As the Nazis Closed In, Sigmund Freud Refused to Leave Vienna until It Was Almost Too Late

September 23, 2022 | Patrick Blanchfield
About the author:

Like other Jews who shaped and were shaped by pre-World War I Vienna, Sigmund Freud maintained an attachment to the city that was difficult to shake. This attachment explains why the founder of psychoanalysis did not emigrate after Austria descended into fascism in 1934, and was reluctant to leave even after the Nazi takeover in 1938. Patrick Blanchfield reviews a new book about these final years in the life of the most influential Jewish physician of modern times:

“Freud should have been uniquely qualified to understand the dark forces propelling his world to mass murder and destruction,” observes the veteran journalist Andrew Nagorski. “Why had Freud allowed himself to be trapped in this extremely perilous situation? Why had he failed to leave Vienna earlier when it would have been relatively easy for him to do so?” Nagorski’s excellent new book, Saving Freud: The Rescuers Who Brought Him to Freedom, tackles precisely this question, offering partly a narrative of Freud’s last years; partly a group biography of the patients, colleagues, and collaborators who served as his “rescue squad” in 1938; and partly a portrait of a city and a world on the brink of disaster.

[U]ntil the very last moment, Freud seems to have remained “in denial” about what was going on around him. Freud, to be sure, despised the Germans he contemptuously called Hitlerei, but at first clung to the belief that their movement would never succeed, telling [his American friend and disciple William C.] Bullitt, “A nation that produced Goethe could not possibly go to the bad.” Later, he insisted Nazism would never find traction in Austria, reassuring [another intimate, Marie] Bonaparte, “Our people are not quite so brutal.” . . . Yet each and every one of these hopes, grim or otherwise, ran aground on the bleak shores of what Freud elsewhere called “the reality principle.”

For if Freud preferred to avoid thinking too long about the Nazis, the Nazis certainly thought a great deal about Freud. Nazi propaganda relentlessly targeted “the Jewish science” of psychoanalysis, and cartoon after cartoon featured Jewish analysts in the crudest stereotypes imaginable, money-grubbing hucksters and perverts looking to sexualize children and entice pure Teutonic women onto their couches.

In the end, Freud and his family escaped to England, where he spent the final year of his life—thanks to the help of his network of friends and admirers, and of a sympathetic, if viciously anti-Semitic, Nazi official.

When the family finally got their visas, Freud was asked to sign a statement swearing that he had not been treated poorly. He did, and penned an addendum: “I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to everyone.” Once again, this is classic Freud—ironic to the end.

Read more on New Republic: