The man Bert Hellinger.

For those interested in getting to know Bert Hellinger a little better, Heinrich Breuer, Theo Roos and Wilfried Nelles held an interview in which he tells - a piece - of his life.

Is there for you …

a place that you associate with the term "homeland"?

Especially important for me is the place where I come from, Leimen near Heidelberg. My grandparents lived there, both my parents are from the town. But our family moved away from there to Cologne at an early age. For me, Leimen is a place that feels like home. Whenever I drive past there, I experience that.

My mother's father worked in the cement factory of Leimen. It was hard physical work. The workers lived in settlements that belonged to the factory. And every family got a piece of land from the factory. That was the time of transition from farming to industry, the workers were still working their fields. My grandfather too. He had a pig and chickens and fields. The men and women worked from morning to night. By the time I was born, my grandfather was no longer at the factory. I witnessed him and the people and life in the settlement. There was something warm there, and something upright. That has influenced me all my life. I have a heart for this simple life, for the simple things.

Before I went to school, I spent a long time with my grandparents. During this time I grew up in this environment and experienced the life of the simple people. The families had many children, and the children were naturally together a lot. We were able to enter the different families as if we belonged to them. Basically, it was like an extended family.

Why did your parents …

leave you with your grandparents for a while?

The grandparents wanted me to stay with them for a while. Maybe I should sweeten their farewell to the family, who had already moved to Cologne when I was younger. But I was very happy to be with them. I returned to Cologne when my school days began. I spent the first four years of elementary school in Cologne. The secondary school time began in a boarding school in Lohr am Main, a Catholic boarding school run by the Mariannhill missionaries, the missionaries I went to later.

The school and boarding school days of Bert (Anton) Hellinger

Was this boarding school …

already something like a preparation for the priesthood? 

That was the idea. We lived in a boarding school and went to the state high school, the Order did not have its own school. I felt very comfortable in the boarding school. That was a great time for me, a very wonderful time.

The time in the boarding school fell into the Nazi period. I came to the boarding school in 1936. In a big election, which took place at that time when Austria was annexed to Germany, some of the nuns who looked after us had voted with "no". And because there were obviously no secret elections at that time, this became known. In the night the SA went up in front of the boarding school. They broke the windows and wrote on the walls: "Traitors live here." Later the boarding school was closed. The war had already begun and the boarding school was turned into a military hospital. Then I returned to my family, who meanwhile were living in Kassel, where my father had got a new job. There I continued to go to high school for another two years. 

Did you …

graduate from high-school there?

With us there was no high school graduation, we were drafted before the high school graduation. After the seventh grade - I was 17 years old at that time - I was sent to work for three months and then to the army as a radio operator in the infantry. Our unit was transferred to the Western Front in France. There I witnessed the invasion and the retreat. Near Aachen I fell into American captivity.

When you think back …

to the time when many young people supported the ideology of the Nazis and could identify themselves with it. How was that for you?

In boarding school we were in a completely different field than the other young people. We did not go to the Young People or the Hitler Youth and therefore had little contact with them. Later, in Kassel, I joined a small Catholic youth group, which was of course forbidden. But we met regularly in secret.

Members of the HY often came by our house and wanted to pick me up for HY service. My mother would say, "He's not here right now." But you could only do that for a time, then it wouldn't work anymore, it would have threatened the family too much. That's why my parents wanted me to play the violin in an HY orchestra every two weeks.

The family was …

also a safe field weh nyou look back?

Family was a safe field, especially my mother. My mother was so solid in her faith that the ideology of National Socialism could not touch her.

Wasn't your father …

forced to be in the party?

A lot of pressure was put on him to join the party, but he did not do so. He stayed strictly out of it. That was a particular sign of courage in those days.

This means …

the collapse was not a personal disaster for anyone of the family, as it was for many families?

Of course, the death of my older brother, who fell in Russia, was very difficult. My brother was considered missing for a long time. I only learned about his death a few years ago in Leimen. My cousin Albert's wife told me at that time: "Albert met someone today in the cemetery who told me that he was in the prison camp together with a man called Hellinger from Leimen." That was my brother. I visited the man, and he confirmed that he was present when my brother died. They were in a huge prison camp from which only about twenty survived, including him. The others almost all died of dysentery. That is how we heard about my brother's death.

The collapse of the Third Reich was no disaster for us. On the contrary. If Germany had won, my fate would have been sealed. Of course our family was deeply affected by my brother's death. The house we lived in Kassel was also very much affected by the war. But the loss of relatives and belongings was normal at that time, and most families experienced that at that time. 

As someone who …

was born shortly after the war and grew up in the post-war period, I remember well these men with the empty sleeves and the limping ones with the prosthetic legs. The aftermath of the war was evident to me in these people. 

Wartime was a great time of dying for everyone. It was quite natural, another one had fallen, another one there. I think half of my class died. In wartime it was natural. You didn't walk around sad, that was part of it. It was war, and people died. From the outside, you can no longer imagine what it was like.

I realize …

how strange this is to me. Death then seems to be an everyday occurrence.

Exactly, exactly.

Then the bombings …

and the civilian deaths.

At that time it was a natural part of life.

Is it the effect

of the experiences from that time that you work with war and death, and that you can deal with it so fearlessly because of that time as well?

That has something to do with it. Horst Eberhard Richter once gave a lecture at the Psychotherapy Weeks in Lindau, in which he said something like this: "Sometimes we expect - he was talking about his generation - that the youth should be like us. But that is not possible. By our twentieth year we had learned that half of our comrades were dead. What others only experience at the age of sixty or seventy as their peers die away, we have already experienced at twenty." Of course we are shaped by this. It is part of our lived life. 

When you look back …

on your time as a soldier, are there any particularly powerful experiences? With people who have died beside you, comrades you have lost yourself? It is always impressive how you can talk about the community of soldiers. I suspect that this is based on your own experiences. 

You were dependent on each other, and you needed and respected each other. And, of course, loved each other. One stood up for the other. There were great experiences of comradeship, and above all, there were no differences in status. All were equal. I remember I was in a unit with only two high school students. I didn't know that there were groups where there weren't many high school students, I had never experienced that. There was such a wealth of different experiences and previous experiences from life before the war. For me it was a great experience to see how each of the people was different. 

Of course the war itself is an experience in itself. You were a soldier in a unit that was not so big at that time. It consisted of about sixty or seventy soldiers. After eight days in action, there were maybe twenty of them left. The rest were wounded or fallen or captured. Then a new unit was formed and sent back into action, and after eight days there were only twenty of them left again. These are deep experiences.

How do you overcome

something like this, what kind of mourning does this require?

No mourning at all. It was a time of dying. Death was everywhere, and it doesn't make you afraid anymore that it's so present. Everything is concentrated on the moment, you have no illusions whether you will escape, whether you will escape at all, you are at the mercy of it. And if it went well, you gave a sigh of relief. That's all. It wasn't only like that at the front, death was just as present at home.

Does this still

play a role, when you look at death today and question the meaning of death as something bad and terrible?

Yes, it does play a role, because it is familiar to me, it is still very close.

Did death

make life more intense?

Yeah, I guess. I was eighteen, nineteen years old at the time! My God!

And after the war, …

what happened then?

I was first in captivity, in Charleroi, Belgium, for a year. I escaped from the prison camp. This escape, this running away, gave me a year and a half of independent living. After the escape I went straight to the Mariannhillers. A few weeks after I came home, I joined the Order and began my studies. I studied philosophy and theology in Würzburg.

After graduating

you probably received your ordination to the priesthood, around the mid-fifties?

1952, I think. I can't remember exactly, it was so long ago.

Have you ever had doubts …

whether you should follow the priest's path?

No, I didn't, I never doubted it. I decided when I was five years old.

Already with five? …

I was also carrying this question when I was a boy too. The priest told me then that you would have something like a calling experience when God called you. I always waited for the voice of God, but it did not come. How was that with you?

The idea to become a priest came just like that. I never had any other idea.

Later I could never …

understand that the young men wanted to renounce a life with women. At the age of five that is not an issue, but at fifteen this question arises quite massively, I can imagine. Was there no debate about celibacy and the issues involved?

At the age of five there is no such thing.

But later, at the age of 15 …

is it a decision not only for a certain life form, but also against another life form?

You can't treat it like that. It is not about these things, but about a reference to God. It is subordinate to this reference to God. You have to see it on the level of the relationship to God. It has to do with God, of course with God in my imagination at that time.

Was then later, …

when you had thoughts of leaving in the sixties, the subject of celibacy a factor? You got married then, too.

The decision to give up the priesthood had nothing to do with a possible marriage. This decision was also subordinated to the relationship with God. I suddenly saw that much of what was important to me in Christianity was covered up by other things in the Church. Suddenly I was to get involved in something that contradicted my idea of God. Suddenly it was clear to me that I could no longer go along with it. Not because I had become a disbeliever, but rather because I was still a believer.

Faith was …

too precious to you?

It was too precious to me. That's why I had to leave the order. The other things came later.

Bert Hellinger as teacher in South Africa

When did you …

go to South Africa?

It was 1953, I suppose. I went to South Africa to study for another degree, for a teaching career. Then I went to a school to teach there. While I was teaching in the school, I took a distance study course to obtain the University Education Diploma in Educational Sciences. This gave me the teaching license for teaching at secondary schools. After that I had to take over the administration of this school in addition.
But I had overworked myself by taking over this position and the additional distance learning. I got a nervous breakdown. It was a curative disease, so to speak, because it got me out of school.

Did you have an exhaustive depression, …

or what would you call it?

I couldn't sleep anymore, it was a terrible period. I was at the end of my rope. I went to a missionary station to a Dutch brother and just wandered around with him when he was doing his work. As a result I slowly recovered within two months. I then went to a mission station and worked in pastoral care. That was much more satisfying for me.

And after the missionary station, …

came the return to Germany?

Not for a long time yet. More than ten years passed. During this time I also became head of St. Francis College in Mariannhill. There was an elite school. At that time a high percentage of the indigenous university students came from that one school, it had an excellent reputation throughout South Africa. The school was also a boarding school. All students also lived in the boarding school. That was a beautiful and fruitful time for me. There was a very close cooperation between me as the director and another priest who was at my side. One cannot run such a large school and boarding school alone.

Basically, the school had two boarding schools, one for the girls and one for the boys. Sisters were responsible for the girls and we two priests for the boys. We organized the school and the boarding school in the sense of a far-reaching self-administration. Each class elected a spokesperson, in addition, all together from the final class elected five representatives to the school board of directors, the student parliament. This body settled most issues among itself. We were surprised how well it worked. It was an important experience for me. 

How long …

did you remain in South Africa?

For sixteen years.

What were …

the reasons you left? Was it because you wanted to leave the priesthood?

The reasons were elsewhere. I represented a somewhat progressive, modern theology, for which I was known. Suddenly I was suspected of having views in religious education at school that were incompatible with the teachings of the Church.

At that time I was supposed to represent my bishop at the Bishops' Conference. The bishop called me to his office to discuss with me what his concerns were there. After the conversation he pulled out a letter in which someone accused me of heresy. The bishop asked me to comment on it and advised me to be a little more careful in the future. I told him: "If I do not have confidence in this matter, I cannot represent you at the Bishops' Conference. Nor can I carry out my duties."  I resigned from all my positions, I was very radical about it. Afterwards it was clear that I would return to Germany.

People often come…

to a crossroads and stop in front of it and do not move. But you have always continued there with great fearlessness. Or was it almost a lack of a way out? To be able to continue to exist for you, you had to take this step?

Whenever I notice that somewhere I can't go on, I go another way and do something new.

What happened next?

In the meantime it had become known in Germany that I had resigned from my offices in South Africa. The Order immediately demanded my return from the diocese there, because I had long been supposed to take over the rector's office of the Mariannhiller seminary in Würzburg.  

But before that something important had happened in South Africa, namely the contact with the group dynamics. At a conference I met a Benedictine monk who told me: "There is something there that is very interesting, you have to participate in it." He put me in touch with a group of Anglican priests who had introduced group dynamics in South Africa. They offered ecumenical and interracial courses, so they were very progressive in that respect. 
I went to them for group dynamics training. In this first course I had a crucial experience. The facilitator asked only general questions in the group: "What is more important to you, ideals or people? What do you sacrifice to whom? The people of an ideal or the ideal to people." That affected me deeply, I could not sleep the night after. It was a turning point in my life. 

You realized …

it had to be about people?

All of a sudden, people were in the spotlight for me. I did several other trainings with them and I also applied the group dynamics in the school I was at.
With this knowledge and skills I returned to Germany. When I had already been here for two months, Professor Däumling from Bonn (one of the founders of group dynamics in Germany, H.B.), gave a lecture on group dynamics in Würzburg. Of course I went there and told him that I knew about group dynamics from my work in South Africa. In Germany, group dynamics was still new, whereas in South Africa it was already established. Mr. Thumb then invited me to a training in Bonn as an assistant trainer. Through this invitation I got a place in the group dynamics scene in Germany, as someone who already knew something.  

But that was back …

in the early seventies?

That was 1970. I had returned from South Africa at the end of 1969. With group dynamics I had a new foothold in Germany right away. I immediately applied the group dynamics work in this seminary. I also offered courses in group dynamics and became known as a trainer for group dynamics. But I knew that I was still missing a lot. That is why I started a psychoanalysis in Würzburg right after my return.

In the meantime, I had slowly become inwardly estranged from my order. More and more often I had to experience that in important decisions issues of self-preservation were more important than religious and human issues.

With this inner conflict I went to the first group dynamic congress in Cologne and met Ruth Cohn there. The congress took place at the end of the 68s, the time of the hippies and radical students. They also invaded this congress and disturbed the events. Ruth Cohn saved the congress with incredible skill by winning over the students. I was very impressed by that. Shortly afterwards I went to her in a course. It was the first course she offered in Germany. 

In that course she told me something about Gestalt therapy. She had known Fritz Perls well and was therefore familiar with Gestalt Therapy. In Germany Gestalt Therapy was still completely unknown. She offered a demonstration of Gestalt Therapy in the group and asked who would be the first to volunteer to sit on the so-called hot chair. I volunteered. While she worked with me, I looked into the distance. Suddenly I saw that I had a different future. No longer in the Order. The key sentence at the end of that session was, "I'm leaving." Then I had to stand in front of each participant in turn and say: "I'm leaving". It was an incredible experience, a key experience 

It was now clear to me that my remaining in the Order was only a matter of time. But first I went back to Würzburg. At the same time I decided to do a training analysis. A friend of mine, Professor Hermann Stenger, also a group dynamist, got me a place in Vienna for a training analysis. Although I knew that I would leave the Order and had already made provisions for this. But the time was not yet ripe, I was waiting for the right time. During a group dynamic training that I offered in Rome, during a conversation with an American, it suddenly "clicked", I knew: "Now was the time." A few days later I communicated my decision to my superiors in Rome. Afterwards everything necessary went off without any difficulties. I stood fully behind this decision. My religious superiors noticed this and made no attempt to change my mind. 

I had made provisions for life outside the Order. I stood on my own feet because I was a respected group dynamic facilitator. I immediately moved to Vienna and began the teaching analysis.

The influences of different therapeutic schools on Bert Hellinger

And then came relatively quickly

Arthur Janov with Primal Therapy?

That had another prelude. I had taken all the exams for the degree as a psychoanalyst and joined the psychoanalytical working group in Salzburg. I was asked to give a lecture there. My topic was Janov's book: "The Primal Scream."  It was not well received. I was expelled from the study group and refused to graduate. I would have had to do twenty hours of analysis, that's all. I had brought this as a condition from Vienna.

I then went to Janov and one of his leading students in the USA for nine months and did Primal Therapy. That was a great experience for me. 

But these were also …

very negative experiences? Like an abuse of power?

It made me feel sad. But on the other hand, of course you get an incredible freedom in such a moment.

That you can suddenly …

go in a new direction? That one can escape the rules and rituals that a therapeutic school entails?

Yes. You don't have any inner obligations either. Later I made a second attempt. I wanted to be a transactional analyst. They turned me down too.


I was told that I had not gone through the normal training, although Rüdiger Rogoll was my supporter and a respected teacher of Transactional Analysis. This was my last attempt to belong somewhere. It was painful, but healing, and above all incredibly liberating.

The strange thing was that later the tables turned again. I had a certain reputation through script analysis, which I had offered for many years. The Munich Working Group for Psychoanalysis wanted me to offer Script Analysis for their training candidates, because they still have to learn something in two other procedures. This working group then recognized me as a psychoanalyst as well. I also got a license as an analyst from the Bavarian Medical Association.

After the episode …

of psychoanalysis came family therapy? How did the professional training continue?

We both started family therapy together in Snowmass in the USA. Then hypnotherapy and NLP joined in. These further trainings are closely connected with you, because you later brought important hypnotherapists and NLP therapists from the US to Germany. What emerged with Erickson's work and NLP, I immediately adopted and integrated. These were and are valuable experiences for me. The further training in Snowmass in family therapy with Ruth McClendon and Les Kadis and the Reddingtons, those were beautiful and fruitful times.

When you look back …

which people you have met in the field of psychotherapy have impressed you the most?

Ruth Cohn certainly, then in Snowmass Ruth McClendon and Les Kadis. Of the hypnotherapists, Jeff Zeig, Stephen Lankton and also Stephan Gilligan were important to me. From Transactional Analysis it was Fanita English, before that also Hilarion Petzold. And of course in the beginning the group dynamics facilitators in South Africa, whom I have already spoken about. With regard to Family Constellation, Thea Schönfelder was also important. With her I had my first experience as a representative.

New beginnings in the late eighties: Bert Hellinger writes books and the first major events take place

There was a time …

in the late 1980s when people sat in your classes and said, "Bert, why don't you write a book?" Scripts were passed around with quotations of what had been picked up in courses. Some of them had collected them later. What you had developed suddenly became a huge movement.

But I had already finished, so to speak.

You were in retreat…

I was under the impression that you were going to go into your quiet retirement life in Ainring. Suddenly you were experienced as if you were going to take off again, and you did.

First of all it was important that Gunthard Weber published the book "Love's hidden Symmetry". That opened up the field into the wide world. It was not yet the time for me to do that myself back then. That Gunthard did that was a great achievement. Then it was suddenly clear: "Now I'll do something too." I began to write the book "Orders of Love". You know how I did that?

We had sent you …

the videos of the course in Cologne, which you held for me in 1992 at the university in Cologne. We recorded the whole course on tape, because we wanted to have a look at your work afterwards. 

I sat down and transcribed the videos, which was very difficult because the sound was very bad. What came out was the first part of the book "Orders of Love". 

A little later von was invited to a course for family therapists, which was also recorded. This video became the basis for the second part of "Orders of Love." 
Shortly afterwards there was a congress in Garmisch, which Wolf Büntig had organized. I gave the lecture "Of Heaven that makes sick, and Earth that heals". At this congress I also offered a course and said: "I'll take up to 35 participants." But 350 registered. What should I do now? I said, "Then I'll give the course with everyone." Earlier, a woman came up to me and asked, "Do you mind if I record this course?"  This video became the basis for the third part of "Orders of Love," which was also the breakthrough to the major events. Everything happened as if by coincidence.

It wasn't …

something you planned?

It happened, and suddenly it was a challenge.

The critics and their ties to the group

Can I go back …

to belonging to groups? The psychotherapists who attack you, especially the systemic therapists, defend their field and, when they attack you, they are completely at peace with their conscience. In your case you were able to leave the field of the Order and the Church. Instead of remaining in the community of the Order and the Church, you went further, but did not let yourself be bound by them. What made you so independent? Is it something like a need to follow an inner movement?

That is more complex. I had the advantage that I also learned other professions. In South Africa I took the teacher's exam and had an alternative there. I felt that I had a completely different kind of independence as a result, and the others felt the same. Therefore they could not intimidate me. This alternative was something very valuable for me.

Now imagine those who only learned one profession, or those who finally became psychoanalysts after ten years of learning. They may realize later that there is something else, but they can't get out of what they have developed for themselves. They are then in a similar situation as many priests. They have no alternative, because in their group an alternative is not tolerated. As soon as they strive for something else, they are excluded from this group. They then represent the positions of their group to the outside world also in the sense of a struggle for survival. A lot of criticism of Family Constellation must be considered from this point of view. Their criticism often has little to do with Family Constellation itself. Family Constellation is not even looked at or examined more closely. One immediately rejects it, because one instinctively feels that it can be a danger for one's own group and its survival.

Many expect you …

to take a stand on such criticism. I understand that some expect you to be different.

Yes, exactly. I generally withdraw when someone wants to gain power over me. I am accused of not accepting criticism. I do accept criticism, but not a claim to power over me. Behind many criticism is the demand: "You have to leave your position and follow me. Why don't you do it the way I want?"

If it's criticism in the sense of: Let's take a look together at what works there and what is helpful here - then the other person speaks of an experience and seeks an experience, and I speak of an experience and seek an experience. Through the different experience we enrich each other. Each one has given something to the other despite criticism - which actually only means here, despite other experiences. For me, this is a valuable exchange in which I can grow and develop. But if someone says: "You have to listen to me and follow my arguments, they are better and more correct than yours" - what do they want then? They want to gain power over me. I withdraw from that.

This withdrawal reminds me …

a lot of your father. When I imagine how he escaped party membership, it must have been something like that. He simply wasn't available, he withdrew.

That's right, I never thought of it that way. Maybe I learned it from him. I can feel a good connection with him there.

Bert Hellinger's faith and religious movement

How would you …

describe your faith?

In the meantime I have no faith anymore. On the one hand, faith means that I follow an idea of God or what is said about God or as a revelation from or about God. That I believe this to be true and arrange my life accordingly. But even without a faith of this kind, there is a spiritual movement towards something greater. This movement is the actual true religiousness, the movement towards something hidden and greater. This movement can be found both with many believers, wherever they are, and with many others who have no definite faith. They go into this movement towards something and look in it beyond the narrow, the obvious. For many people the religious is bound to certain images of God. But it also exists detached from such images. The movement towards something greater is the same in all religions, independent of certain images of God. That is why it also exists outside the religions. 

The question is whether the many images of God are compatible with this religious movement, or whether after some time they oppose this movement, perhaps even lead it into the absurd.

In what is proclaimed as religious, there are for me a lot of contradictions. I have investigated this. If you take the sentence seriously: "Everything is moved" - from where is it moved? From something outside of us. This movement is creative because it causes something. But according to my conception, there must be an original movement or an original force from which every movement comes. Whether this original force can be called God, I do not know. There might be something in between, but that does not matter to me. What is important is that every movement, whatever it is, is seen as being controlled by something beyond it, by something creative. This creativity is directed towards the movement and its direction, it must be, because it cannot be a movement that is directed against itself at the same time.

If you take this seriously, everything that happens, even the so-called evil or terrible or violent, is moved by the same cause. This creates a different horizon. The distinction between good and evil can then no longer be maintained. Questions like: "How can God allow this to happen?" become irrelevant here. For me, it's about agreeing with this perceptible movement as it is. For me, this is religious. In that sense, I am very religious. This consent does not need an image or a belief. Everyone can experience this directly in their soul.

Good and Evil, Hitler

The pairs of opposites …

"good and evil" were created at some point as an orientation. In our minds they are fixed values.

I must face good and evil with the same posture, because the same force is at work in both. When I do this, this difference no longer exists. If you can endure it not only in your mind but also in practice, it is an incredible purification and achievement at the same time. 

The controversy arises …

from the practical application. As long as you philosophize about it, it wouldn't matter. After all, it is not a new realization that good and evil ultimately lead to unity. But if you apply that to any person in practice, for example a serial killer, SS-officer, or Hitler, everything resists. 

Hitler is a test. Many who are against him look at Hitler, and their own souls often follow the rejected very secretly. I look behind him and beyond him and see that he too is confronted with an inevitable fate. To take this seriously, that is religion for me.

Criticism versus Dialogue

Is there a parallel …

between retreating when all the lines of criticism are directed at you, and retreating before the claims of the Nazis in your youth and later the claims of the Order or therapeutic schools?

There are certain similarities. But because I see how important the field in which a group is moving is for the group, I can't condemn others who are in another field or say "They're worse or better." They're just in a different field. Nowadays I view this as neutral in terms of value.

Sometimes it hits you …

when people treat you that way. Or are you so far away from it? Some of them are people who have come close to you personally, who have profited a lot from you and Family Constellation, and who are against you today.

I also see them as part of a field and do not experience it as a personal attack. I can leave it like this.

Mostly or always?

Allow me to remain human here. This perfection would be terrible for me. But to face it in this serene way is a constant achievement, a constant challenge. I have to adjust to it again and again. But that does not exclude the possibility that I will face a conflict as well.

That also means…

to respect the opponent and take them seriously.

That's part of it. War is the father of all things. It is also the father of peace.

Can Hellinger also …

be a warrior?

I've shown this a few times in my life, and I'm staying on that path.