Freud, psychoanalysis, and Nazis

Although Sigmund Freud seems to be the first person to come to mind when people learn I teach psychology, I actually know very little about the man or his legacy. As I told my students Friday morning, I know more about the arguments that psychoanalysis is a pseudoscience than I do about psychoanalysis itself (at which point one of the students interjected “ooh, burn!”). We set off to the Freud Museum, our last official stop in London, officially to teach our students about the state of psychology at the time of World War II and unofficially because our many psych majors insisted we go. So I was quite surprised by just how relevant this “museum”, Freud’s home for just the last year of his life, turned out to be.

The Freud Museum is not just a place of insight into psychoanalysis and the man who created it; it also tells the story of one Jewish family escaping the Nazis. Freud may have died before the war began in earnest, but his entire existence in London was fleeing Nazi persecution, after they showed up at his Vienna home, demanded a great deal of money, and took his daughter Anna for questioning for a day. Here we have the story of one famous Jew escaping, thanks to the influence of a great many people; it is an answer to the question of why more Jews didn’t leave Nazi territory before the Final Solution began (a point raised by the truly curious and Holocaust deniers alike). I was simultaneously impressed that intervention was made to save one of the great minds of his time, no matter my current opinion of his methods…and saddened that so many without this fame and connections could not flee, including several of Freud’s own siblings who died in concentration camps.

The tale of the Freud family escape may be even more compelling than is let on in the museum, according to one Freud expert who has uncovered the role of a surprisingly helpful Nazi in securing exit visas and ultimately preserving that most famous couch for posterity. It is yet another example of how “good guys” “Nazis” and “bad guys” are such imprecise terms.

How much of Freud’s persecution was due to being Jewish and how much to his being the father of psychoanalysis is unclear. The museum reports mass book burnings of Freud’s texts and other psychoanalysts, but without much detail. It may be impossible to fully disentangle Nazi opinion of “the Jewish science” itself and its creator. There is no doubt that Nazis would dislike something created by a Jew, and would abuse that Jew for no other reason than his ethnicity; but there is some evidence that Nazis took particular affront to some of the philosophies of psychoanalysis, although the truth is always more complicated than that.

After the escape and her father’s death, Anna Freud became renowned as a psychoanalyst in her own right, specifically in the study of children. Her old room, complete with couch and loom, includes photographs and snippets of history from her war nurseries; her work also noted the freat stress children felt upon separation from their parents and would feed into the development of attachment theory.

The museum is thus steeped with the history if the war as much as the history of psychoanalysis. I personally found the war aspects more compelling. I have now seen The Couch, learned that Freud understood enough of the workings of the mind to recognize that taking notes would actually hamper his listening skills; but I have also made sly comments on the psychoanalytic view of Anna Freud keeping her father’s portrait above her bed, or what a talk therapy conversation about Freud’s decision to sit behind his patients (because he didn’t like being stared at all day) would go like. A convert, I am not; but more appreciative of the role one famous psychologist played in psychology and in war, I certainly am.


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