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The Fate of a Humanist


On November 11, 1909, Sigmund Freud wrote to Carl Jung about a young Viennese classics teacher whose work on folklore—particularly folk tales featuring prophetic dreams—had piqued Freud’s interest:

Chance recently led me to a clever high school teacher who is working on mythology with similar ideas, but fully equipped…decidedly intelligent, only so far he gives me the impression that he isn’t really adept at taking on something that has up to now been foreign to him. At our first meeting I found out from him that Oedipus may have been originally a phallic demon, like the Idean Dactyls (!), the name means simply erection….

The young man in question, whose name was David Oppenheim, wasn’t a scholar of note. He was, in fact, no more than a high school teacher of Greek and Latin at the prestigious Akademisches Gymnasium in Vienna, whose alumni included Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Tomás Masaryk. What papers he published appeared not in the great German-language philological journals but rather in a minor psychoanalytical publication that he himself helped to edit.

What historical interest Oppenheim has had has derived, until recently, from his brief association with Freud. The father of psychoanalysis was interested at this time in exploring the psychoanalytical meaning of classical myths, and Oppenheim’s great expertise in this subject provided an opportunity to Freud for a rare collaboration. By 1910 the two were working together on a paper about folk tales that featured dreams—tales, as Oppenheim argued, that demonstrated that ordinary people are aware of the sexual symbolism of dreams. Freud’s enthusiasm for Oppenheim was marked by an appreciative footnote to the latter’s work in a 1911 edition of The Interpretation of Dreams. And yet because Oppenheim would side with Alfred Adler in the latter’s 1911 break with Freud, the collaboration fizzled out. “Dreams in Folklore, by Sigm. Freud and Prof. Ernst Oppenheim” was never published. In post-1911 editions of The Interpretation of Dreams, the footnote about David was dropped.

Oppenheim would have been lost to history had it not been for a connection to yet another controversial figure, one who, like Freud, explores in his professional life the gray areas that lie between philosophy, science, and the darker areas of human thought and emotion. As with Freud, the revulsion he inspires in his critics is balanced both by high academic honors (he is a professor of bioethics at Princeton University) and a level of popular fame not generally achieved by academicians. I am referring to the Australian-born bioethicist Peter Singer, whose views in favor of euthanasia for catastrophically disabled human infants, coupled with his fierce defense of animal rights, have made him one of the most controversial figures in the academy today. He has, for instance, been likened to a Nazi for his views—not least, by Germans: Der Spiegel published an attack on Singer accompanied by pictures of the transportation of euthanasia victims under the Third Reich.1 In an article entitled “On Being Silenced in Germany,” which appeared in these pages in 1991, Singer, whose characteristic rhetorical stance is of an almost adolescently fierce purity, has described how invitations to lecture were withdrawn by German universities in the face of a public climate that may be measured by the Spiegel article, and how audiences at a lecture in Zürich greeted him with calls of “Singer raus!” To such criticism Singer retorted that his views

had nothing whatsoever to do with what the Nazis did. In contrast to the Nazi ideology that the state should decide who was worthy of life, my view was designed to reduce the power of the state and allow parents to make crucial life and death decisions, both for themselves and, in consultation with their doctors, for their newborn infants.2

The terrible irony here is that Singer is David Oppenheim’s grandson, and Oppenheim, a Jew, perished in 1942 at the hands of the Nazis. To his credit—and again reflecting a kind of intellectual and ethical rigor—Singer refuses to invoke this fact except under the most galling attacks, such as one he experienced during a lecture at the University of Saarbrücken, when an audience member suggested that Singer could hold his controversial views only because he “lacked experience with Nazism.” The critic, Singer recounts, was “taken aback when I told them that I was a child of Austrian-Jewish refugees, and that three of my grandparents had died in Nazi concentration camps.”

So the connections that tie the famous Peter Singer to his obscure grandparent are, in fact, more complicated and vexed than may first meet the eye: in his personal life, there is the connection of family, and in his professional life, there is the awful, macabre charge that his ideas are somehow linked to the Nazis. It is ostensibly because of the first tie, of family, that Singer has undertaken to write what amounts to a biography of his lost relative—an attempt, as he sees it, to recuperate the life of his grandfather, and thereby to “undo” in some small way the wrong that was done to a man who, as Singer’s book makes clear, was a person of remarkable human qualities. The grandson never knew his grandfather—Singer was born in 1946—and the inspiration to write about him came only fairly recently, stimulated by the discovery of a cache of letters from David Oppenheim first to his wife, Amalie, dating back to their courtship in 1905, and later to his children (Singer’s mother, Kora Oppenheim Singer, and her sister, Doris, in whose possession the letters ended up). It is a straightforward and rather earnest narrative of a life that was, in its way, typical of a certain stratum of mitteleuropäisch life in the first half of the last century, from the twilight of the Hapsburgs to the high noon of Hitler: educated, Jewish, middle-class, enlightened, assimilated, doomed.

Singer goes to some trouble, early on in his narrative, to articulate precisely why it is that he has been moved to write about David:

Why am I planning to put much larger issues aside to study the life and work of a minor, forgotten scholar who died half a century ago? Because he was my grandfather? Why should I be so concerned about my ancestors? What difference does the fact that this man was my grandfather really make?

Singer’s answer to this is, for the most part, rather more abstract than you might expect. He is interested, for instance, in the fact that David’s life embraced (as he sees it) both the heights and depths of European culture—the pinnacles of classical culture, the nadir of mass fascism. This is an interesting conceit (although very much a conceit). Beyond that, Singer wants to find intellectual parallels between his grandfather and himself:

There is a terrible, tragic irony in the fact that my grandfather spent his whole life trying to understand his fellow human beings, yet seems to have failed to take sufficiently seriously the threat that overwhelmed Vienna’s Jewish community and ultimately led to the loss of his own life. Did my grandfather perhaps have too much confidence in human reason and the humanist values to which he had dedicated his life?

This, in turn, leads Singer to an awareness of a connection that, to his mind, validates his project, a connection that comes to him as “a disquieting thought”:

Since my own life, no less than that of my grandfather, is premised on the possibility of reason and universal ethical values playing a significant role in the world, could I be sharing my grandfather’s delusion?

This is all well and good, although you can’t help thinking that while the ties that bind Singer to his subject may be those of blood, the blood isn’t very warm. There’s a point early on in Pushing Time Away at which Singer rejoices to hear that, in an essay about the Roman philosopher Seneca, David had drawn a distinction between the “genuine philosopher,” who integrates his teachings and his lived life, and the “theoretical professor,” who is interested only in professional standing and reputation. No one will doubt that Singer, however uncomfortable for many of us his views may be, belongs to the first camp; and yet the distinctions established by his grandfather may have resonances different from those that Singer is aware of. For Singer himself—schooled, no doubt, in a kind of emotional rigor and detachment that permits him to dissect excruciatingly difficult questions of human life—is too often rather “theoretical” in this book, too cool, too detached, too much a stranger to the culture of “Jewish Vienna” that Pushing Time Away purports to illuminate. His book, despite the remarkable and moving tale it tells, ultimately suffers for it.


This is a pity, because the life that Singer narrates in his new book is anything but cool: it is a strikingly rich one, full of intense activity and often neurotic emotions. David Oppenheim was born on April 20—Hitler’s birthday, as Singer notes—in 1881, in the city of Brünn in the Austro-Hungarian province of Moravia (today it is Brno in the Czech Republic). Like his future wife, the Viennese Amalie Pollack, his was a family that boasted famous rabbis; but David himself was, particularly after he settled in Vienna with his wife, assimilated in a way that was typical of a large portion of Austro-Hungarian Jews. Intellectually, he rejected study of Torah and Talmud in favor of the Greek and Roman classics, and at home he rejected all religion as mere superstition. With all of the relish of a bright young man whose relations with his parents were always strained, he delighted in neglecting the observances of Jewish tradition, and after his marriage he gleefully ate non-kosher foods even as the more pious Amalie kept kosher.

Singer includes a charming anecdote about the couple in the early years of their marriage: apparently Amalie prayed fervently that her pregnancies would not result in sons, since David disapproved of circumcision as “mutilation,” and she couldn’t bear the thought of having uncircumcised sons. (Her wish, in any event, was granted: Amalie bore David two daughters.) David’s repudiation of his Jewish heritage would not, of course, matter to the men who caused his death, years later—an irony that crops up in many accounts of the fate of assimilated Jews.

And indeed, Singer’s book makes it clear that David was, in his youth, wholly of his fin-de-siècle moment in a number of ways. You could say that his classical inclinations went beyond a taste for the literature he would spend his adult life teaching to generations of schoolboys. A remarkable section of Singer’s book comes in the early pages, where the author discovers, through reading his grandparents’ letters, that what first connected David and Amalie in their early twenties was, in fact, a shared romantic inclination toward members of their own sex. The first letter of which we hear, in Pushing Time Away, from 1904, indicates that David had turned to Amalie, whom he’d met when both were students at the University of Vienna, for advice concerning “a boy” about whom David was then “mad.” Amalie, a talented physicist, was one of the university’s first female graduates, and further letters revealed that she’d had homosexual yearnings of her own.

  1. 1

    For Singer’s views on animal rights, see first of all his article “Animal Liberation” in The New York Review, April 5, 1973, which later became the best-selling book Animal Liberation (1975; published with a new preface by Ecco, 2001); see also Ian Hacking, “Our Fellow Animals,” The New York Review, June 29, 2000, and Peter Singer, “Animal Liberation at 30,” The New York Review, May 15, 2003. The best introduction to Singer’s advocacy of euthanasia for severely disabled infants is chapter 7 of his book Practical Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 1979).

  2. 2

    On Being Silenced in Germany,” The New York Review, August 15, 1991.

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