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Einstein and Freud on “Why War?”

Dusty Sklar
January 3, 2016
by Dusty Sklar hugenholtz-196-brochureALBERT EINSTEIN had two sons with his first wife, Mileva Maric. The youngest, Eduard, studied medicine at Zurich University and planned to become a psychiatrist. Sigmund Freud’s picture graced his bedroom wall. Eduard often wrote discourses to his father on the helpfulness of Freud’s theories in unraveling aspects of music and film. Father-son relationships were of particular interest to Eduard: In one letter, he wrote, “It’s at times difficult to have such an important father, because one feels so unimportant.” In another: “People who fill their time with intellectual work bring into the world sickly, nervous, at times even completely idiotic children (for example, you me).” Einstein’s only meeting with Freud happened in Berlin early in 1927, at the home of Freud’s own youngest son. Einstein was 47, Freud 70, with cancer of the mouth and deaf in one ear. They discussed their work and respective fields. Einstein was not enthusiastic about psychoanalysis: Freud, he said, would never get into his skin. Responding to a friend’s suggestion that he undergo psychoanalysis, Einsten answered: “I should like very much to remain in the darkness of not having been analyzed.” He was never convinced of the “extent of truth in Freud’s teachings,” though he did admire his literary skills. “It may not always be helpful to delve into the subconscious,” Einstein once said. “Our legs are controlled by a hundred different muscles. Do you think it would help us to walk if we analyzed our legs and knew the exact purpose of each muscle and the order in which they work?” Freud, for his part, thought Einstein was a fine fellow, but totally ignorant of psychoanalysis. He wrote to a friend: “Einstein understands as much about psychology as I do about physics, so we had a very pleasant talk.” IN 1932, when it became apparent that Eduard’s depression had morphed into schizophrenia, Einstein and his former wife arranged for him to go to the Burgholzli psychiatric hospital, where Carl Jung had once trained. Probably in order to please Eduard, Einstein once conceded to him that Freud’s work might have some merit. “I must admit that, through various little personal experiences, I am convinced at least of his main theses.” Eduard, however, never recovered, remaining at Burgholzli until his death in 1965. Oddly enough, Einstein never petitioned Freud to meet his son. freud1Also in 1932, Einstein was given the option by the Institute for Intellectual Cooperation, newly formed by the League of Nations, to choose someone with whom to correspond on politics and war. Einstein chose Sigmund Freud, despite his own misgivings about psychoanalysis. He once told a friend that he thought Freud had “a sharp vision; no illusion lulled him asleep except for an exaggerated faith in his own ideas.” Thus began an amazing series of letters back and forth. They started with Einstein writing:
I greatly admire your passion to ascertain the truth — a passion that has come to dominate all else in your thinking. You have shown with irresistible lucidity how inseparably the aggressive and destructive instincts are bound up in the human psyche with those of love and the lust for life. At the same time, your convincing arguments make manifest your deep devotion to the great goal of the internal and external liberation of man from the evils of war.
Einstein’s liberal-left view was that there existed a close relationship between arms manufacturers and power-hungry politicians. They held sway over everyone, but that was only possible because of our capacity for hatred and destruction. He proposed an international body like the League of Nations, but more powerful, composed of intellectual elites, to oversee the elimination of war. He remained an advocate of such a body all his life, most earnestly because of the threats posed by the atomic age which he helped to usher in. Einstein asked Freud a cogent question: “Is it possible to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him secure against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness?” By then, a majority of even cultured Germans were succumbing to the Nazis. Freud answered that the instinct for destruction and the instinct to conserve and unify were bound to each other and should not be labeled evil and good. “Each of these instincts is every whit as indispensable as its opposite, and all the phenomena of life derive from their activity, whether they work in concert or in opposition.” He did not think aggression could be eliminated. He argued that to love one’s neighbor as oneself was “easy to announce, but hard to carry out.” He hoped that wars would end because man would realize that it “forces the individual into situations that shame his manhood, obliging him to murder fellow men against his will.” He championed education that would teach humanity to “share important interests,” but he was skeptical. He trotted out his theory of Eros and Thanatos. His ideas in the correspondence owed much to those in his book, Civilization and Its Discontents. Neither man felt confident that war would be prevented any time soon. Freud was not particularly happy with their ruminations on this subject and would later characterize the undertaking as “tedious and sterile” and unlikely to win either of them the Nobel Peace Prize. (Freud had been nominated several times before; one of the Nobelists who declined to support him was Einstein, who wrote in 1928 that he could not render an opinion on the truth of Freud’s theories, “much less offer a verdict that should be authoritative for others.”) TWO THOUSAND COPIES of the Einstein-Freud correspondence were published in a book the following year by the League of Nations, simultaneously in English, French and German, with the title WHY WAR? By that time, Einstein was in America. In May of 1933, the Nazi propaganda ministry organized book burnings in Berlin and other German cities. Freud’s books were tossed into the fire along with Einstein’s. In the pyre was WHY WAR? Surprisingly, one copy was found among Mussolini’s personal effects. In 1933, the leader of the Italian psychoanalytic movement, Edoardo Weiss, brought a very sick patient to Freud for consultation. “The patient’s father, who accompanied us,” wrote Weiss, “was a close friend of Mussolini’s. After the consultation, the father asked Freud for a present for Mussolini, in which Freud was to write a dedication. I was in a very embarrassing position, for I knew that under these circumstances, Freud could not deny the request.” Freud chose WHY WAR? as the present and inscribed it: “To Benito Mussolini, with respectful greetings of an old man who recognizes in the ruler a cultural hero.” Dusty Sklar is the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles. To read her article about Einstein and Zionism, click here. To read her article about Henry George and Zionism, click here.

Dusty Sklar is a contributing writer to our magazine and the author of Gods and Beasts: The Nazis and the Occult, as well as numerous stories and articles.