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The Mystery of Max Eitingon


Dr. Max Eitingon was one of Sigmund Freud’s most devoted and valued colleagues. In 1907, he came from Switzerland, where he was studying, to see Freud—the first, as Freud later put it, “to reach the lonely man” from another country.1 Freud did not take to him immediately but once convinced of Eitingon’s dedication he received him into his inner circle.2 In 1919, when that strange “secret council” was formed “composed of the best and most trustworthy among our men,” Freud himself proposed Eitingon as the sixth of the seven members.3 By 1922, after an association of almost a decade and a half, Freud wrote to him that his acceptance in Freud’s inner circle had not come easily but “ever since [I] have allowed you to render me every kind of service, imposed on you every kind of task.”4 Since his death in 1943, Max Eitingon has gone down in the history of psychoanalysis as one of its commemorated “pioneers.”5

The New York Times Book Review of January 24, 1988, published an article by Stephen Schwartz, a fellow at the Institute of Contemporary Studies in San Francisco, entitled “Intellectuals and Assassins—Annals of Stalin’s Killerati.” The chief intellectual member of the “killerati” in the article was Dr. Max Eitingon.

According to Schwartz, “Dr. Max Eitingon was instrumental in preparing the 1937 secret trial in which the highest leaders of the Soviet Army, including the chief army commissar and eight generals, fell before the Stalinist execution machine.” Eitingon is said to have been drawn into the work of a “special unit [which] connived with Reinhard Heydrich of Hitler’s intelligence service.” Even more infamously, Eitingon was “involved in the murder of Ignace Reiss and the disappearance of General Miller” in 1937.

Max is also linked by Schwartz to his “brother,” Leonid Eitingon, “considered to be the KGB’s outstanding expert in operations against Russian anti-Communist exiles.” A book cited by Schwartz is said to “declare flatly” that Dr. Max Eitingon served Leonid Eitingon in the plot to abduct the anti-Soviet General Yevgeni Miller in Paris in 1937. Among the crimes attributed to Leonid is the murder of Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940.

If all this is true, Dr. Max Eitingon is one of the most remarkable cases on record of a double life or personality. In one of his incarnations, he was a man who had seemingly devoted his entire life to the advancement of psychoanalysis. In the other, he had belonged to a “special unit” which had carried out some of Stalin’s most murderous missions outside Russia.

My own interest in this case is twofold. When I first read the Times article, it struck me as a mixture of the true, the half true, and the improbable. The story of Dr. Max Eitingon seemed to be particularly suspicious, because no effort was made to explain how he could have lived his two lives at once. The KGB and its predecessors did not entrust the organization of these “killerati” missions to amateurs; they were set up by trained, seasoned professionals.

Leonid Eitingon was such a professional. But was it conceivable that Max was another, particularly if there was no evidence that he was the brother of Leonid except for the similarity of names? Schwartz’s article is not about “Stalin’s Killerati” in general. It is specifically about intellectuals who were also assassins. Max was an intellectual; Leonid was not. Therefore, the main burden of the article struck at Max rather than at Leonid, who was brought in on the ground that Max had allegedly served him.

The first question, then, is: Has an innocent man, Dr. Max Eitingon, been defamed? When I started out I did not know what the answer was, but I was interested in finding out. If he was not one of Stalin’s killers, he deserved to be vindicated; if he was, the mystery of his double life was even more fascinating.

The second question is historical in nature. What was the evidence for this shocking assault on Dr. Max Eitingon’s good name? What sources were used to make the story about him trustworthy? Did the article use its own sources fairly and accurately?

I intend to lay out the evidence and sources in the way that I have found them, with the help of the staff of The New York Review of Books.6 I will begin by examining the evidence and sources presented by Stephen Schwartz in his article in The New York Times Book Review. I was not satisfied, however, with a merely critical approach, and have undertaken independent research in an effort to solve the mystery of Max Eitingon. If Schwartz did not have the answer, what was it and where could it be found? We should be much closer to the truth at the end of our journey.


First, what do we know about Max Eitingon?

He was born in 1881 at Mohilev, Russia, the son of well-to-do orthodox Jewish parents. The family moved to Galicia, then in Austria, where his father acquired Austrian nationality, though after World War I Max Eitingon opted for Polish nationality. When he was twelve, the family moved again to Leipzig, Germany. He studied medicine, first at Marburg, Germany, and then at Zurich, Switzerland; from there he came to Vienna in 1907 with a severely disturbed patient whom he thought Freud might be able to help.7

Eitingon received his medical degree and moved to Berlin in 1909. For the next quarter of a century, he was the chief psychoanalytical figure in Berlin, the founder in 1920 of the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society and financial mainstay of the Berlin Polyclinic, the first Freudian training institute. A decade later he was president of the International Psycho-Analytic Association.

Eitingon was notable among those in Freud’s inner circle as the only one with independent means. As long as he was able to do so, he used his money generously in behalf of the movement. Freud once wrote to him: “You really are the most reckless member of my family.” Freud was referring to a loan in 1919 to himself of 2,000 marks, another of 1,000 to his sister-in-law, and financial assistance to his youngest son, Ernst.8

We happen to know a good deal about Eitingon’s financial fortunes thanks to Ernest Jones’s biography of Freud. Psychoanalytic circles were made aware of Eitingon’s wealth because of their dependence on his largesse or lack of it. We learn that the Berlin Polyclinic was made possible in 1920 by Eitingon’s generosity. When the psychoanalytic publishing house was threatened financially that year, Eitingon “saved the situation a few months later by inducing a sympathetic brother-in-law in New York to make the Verlag the handsome donation of $5,000.” In 1931, however, Jones records: “The family business from which Eitingon drew his income was in America, and the disastrous economic situation there had proved catastrophic for it. Before long Eitingon was for the first time in his life a poor man.”9

Another misfortune struck Eitingon in 1932. He suffered from a cerebral thrombosis which left him with a paresis of the left arm. When Freud learned that Eitingon had to spend several weeks in bed, the tables were turned and Freud offered to come to his financial rescue with a loan of $1,000.10

Though Freud valued Eitingon highly, it was not for his intellectual contributions. As a memoir of Eitingon puts it, he was rather the “initiator, teacher, administrator, reporter [on activities in the movement] and thanks to a generous nature, quite often financial backer.” He has been described by those who knew him later in Palestine as “calm, courteous, patient,” and also as “shy, modest, and quietly reserved,” traits pro-bably intensified by the coronary thrombosis of 1932 and a more serious heart attack in 1938, after which his health began to fail and his hearing was seriously impaired. He was unprepossessing physically, short and portly, bespectacled, with a Chaplinesque mustache, and he struggled all his life with a speech impediment.11

Eitingon made his first visit to Jerusalem as early as 1910 and decided to move there for good after Hitler took power in 1933. He left Germany for Palestine at the end of 1933.12 One of his first acts in Jerusalem was to found the Palestine Institute for Psychoanalysis.

In Palestine, he was fully occupied with his psychoanalytic mission. He had patients, students, held regular hours for receiving visitors, and even in his last months could not be deterred from coming daily for at least a short time to his Institute. A co-worker of those years tells of the time Eitingon spent trying to obtain employment, opportunities to recuperate, money, “or suitably interceding in certain quarters” for a large number of patients.13

In 1950, the now Israel Psycho-Analytical Society issued a volume entitled Max EitingonIn Memoriam with contributions by Arnold Zweig, the novelist; Anna Freud; S.J. Agnon, the preeminent Hebrew poet; Marie Bonaparte, the distinguished French psychoanalyst; and many others. They portray a gentle, studious, cultivated person. The same sense of him is given by Ernest Jones, who knew him well.

It is possible to get a fairly clear impression of Max Eitingon’s residence in Jerusalem from the letters between Arnold Zweig and Freud. Zweig lived in Haifa and saw Eitingon regularly. It appears from the correspondence that Eitingon stayed in Jerusalem throughout 1934 to 1938 with the exception of three annual trips between 1934 and 1937 to see Freud in Vienna and one trip to the Paris congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association and to see Freud in London in 1938. In 1936, Zweig wrote to Freud: “It is maddening that for the moment I cannot think of going into Jerusalem again to see the Eitingons. Theirs is the most delightful ménage in Jerusalem, and it is wonderful to have people so close who are so intimate with you and who carry out your work so faithfully.” In the very year, 1937, when Max Eitingon is supposed to have been organizing the kidnapping of General Miller in Paris, Zweig mentions him twice, once in May, writing that “at Eitingon’s suggestion I wrote down a joke that had been improvised by me for our meetings in Jerusalem,” and again in October, when Zweig was in Trieste, saying that Eitingon had told him on the telephone that Freud was “really extremely well.”14 It hardly seems believable that the man who was reporting to Zweig on Freud was at about the same time busy arranging a kidnapping in Paris.

Schwartz’s version of Eitingon’s relationship with Freud betrays a glaring ignorance of the two men. His article says:

From 1925 to 1937, Dr. Eitingon became Freud’s factotum and shield against the world…. He was a virtual social secretary to the old man.

Eitingon’s service to Freud long antedated 1925. After 1933, Eitingon, living in Jerusalem, was hardly in a position to be Freud’s “factotum and shield,” let alone a “virtual social secretary.” When this fatuity was pointed out by Peter Gay in a letter to The New York Times Book Review of March 6, 1988, Schwartz brazenly tried to cover his tracks:

  1. 1

    Ernst L. Freud, ed., Letters to Sigmund Freud (Basic Books, 1960), p. 300.

  2. 2

    In 1922, Freud wrote a letter to Eitingon in which he tried to make amends for his early effort to keep Eitingon “at bay” (Letters to Sigmund Freud, p. 337).

  3. 3

    Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (Basic Books, 1955), Vol. II, pp. 152–154. Hereafter, “Jones, Freud.”

  4. 4

    Letters to Sigmund Freud, p. 337.

  5. 5

    See the chapter on Max Eitingon by Sidney L. Pomer in Psychoanalytic Pioneers, edited by Franz Alexander, Samuel Eisenstein, and Martin Grotjahn (Basic Books, 1966), pp. 51–62.

  6. 6

    I could not have written this article without the help of Sylvia Lonergan, Neil Gordon, Henning Gutmann, Ann Kjellberg, Halyna Stelmach, and Fred Corney. I am also deeply indebted to Sarah Hirschman and Joseph Frank.

  7. 7

    Pomer in Psychoanalytic Pioneers, p. 57; Jones, Freud, Vol. II, p. 31.

  8. 8

    Letters to Sigmund Freud, p. 325.

  9. 9

    Jones, Freud, Vol. III, pp. 20, 35, and 165.

  10. 10

    Jones, Freud, Vol. III, p. 168.

  11. 11

    This paragraph is based on Pomer, Psychoanalytic Pioneers, pp. 52, 54, and 60; and the contributions by Arnold Zweig and Erich Gumbel in Max Eitingon: In Memoriam (Israel Psycho-Analytic Society, Jerusalem, 1950), pp. 11 and 27.

    Carl Gustav Jung was particularly harsh on the young Eitingon. In 1907, Jung wrote to Freud that Eitingon, then aged twenty-six, was “a totally impotent gasbag—scarcely has this uncharitable judgment left my lips than it occurs to me that I envy him his uninhibited abreaction of the polygamous instinct. I therefore retract ‘impotent’ as too compromising. He will certainly never amount to anything; one day he may become a member of the Duma” (William McGuire, ed., The Freud/Jung Letters, Princeton University Press, 1974, p. 90).

    Others were more charitable. Karl Abraham wrote to Freud from Berlin in 1908: “Eitingon is hardly suitable for active cooperation, although he has the best understanding” (Sigmund Freud–Karl Abraham, Briefe 1907–1926, Frankfurt, 1965, p. 56). Yet Freud wrote to Abraham the following year that Eitingon was the only one who had then seen his work on Leonardo da Vinci (p. 89). Freud himself wrote to Jung in 1909 from Vienna that “Eitingon is the only one I can talk to here” (Freud/Jung Letters, pp. 261–262.)

  12. 12

    Jones, Freud, Vol. III, p. 183, gives the date of his departure from Berlin as the last day of 1933; Pomer in Psychoanalytic Pioneers states that he made a preliminary trip to Palestine in September 1933 and left Germany to settle there permanently on the last day of 1934 (p. 58). Jones is almost certainly right; there is a letter from Arnold Zweig to Freud of October 29, 1934, from Haifa, which mentions Eitingon (The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Arnold Zweig, Ernst Freud, ed., Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970, p. 95).

  13. 13

    Margarete Brandt in Max EitingonIn Memoriam, p. 269. Pomer has described Eitingon’s activities in Palestine:

    For Eitingon, the move to Israel [sic] was more than a wartime necessity: it was a natural consequence of his lifelong interest in Zionism. In him was deeply ingrained the devotion to those related to him, the reverence for tradition, and the genuine piety characteristic of the old patriarchal Jewish family. Every cultural Jewish activity drew him. The Bezalel Art Institute enjoyed his support, and he dedicated himself to the furtherance of the Hebrew University in Palestine. According to Gumbel, it was a fulfillment of his most profound aspirations that he could settle in Jerusalem and introduce psychoanalysis there [Psychoanalytic Pioneers, p. 59].

  14. 14

    The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Arnold Zweig, pp. 124, 142, and 149. Zweig mentions Eitingon twenty-three times in these letters, far more than anyone else with the exception of Anna Freud.

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