Almost everything Sigmund Freud did has been analyzed endlessly — and why wouldn’t the Analyzer-in-Chief be subjected to such scrutiny? But the diverging opinions on Freud’s behavior say as much about the analyzer as they do about analysand.
I was particularly intrigued by the different responses to one incident: Freud’s metaphorical finger to the Gestapo upon his departure from Vienna in 1938. Before he was permitted to leave, the SS insisted he sign a statement verifying that he had not been mistreated.
The 82-year-old Freud wrote: “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone” (Ich kann die Gestapo jedermann auf das beste empfehlen).
What His Biographer and a Critic Said
In citing Freud’s parting words, Peter Gay, Freud’s biographer, wrote:
It is a curious act inviting some speculation. Freud was lucky the S.S. men reading his commendation did not perceive the heavy sarcasm lurking in it. Nothing would have been more natural than to find his words offensive. Why, then, at the moment of liberation, take such a deadly risk? Was there something at work in Freud making him want to stay, and die, in Vienna? Whatever the deeper reason, his ‘praise’ of the Gestapo was Freud’s last act of defiance on Austrian soil.
— Freud: A Life For Our Time, p. 628 (Anchor Books ed. 1989)
A reviewer of Gay’s book in Time magazine concurs with Gay’s analysis that Freud’s behavior was dicey and adds: “This defiant and, under the circumstances, risky display of contempt was typical of the man who invented psychoanalysis. Throughout his life, Freud sought to maintain control.”
Freud’s Difficult Decision to Depart Vienna
There is no question that Freud delayed his departure from Vienna, hoping beyond hope — and beyond his expressed acknowledgement of the realities of the situation — that the Nazi regime would fall. Even when it was increasingly clear that it would not, and when many of his colleagues were fleeing Austria, a country showing increasing signs of anti-Semitism, he stayed on. He continued to find excuses after the Nazis occupied Austria: He was too old, too frail, and as he told his earliest biographer, psychoanalyst Ernest Jones, “He could not leave his native land; it would be like a soldier deserting his post.”
It was only after his daughter, Anna, was arrested on March 22, 1938 and detained by the Gestapo that Freud agreed to leave — not an easy feat to accomplish at this point, when the Nazis were both confiscating Jewish property and levying exorbitant departure fees.
What Was Freud Thinking?
It’s impossible to know why Freud said what he did to the officers in charge of letting him leave Vienna. But we do know a couple of things.
Freud’s sense of humor was often sarcastic. For example, when his books were publicly burned in Berlin in May 1933, he said:
What progress we are making. (…) In the Middle Ages they would have burnt me; nowadays they are content with burning my books.
And members of the Gestapo were not known for subtlety or nuance. According to an Associated Press report on June 4, 1938, the date Freud left Vienna:
Vienna’s official Nazi organ, the Voelkischer Beobachter, in reporting Dr. Freud’s departure did not mention his name but referred to the Freudian psychoanalytic school as a ‘pornographic Jewish specialty.’
So I wonder: Why would it be “natural” for the Gestapo to pick up on Freud’s sarcasm and to take offense? Freud had good reason not to overestimate the Gestapo’s self-awareness.
And let’s say the guards did understand what Freud was saying. Can you detain someone for sarcasm? Wouldn’t that be admitting that Freud’s statement was patently untrue, that he was mistreated? Moreover, the world’s eyes were on Freud. In addition to Princess Marie Bonaparte, the people who interceded on Freud’s behalf included President Roosevelt and the American ambassador to Paris.
The SS guards would have had to give a plausible reason for not allowing Freud to leave. “He was mocking us” is difficult to prove — not to mention embarrassing.
How risky, then, was Freud’s comment?
And Do Freud’s Motives Matter?
On one level, of course the underlying reasons for Freud’s actions matter. If it wasn’t for Freud, subconscious motivations wouldn’t be an issue for anyone. Peter Gay maintains Freud defied the Gestapo because he wanted to stay in Vienna; the Time magazine critic suggests Freud was a control freak.
But maybe he lost control, in a sense, and acted instinctively. Freud was a dignified man with a contempt for boors — and with a sense of humor. He might have just been behaving in a way that came naturally.
In the end, we won’t know if there was a deeper reason for Freud’s statement. But there are few popular stories of Jews going up against the Nazis during World War II; aside from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the only one I can think of is that told in the movie Defiance, based on the actions of the three Bielski brothers. Most heroic tales of the war, from The Diary of Anne Frank to Schindler’s List, focus on righteous gentiles who try to save victimized Jews.
I find the idea of an 82-year old man suffering from jaw cancer using the weapons he had, his intellect and wit, to get the better of the Nazis, very compelling, no matter why he did it.
What do you think?