Freud: Conflict & Culture


Freud thought that social life originated in unresolvable conflicts and hence that civilization was always vulnerable to radical disruptions. From World War I until his death in 1939, he witnessed increasingly violent social crises, which he took to be irrational "symptoms" of these primal conflicts. Seemingly senseless wars, escalating anti-Semitism, and the threat of Nazi domination were all interpreted by Freud in terms of his model of psychological conflict.

On War and Death

Freud's initial response to World War I was patriotic, and he closely followed the unfolding events of the war. Two of his sons volunteered for duty in the Austrian army. But Freud grew disillusioned with the conflict, and the war seemed to have had a decisive effect on Freud's thinking. Death and violence became more prominent in his theories, and he emphasized the ways participation in mass society released deep-seated aggressive impulses. Social crises, he argued, allow us to see aspects of human nature normally hidden in everyday life.

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The whole history of civilization, however, shows us that the pressure exerted on woman, and the inhibitions to which she must submit today, are not to be borne by any human being; they always give rise to revolt.

Alfred Adler, ca. 1945

By transposing the conflict from the world of politics to the world of the human psyche Freud could achieve the kind of middle position that had become impossible in Viennese politics.

William J. McGrath, 1986

Why War?

Albert Einstein and Freud exchanged letters for purposes of publication in this book. Both expressed a horror of war and the belief that it could be avoided only if nations were willing to renounce some of their sovereignty in favor of an international body. Neither was optimistic that this renunciation would happen.

Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein. Warum Krieg [Why War?] Paris: 1933. Rare Book & Special Collections Division. Library of Congress (179)

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Children, no less than adults themselves, are dominated by their sexual impulses and aggressive strivings.

Anna Freud, 1951

Why Can't We be Happy?

In this essay, Freud explored the consequences of repressing impulses in order to live in society. Civilization must curtail the death instinct, but, if people are denied the satisfactions of aggression, they turn against themselves. Freud saw no way out of this dilemma and noted that "they all want consolation, from the wild-eyed revolutionaries to the conservatives. . . ." He offered none and instead emphasized the conflicts he saw at the heart of all human life.

"Civilization and Its Discontents." Bound holograph manuscript, 1930. Page 2. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (180)

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Fate would seem to have presented us at the present time with an unexampled opportunity to test the truth of Freud's theory of the unconscious, in so far as it is concerned with the production of mental and functional nervous disorders.

W.H.R. Rivers, 1917

It was almost as though any over linking of Jews and psychoanalysis were under a taboo.

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, 1991

"A Word about Anti-Semitism"

This short text is comprised almost entirely of a long quotation about Jews from a source Freud claimed he could no longer trace. In 1925 he wrote: "My language is German. My culture, my attainments are German. I considered myself German intellectually, until I noticed the growth of anti-Semitic prejudice in Germany and German Austria. Since that time, I prefer to call myself a Jew."

"A Word about Anti-Semitism." Holograph manuscript, 1938. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (190)

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It was almost as though any over linking of Jews and psychoanalysis were under a taboo.

Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, 1991

Nazism and Freud

The German army marched into Vienna in March 1938, and Hitler annexed Austria to the Reich. As a Jew and as the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud was regarded as an enemy of the new Germany. Shortly before he was allowed to leave the country in June, a photographic record was made of Freud's residence, Berggasse 19. In his final interview with the Gestapo, who insisted that he sign a statement saying he was not mistreated, the 82-year-old Freud is said to have sarcastically asked if he could add: "I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone."

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  • "Burning in Berlin (note on Nazi book burning)," May 11, 1933. Freud's short diary entries. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (183)

  • "Hitler in Vienna," March 14, 1938. Freud's short diary entries. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (186A)

  • Book burning in Hamburg's Opernplatz, May 10, 1933. Joseph Schorer, photographer. © 1987 Bildarchiv Preussischer Kulturbesitz, Berlin (182)

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Psychoanalysis is the malady which considers itself the remedy.

Karl Kraus, n.d.

Psychoanalysis a cult, unimportant because transitory; it is a pernicious influence of decadent modern life, leading to broken homes, immorality, and violent death; it is an interesting phase of a developing science and it is the salvation of the human race.

Review of Reviews, 1927

Four Sisters

Freud's sisters, Dolfi, Mitzi, Rosa and Pauli remained behind in Vienna. As the Nazi's anti-Semitic pogroms grew ever more violent, it was clear that even these women in their late seventies would not be safe. Various efforts to secure them visas in 1939 were of no avail, however. Dolfi died of starvation in a Theresienstadt concentration camp, and the other three were murdered in the death camps. Freud's brother, Alexander, successfully escaped from Vienna in 1938. His sister, Anna, had emigrated to the U.S. many years earlier after her marriage to Eli Bernays.

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Freud's thinking emerged in the wake of Marx and Darwin, both of whom emphasized struggle as the engine of change. Freud's thought developed in a century in which violent conflicts reached unheard of dimensions. The conflicts that Freud stressed were within the psyche: people at war with themselves and sometimes with the cultural authorities they had internalized. But he thought that the way we managed (or failed to manage) those conflicts had everything to do with the explosions of violence that marked the modern world. Although much has changed since Freud first formulated his theories, today's concern with the disruptive power of sexuality and aggression has only intensified. Freud did not propose solutions to how one might escape this violence. Instead, his writings on the connection of culture and conflict identified fundamental problems for the twentieth century -- problems that show no sign of disappearing as we move into the twenty-first.

Re-finding Moses

In the last years of his life, Freud once again returned to the story of Moses and reflected on themes common to his early and late work: the impact of trauma on memory and the identification of people with a leader whom they both love and hate. Freud seized on the notion that Moses was an Egyptian and based a story of the evolution of Western religion and the role of Judaism in European culture on it.

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  • "Moses and Monotheism — A Historical Novel and Preface, June 1938." Holograph manuscripts, 1939. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (192a,b)

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  • Freud at work in his study. London, 1938. Oliver Freud Papers. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (196)

  • Freud's psychoanalytic chair, ca. 1900. Freud Museum, London (110)
    Persian rug from Freud's psychoanalytic couch. Freud Museum, London (95)
    Cushions from Freud's psychoanalytic couch. Freud Museum, London (109)
    (on wall) Print of the rock-cut temples at Abu Simbel, after a painting by Ernst Koerner, 1906. Freud Museum, London (111)

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Moses will not let my imagination go.

Sigmund Freud, 1935

Freud's work is the ground from which theory will grow, and he has prepared the twentieth century to nurture the growth. But, far more important, he has provided an image of man that has made him comprehensible without at the same time making him contemptible.

Jerome Bruner, 1979


Freud left Vienna on June 4, 1938, and arrived in London two days later. "The triumphant feeling of liberation," he wrote, "is mingled too strongly with mourning, for one had still very much loved the prison from which one has been released."

Freud's letter to the editor in Time and Tide, November 26, 1938. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (185)

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Whatever we may ultimately come to think of psychoanalysis as a technical method, it supplied an immense emphasis to the general recognition and acceptance of sex in life.

Havelock Ellis, 1939

My Jewish Subconscious

This text records Freud's sense of how the context of his Jewishness -- and of anti- Semitism -- helped form his character and his work. Freud viewed religious belief as an avoidance of reality, but he also recognized how religious identity powerfully shaped both individuals and groups.

"My Subconscious Jewishness." The Current Jewish Record, November, 1931. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (189)

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Freud cast light on a little of the darkness he had exposed. Benefitting by the sight of the light and the knowledge of the hidden nakedness, poetry must drag further into the clean nakedness of light even more of the hidden causes than Freud could realize.

Dylan Thomas, 1934

Notes for BBC Recording

On December 7, 1938, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) came to Freud's Maresfield Gardens home in London to record a short message. By this time his cancer of the jaw was inoperable and incurable, making speech difficult and extremely painful. A photograph of Freud was taken as he prepared to read the statement you are listening to now. After his long struggle with cancer grew intolerable, Freud asked his physician for a fatal injection of morphine. He died on September 23, 1939.

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  • Freud's speech for the BBC recording. Page one - Page two. Holograph notes, 1938. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (193)

  • Photo of Freud being recorded by a BBC engineer, 1938. Copyprint. Freud Museum, London (194)

  • Freud during the last year of his life in Maresfield Gardens, 1939. Oliver Freud Papers. Manuscript Division. Library of Congress (G)

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These "Home movie" clips provide a glimpse into Sigmund Freud's domestic life. The documentary footage was shot in Berggasse 19 and various summer retreats between 1929 and 1937. The scenes include Freud:

  • walking with his sister-in-law Minna Bernays
  • in his study at Berggasse 19
  • receiving a book from a child
  • with neighbors on the Freuds' fiftieth wedding anniversary
  • with friends Ruth and Mark Brunswick and their daughter, Princess Marie Bonaparte, and Freud's wife Martha and his brother Alexander
  • conferring with archaeologist and friend Emanuel Löwy
  • with family and friends on a veranda
  • with one of his beloved chows
  • his daughter Anna
Home movie footage

Home movie footage. Courtesy of the Sigmund Freud Archives. Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division.

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Psychoanalysis will fade away just as mesmerism and phrenology did, and for the same reason: its exploded pretensions will deprive it of recruits.

Frederick Crews, 1988

if often he was wrong and, at times, absurd,
to us he is no more a person
now but a whole climate of opinion

W.H. Auden, "In Memory of Sigmund Freud," 1973

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