“Saving Freud: A Life in Vienna and an Escape to Freedom in London” by Andrew Nagorski (published by Icon)

Psychoanalyst’s mind wasn’t clear on threat to himself

It is March 12, 1938 and German troops are marching into Austria without a shot fired. Adolf Hitler is absorbing the country of his birth into the Third Reich. His anti-Semitism is vicious and Jews have been fleeing him for years. But Vienna’s most famous Jew, Sigmund Freud, hesitates to take flight from the city where he has lived since early childhood. Freud is 81 years old, has cancer and is strangely still unconvinced he is in danger. Now he needs to be whisked away.
1. November 2022 10:05

Author Andrew Nagorski relates how a mixed group of associates managed to persuade Freud to accept reality and get him to safety before it was too late. The ad hoc rescuers included an American ambassador, the psychoanalyst’s devoted youngest child, his doctor who cared for Freud in the last decade of his life, a Welsh physician and Napoleon’s great-grandniece.

Together they extricated Freud and his family Austria and made it possible for him to spend the final 16 months of his life in London, granting his wish to “die in freedom”. The strange thing is, Nagorski points out, that the founder of psychoanalysis should have been uniquely qualified to understand the dark forces propelling his world to mass murder and destruction.

In a 1930 publication, “Civilization and Its Discontents”, Freud had discussed man’s “aggressive cruelty” that “manifests itself spontaneously and reveals men as savage beasts to whom the thought of sparing their own kind is alien”. He specifically noted how often Jews had “rendered services” to others by serving as the outlet for such primal impulses.

Partly, it was old age and his illness that now held him back. For all but the first four years of his life Freud had lived in the Austrian capital. Approaching his 82nd birthday, he was struggling with recurrent cancer of the jaw after a long addiction to cigars. He felt a deep attachment to the Vienna that had been a major centre of cultural and Jewish life in Europe for centuries, a place drenched in history and high culture, with great art, architecture, music and literature.

Knowing that death was approaching, Freud desperately hoped he could spend his remaining years in relative peace without the upheaval of resettling elsewhere. Vienna was where he had transformed himself from a self-described outsider often scorned by the medical establishment into the city’s widely acclaimed practitioner of his new science.

By the 1920s and 1930s he was Vienna’s most famous resident. That kind of fame could have meant ruination or salvation to the Nazi overlords who could have decided that no Jew, no matter how prominent, was safe from their wrath. After the Anschluss, the “union” of Germany and Austria in 1938, Freud’s fate was in the balance.

He was born on May 6, 1856 in the Moravian town of Freiberg, 280 kilometres from Vienna, today Příbor in the Czech Republic. “Golden Vienna” then was a magnet for many Jews seeking to improve their lot, and his family moved to the city’s Jewish quarter, Leopoldstadt, when Sigmund was almost four. For talented Jews such as him this offered tremendous opportunities.

Freud studied medicine at the University of Vienna and became a junior physician in the General Hospital. He was able to quit in 1886 and set up a private practice, but how to distinguish himself in the medical field? In 1896 he came up with the term psychoanalysis, the “talking cure” with its emphasis on the subconscious and its repressed sexual memories and fantasies. He achieved fame with his work “The Interpretation of Dreams” of 1899.

Freud won increasing recognition for his novel treatment investigating the mind of his patients, for his extensive writings and lectures, and the Wednesday evening gatherings of physicians at his home and office, Berggasse 19 (now the Sigmund Freud Museum). Interest in psychoanalysis spread and the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society was established.

Nagorski takes a broad look at the later Austro-Hungarian Empire, home to 50 million people representing at least nine major nationalities and numerous minorities, with Vienna as the glittering imperial capital. The author sees the city as a place that shaped both Freud and Hitler. The latter first visited in 1906 at age 17, and his rejection by the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts in 1907 was a defining moment. Hitler returned in 1908 for five years but his Vienna was a depressing city of sordid hostels and rented rooms, abject poverty and widespread prostitution.

The author empathises absolutely with Freud’s attachment, and he notes that you can still replicate his subject’s walks around the Ringstrasse and stop at any number of cafés, including Freud’s favourite, Café Landtmann, next to the Burgtheater. Nonetheless, Freud frequently expressed diametrically opposed feelings about the place, despite flourishing there.

A good slab of the book offers a biography pre the dramatic events of 1938. Freud became engaged in 1882 to Martha Bernays from northern Germany and they married in 1886. They had six children and the marriage lasted 53 years until the end of his life. She came from an Orthodox Jewish family and he was a secular Jew.

Freud’s flock of disciples grew and began to attract gentiles. An important supporter was Dr Ernest Jones in Britain who founded the London Psychoanalytical Society in 1913. Likewise, Carl Gustav Jung, chief assistant in the University of Zurich’s psychiatric hospital. Said Freud: “Our Aryan comrades are, after all, quite indispensable to us, otherwise, psychoanalysis would fall victim to anti-Semitism.”

Indeed, contemporary condemnation of the practice included branding it as a “Jewish science” and “… the newest Jewish disease… They reach into our dreams as though they were our pockets”. The Anschluss triggered a wave of anti-Semitic violence in Vienna in which Jews were beaten and killed, their stores looted and dozens committed suicide.

German playwright Carl Zuckmayer, there at the time, said: “The city was transformed into a nightmare painting by Hieronymus Bosch… What was unleashed upon Vienna was a torrent of envy, jealousy, bitterness, blind, malignant craving for revenge… It was the witch’s Sabbath of the mob. All that makes for human dignity was buried.”

Freud had lived, practised and written in the same apartment since 1891. Finally, on March 11, 1938, he wrote in his diary ”Finis Austriae”. From then onward, the family was under constant Nazi surveillance. A swastika was fixed above his entrance door and storm troopers robbed him. Worse, the Nazis detained his beloved daughter Anna for interrogation for an entire day.

Freud’s principal English disciple and future biographer, Jones, pulled all the strings he could to insure that the Nazis would let Freud go and that England would be prepared to receive him. William C. Bullitt, then American Ambassador in France, who had worked with Freud in a study of Woodrow Wilson, enlisted the help of President Roosevelt. Princess Marie Bonaparte, Freud’s pupil and friend, advanced the ransom money that the Nazis were demanding as a “flight tax”. In England, Jones went to see the physicist Sir William Bragg, then President of the Royal Society, who gave him a letter to the Home Secretary, Sir Samuel Hoare. Freud’s fate hung in the balance but the Nazi appointed to bleed his assets, Anton Sauerwald, actually treated him with respect and finally gave the approval for his departure.

On June 4, 1938, the Freud party, 18 adults and six children, took their final leave aboard the Orient Express for Paris, briefly, then London. There, he enjoyed his freedom so much that he said, ”I am almost tempted to cry out ‘Heil Hitler’.” His furniture, books and beloved antiquities arrived safely from Vienna. He died on September 23, 1939.

Nagorski, the writer of seven other books, tells it all in considerable and absorbing detail, with fresh information from the son of Freud’s doctor and a descendent of his sister Anna.

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