The Day Freud's Supporters Forced Him to Flee the Nazis

Sarah Ziai for Vanity Fair (France)

Sigmund Freud was living in Vienna when Nazism took over Europe. He did not want to escape but a group of his loyal followers organized to force him to flee. The American journalist Andrew Nagorski retraces this incredible epic. 


Sigmund Freud loved Vienna too much. He loved her so much that he risked his life not to leave her. Even in the face of the brutal rise of anti-Semitism and Nazism which was rapidly infiltrating the city, he stubbornly stayed. Until the last second, as The Times tells us . The American journalist Andrew Nagorski tells in his book, Saving Freud: A Life in Vienna and an Escape to Freedom in London, the incredible epic of the psychoanalyst to flee the Austrian capital. 

In 1931, Freud is 81 years old and leads a sweet life. Financially comfortable, his work has been recognized around the world, he has many followers, a string of doctorates and even a chair he thought he would never be able to reach, because of his Jewish faith. He lives in an apartment with his daughter Anna who takes care of him and their dog, Wolf. Surrounded by antiques and bewitched by the scent of cigars, Freud enjoys his Viennese cocoon. His son Martin ran the Verlag Press and published psychoanalytic texts written by Freudian followers down the street. In short, everything was going well. 

But, overnight, everything changes. Nazism spreads and the hunt for Jews is increasingly ferocious in Eastern Europe. In 1933, Freud was aware that the situation in Germany was “very serious” but was convinced that it would not spread to Austria. His optimism could have ruined him. It was without counting on a small group of people determined to save the psychoanalyst, whether he wanted it or not. His followers hatched a well-crafted plan to bribe, trick and coerce the headstrong psychoanalyst onto a train for Paris before ending his retirement in London , where he died in 1939.

Among the band, we first find Ernest Jones, a Welsh doctor who was a devoted pupil of Freud before becoming his biographer. Jones managed to procure the necessary papers for the entire Freud group (24 people) from the Home Office in London, at a time when Britain was more wary than usual of immigrants. The treasurer of the group was Marie Bonaparte, a great-grandniece of Napoleon who had consulted Freud for his "frigidity". She then decided to stay in Vienna to become a psychoanalyst herself. She kept the gang's morale high in the darkest hours and found the money for the final Gestapo bribe, which Freud repaid to her some time later. 

A Nazi to the rescue of the Jewish psychoanalyst

Among the key players in Freud's flight, we also find the American diplomat William Bullitt, a former ambassador to Moscow who was to be transferred to Paris. He had collaborated with Freud to write a strange biography on Woodrow Wilson, former President of the United States whom they both hated. Bullitt had connections. Just before the flight, he spoke to President Roosevelt, asking him to speed up the secret diplomatic steps to extract Freud from Vienna. 

The most surprising ally was Anton Sauerwald. Himself in charge of the Freud file for the Gestapo, the notorious anti-Semitic Nazi took a liking to the psychoanalyst, at the time of the extortion of all his property. His signing of the Freud Group visas was the very last link in the chain necessary for the escape. 

Thanks to the gang, Freud and his relatives landed on a train that crossed all of Germany, before dropping them off in Paris. After a day of rest in the French capital, to recover the money they had sent each other, they resumed their journey to settle in London. 

The story of the leak is told in detail in Andrew Nagorski's book. The journalist specifies that without this group of well-placed and determined supporters, Freud would surely not have made it. Her sisters who did not benefit from the same help met a more tragic end. Three of them were deported and murdered at the Treblinka camp , while the last died of starvation on the way.