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The Friendship between Sigmund Freud and Stefan Zweig

Dusty Sklar
May 31, 2017

by Dusty Sklar

IN HIS BOOK, The World of Yesterday, published in 1943, the prolific Viennese writer Stefan Zweig chronicled his time, beginning with World War I and ending with World War II. He gazed back lovingly at his friendship with Sigmund Freud, a fellow Jew from Vienna, which was a city passionately immersed in culture. In 1908, a long correspondence began between them that continued until Freud’s death in 1939.

Psychology became one of Zweig’s greatest passions. In his letter to Freud of September 8, 1926, he wrote: “You still play the decisive role in the invisible struggle for the soul. You alone are always the one to explain to us, in a creative way, the mechanism of the spiritual. More than ever we need you and your activity.” In his letter of October 21, 1932, he wrote: “Everything I write is marked by your influence and you understand, perhaps, that the courage to tell the truth, probably the essential thing in my books, comes from you: You have served as a model for an entire generation.”

Freud thought that Zweig showed an aptitude for psychological analysis, although they did argue now and then, as, for example, after Zweig published Mental Healers: Mesmer, Eddy and Freud, in 1931. This is one of the earliest studies of Freud’s work by a writer outside the psychoanalytic community. Zweig was excited by Freud’s revolutionary approach to the psyche, but it annoyed Freud to have psychoanalysis compared with Mesmerism and Christian Science.

Zweig had been sending his writing to Freud for feedback since 1908, beginning with his first play, Thersites, and continuing until Freud’s death. But reading about himself in Mental Healers was an ambivalent experience for Freud. In his letter of response, Freud wrote: “I could object that you overemphasize the element of petit-bourgeois rectitude in me -- the fellow is a little more complicated than that!” However, he continued, “I am probably not wrong in assuming that you were a stranger to psychoanalytical theory prior to the writing of this book. It is all the more to your credit, therefore, that you have absorbed so much of it since.”

FREUD VALUED Zweig’s friendship until the end of his life. They saw eye-to-eye on the horrible events unfolding in Germany. Zweig expressed surprise that “even Freud, the clearest seeing mind of this time, with whom I often talked in those days, was baffled and could make no sense out of the nonsense.” Nonetheless, Zweig felt that “however gloomy the outlook, a conversation with a great mind on a high moral plane can afford immeasurable consolation and can stiffen the spirit; this was brought home to me unforgettably by the friendly hours which I was privileged to spend with Sigmund Freud during those last months before the catastrophe.”

The thought of the eighty-three year-old invalid in Hitler’s Vienna had weighed on me for months until finally the amazing Princess Maria Bonaparte, his most faithful pupil, had succeeded in getting this pre-eminent man out of subjugated Vienna and to London. I counted it a happy day in my life when I read in the paper that he had arrived on the isle and I saw the most revered of my friends, whom I had believed lost, restored from Hades.

As a humanitarian, Freud was deeply shocked by the outburst of Nazi bestiality. Yet as a thinker, he was not. He had been castigated as a pessimist, he said, because he had denied the supremacy of culture over the instincts, but he was being vindicated in his opinion that the barbaric, elemental destructive instinct of humanity was ineradicable. It was now being proven most horribly.

In 1937 he published Moses and Monotheism, in which he suggested that Moses was not Hebrew but a member of the Egyptian nobility. Freud described it to Zweig as “a kind of historical novel.” The book infuriated Jews and Christians alike. Jewish critics deemed it anti-Jewish and thought it would deprive them of a source of strength against the current wave of barbarism and persecution. Freud came to regret having published the book right in the most terrible hour of Jewry. “Now that everything is being taken from them, I had to go and take their best man.” Zweig agreed with him: “By now every Jew’s sensitiveness had increased sevenfold, for even in the midst of the world tragedy they were the real victims, everywhere the victims, because, already dispersed before the blow, they knew that whatever evil was to come would touch them first and with sevenfold force, and that the most hate-maddened man of all times wished to humiliate them especially and to harry them to the end of and under the earth.”

After the Nazis prohibited and destroyed his books in 1933, Zweig emigrated to London in 1934.

IN 1936, Hermann Goering’s cousin Matthias Goering became the head of the German General Medical Society for Psychotherapy, which he led to denounce Jewish psychoanalysts. Goering had their property and assets seized, which included Freud’s publishing company. As a well-connected international figure, Freud had friends everywhere; even President Franklin Roosevelt telegrammed Hitler, warning him not to harm Freud. Still, the Nazis hung swastikas on Freud’s stoop, and the Gestapo harassed him. The military police confiscated the family’s cash and passports. After the Germans arrested Freud’s daughter, Anna, the family was finally allowed to leave. Already cancer-ridden, Freud was invited to America, but declined. They fled to Britain, taking along Freud’s famous couch, but not before Freud signed a statement prepared by the Nazis, stating that he had not been molested in any way and that he had been told to continue with his scientific work. He signed, but added: “I can most highly recommend the Gestapo to everyone.”

Together with Salvador Dali, Zweig visited Freud in England on July 19, 1938. It was to be one of his last visits. Dali revered Freud. While the two friends talked, Dali sketched. Since Freud was near death, Zweig did not dare to show him the two sketches that Dali had made of him (one is at the top of this article), “because clairvoyantly Dali had already incorporated death in the picture.”

In his last letter to Freud, dated September, 14, 1939, nine days before Freud’s death, Zweig wrote, “I hope that you are suffering only from the era, as we all do, and not also from physical pain. We must stand firm now -- it would be absurd to die without having first seen the criminals sent to hell.”

Zweig delivered the eulogy at Freud’s funeral in Golders Green, an intimate memorial service with a relatively small group of Freud’s international allies, among whom were many Central European exiles. It took place just a few weeks after the British declared war on Germany.

Zweig said: “In our youth we desired nothing more fervently than to lead a heroic life . . . we entertained dreams of meeting such a spiritual hero in the flesh, a hero who would help us better ourselves, a man who was oblivious to the temptations of fame and vanity, who possessed a complete and responsible soul, dedicated to his mission that reaps not its own benefits but enriches all of mankind. Our dear departed Freud fulfilled this enthusiastic dream of our youth.”

Without Freud’s influence, he said, “each of us would think, judge, feel, more narrowly, less freely, less justly.”

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

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.