Behind the menacing face there was a big heart. We are talking about the extraordinary personality of Sigmund Freud

Mateusz Balcerkiewicz for

He had such a strong personality that people fell silent when he entered a room. Even the SS men who came to take him from the house were stunned when they saw him and withdrew. Sigmund Freud also had another, less known face - a stable, faithful husband, a loving, warm parent and a dear friend. We talk with Andrew Nagorski, author of the book "Freud to the Rescue", about the real Freud and the dedicated people who saved his life.

Mateusz Balcerkiewicz [MB]: Freud's escape or deportation from Vienna is, from the point of view of great history, at most a curiosity. At that time, he was already a sick man, at the end of his life, who wrote what he was supposed to write, assumed what he was supposed to assume, achieved what he was supposed to achieve. And yet you considered this event worthy of making it the axis of your new book  "Freud to the Rescue" . Why?

Andrew Nagorski [AG]: The mere fact that Freud was still in Vienna in 1938, when the German troops were entering, when Hitler was giving a speech a few hundred meters away... I didn't know that part of his biography! I think that when most people think about Freud, they think primarily about his role in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when all of his theories were prominent and the entire psychoanalytic movement was developing. I had no intention of writing a biography of Freud, but when I came across the diaries of the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, which describes a little about Freud's life, how he met him in Vienna, I became interested. There was, I think, a slightly more human portrait of Freud. Freud is a man who seems quite cold and strict. Yet it is more complex than that. He could be warm and humane towards others. Suffice it to say that the relations between him and various people in the Viennese environment and more broadly were very strong. But as you say, this itself was just a curiosity.

However, as I later learned, Zweig himself left Austria with his wife in 1934, when it was not so difficult for Viennese Jews to leave, because he clearly felt the threat from Hitler, even though Austria was still independent at that time. Then he writes nothing about Freud in his memoirs, and then suddenly in 1938 the Anschluss occurs and after some time Freud appears in London. Zweig describes laconically that Freud got out at the last minute thanks to the help of various people. This intrigued me. I thought – what a human story! Freud, this man who supposedly understood so well how people think, felt the human situation, the human psyche... Why did he allow himself and his family to be one step away from dying in Vienna or in some camp? Then I started to research his life, I had to go back to the roots and also get to know the few people around him, who later formed what I call his " rescue squad ", i.e. the group that saved him. I just think it's a cool story in itself. It is also proof that even for a man like Freud it was difficult to imagine how great the danger was. And this is also a thread that appears in many of my books - what people understood in the times in which they lived. Looking back, it is very easy to say "ah, you should have known that this and that would happen, that there is no time left." But the more I studied what people said and wrote during that period, the more it became apparent that the course of events is always more clear backwards than when experiencing such dramatic moments.

[MB]: On the one hand, you describe Freud as a privately warm person, sedate and living in a traditional way. On the other hand, he could be biting, even overwhelming with his strong personality, leading and even forcing others to his point of view. How many Freuds were there?   

Andrew Nagorski [AG]: Freud was one, but very complex. And it is not easy to define it, this is one of its interesting features. As you say, he had different ideas and theories, his philosophy, the role of sexuality... all this was shocking at that time. It doesn't seem so radical today, but back then it was radical and important. His contemporaries thought: "Freud is a bit crazy to say such things"! He had very strong beliefs and fought for them even when it was shocking. But at the same time, he had his own, very organized family life - six children, one wife. He had his routines: when he ate breakfast, when he was served lunch, when he met with patients, when he went to a café and smoked cigars (and he smoked them all the time).

In his professional life, he attracted patients who had various sexual traumas or were trying to overcome some internal inhibitions and often lived in a very unconventional way - for example, Ernest Jones or Maria Bonaparte, lots of lovers and so on... Moreover, he himself said "I am completely for sexual freedom.” He did not condemn people who led a life completely different from him. He simply said, "I don't have much use for it." Some people thought: "if Freud has such theories about sex, he must be debauched." On the contrary!

Another thing that I really liked, which I didn't know before I started researching his correspondence, which was very rich material for this book, is that he also had a very good sense of humor. Not really in the "hahaha" type, but at certain moments he could say something accurately and concisely that was jaw-dropping. He was able to answer questions in a fantastic way. Like when he met Einstein in 1927. They ask him: "what meeting was it like - Einstein, Freud, the greatest intellectual figures of that period"? And he says "great, I know as much about physics as Einstein knows about psychoanalysis, so we had a good conversation." I felt, and I didn't expect it when I started working, a great sympathy for him as a person.

You may have different opinions about how important his theories are still today. Some scientists say "we have already gone much further than Freud." But the source of today's psychoanalysis is Freud, and that is certain. Many of the things he did would be unthinkable now. For example, the fact that he psychoanalyzed his daughter Anna. Freud was multidimensional. That's why I also wanted to present him as a human being. It is also a shared biography of him and that small group of people with whom he developed a close relationship, thanks to which they saved him. If he didn't have these close relations, he wouldn't have gotten out of Vienna himself.

[MB]: Do you see him not only as a scientist and leader, but also as a kind of guru of psychoanalysis, in whom people around him probably believed too much? After all, he also made mistakes, had dark sides - connecting his nose with sexuality, experimenting with cocaine...

Andrew Nagorski [AG]: You are referring to Wilhelm Fliess. He attached himself strongly to Freud at the beginning, when he had almost no people to support him, but there were many who thought he was a freak with strange theories. Wilhelm Fliess flattered him greatly. But then Freud himself realized that Fliess treated his theories about the nose as the most important element of human psychology and physiognomy. He completely stopped corresponding and meeting with him because he didn't agree with what he was doing.

In the beginning, he also experimented with cocaine. He thought it would be a miracle drug that could replace morphine. He also tried his hand at hypnosis a bit. At the beginning, as a young scientist, Freud was clearly looking for a path to understanding what people really were like and how their mental problems could be treated. He was willing to try different things, he tried cocaine himself a few times, and then he saw that it was also as dangerous as morphine.

[MB]: He even sent a sample to his wife.

Andrew Nagorski [AG]:   That's true, although I don't think my wife tried. She had this attitude: "ok, honey, thank you very much, you do your thing" <laughter>. She was smart, very sedate and didn't care much. At the same time, they were very devoted to each other.

[MB]: What hindered the Nazis in Freud's thought and work?

Andrew Nagorski [AG]: I think the fact that he was Jewish and that he came from a Jewish background in Vienna made him a suspect from the beginning. But the Nazis also tried their hand at psychoanalysis, Hermann Göring's brother had his own institute in Berlin. He didn't call it psychoanalysis, but a type of therapy where Freud's ideas were somewhat present, without any recognition of him, of course.

But what I think they really didn't like. According to fascists and Bolsheviks, the human mind is what it is programmed to be. This is ideology, it is on the surface, it is very clear. And the fact that a person can be guided by things that he does not even understand, that certain instincts and inclinations, childhood traumas, etc. can shape him and can be more important than ideology or a certain worldview - this is unthinkable. Especially for Hitler, this "Aryan superman" is supposed to have no complexes, only the awareness that "we rule the world." He will not accept the fact that there are some corrupt people with complexes. So all this subconscious thinking of man does not fit into doctrines such as fascism or communism. A person must be simple and completely accept the party's ideology. And according to Freud, this is not how people actually function.

[MB]: In the end, it turned out that Freud's beliefs in this matter triumphed. Even the Nazis themselves were more complicated than the NSDAP would have liked. Freud's escape would not have been possible without Anton Sauerwald. Why did the man who was supposed to guard and rob the Freud family let them escape?

Andrew Nagorski [AG]:   That surprised me. When I found out about this thread, I started researching it and discovered what role he played. And here it would probably be necessary to conduct almost the entire psychoanalysis of Sauerwald himself, who was tasked by the party to exploit everything possible from Freud's estate. It was 1938 and it was not certain what would happen to the Jews after everything that could be extracted from them - whether they would be released, sent to a camp, or something else would happen. The Holocaust was yet to come. There was already anti-Semitism, Kristallnacht took place, but the full picture of the situation was not yet clearly visible to most people.

What happened there? Sauerwald was at the same university as Freud. He studied chemistry with an older Jewish professor. Even though Sauerwald was an anti-Semite, he apparently respected and liked him. This professor, who was no longer alive in 1938, even knew Freud. I think this suggests that Sauerwald came to see Freud as a similar type of man to the professor he really respected. Even if he might not admit it. In addition to the fact that he spent a long time at Freud's place, examining where he might have money or valuable items, he began to read his works, which impressed him intellectually. He wasn't a stupid man, even though he was a Nazi. He began to gain more respect for Freud. There was an episode when SS men burst into the Freuds' apartment and behaved very brutally. That's when Sauerwald says to Freud's daughter Anna "these are soldiers from Prussia, they weren't Austrians" <laughter>. Even in such a situation, the man who represents this new, terrifying regime is not one-dimensional.

And it all worked. Sauerwald, when he found information about Freud's foreign accounts, which were completely legal until the Anschluss but not thereafter, refrained from passing it on. If he had immediately informed his superiors, Freud would not have left. And the fact that he decided not to do it shows that there really was a breakthrough for him and he felt that he wanted to protect Freud. Even when Freud left, he still met with his sisters who stayed behind. Then he was transferred to the Luftwaffe, where he had some technical work and lost contact with them. Then these sisters died. So during World War II, in all this horror, sometimes people behaved very unusually. There were also cases like Sauerwald.

[MB]: As you mentioned, Freud's family and his circle of friends and supporters took care of his escape and, earlier, survival in Vienna. It was a cross-section of really interesting characters. Please tell us in two words about the most important of them.

Andrew Nagorski [AG]: I think any of these characters could be the subject of a book, but Freud brought them together here.

Let's start with Anna's daughter. Freud had six children. Each of them had their own life. He was close to some of them, and there was his second daughter, Sophie, who was very close to him, but she died early. Anna was the youngest and was the one who stayed at home with her parents, she didn't move out or get married. She was also the only one who wanted to be a psychologist and then she actually became a very famous child psychologist. She grew up in Vienna, and when she was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, she sat there during the first small meetings devoted to the topic of new psychoanalytic knowledge. She was extremely devoted to her father, and he was extremely devoted to her.

Then there was the Englishman, or rather the Welshman, Ernest Jones, who, as a young student and doctor, became fascinated with Freud. He learned German to read his publications (those were the times when Freud was not translated so often). And he later grew to become Freud's main representative in England, America and the entire Anglo-Saxon world, and the leader of the international psychoanalytic movement that was emerging. But also, like many people, he came to Freud because he had his own sexual problems. He was accused many times of abuse for this reason and was fired from his job in London hospitals. Freud, however, believed that patients, young women, often paint a false picture of their relationship with a doctor when they see a doctor, and he was always very skeptical when such accusations were made.

And there was also Maria Bonaparte. Not only did she come from the family of Napoleon Bonaparte, but her marriage with the prince of Greece and Denmark was also arranged. She was also very rich. It was accompanied by scandals left and right, very loud in France. But she was sexually frustrated and that leads her to Freud. He tries to cure her, and at the same time they develop such a close personal relationship, not at all sexual. They just felt very close to each other. Maria wants to be trained as a psychologist by him, and so she does. He then supports the spread of the Freudian movement to France and all of Europe.

There is also William Bullitt, the American ambassador to France, previously to Russia, who even earlier was a best-selling writer and journalist. He also has problems in his second marriage, he goes to Freud. What he shares with him is his hatred of Woodrow Wilson. As an Austrian, Freud believed that Austria and Hungary had lost the most in the post-war agreements after World War I and felt that it would end badly. He also always had this "European" attitude towards America: "we Europeans are much more sophisticated than Americans." He had only been to America once and he didn't like anything there. But he had a lot of American support - friends, people who helped his movement. However, in terms of civilization, he didn't like the food, customs, things that are quite typical even now.

Each of these people had advantages that were important if they wanted to get Freud out of Austria. Bullitt, for example, had access to Roosevelt, to the highest levels of his administration. So, still during this period, the American ambassador would give an order and the American diplomat in Vienna would approach Freud while the SS was visiting him to show that America was watching the situation. This was still important, Hitler did not want to break all the bridges yet, he was still playing a game and did not want America to join the coming war. Ernest Jones could have obtained permission from the English, so that Freud and his family and a larger group could have been allowed to come to England, which was then becoming more and more difficult even for Jews, and even famous Jews - not only to get permission to leave Austria, but still be accepted somewhere. And he had fantastic contacts in England, which he used all of. Maria Bonaparte was, above all, wealthy and came from aristocratic circles. She had influence and deliberately camped on the steps of Freud's house in Vienna to show when the Gestapo men passed by that she was sitting there and seeing everything. At the same time, she was ready to pay any price, like a tax, to allow Freud to leave. Freud was relatively wealthy, but he was not a rich man. And she was willing to pay for everything. It is true that Bullitt was also rich and offered his help, but it was mainly Maria Bonaparte who paid for everything.

Anna Freud was the one who tried to protect her father, she spoke directly to the new authorities, that is, the Gestapo. Therefore, when the Gestapo came for her, that was the moment when Freud's last resistance to leaving disappeared. He had this attitude: "I don't have much left and my wife doesn't know how long." He felt he didn't have much life left. But the daughter Anna was young. He wanted her to have a life, a career, and he knew Anna would never leave without him. So that motivated him to leave.

[MB]: How do Jews look at Freud today? During his life, as an unrepentant non-believer, he openly came into conflict with his own and all other religions, although he appreciated their traditions and cultural role.

Andrew Nagorski [AG]:   He fought every religion, including his own. He believed that different customs were unnecessary. But he never denied that he was a Jew. On the contrary, he said "I am a Jew, I have Jewish origin, Jewish culture." And that is why, when he encountered anti-Semitic situations, someone called him names and so on, he did not run away, but resisted. He recalled how his helpless father was humiliated by someone shouting anti-Semitic slogans. He thought it was terrible. When he was older, perhaps he understood why his father felt there was nothing he could do. But he himself decided to fight for himself in such situations. At the same time, Freud grew up in Habsburg Vienna, where there was clear anti-Semitism, but also many Jews were doing very well in various industries - music, culture, medicine, and so on. The Jews knew how to be at the top. So he did not deny his Jewish origins. He was very skeptical about religion, but at the same time he was fascinated by religion and the story of Moses. The fact that he was interested in it at all, reading mythology and studying the Bible, shows that he was interested in beliefs.

It is impossible to say what attitude Jews have towards him today, because of course there is no uniformity here. Much also depends on the point of view: whether we are talking about his theories or his personality. I think that people who know anything about Freud, including Orthodox Jews, see that not only did he not shy away from the fact that he was a Jew, but he always said it outright. And they respect him. Even in the matter of today's Palestine, Israel, Zionism - he was skeptical about Theodor Herzl's postulates to create the state of Israel. He wasn't opposed to it, but he was realistic that it would create obvious conflicts. At the same time, however, he agreed to become a member of the council of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was a firm man of his principles, but he also saw the world not from the perspective of religion, but from external and internal conflicts.

[MB]: Freud died after he was deliberately administered a lethal dose of morphine at his own request and with the consent of his daughter Anna. Later, his scientific companion Ernest Jones similarly passed away. Was this type of euthanasia common in scientific circles in the first half of the 20th century, or are they exceptions?

Andrew Nagorski [AG]:   I suspect that maybe it wasn't standard, but it was happening. Someone who was a doctor himself, or knew something about it, and in this environment asked his doctor to relieve his suffering... I doubt he would be refused. It wasn't talked about openly. In Freud and Jones we know this. Freud wanted to feel that he was deciding his fate at the last moment. He was aware of how terrible the end of life could be, because he had suffered from jaw cancer for a long time and he knew that it would get to a point where it would be unbearable. He didn't want to rush his departure, but he also wanted to be aware that when he really felt like he couldn't take it anymore... That's why he had an agreement with Max Schur from the very beginning, ever since he took him on as his chief physician.

[MB]: At the end of the book, you quote the words of WH Auden: "For us, he is no longer a person, but an entire intellectual climate." In your opinion, is Freud's "intellectual climate" still present in science, or is "acknowledging" Freud, despite his achievements, today a bit frivolous, maybe even embarrassing?

Andrew Nagorski [AG]:   It's a bit unfashionable. When I meet a psychologist in the United States or elsewhere, he immediately says "I'm not Freudian." And I hear something like: "oh, those were the beginnings, but it was a bit primitive and we have different theories now." But if you look at it, almost every theory in psychology today has taken a lot from Freud. The very act of coming to a psychologist and having sessions really started with Freud. I believe that his intellectual legacy is enormous. We need to appreciate how groundbreaking the idea was that a person is not only what he declares, but also a set of so many other factors that determine how he behaves, reacts and speaks. Now we all accept that the subconscious is a huge part of our lives. And he was the one who exposed it on a large scale. I believe that Freud is still one of the most important figures in the history of humanity's intellectual development.

About the author

Mateusz Balcerkiewicz

Editor-in-chief of the portal, curator of the Archive of Modern Records in Warsaw, graduate of history at the University of Warsaw. Scientific editor and co-creator of the website As a hobby, he is a member of the reconstruction group "Rok 1920" Historical Society and a guitarist.