The founder of the Family Constellation method, Bert Hellinger (born 16 December 1925, in Leimen, Baden, Germany as Anton Hellinger), is a German Psychotherapist. In recent years, his work evolved beyond the original constellation formats into what he called Movements of the Spirit-Mind. Several thousand professional practitioners worldwide, influenced by Hellinger, but not necessarily following him, continue to apply and adapt his original insights for a broad range of personal and organisational applications.
Anton Hellinger was born in 1925 into a Catholic family. Hellinger states that his parents’ “particular form of [Catholic] faith provided the entire family with immunity against believing the distortions of National Socialism“. At the age of 10, he left his family to attend a Catholic monastery school run by the Order, in which he was later ordained and that sent him to South Africa as a missionary.
The local Hitler Youth Organization tried without success to recruit the teenage Bert Hellinger. This resulted in him being classified as ‘Suspected of Being an Enemy of the People’. In 1942, Hellinger was conscripted into the regular German army. He took part in combat on the Western front. In 1945, he was captured and imprisoned in an allied P.O.W. camp in Belgium. After escaping from the P.O.W. camp, Hellinger made his way back to Germany.
Hellinger entered a Catholic religious order, taking the religious name Suitbert, which is the source of his first name “Bert”. He studied philosophy and theology at the University of Würzburg en route to his ordination as a priest. In the early 1950s, he was dispatched to South Africa where he was assigned to be a missionary to the Zulus, there he continued his studies at the University of Pietermaritzburg and the University of South Africa where he received a B.A. and a University Education Diploma, which entitled him to teach at public high schools.
Hellinger lived in South Africa for 16 years, and it was during these years that he served as a parish priest, teacher and, finally, as headmaster of a large school for African students. He also had administrative responsibility for the entire diocesan district containing 150 schools. He became fluent in the Zulu language, participated in their rituals, and gained an appreciation for their distinct worldview.
His participation in a series of interracial, ecumenical trainings in group dynamics, that were led by the Anglican clergy in South Africa in the early 1960s, laid the groundwork for him leaving Catholic priesthood. There the trainers adopted a phenomenological orientation. They were concerned with recognising what is essential out of the diversity of what is present, without intention, without fear, without preconceptions, relying purely on what appears. He was deeply impressed by the way their methods showed it was possible for opposites to become reconciled through mutual respect. The beginning of his interest in phenomenology coincided with the unfolding dissolution of his vows to priesthood.
In the early 1970s, after leaving priesthood, he spent several years in Vienna training in a classical course in psychoanalysis at the Wiener Arbeitskreis für Tiefenpsychologie (Viennese Association for Depth Psychology). He completed his training at the Münchner Arbeitsgemeinschaft für Psychoanalyse (Munich Psychoanalytic Training Institute) and was accepted as a practising member of their professional association. In 1973, he left Germany for a second time and travelled to the USA to be trained for nine months by Arthur Janov.
There were many important influences that shaped his approach during that period; one of the most significant was through Eric Berne and Transactional Analysis.
Among others, Hellinger also studied the hypnotic work of Milton Erickson, the provocative therapy of Frank Farrelly, Fritz Perls’ Gestalt therapy, Virginia Satir’s family sculpture and the family systems work of Ruth McClendon and Les Kadis. He had already learned group dynamics — as well as indigenous peoples’ ancestor reverence — both as a school principal and missionary in South Africa.
Hellinger travelled widely, delivering lectures, workshops and training courses throughout Europe, Central and South America, Russia, China, and Japan. Despite that Bert Hellinger’s philosophy has caused controversial discussions, his findings on cross-generational dynamics of ‘Love’s Hidden Symmetry’ and ‘Orders of Love’ inspired individuals, professionals and organizations worldwide.
Bert Hellinger passed away on the 19th of October 2019. His legacy continues to inspire many generations across the world.