Germans and their forests

Dimitra Triantafyllou

Freedom to choose is at the centre of Germany’s embrace of alternative medicine, but not in Greece

The Havelhoehe anthroposophic hospital in Berlin; photo Dimitra Triantafyllou

It’s about the forest, Guido Bockamp told me. “It’s always about Germans and their forests...”

Bockamp, a lawyer at the German Association of Consumers, a consumer protection group, was explaining to me the German affinity for alternative medicine.

I had come to Berlin to find out why alternative medicine is such a huge industry in Germany, for a story on how – at the other end of the continent’s economic spectrum – people in Greece are turning away from classical medicine in favour of self-treatment and alternative remedies.

Bockamp explained it in terms of a German passion for being close to nature, to ‘the forest’, and the fact that non-classical approaches such as homeopathy and anthroposophy – both created by Germans – trace their roots to a perceived “golden” period in German history, “before the two world wars and the wall that divided the capital.”

Dr Friedemman Schad, head of oncology at the Havelhoehe anthroposophic hospital in Berlin; photo Dimitra Triantafyllou

The continued rise in alternative medicine is keeping Bockamp busy tackling cases of misleading or unfair advertising. There is a law in Germany designed to stamp out the inflated claims of pharmaceutical companies, but with new players constantly entering the market, Bockamp says, violations come thick and fast.

A similar phenomenon can be seen in Greece, where in many aspects of life the state has largely absconded under the strain of one of the worst economic depressions in modern history.

Turning away from a crumbling and corrupt state health system, many Greeks are taking medical matters into their own hands and frequently fall for the cure-all claims of alternative products.

The Havelhoehe anthroposophic hospital in Berlin; photo Dimitra Triantafyllou

One striking difference, however, is the support on offer in Germany for those who choose another way.

Last summer, Marget Schleef was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer. Rejecting the standard treatment – chemotherapy, radiation, operation, hormone therapy – Schleef said she wanted the tumor simply removed and to skip the therapy.

“Chemotherapy is a big business, not a heeling method,” she told me. “It’s also a poison, but I don’t need poison, I need health.”

Schleef chose to have her operation done at the Havelhoehe anthroposophic hospital in Berlin, which stresses the need to treat mental and spiritual needs as well as the physical ailment and where the patient is freer to choose their therapy.

“I’m treating a person, not a cell,” said Dr Friedemman Schad, head of the hospital’s oncology department. “I’m treating someone who wants to be perceived as a human being, not as a statistic or a customer.”

“Materialistic medicine was invented to free us from the conspiracies and magical theories surrounding health, but in the process we destroyed the culture, we lost the spiritual way of thinking.”

Whatever you believe, I was struck by the fact that choice is paramount, unlike in Greece. In Germany, patients can find support for the path they choose. In Greece, if you reject conventional medicine doctors will turn you away. The notion of ‘my health, my choice’ is not an option.

Dimitra Triantafyllou is a Greek freelance journalist who writes about social issues, health and gender. For the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, Dimitra is reporting on why Greeks are turning away from traditional medicine.