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70 years ago: Sigmund Freud’s Journey into Exile

Sigmund Freud was born 150 years ago, on May 6, 1856, in Moravia. He went to school in Vienna, and in Vienna he developed psychoanalysis, as a collaborative effort with numerous colleagues, almost all of them Jews. Freud was a thoroughly sceptical man, not a philanthropist, and occasionally he used the term „riffraff“ when thinking of people in his environment, who were mostly hostile towards him…

by Roland Kaufhold / Hans-Jürgen Wirth
[Deutsch]

He did not have any illusions about the destructiveness inherent in human beings. He was always aware of the possibility of human self-destruction. Filled with apprehension, Freud wrote on the eve of the National Socialist „seizure of power“, at the end of his great work Civilization and Its Discontents:

„The fateful question for the human species seems to me to be whether and to what extent their cultural development will succeed in mastering the disturbance of their communal life by the human instinct of aggression and self-destruction. (…) Men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man. They know this, and hence comes a large part of their current unrest, their unhappiness and their mood of anxiety.

It was with the greatest reluctance that at the age of 82 Freud started his journey into exile. Between 1932 and 1938, almost all Viennese psychoanalysts went into exile or were forced to do so, except Freud. The cancer-stricken old man, being too optimistic, misjudged the danger and longevity of National Socialism, as did many intellectuals in those days. Moreover, the seriously ill man may be justified in assuming that it would be possible for him „to die undisturbed and in peace“ in his hometown. What follows is a description of Sigmund Freud’s journey into exile in Great Britain, where he died 15 months later at the age of 83, on September 23, 1939.

A „godless Jew“

In 1918, towards the end of World War I, Freud described himself as a „godless Jew“ in a letter to the Swiss pastor and psychoanalyst Oskar Pfister. Ten years before he had written to the very same Catholic Pfister: „Quite by the way, why did none of the devout create psychoanalysis? Why did one have to wait for a completely godless Jew?“

As a determined atheist, Freud did not believe in the existence of a god as a source of comfort for our spiritual life. He viewed the latter as an illusion. He had a passionate cognitive interest in truths that could be unpleasant for us, the truth of the abysmal depths of human inner life, including our capacity for the most extreme destructiveness…

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