By Paul Theerman, Associate Director, Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health
Sigmund Freud was born this day in 1856. Just one hundred years ago, a scant six months or so into the Great War, he set down Reflections on War and Death, his thoughts on the meaning of the war that had already spun out so violently—and that had more than three years yet to go.
Freud was at the top of his career in 1915. He started carving out the distinct field of psychoanalysis in 1895, with Studies in Hysteria, followed by The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), and numerous other books and articles. From 1902 he had gathered a group of physicians that became the nucleus of the psychoanalytic movement. In 1909, Freud undertook a triumphal tour of the United States. He founded The International Psychoanalytical Association in 1910; the American and New York groups came about the following year. And in 1912, Freud founded Imago: zeitschrift für anwendung der psychoanalyse auf die geisteswissenchaften, a journal that applied psychoanalysis to history, philosophy, and the social sciences. It was in Imago that the essay, “Reflections on War and Death” appeared, as “Zeitgemäßes über Krieg und Tod.”1
In his essay, Freud wished to present a worldly estimation of the carnage gripping Europe. He wrote, “The civilized world-citizen . . . may find himself helpless in a world that has grown strange to him when he sees his great fatherland disintegrated, the possessions common to mankind destroyed, and his fellow citizens debased.”2 While regretting the violence that the war had unleashed, he also professed not to be particularly surprised. European civilization was not nearly as moral as people had believed, he wrote. He contrasted two forms of moral development. One was hard won by deep psychic change: the transformation of evil and selfish impulses to beneficent social ends under the influence of “the love needs of man interpreted in the widest sense.”3
The second form, indistinguishable from the first in peacetime, was enforced by a system of rewards and punishments that elicited moral behavior: good conduct is rewarded, and bad punished. However, in the chaos of wartime, the system showed itself for the sham that it was: no shame attached to the horrendous acts perpetrated between warring states. Freud explained this with the scant consolation: “our mortification and painful disappointment on account of the uncivilized behavior of our fellow world citizens in this war were not justified. . . . In reality they have not sunk as deeply as we feared because they never rose as high as we believed.”4
In 1918, the year after America joined the war, Abraham Arden Brill (1874–1948), one of the founders of the psychoanalytic movement here, and Alfred B. Kuttner (b. 1886), a literary figure and film critic, translated and published Freud’s work, with this introductory note:
This book is offered to the American public at the present time in the hope that it may contribute something to the cause of international understanding and good will which has become the hope of the world.
This hope was based in a clear-eyed look at the basest human instincts, and the insight that change meant resolution at a deep psychic level, not to be gained by simple moralizing or hand-wringing. The last 100 years have produced a dispiriting number of examples of the failures to which Freud pointed. And the book remains in print to this day.
1. Imago 4(1) (1915): 1-21.
2. Sigmund Freud, Reflections on War and Death, translated by A. A. Brill and Alfred B. Kuttner (New York: Moffat, Yard, and Company, 1918), p. 16.
3. Freud, Reflections on War and Death, 21.
4. Freud, Reflections on War and Death, 29.