Freud Unbound: The Shaping of Psychoanalysis by the Great War Dany Nobus

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Freud Unbound:

The Shaping of Psychoanalysis by the Great War
Dany Nobus


On 28 July 1914, exactly one month after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, thus setting in motion what the American diplomat George F. Kennan would describe asthe great seminal catastrophe” of the 20th century, and “the event which . . . lay at the heart of the failure and decline of this Western civilization”.1 When news of the armed conflict broke, the atmosphere in Vienna and other central European cities was nothing short of electrifying. Socialists and nationalists shared in a new sense of patriotic heroism, and erstwhile pacifists such as the German novelist Arnold Zweig unapologetically volunteered to join the armed forces. Within the first weeks of the war the Central Powers were capable of deploying vast numbers of troops, partly on account of conscripted men swiftly answering mobilisation orders, partly owing to the support from large swathes of enthusiastic volunteers. Arriving back in Vienna on the last Orient Express from Belgium, the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig captured the mood in words whose ostensible grandiloquence was in fact perfectly apt for the exuberant quality of the momentous events: “[T]here was a majestic, rapturous, and even seductive something in this first outbreak of the people from which one could escape only with difficulty . . . [T]housands and hundreds of thousands felt what they should have felt in peace time, that they belonged together . . . [E]ach one was called upon to cast his infinitesimal self into the glowing mass, there to be purified of all selfishness . . . Each individual experienced an exaltation of his ego, he was no longer the isolated person of former times, he had been incorporated into the mass, he was part of the people, and his person, his hitherto unnoticed person, had been given meaning.”2 In his sweeping account of life in the Austrian capital just prior to the outbreak of the Great War, the Vienna-born American historian Frederic Morton conceded that, whereas the announcement of military action threw many European cities in a state of frenzied elation, Vienna “out-waltzed friend and foe alike in celebration.”3

From his large windows on the first floor of the Berggasse 19, the fifty-eight-year old Sigmund Freud would have seen the colourful parades marching through the street, women waving their handkerchiefs at the regiments leaving for the front, citizens of all ages dancing to the beat of Johann Strauss’ Radetzky march.4 Much like so many other Austrians, he had reacted to the murder of the heir-apparent with subtle indifference. On the very day of the drama that would trigger the first cataclysm of the 20th century, he had written to his fellow psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi in Budapest: “I am writing under the impression of the surprising murder in Sarajevo, the consequences of which cannot be foreseen. It appears to me that personal involvement here is slight.”5 But less than a month later his spirit had awoken to the promise of great things to come. Two days before the war became official, he had already written to the psychoanalyst Karl Abraham in Berlin: “[P]erhaps for the first time in 30 years I feel myself to be an Austrian and would like to try it once again with this not very hopeful Empire. Morale everywhere is excellent.”6 However, when at the end of August the whole of Europe was set alight, Freud’s initial excitement turned into a more sombre, gloomy state of mind. As he disclosed to Ferenczi on 23 August: “The rush of enthusiasm in Austria swept me along with it, at first . . . Like many others, I suddenly mobilized libido for Austria-Hungary . . . Gradually a feeling of discomfort set in . . .”7 For reasons that are not entirely clear, some of Freud’s biographers have exaggerated his bellicose fervour during the first month of the war, and then expressed their surprise that a fiercely rational, middle-aged man who was generally disinterested in politics could allow himself to be carried away by a public outburst of patriotic sentiment.8 The truth is that during the early days of the conflict very few people openly opposed the war, and that some of the most prominent intellectuals in Germany and Austria-Hungary, such as Arthur Schnitzler, Rainer Maria Rilke, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Thomas Mann, explicitly welcomed the hostilities, including all the death and destruction they would entail, as some kind of latter-day purification ritual that would signal the end of a lacklustre, bourgeois life-style. In addition, most people believed this would be a “war of movement”, fierce yet fast-paced, relatively smooth and swiftly re-creating stable power relations on the European continent.9 As Freud himself put it some six months after the conflict had broken out: “[W]e pictured it as a chivalrous passage of arms [einen ritterlichen Waffengang], which would limit itself to establishing the superiority of one side in the struggle, while as far as possible avoiding acute suffering that could contribute nothing to the decision, and granting complete immunity for the wounded who had to withdraw from the contest, as well as for the doctors and nurses who devoted themselves to their recovery.”10

Much more puzzling and provocative than Freud’s initial response to the impending desolation of old Europe is his observation, six days after the signing of the armistice between the Central Powers and the Allied Forces, that for psychoanalysis the war had somehow ended too soon. Again, it was Ferenczi to whom Freud addressed himself: “Our analysis has actually also had trouble. No sooner does it begin to interest the world on account of the war neuroses than the war ends, and once we find a source that affords us monetary resources, it has to dry up immediately. But hard luck is one of the constants of life. Our kingdom is indeed not of this world.”11 Neither here, nor in any of the other letters Freud exchanged around this time does one get a sense of the extraordinary relief that settled in the hearts of people across the world on that November day in 1918. Nowhere did Freud confess to having privately or publicly participated in the triumphal hubris that traversed the broken citizens and the shattered nations of Europe. On 11 November 1918, he dryly noted in his Prochaska year-calendar: “End of war, Emperor Karl renounces the throne.”12 Maybe Freud’s joy was dampened by the recent news that his eldest son Martin had been captured on the Italian front, without anyone knowing when or even whether he would come home again.13 Maybe the dramatic collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the prospect of an uncertain socio-political future for central Europe overshadowed the vaguely victorious jubilation associated with the end of warfare. In any case, what could have been an exhilarating moment in Freud’s life seems to have been eclipsed by inexorable feelings of disappointment and doom, in a peculiar reversal of the prevailing mood at the outbreak of the war, when anxious tension over the fate of the nation and its people was dissipated in the euphoria of a new-found community spirit.

It is between these two complex poles of Freud’s internal life—between the libidinal attachment giving way to discomfort at the start of the war, and the restless unease gradually turning into quiet optimism at the end of it—that I want to situate the substance of this essay. Just like it affected everything else, from the basic needs of daily life to large-scale economic and political configurations, from science and technology to literature and the visual arts, the Great War left its imprint on Sigmund Freud and the discipline named psychoanalysis he had invented at the turn of the 19th century. Without entering into the contested domain of counterfactual history, and thus avoiding speculation about how Freud’s life and that of his invention would have evolved had Archduke Franz Ferdinand not been shot and had the ensuing diplomacy been more effective, I shall argue that psychoanalysis—the clinical practice, the conceptual apparatus, the general theory and the institutional culture around it—was indelibly marked and permanently shaped by the trials and tribulations of the Great War, so much so that we do not require the satirical stance of Sellar and Yeatman’s history of England to observe that for psychoanalysis too World War I could justifiably be called “the cause of nowadays and the end of history.”14

Freud at War
Reflecting, many years later, upon the outbreak of war, the British statesman David Lloyd George wrote: “’Boom!’ The deep notes of Big Ben rang out into the night, the first strokes in Britain’s most fateful hour since she arose out of the deep. A shuddering silence fell upon the room. Every face was suddenly contracted in a painful intensity. ‘Doom!’ ‘Doom!’ ‘Doom!’ to the last stroke. The big clock echoed in our ears like the hammer of destiny. What destiny? Who could tell? We had challenged the most powerful military empire the world has yet brought forth.” 15 Long before the Germans started their infamous Zeppelin-raids on England, the bomb blasts were already being heard in the chimes of time, the sounds of familiar bells suddenly acquiring the threatening tones of a deathknell.

In Vienna, however, Freud did not wait for the announcement that Europe was at war nor, for that matter, for the crack of Gavrilo Princip’s Browning killing the Archduke and his wife, to hear the deafening sound of an explosion. On 22 June 1914, six days before Sarajevo, he had already written to Ferenczi: “We are living under the expectation of the ‘bomb,’ which is supposed to be sent out as soon as it comes in.”16 One did not have to wait long for the device to be launched, for three days later Freud wrote to Abraham: “So the bombshell has now burst, we shall soon discover with what effect. I think we shall have to allow the victims two to three weeks to collect themselves and react . . .”17 The bomb in question, here, had in fact been homemade at Berggasse 19 during the early months of 1914, and if it took four months to be activated, it was purely on account of the time it had taken to be proofed. Of course, Freud’s incendiary device was not a real bomb, but rather an intellectual explosive, which he had called ‘On the History of the Psycho-Analytic Movement’.18 The vehemently polemical text did not appear until October 1914 in the Jahrbuch der Psychoanalyse, yet as soon as a printed version was ready, during the last week of June 1914, Freud arranged for offprints to be sent out to all key members of the International Psycho-Analytic Association.19 And although the essay contained more than a few, one word to the wise was definitely enough. For example, on 4 July 1914, after having read his own personal copy of the text, the eminent Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler wrote to Freud: “In secondary school I was once told that the Peloponnesian War . . . had been a blessing, because without it we wouldn’t have had, as a lasting gain for humanity, the historiography of Thucydides. This is what came to my mind when I read your history of the psychoanalytic movement, which I greatly enjoyed despite its dubious subject matter.”20

Before World War I was unleashed upon the world, Freud was already at war. At the suggestion of his British ally Ernest Jones, he had established, in the Summer of 1912, a small ‘secret committee’ of loyal followers in order to “take care of the further development of A [sic] and defend the cause against personalities and accidents.”21 At that time, personalities were distinctly more threatening than accidents though, and amongst these personalities one in particular stood out as a fearsome, and quite formidable enemy: Carl Gustav Jung. Once welcomed within the psychoanalytic fold as a prodigious godsend, Jung had gradually fallen from grace, like an unruly son disowned by his adoptive father, not in the least because he had dared to question the latter’s unassailable authority, going so far as to propose his own, more de-sexualised and less rationalistic version of the human mind. For Freud and his newly adopted children, Jung and his Swiss allies were more than an agonising thorn in the side; they were an overtly hostile force, who could inflict irreparable damage onto the fledgling, and therefore intrinsically vulnerable body of psychoanalysis. And so the little group Freud did not hesitate to describe as “the brutal, sanctimonious Jung and his parrots” had to be defeated, ostracized, preferably exterminated altogether.22 Although he did devote quite a few pages in it to Alfred Adler’s secession, almost the entire third part of Freud’s scatter bomb was directed against Jung and the so-called ‘Neo-Zurich theory’, which he designated as “so obscure, unintelligible and confused as to make it difficult to take up any position against it,” but which he nonetheless attacked in no uncertain, and sharply belligerent terms.23 Freud even went so far as to quote the words of an ‘ill-fated’ patient of Jung’s, without obtaining his prior consent, in support of the fact that what was happening in Switzerland no longer had anything to do with psychoanalysis. When it exploded, Freud’s incendiary device cleared the psychoanalytic landscape from all perilous impurities, as Freud and his allies had been hoping for, but in reality he had dropped it onto a piece of earth that had already been substantially scorched: although the Zürich society officially withdrew from the International Psycho-Analytical Association on 10 July 1914, Jung had already tendered his resignation as President in April that year, owing to irreconcilable differences of opinion.24 And much like the Great War would enduringly shape the future of Freudian psychoanalysis, Jung’s carefully orchestrated expulsion from Freud’s intimate circle would prove to be the necessary catalyst for the release of his deepest creative forces. Without being directly affected by the devastating firestorms raging across Europe, because he lived comfortably in a lavish mansion on the shores of Lake Zürich, Jung emerged from Freud’s war feeling simultaneously traumatized and liberated, which enabled him to enter an amorphous, yet superabundant mental space, from which the whole of his subsequent theoretical elaborations would emanate.25

Yet Freud’s carefully crafted, Zürich-bound bomb was not the only indication of his already being at war before the war. In his clinical practice too, weapons were being drawn and battles were waged, as any attentive reader of the series of technical papers which he had started in 1911 may ascertain. In a short, but influential essay entitled ‘The Dynamics of Transference’, Freud addressed the complicated intersection of transference and resistance, arguing that a patient’s refusal to comply with the psychoanalytic groundrule of free association generally stems from a ‘transference-resistance’, which is fuelled by powerful unconscious impulses that resist being remembered and merely strive to reproduce themselves. Freud contended that it was the psychoanalyst’s duty to challenge these processes, despite its eliciting a vicious conflict between patient and practitioner: “This struggle between the doctor and the patient, between intellect and instinctual life [Triebleben], between understanding and seeking to act, is played out almost exclusively in the phenomena of transference. It is on that field that the victory must be won—the victory whose expression is the permanent cure of the neurosis.”26 When treating his patients, here, Freud conceived of neurosis as an evil force which needs to be conquered with strategic planning, clinical tact and, most important of all, the healing power of reason. Freud laboured the point in a subsequent essay called ‘On Beginning the Treatment’. Warning trainee-analysts against the temptation to grant a patient’s request that the analyst him- or herself select an appropriate topic for discussion, he emphasized: “We must bear in mind what is involved here. A strong resistance has come to the front in order to defend the neurosis; we must take up the challenge then and there and come to grips with it.”27 In fact, accurate and idiomatic as this translation may be, the original German is much more evocative: “man nehme die Herausforderung sofort an und rücke ihm an den Leib”, i.e. one takes up the challenge and confronts it directly, as if engaging in man to man combat.28 One year later, in ‘Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through’, Freud once again underscored how an unconscious resistance may prevent patients from remembering the historical circumstances presiding over their symptoms, compelling them instead to repeat these very symptoms during the course of the psychoanalytic treatment, by way of acting out. “The patient brings out of the armoury of the past,” he wrote, “the weapons with which he defends himself against the progress of the treatment—weapons which we must wrest from him one by one.”29 In the final paper of the series, which he considered “the best and most useful” one in the entire collection, and which was composed shortly after the Swiss enemy had been defeated, Freud summed up the three main combat zones of the psychoanalytic battleground: “The analytic psychotherapist thus has a threefold battle to wage—in his own mind against the forces which seek to drag him down from the analytic level; outside the analysis, against opponents who dispute the importance he attaches to the sexual instinctual forces [sexuellen Triebkräfte] and hinder him from making use of them in his analytic technique; and inside the analysis, against his patients, who at first behave like opponents but later on reveal the overvaluation of sexual life which dominates them, and who try to make him captive to their socially untamed passion.”30

Before real-life military operations occupied people’s minds all over the world, Freud was already fighting his own private war, with himself, with actual and potential intellectual defectors, and with his patients. Even when the latter had stopped behaving as opponents, because they had fallen prey to the temptations of transference-love, Freud still believed he had to defend himself, lest he be taken hostage to precarious erotic fortunes. Freud’s gloomy portrayal of psychoanalysis as a threefold battle, here, was not a reflection of the socio-political hostilities surrounding him. Strange as it may appear, it was rather the other way round. When the Central Powers went to war in July 1914, the declaration epitomized a social externalisation of seemingly unresolvable psychic conflicts Freud had already detected for a good number years—in his neurotic patients, in some of his closest supporters and, perhaps most important of all, in himself. Indeed, I would venture to claim that the intra-psychic battle Freud was fighting during the pre-War years, and which revolved around an ardent desire for social and intellectual recognition, constituted the fons et origo of the two other struggles, including his clinical deployment of all the ammunition in his psychoanalytic toolkit to break the neurotic patient’s resistance. As Jacques Lacan would put it in his typically laconic style: “[T]he only real resistance in analysis is the resistance of the analyst.”31 Lacan was unambiguously referring to the direction of the psychoanalytic treatment, yet there is no reason as to why we should not extrapolate the principle to the historical and ongoing battleground that goes by the name of ‘the psychoanalytic movement’.

Four Years of ‘Splendid Isolation’
Whilst sharing in the elation of his fellow citizens, albeit rather briefly and perhaps less openly, Freud could not have anticipated what hardship, misery and anguish the outbreak of the hostilities would bring. On 12 August 1914, when Great Britain declared war on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Freud’s youngest daughter Anna, not yet nineteen at the time, found herself on her first overseas trip alone trapped in England, where she became officially an ‘alien enemy’. For almost a month, the Freud family did not hear anything from her, until she finally arrived back at the Berggasse on 26 August, after having managed to board a ship from Falmouth to Genoa ten days earlier.32 At first, Freud did not think his three sons would be affected, because Martin (the eldest) had been exempted from duty owing to a previously sustained thigh-fracture, the middle son Oliver had already been considered unfit for military service during an earlier medical examination, and Ernst (the youngest) was in the reserves.33 However, all three ended up in military uniform. Against the will of his father, Martin volunteered for the Imperial Field Artillery in August 1914, and served as a gunner on the front line throughout the war.34 As a fully qualified engineer, Oliver first became involved in the construction of strategically important railways and tunnels, but in December 1916 he decided to exchange the poor working conditions as a civilian for an allegedly more agreeable life as an officer in a batallion of sappers.35 Like his elder brother, Ernst joined the artillery. During the last week of October 1915, his entire platoon was wiped out when their dugout was struck directly by an Italian shell. By pure coincidence, Ernst had just left the shelter, thus miraculously avoiding the lethal barrage. In August 1917, he was hospitalised with a duodenal ulcer in Zagreb and eventually transferred back to Vienna, which ushered in the end of his military duties.36

As his numerous letters to Ferenczi, Abraham, Jones and others testify, Freud was gravely concerned about the health and well-being of his sons throughout the war, and for very good reasons. Yet he was equally worried about the fate of his intellectual brothers in arms, and by extension about the future of the psychoanalytic movement. Sándor Ferenczi served as an assistant physician with the Hungarian Hussars, whereas Karl Abraham was initially stationed at an impromptu military hospital near Berlin.37 Freud’s other close collaborators also became, if not entirely estranged from the cause, at least preoccupied with other things. In January 1916, Otto Rank, for many years Freud’s most trusted amanuensis, was assigned the editorship of an army newspaper in Krakow, where he would reside until the end of the war.38 Hanns Sachs, another member of the Secret Committee, was initially mustered out because of myopia, but was nonetheless called up in August 1915, although after three months of military training he was eventually discharged again.39 The wealthy itinerant neuro-psychiatrist Max Eitingon volunteered for the Austrian army and worked as a physician in various locations in Hungary.40 Almost overnight and for the foreseeable future Ernest Jones had become an enemy. With Jung and the Swiss already departed, what would become of the psychoanalytic undertaking were all of them to perish? Furthermore, it remained uncertain when, if ever, the annual international psychoanalytic conferences would be resumed. More importantly, perhaps, it was not at all clear how information and announcements pertaining to key psychoanalytic research activities would be disseminated in the absence of regular publications (due to paper shortages and falling subscriptions), and without reliable distribution channels (owing to postal restrictions and censorship). In short, with the Great War the sustainability of the entire psychoanalytic community was thrown into turmoil, and on occasion it must have felt to Freud as if the homemade bomb he had inscribed as the history of the psychoanalytic movement had effectively coincided with the end of psychoanalytic history.41

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