of the 51-month war, not to mention the suffering of the civilian population (Wollstein 2006, 81–82) — of all this, not a word is said. Moser’s son Klaus reported that his father was still expressing nostalgic feelings toward the imperial army in the 1950s, which to him seemed inconsistent with his parents’ opposition to the war (Moser-Maync 2005). This inconsistency raises the question of whether their opposition was not mainly a result of personal affliction associated with the Second World War — Moser suffered the loss of his eldest son, Friedrich (1925–1945)[6], and had to flee with his family, forfeiting the life he had worked so hard to establish, including the loss of all the records that had been intended for a possible return to his academic career.

Academic Career Up to Its Termination in 1936

After his discharge from military service, Kurt Moser continued his studies in Greifswald and Königsberg. At the end of 1920 he passed his state examination and received his license to practice medicine (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 56­–58). In 1921, in keeping with his interest in disorders of the brain and nervous system, and at the prompting of the head physician there, Otto Klieneberger[7] (Meyer 1914a), Moser became an intern at the Hospital of Psychiatry and Neurology in Königsberg, established in 1913, under the directorship of privy councilor Ernst Meyer (1871–1931). Psychiatry and neurology, with their philosophical, psychological, theological and juristic aspects, combined his wide-ranging interests best, in his own estimation (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 32). Since Moser received his academic training at the Königsberg university hospital exclusively, it is safe to assume that he was significantly influenced by Ernst Meyer.

Ernst Meyer had begun his psychiatric career under Carl Moeli (1849–1919)[8] in Berlin-Herzberg. He then went to Tübingen to study under Ernst Siemerling (1857–1931)[9], where he received his qualification for a professorship, and then followed Siemerling to Kiel. In 1904, as successor to Karl Bonhoeffer (1868–1948)[10], Meyer moved to Königsberg, where he was first director of the psychiatric hospital, and one year later, at just 36 years of age, received a tenured professorship, which he held until his death in 1931 (Moser 1932, II–III).

Meyer, whom Moser described as a “serious, dignified man” (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 60), was very prolific academically. From the time of his move to Königsberg in 1904 until 1931 he had 169 publications to his credit: treatises on addictions, particularly morphinism; pathological-anatomical studies, papers on the termination of pregnancy in patients with psychiatric or neurological indications; research on brain tumors; encephalographic studies; and scientific papers in connection with his extensive consultancy work (Moser 1932, III–IV). Furthermore, in clinical circles he advocated “energetically, as long as he lived, for absolutely free treatment of the mentally ill” (ibid., III), and especially for professionalization as well, all the way from police oversight with public medical officers as providers, to centralized care by experienced and trained psychiatrists (Meyer 1922).

Moser’s academic career path to its culmination — his position as hospital director, his temporary assumption of professorial duties following Ernst Meyer’s death in 1931, and related to this, his candidacy for a tenured professorship of his own — was straightforward. On December 5, 1921 (fig. 1), he received his doctorate with his paper “On Dementia Praecox in Siblings” (AHKS, PA, p. 7).

In 1922 Kurt Moser received a paid but initially unbudgeted lectureship, which was converted in 1923 to a budgeted full academic lectureship (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 69–70).

This led to a change in Kurt Moser’s private life as well. Because he now had a solid financial footing, he considered the material basis for starting a family to have been established. On May 26, 1923, he married Ilse Strehlke (1902–1994), seven years younger than he, to whom he had been engaged since 1921 (ibid., 58, 70–71). Moser had met Ilse — a senior forester’s daughter from East Prussia, who had lost her father at an early age — in 1920, during a visit to his sister Wera’s family farm in Schönwalde, where she was employed as an au pair. This relationship would later produce sons Friedrich (1925–1945), Jürgen (1928–1999)[11] and Klaus (PAKM, Moser I, undated).


Kurt Moser 1921

Fig. 1

At the hospital, Kurt Moser intensified his academic activity in 1922 along with extensive consultancy work and was soon a senior lecturer. With the task of setting up a radiology department at the hospital and establishing encephalography with air or iodipine injections, his academic focus shifted to neurological matters. Instrumental diagnostics became one of his main fields of work. The use of encephalography and the possibility of imaging cerebral vessels in the nascent discipline of neurosurgery led Moser to fruitful collaboration with colleagues in the surgical hospital, which in turn solidified Moser’s position (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 77–79).

In 1926 Otto Klieneberger left the hospital after a falling-out with Ernst Meyer, and Kurt Moser — to his own surprise, since he had not yet earned his academic qualification — was appointed to succeed him as head physician, at the age of thirty. This made it possible for him to pursue qualification for a professorship and to embark on an academic career at the hospital, which he “had always envisioned as an ideal” (ibid., 80). In the summer of 1928 Moser received his academic quali­fication in neurology and psychiatry with a paper in the field of forensic psychopatho­logy, “On the question of so-called ‘self-inflicted’ intoxication and its bearing on alcohol-induced criminality and the care of alcoholics” (Moser 1929). He then took over the preparatory course of lectures as well as a special lecture on diagnostics for brain and spinal cord tumors (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 83–85).

 When Ernst Meyer suffered a cerebral insult in 1930, the administration of the hospital fell into Kurt Moser’s hands overnight. Meyer recovered and resumed his work in April 1931 but died at the end of the year, at the age of 60, following a heart attack (Moser 1932, I–II). Thereupon, the Prussian Ministry of Culture entrusted Moser with directorship of the hospital as well as the temporary assumption of Meyer’s professorial duties until the vacancy was filled. This gave Moser a seat on the Departmental Faculty Council and the General Council. In retrospect, Kurt Moser found this time of about one year to be “professionally the most satisfying and productive” (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 89–91).

At the end of 1932 August Bostroem (1886–1944) was appointed to the vacant Königsberg chair.[12] He made no radical changes at the hospital, and Kurt Moser — not least because of his harmonious relationship with Bostroem — saw his hopes for professional advancement rising. But then “... Hitler’s ‘seizure of power,’ the Nazi rule, exploded like a bombshell in the spring of 1933” (ibid., 99). At first Moser had some positive expectations of the new regime, but he was soon brought down to reality and subsequently grew very “reticent,” after losing his seat on the Departmental Faculty Council and General Council because he was not a member of the NSDAP [National Socialist German Workers’ Party, a.k.a. the Nazi Party] (ibid., 100–102).

His appointment as professor extraordinarius in 1934 could be regarded as a the high point of Moser’s career, but it was a mere formality, for by now it was clear to him that successful further pursuit of his career was out of the question. Although he was on a list of those available for an appointment, “it was no secret that as a non-party-member I would have no chance for a professorship,” he wrote (ibid., 105). So Kurt Moser decided to leave the hospital and open a private practice in Königsberg, which was in essence the end of his academic ambitions.

Nevertheless, in a very short time he managed to gain a secure place in the field of neuropsychiatric research, underscored by his being mentioned in Genealogie der Nervenärzte des deutschen Sprachgebietes [Genealogy of Neurologists in German-speaking Areas], by Kurt Kolle (1898-1975), as a representative of the fourth generation of the “First Berlin School” founded by Carl Westphal (Kolle 1964, 518). In this context, Moser’s bibliography, comprising 34 published papers, indicates his broad range of interests in turn. His articles on psychiatric themes, which tended to be given more space in early publications, dealt with dementia praecox/schizophrenia, anthropology, exhibitionism, alcoholism and the care of alcoholics, organic psychoses, and marriage counseling. When Moser was given responsibility for establishing the new radiology procedures, he shifted his focus to instrumental diagnostics and to issues more neurological in nature. Thematically, Moser’s neurological writing ranged from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, lues spinalis, encephalitis lethargica, myelography, Parkinson’s disease, and brain tumors, to epilepsy, myalgia, and myositis, as well as disorders of the brain and spinal column stemming from internal illness.

Special attention was accorded a paper by Moser’s pupil Otto Sieblist (born in 1920)[13]: “Zum Epidemiegang der Encephalitis Economo in Ostpreußen” [On the course of the epidemic of von Economo encephalitis in East Prussia], which appeared in 1931 and “received international notice and general recognition” (PAKM, Sieblist 1982). It concerned an epidemiological study of 300 confirmed cases of encephalitis lethargica[14], whereby two large epidemic waves were identified that differed symptomatically from one another as well as from cases in other parts of Germany (Moser 1931). Also worthy of mention, in addition to this work, are two contributions by Moser to the Handbuch der Neurologie [Handbook of Neurology] (Bumke/Foerster 1935–1937) published by Oswald Bumke and Otfried Foerster (1873–1941). In the Meyer tradition (Moser 1932), and as an expression of his own ever-expanding activity after 1926 as an authority in his field, Moser also dealt with consultancy issues. In this capacity, he published papers on the themes of post-traumatic stress disorders, alcoholism, organic neurological disorders, and encephalitis epidemica.

The esteem of his boss, August Bostroem, with whom Moser enjoyed a close personal friendship (PAKM, Sieblist 1982), was reflected in a 1934 letter of reference: “He fulfills his task as senior physician in an excellent way. I have especially come to appreciate his great diligence, his utter reliability, his thoroughness and conscientiousness... I would also emphasize his quiet and assertive manner in the instruction of assistants and care personnel. ... Finally let it be said that I have come to value Mr. Moser as a physician and as a human being and would be sorry to see him depart.” (AHKS, PA, pp. 19 and 20)

Private Practice — Giving Up the Dream of an Academic Career

In 1936 Kurt Moser opened his own practice near downtown Königsberg, where his family had also moved into their new apartment. Working in his favor was the fact that a neurology practice had already occupied this office space earlier. Furthermore it was located near a private hospital, where Moser had a few beds available for inpatient observation or therapy. Besides treating patients with medical insurance plans, he did a substantial amount of private consultation. The clientele were predominantly patients with neurological syndromes and neurotic disorders. Consequently his psychiatric practice became oriented toward psychotherapy, and he often used hypnosis in his treatments (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 122–125).

In addition to his medical practice, Kurt Moser continued to serve in public administrative positions. From 1936 until the end of the war he was active in the Erbgesundheitsobergericht (Appellate Court for Genetic Health) in Königsberg, where he was a party to final rulings on the sterilization of so-called “hereditary defectives.” Moser himself was very glad to assume this function, by all accounts, because it allowed him to influence the ruling directly, and he saw it as a chance to “avert a great deal of havoc” (ibid., 105, 135). Here, too, the anecdotal descriptions seem belittling at first; however, Moser also indicated that, for the concerned parties, not only did sterilization mean severe emotional trauma in most cases, but it also led to restrictions of personal freedom, such as choice of partner, and the loss of existing rights (ibid., 110–111).

The “Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring” was passed on July 14, 1933, and took effect on January 1, 1934. It was based on the National Socialist principle that the value of an individual can be measured only by his/her usefulness for the populace as a whole. Psychiatrists played a special role in this regard. They were among the reporters and petitioners,and some worked in the sterilization courts, where they, as physicians, functioned as judges. In the psychiatric genetics training for this court work, the hereditary nature of the diagnoses anchored in the law[15] and the moral grounds for forced sterilization were no longer at issue. The only goal was to foster a personal attitude toward the law (Bock 1986, 187, 192–193). Thus a new aspect had arisen that had not figured in the research of Moser’s teacher, Ernst Meyer. Meyer had dealt early on with the matter of induced abortion based on psychiatric and neurological indications, and also with subsequent sterilization (Moser 1932); but there the goal had been to avoid worsening of the particular syndrome in the concerned individual (Meyer 1914b and 1921).

Moser’s largest source of secondary work arose from his position as child and adolescent psychiatrist for the province of East Prussia, which he held from 1934 to 1945. In addition to the annual inspection of all East Prussian asylums, Moser had the task of examining all children and youth up to the age of 20 in corrective institutions and to assist in the planning of their education. One reason Moser was attracted to this work was that he hoped once again to profit academically from the 10,000 evaluations he conducted during this time. However, the material, some of which had already been processed and statistically analyzed, was lost in the war (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 135–140). But pediatric and adolescent health care ultimately stood under the dictum of eugenics as well, and only in the course of the war was there a partial shift of emphasis to ensuring a supply of military recruits (Süss 2003, 291).

In addition, Moser was a contract physician for the Wehrmacht and had to stand in for the neurological specialist there when the latter was ill or on leave (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 135). Since he retained his governmental functions even after he left the hospital, Moser’s activities were extensive and wide-ranging.

Second World War and Flight from Königsberg

As a medical officer in the reserves, Moser was called up a few days before the official mobilization for the Second World War. But because he had suffered “toxic angina” with mild heart complications, and in view of the shortages in medical care for the civilian population, he received a military deferment in 1940 and was able to resume his practice and all other functions. The number of his patients rose steadily, for Moser was eventually the only neurologist in East Prussia who had not been drafted into the army (ibid., 145–148).

Despite the war, the family was still leading a peaceful life (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 151), since — apart from the first, relatively “insignificant” Soviet air raids (PAKM, Moser I 1964, 1) of 1941 and 1943 (Glinski/Wörster 1992, 115) — Königsberg had remained sheltered from direct effects of the war. (Fig. 2)




The Moser family on Oct. 13, 1944, in Königsberg, Prussia

Left to right: Jürgen, Ilse, [Klaus, front], Friedrich, and Kurt

Fig. 2

This changed suddenly with the second wave of attacks on Königsberg. The English bombardments in August 1944, confined almost exclusively to the historic heart of the city, claimed 5000 lives, and 200,000 people were left homeless (Glinski/Wörster 1992, 119). The Moser family experienced the “terror raids” (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 151) from close proximity: “Whole sections of the inner city, where we live too, were a sea of flames” (PAKM, Moser I 1964, 1).

The Soviet Offensive began January 12, 1945, and the last evacuation train departed for the Reich on January 22. Since Kurt Moser, as a physician, had to stay, this marked the start of a dramatic period for the family amid the turmoil of war. On February 8 word arrived that the eldest son, Friedrich, had been classified as missing since January 14 (ibid., 6–9).[16]

The Germans managed to force open the land route to Pillau again on February 19, 1945, and the land connection, which lasted three weeks, enabled many more thousands of East Prussians to flee the Red Army (Glinski/Wörster 1992, 126). On February 24, 1945, the Mosers joined the rushed flight from Königsberg via Pillau, Gotenhafen, and Usedom to Greifswald (PAKM, Moser I 1964, 9–15, Moser K, 153–156) and escaped the final Soviet assault (Glinski/Wörster 1992, 119). In March 1945 the Mosers found accommodation with relatives in Greifswald, where Kurt Moser had to remain available under orders. Nevertheless, the living situation remained extremely awkward. Not only had they suffered the calamity of losing their former livelihood, but as refugees they also had to endure the ignominy of being “regarded as intruders and second-class human beings” even within their own family (PAKM, Moser K, 159).

Shortly after their arrival, Kurt Moser held an academic post temporarily at the University Neurological Hospital in Greifswald, which except for its director, Rudolf Thiele (1888–1960), was totally deserted (Pfau 2008, 99). Despite his professorship, Moser was initially unpaid and then became a volunteer lecturer (UAG, Med.Fak II, vol. 20). His probable humiliation over this can at best be surmised from the brevity of its mention in Moser’s memoirs (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 157). At any rate, Moser’s retention at the Greifswald Neurological Hospital was possible only because physicians, as indispensable specialists, were spared the first “denazification” proceedings in 1945 (Pfau 2008, 98).

In 1946 Kurt Moser sought a residency permit with an eye to opening a private practice. Pfau saw this as the more financially attractive alternative, since Moser had little prospect of reentry as a university instructor because of his NSDAP candidacy[17] (ibid., 99). The latter, however, was a mere formality; in practice, with the shortage of qualified specialists, ideology had to give way to pragmatism. After submitting a written petition for a declaration of party neutrality in February 1946 (UAG, R 1031, p. 34), Moser promptly received an offer of a professorship from the ministry office in Schwerin in connection with his efforts to secure a residence permit. But because the offer was tied to party membership, Moser declined (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 158).

The offer to Moser can by no means be regarded as an isolated case, for according to Parak and Schreiber, most former NSDAP members who were still in the Soviet occupation zone in 1948[18] were rehired (Parak/Schreiber 2008, 179). One example is Moser’s Greifswald boss, Rudolf Thiele, who had to leave the Greifswald Hospital in 1946 in the wake of denazification but by 1948 was already reemployed in Berlin as a university lecturer with a full teaching schedule and as director of the Charité Neurology Polyclinic. In 1949 he was appointed Professor Ordinarius of Psychiatry and Neurology at the Charité in Berlin (Kumbier 2008).


On September 1, 1946, with the approval of the state government in Stralsund, Kurt Moser opened a neurology practice (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 174­–­176). With his decision to settle down, Kurt Moser finally buried his last hope of continuing his academic career, the basis for which had considerably diminished anyway with the loss of his examination data in the flight. A few hesitant attempts to orient himself toward the west had offered him no certain prospects. Consequently, for Kurt Moser, as for 10 per cent of the fugitive and expelled academics (Parak/Schreiber 2008, 162), the DDR [GDR, a.k.a. East Germany] remained his place of residence and work. One last chance to revive his academic ambitions arose in 1954 with the offer of a professorship in neurology and psychiatry at the new Medical Academy being established in Dresden. But Moser declined because of his age — he was already 59 years old (PAKM, Sieblist 1982).

Back in April 1947 he had applied for a half-time position as neurologist at the outpatient clinic recently established at the Krankenhaus am Sund as part of the municipal healthcare system.[19] There he became head of the neurology department in 1948 and held the position of acting director from 1952 to 1957 (AHKS, PA, pp. 21, 22, and 48). Thus, since health care was state-run, he was again cooperating with the system, but concern for his livelihood probably figured in the background here as well. For though his practice was busy, it received no support of any kind from the state, and the family suffered considerably from want, living off food scraps from garbage heaps and vegetables gleaned in the wild. With the move to the outpatient clinic, Moser’s formal status changed; he was now classed with the “intelligentsia,” which in purely practical terms meant that he now received better food ration cards (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 177, 179­–180), Moser I 1964, 20–25).

In 1950 Moser moved another step away from the relative autonomy of an independent practice with his application to take over the consultancy work in neurology and psychiatry at the Landeskrankenhaus [state hospital] Stralsund (AHKS, PA, p. 3). He received the appointment, and in light of Moser’s merits, the chief physician at the state hospital expected an “especially valuable addition” for the hospital (ibid., pp. 3, 9).

Seven years later, in 1957, Moser was appointed head physician of the newly opened Department of Neurology at the Bezirkskrankenhaus [district hospital] Stralsund and of the outpatient clinic, which had meanwhile become reaffiliated (ibid., p. 48). With his compelling, yet insightful and collegial leadership style, he was able to totally avert staff turnover, especially with regard to mid-level medical personnel. This, along with his great readiness for action “in the systematic development of a socialistic health system,” was especially underscored in 1961 — not least in connection with the proposal, supported by the mayor, that he be conferred with the title Obermedizinalrat [senior medical officer] (ibid., p. 47). Moser never received the title, and one cannot help but wonder, in view of his merits, whether it was not just a consequence of his not being a party member that the conferred title was merely Medizinalrat [medical officer] (PAKM, Grauert, 1961). Independent of this, Moser was also appointed Assistant Medical Director in 1961 (AHKS, PA, p. 50).

Upon reaching the age of 70, Kurt Moser asked that his employment contract be terminated (ibid., unpaginated, letters of July 14 and 31, 1965). On this occasion he commented with clearly resonant satisfaction on the recognition accorded him: “On my 70th birthday, there was a great, festive event before the assembled staff, including representatives from the Rostock District, and great speeches were brandished.” (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 181).

Moser’s life had taken a very different course from what he had envisioned for himself. Against the background of his academic ambitions, he says in summary: “My later professional life, therefore, was more of a swerve reaction or a fallback ... But even this gave me satisfaction and pleasure, because indeed, the awareness and possibility of being able to help are the essence of the medical profession at its most profound. And for that I had ample opportunity!!” (ibid., 180–181). Apparently he never grew weary of clinical work either — starting in 1967 he also worked 6 hours a week in marriage and sexual counseling (AHKS, PA, unpaginated, letter of April 3, 1967) and was still doing this work when he wrote his memoirs at nearly 76 years of age. Kurt Moser died on June 25, 1982.

Political Position: Between the Worlds

It is not easy to classify Kurt Moser as to his political position. His memoirs leave many questions unanswered in this regard. Klaus Moser-Maync regrets that his parents’ memoirs reflect no intensive coming to grips with the past; on the contrary, that their political position with respect to these experiences, particularly during the Nazi and DDR/Communist regimes, is not clear (Moser-Maync 2001). This means that some inconsistencies cannot be resolved from the available sources. All we can do is draw a picture, which may not do justice to Moser.

In his memoirs Kurt Moser repeatedly emphasized his rejection of the Nazi regime. Consonant with Grüttner and Kinas’ work on the expulsion of scientists from the German universities between 1933 and 1945[20], Moser’s move into private practice during the Nazi period — notwithstanding that, by virtue of his 1934 appointment as professor extraordinarius, he was still formally pursuing his career after 1933 — must be termed “voluntary resignation with political background” (Grüttner/Kinas 2007, 129). Kurt Moser himself reported, for example, that he was still treating Jews, even in 1938 after the Crystal Night (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 116). In his personnel files, statutory affirmations in lieu of oath were found that substantiate the early rejection of the Nazi system that he claimed for himself. For instance, Eva Finck,[21] who was politically persecuted herself and had known Kurt Moser since 1934, explained: “Mr. and Mrs. Moser were utterly opposed to Hitler and his regime, and I often marveled at the courage with which they freely expressed their opposing views, even in wider circles. In 1943 I lived in the Moser home for several weeks, which was not without risk for the hosts; for not only was my husband known to be a personal enemy of Goebbels, but I too had been detained by the Gestapo for several weeks and was subsequently under observation” (AHKS, PA, p. 22)[22]. From this point of view, he appears not to have been a follower of the Nazi system or even a sympathizer; he did more than many at this time.

The primary circumstances that seem obviously inconsistent with this, however, are his membership in the Königsberg Erbgesundheitsobergericht and his extensive consultation work as pediatric and adolescent psychiatrist for the province of East Prussia. Perhaps this is why Moser’s descriptions of his work at the Erbgesundheitsobergericht come across so clearly as vindications in his memoirs. According to the memoirs, it was a matter of a panel of like-minded people who had acceded “to avert a great deal of havoc” (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 105). He reported a high rate of rejections, “...far more than half, I believe” (ibid., 106). Such numbers, however, were evidently not entirely unusual (Beddies 2005, 60).[23] This notwithstanding, it must be conceded that, despite the effort to overrule misjudgments of the lower courts, the procedure itself was not questioned; rather, Moser tried with characteristic conscientiousness to decide cases on a scientifically sound diagnostic basis “in order to rectify the crassest blunders and errors” (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 106).

As an aid in appraisal, one can refer to the work of Thomas Beddies: In referring to Karl Bonhoeffer — who clearly paralleled Kurt Moser in his “inner” rejection of the NC system on the one hand and cooperation with the Erbgesundheitsobergericht on the other — Beddies said in summary: “... rather, he continued to represent the prevailing scholarship and its power to define, and in this capacity did not distance himself enough from the regime” (ibid., 62). For the National Socialist genetic health program, with its requisite mental switch from physician of an individual to physician of the German people, clearly called for “politicizing the formerly ‘apolitical’ physician” (Ganssmüller 1987, 54).

Viewed on the whole, Kurt Moser, by accepting his positions as an expert consultant to secure his livelihood, along with party candidacy as part of the bargain[24], not only cooperated with the Nazi system in contravention to his adverse stance toward the Nazi movement, but also, by participating in the process, became to some extent an accomplice in this circumscribed arena. Reinhold Hoffmann’s (1885–1964)[25] assessment that Kurt Moser “...in contravention to the racial law, ... always maintained objectivity in his critique and recognized the unprovenness of the assumptions presented” (AHKS, PA, p. 25) again clearly reveals a discrepancy between Moser’s thought and action planes, but he reconciles it with the general finding that, despite all Moser’s areas of involvement, the penetration of National Socialist thought in his medical practice was minimal (Süss 2003, 376).

The DDR functionaries’ version is that Moser showed no sign of even partial cooperation with the system. His antifascist position was underscored by OMR Dr. Popp, Medical Director of the Bezirkskrankenhaus Stralsund [District Hospital], flanked by Dr. Michaelis, chair of the hospital union management board, and party secretary Walter, in the proposal for awarding him the Verdienstmedaille der DDR [GDR Medal of Merit] on the 1965 Day of the Republic: “During the Fascism period he frequently demonstrated his adversarial position, which led to numerous instances of discrimination against him and also rendered it impossible for him to continue his university teaching career.” And in another place: “Prof. Moser is considered to be a loyal citizen of the DDR who, in keeping with the antifascist position he demonstrated since 1933, confidently championed our state’s policy of peace after the war ended” (AHKS, personal records, unpaginated). Even if one regards this as perhaps a necessary passage in an application for conferral of an award within a dictatorial state system, one can at the same time see in it the attempt to style Moser as a scientist out on a limb, in the service of the GDR. This tendency is even more evident in communications from party committees. For instance, a letter from the office of the SED [Socialist Unity Party] district management in Stralsund on the occasion of Moser’s 70th birthday, says “After 1945, when fascism had left us a terrible legacy, Prof. Moser was among those who immediately assumed leadership in the building of a new social order” (PAKM, SED-Kreisleitung 1965).

He by no means saw himself as being in the service of the DDR, but rather he experienced the circumstances as constraint. Regarding party membership he wrote: “In this regard, however, I have always been color blind ... the rare form of brown/red blindness has been an impeding brake shoe [for me] everywhere” (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 180). Evidently the rejection of the system that his son Klaus described, which led Moser to use code names in his memoir manuscript for fear of Stasi persecution (Moser-Maync 2001), was barely visible on the outside. Moser’s outward conformity with an eye to securing his livelihood, as a possible alternative to his parents’ lifestyle and as an expression of the insecurity he experienced in his early life, reveal a very human side of the physician and academic who otherwise acted with utmost professionalism.

Furthermore, Moser’s behavior with regard to conditions in the DDR was by no means atypical. As Rossade points out, the majority of DDR citizens lived in a “specific tension field of ‘organized’ and ‘private’ spheres of action” (Rossade W, as quoted in Sabrow 2000, 553), a circumstance that, according to Sabrow, was reflected in a double consciousness that found expression in a “linguistic code-switching or double-think.” A look at Moser’s attitude during the Nazi period reveals that the double consciousness existed then too. Thus, under very critical observation, it can be said that he probably unconsciously contributed to the stabilization of the respective systems through his political views.[26] Moser’s vindications are perhaps an expression of his having an inkling of this.

Kurt Moser and Music

Kurt Moser showed an early interest in music that kept hold of him his entire life. His love of music was fostered in his parental home: “Along with the money problems, which made me aware of the seriousness of life at an early age, it was music that set the tone in our house and had a defining influence on me” (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 17). This particular association was lasting: Especially in tough living conditions such as the postwar period, music became an important source of strength for Kurt Moser.

He taught himself to play the violin and practiced with “grim determination” (PAKM, Moser I 1964, 30). Even the disappearance of his violin at the pawnshop could not curb his ambition, though he now had to fall back on using his father’s instrument, which meant he could practice only in the latter’s absence (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 16). He was fortunate that his father instructed pupils in the home and that through his father’s work he could stay in close touch with musicians — “whereby I naturally picked up all kinds of expertise...” (ibid., 17). He was even allowed to play in the orchestra later at the great symphony concerts that his father conducted in Greifswald (ibid.). He sang in the pupils’ choir and played in the pupils’ orchestra (ibid., 30). Soon Kurt Moser himself was giving lessons to pupils his father had turned down for lack of talent, to earn a little money for himself (ibid., 16).

When Kurt Moser faced the difficult task of choosing a field of study at the university, violin and musicology were naturally an option. But his father intervened “very energetically” in this regard — surely in light of his own financial woes: “As an avocation and source of artistic enjoyment, music [is] very pleasant, but as a source of livelihood it is hunger bread” (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 32).

Taking this to heart, he found that music opened many doors for him: His playing impressed his future mother-in-law. It brought him contacts that continued to have an effect even after the flight and led him to make new acquaintances years later. Music helped him get back on his feet as a refugee (ibid., 67–­69, 140–144, 157, 178, 179).

After opening his private practice in Königsberg, and despite extensive professional obligations, Kurt Moser avidly fostered music in the home and was concertmaster of two string quartets (Fig. 3).


String quartet of the Mozart Society, Königsberg, Prussia, March 17, 1942

Kurt Moser, right

Fig. 3

At this very time, some of the musical evenings were also becoming venues for political opposition. For instance, Kurt Moser made music with John Bywater, the American vice-consul in Königsberg, and these occasions often included lively discussion on political topics, until the authorities put a stop to it at the start of the war (ibid., 141–143, 119­–120). The eye doctor Dr. Lempp, pianist in the group, later attested, “I can therefore attest that he [Kurt Moser, J.A.] was opposed to the Nazi ideology and stoutly expressed his convictions without regard for personal disadvantage. Among other things, he did not give up his friendly association with the American consul in Königsberg, Mr. John Bywater, even though it caused him major problems with the party and district headquarters.”

The war brought cost Moser the loss of his instruments once again. His “good Mathias Klotz violin” fell to Russian looters in the attack on Königsberg (PAKM Moser K 1970, 151). In Greifswald, however, he managed to obtain a violin from old acquaintances and thus was able to make music often and even to sponsor public musical evenings (ibid., 157). Ilse Moser remembers his first public appearance as follows: “It was a wonderful evening that you enjoyed as if in a dream. You could hardly imagine that, after all the terrible things you had experienced and were still experiencing, the hunger, that there was still something that could tear you out of all that” (PAKM, Moser I 1964, 21). Kurt Moser and his comrades-in-arms enjoyed high esteem as a result of this (ibid., 21–22). Without music, in Ilse Moser’s estimation, her husband would hardly have borne all these miseries” (ibid., 22). Even after his move to Stralsund, he promptly sought out people with whom he could make music. Soon a string quartet was established and occasionally expanded with professional musicians (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 178–179). Moser performed at many events — in the Cultural Association, in the church, and for other occasions (ibid., and PAKM Moser I 1964, 24).


Kurt Moser’s biography does not portray a typical academic career of that day. There are no familial ties to the medical field, but rather a birth unbefitting his station and early experiences of deprivation, which made his path to success and fulfillment as an academic and physician quite arduous. Because of external circumstances primarily, his life was subject to major fluctuations that repeatedly called for readjustment. Nevertheless, Moser resisted enticements to secure his career through political involvement in both systems, and as a result he forfeited his lifelong desire to pursue an academic career. On the other hand, there were instances where, for reasons of material security — a need presumably rooted in his early experience of deprivation — he cooperated with the dictatorial system of the Nazi era and, latently, that of the DDR era as well. Particularly in his work with the Erbgesundheits­obergericht, he sometimes kept too little distance from the Nazi system.

Moser’s high degree of adaptability and motivation at an early age enabled him to compensate for many losses; and a double-consciousness allowed him to follow an inconsistent path through social changes that spanned four political systems, and especially those during the Nazi dictatorship. Nevertheless, in observing his life as a whole, one is left with the impression that Kurt Moser never really found his place in life, that he was always caught up in a tension field — resistance vs. security, academic career vs. social responsibility, or morality vs. personal advantage. He remained between worlds.


[1] Klaus Moser-Maync is Kurt Moser’s youngest son, born in 1939. In 1961 he left the GDR and emigrated to the USA, following his brother Jürgen. There we worked as a photographer until his retirement in 1996. Today he lives in Northport, New York.

[2] At that time, Wyborg was the capital of the Finnish province of Viipuri. The town is now in Russia.

[3] Because Marie Moser had married Robert Moser, her cousin, they all had the name Moser, which made the matter even less noticeable.

[4] In personal data forms dated 27 Apr 1950 and 27 Dec 1950, Kurt Moser gave Max M./Clara M. in one and Robert M./Marie M. in the other (AHKS, Personalakte Kurt Moser, pp. 1 and 16). It is notable that he listed his natural parents as foster parents.

[5] Klaus Moser-Maync, in acknowledgment of the family’s roots, uses the name extension Maync. Out of consideration for his father, however, he postponed the name change until after his father’s death.

[6] Friedrich Moser, having been rejected for an officer’s career, probably for political reasons (Friedrich Moser 1944), had volunteered for the front and was reported missing in action after the great Russian offensive against Königsberg on January 14, 1945.

[7] Otto Klieneberger, after the National Socialists had seized his practice and residence because he was Jewish, left Germany and emigrated to Bolivia by way of Great Britain (PAKM, Moser K 1970, 63). In Bolivia he practiced psychiatry at the Instituto Gregorio Pacheco in Sucre (Kassewitz de Vilar 2004, 60).

[8] Carl Moeli had studied in Marburg, Würzburg, and Leipzig. He began his career in psychiatry at the Berliner Charité under Carl Westphal (1833–1890), who had a lasting scientific influence on him. Later he transferred to the Anstalt Dalldorf. In 1883 he qualified for a professorship, and in 1893 he assumed the directorship of the Anstalt Herzberge (Meyer 1920).

[9] Ernst Siemerling studied in Marburg and subsequently went to Halle-Nietleben to study under Eduard Hitzig (1838–1907). Siemerling, too, became a student of Carl Westphal at the Berliner Charité, where he remained until 1893, finally as Medical Director. The he was called to Tübingen and in 1901 to Kiel, where he established psychiatry as an academic discipline and set up the hospital. He remained in Kiel until his retirement in 1925 (Meyer 1931).

[10] Bonhoeffer had gone to Breslau in 1904, where he remained until his move to the Berliner Charité in 1912.

[11] Jürgen Moser left the Soviet occupation zone in 1947 and studied mathematics in Göttingen, where he received his doctorate in 1952. In 1955 he left Germany and went to the Courant Institute, a division of New York University. Moser became a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1957 and at the Courant Institute in 1960, where he served as director from 1967 to 1970. From 1980 to 1995 he was director of the Institute for Mathematical Research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich. He died in 1999 (Jost 2000).

[12] August Bostroem (1886–1944) had studied in Freiburg and Giessen. In 1914 he went to Hamburg-Eppendorf to work under Max Nonne (1861–1959). In 1919 he moved to Rostock under Karl Kleist (1879–1960), and from there to Breslau under Oswald Bumke (1877–1950), whom he succeeded as senior physician in 1921. He received his professorship qualification in 1922 and followed Bumke to Munich as vice-director. There he became a professor extraordinarius in 1926 before his appointment to the Königsberg chair in 1932. He left Königsberg in 1939, following a call to Leipzig, and from there he moved to Strasbourg in 1942 as professor ordinarius (Nonne 1944).

[13] Otto Sieblist began his work at the Neurological Hospital in Stralsund in 1961 and later succeeded Moser as medical director, serving until his retirement in 1983.

[14] The illness, also known as “von Economo’s encephalitis” after its describer, Austrian psychiatrist and neurologist Constantin Freiherr Economo von San Serff (1876–1931), emerged as an epidemic between 1916 and 1927, whereas at other times cases were observed only sporadically.

[15]According to the law, anyone could be sterilized who was genetically defective or suffered from severe alcoholism. The term “genetically defective” applied to persons with congenital feeblemindedness, schizophrenia, circulatory insanity, hereditary epilepsy, hereditary St. Vitus’s dance, hereditary blindness, hereditary deafness, and severe hereditary physical deformity (Ganssmüller 1987, 42–43).

[16] The surrender of the Königsberg garrison under the command of General Otto Lasch (1893–1971) occurred in April 1945 (Glinski/Wörster 1992, 178).

[17] Moser was a party candidate “under heavy pressure” from 1937 to 1939, but never attained membership (UAG, Med.Fak.II, Vol. 19, p. 3). In his petition of Feb. 4, 1946, for a declaration of party neutrality, he asserted that he had accepted the party candidacy “purely out of concern for my family’s support,” since he was in danger of losing his secondary job with the provincial government (UAG, R 1031, p. 34).

[18] This applied not just to the SOZ, however: From 1947 on, in West and East Germany, former NSDAP members were accepted back into professorial positions (Parak/Schreiber 2008, 108).

[19] On June 15, 1947, the polyclinic was separated administratively from the municipal hospital system and in April 1957 reunited with the Krankenhaus am Sund (AHKS, Chronik, 22, 76).

[20] The Albertus University of Königsberg was unfortunately not included in this work.

[21] Eva Finck was the wife of the cabaret performer, actor, and author Werner Finck (1902–1978), who was temporarily interned in 1935 in the Esterwegen concentration camp and subsequently forbidden to work for one year. In 1939 he voluntarily enlisted in the military to avoid being arrested again. Eva Finck lived with the Mosers for four months in 1943.

[22] Additional explanations, similar in content, come from Otto Meyhöfer, former director of the Altwalde provincial reformatory and educational advisor for delinquent youth in the East Prussian provincial administration (p. 23); Prof. Dr. Reinhold Hoffmann (1885–1964) of the Institute of Plant Cultivation at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg (p. 25); and Dr. Lempp, a Königsberg eye specialist who has since moved to Thüringen (unpaginated).

[23] Beddies referred to Christina Härtel’s examination of the evaluations of Karl Bonhoeffer, who worked in the Berlin Erbgesundheitsobergericht. Here rejections likewise numbered more than 50 per cent.

[24]Reinhold Hoffmann wrote: “Now the usual reprisals on the part of the party began to intensify, and Mr. Moser was in danger of losing his side functions. To preserve these and thereby to secure his livelihood, Professor Moser finally saw himself compelled to offer himself as a so-called party candidate.” (AHKS, PA, p. 25)

[25] After the war Hoffmann was, i.a., a professor at the Institute for Plant Cultivation at the University of Halle-Wittenberg. [NOTE: Hoffmann’s death year appears in the source text as 1864 here and in footnote 22, corrected by the translator.]

[26] Referring to the GDR, Sabrow argued that double consciousness and the splitting into public and private realities did not necessarily threaten real socialism but at times even lent it its actual stability (Sabrow 2000, 553).