Two days after Adolf Hitler’s Germany swallowed up neighboring Austria, the brownshirts came for Sigmund Freud.
The gang of Nazi thugs barged up the marble stairs of Berggasse 19 in Vienna on March 15, 1938, bent on terrorizing the world-famous founder of psychoanalysis and trashing the home where he had treated patients for 47 years.
They were met not by the 81-year-old Freud but by his wife Martha, who greeted the intruders graciously and pointed them toward an umbrella stand for their rifles.
“Won’t the gentlemen help themselves?” she said as daughter Anna, a prominent psychotherapist in her own right, gathered up the household’s cash — about $840 — and placed it on the sitting-room table.
The surprised Nazis grabbed the bribe and beat a temporary retreat.
“Dear me,” Freud said as they departed. “I have never taken so much for a single visit.”
For years, Freud had been in deep denial about Hitler’s looming threat, writes Andrew Nagorski in “Saving Freud: The Rescuers Who Brought Him to Freedom” (Simon and Schuster).
Despite the pleas of friends around the globe who begged him to leave Vienna, Freud had refused to flee — even though, as the leader of a movement that the Nazis despised as “Jewish pseudoscience,” he was a prime target of their anti-Semitic hate. “The irony was that Freud should have been uniquely qualified to understand the dark forces propelling his world to mass murder and destruction,” Nagorski writes.
Less than a decade before, Freud had explored humanity’s “aggressive cruelty” in the book “Civilization and its Discontents,” noting that Jews had frequently borne the brunt of mass savagery. Yet Freud, like other secular Jews of his generation, believed that the cultured, cosmopolitan people of his beloved hometown would never turn on their Jewish neighbors.
“We can expect with certainty that the Hitler movement will spread to Austria, is indeed already here,” Freud wrote in 1933, as the soon-to-be Fuhrer took power. “But it is very unlikely that it will present a similar danger as in Germany.”
“It would seem that Freud, who had uncovered the force of the aggressive drive in the individual, could not believe that this force could be unleashed in an entire nation,” Freud’s personal physician Max Schur wrote in his memoir.
Besides, Freud’s frail health and his painful case of jaw cancer, brought on by a decades-long cigar addiction, made the prospect of leaving home unthinkable. “He could not imagine any ‘new life’ elsewhere,” Anna, his protege and main caretaker, later wrote.
Not even the March 1938 home invasion — and the simultaneous destruction of Freud’s publishing house, the International Psychoanalytic Press — could convince him to leave.
Ernest Jones, Freud’s Welsh disciple who had taken his ideas to Britain and America, rushed to his mentor’s side to make a last-ditch plea. He found Freud despondent — “Ah, if I were only alone I should long ago have done with life,” he sighed — but unmoved.
As Freud agonized, an international cast of wealthy and well-connected characters labored to protect him.
William Bullitt, the US ambassador to France and a former patient, had President Franklin D. Roosevelt ask Berlin for Freud’s safe passage to Paris, if he chose to depart.
Former patient Princess Marie Bonaparte, Napoleon’s great-grandniece and the wife of Prince George of Greece and Denmark, regularly parked her royal car outside Berggasse 19 and sat vigil on the building’s chilly staircase as a physical barrier against harassment. With each trip, she spirited family valuables away under her voluminous skirts and fur coats, sending them out of Austria by protected diplomatic mail.
Tiffany heiress Dorothy Burlingham, whose “precious relationship” with Anna had drawn her to an apartment just upstairs from Freud’s, was in constant contact with the American consulate. At Burlingham’s signal, a member of the mission would visit the family in a US-flagged car.
When the Gestapo arrested Anna on March 22, Freud’s resistance finally broke.
“That was the worst day … the only time I saw Freud deeply worried,” Schur wrote of the ordeal. “He paced the floor, smoking incessantly.” After hours of interrogation, Anna returned late that night. Her father “was so relieved to see her, he wept,” Nagorski writes. “He recognized that he had to flee if at all possible, mainly for the sake of Anna, who had so much longer to live — and who would not leave him under any circumstances.”
Freud had no idea that his daughter, fearing torture, had quietly asked Schur for a supply of suicide pills. She had carried a fatal dose of Veronal to the interview.
After ten more excruciating weeks, international pressure — and the payment of a massive “flight tax” equivalent to $237,500 in today’s dollars — pried the Freuds from the Nazis’ clutches. Bonaparte supplied most of the cash. Freud, Martha, and Anna boarded the Orient Express for Paris on June 4. “Now, we are free,” he said as the train crossed the Rhine.
Freud spent the last 16 months of his life in London, treating patients who reclined on the famous couch that miraculously made it out of Vienna along with him. He was almost dazed by the warm English welcome — “a blessed, a happy country inhabited by well-meaning, hospitable people,” he wrote.
But he never could shake the ache of leaving his homeland behind.
“In spite of everything,” he confided to a friend, “I still greatly loved the prison from which I have been released.”