Toward the end of his life, Freud must surely have imagined at times that he had somehow wandered into his own real-life version of Karl Kraus’s drama The Last Days of Mankind. During his final decades, nightmarish political developments, painful physical illness, and deep disappointments in his relations with his psychoanalytic followers all combined to produce in him a deepening sense of resignation. The popularity of such works as Civilization and its Discontents has made the somber tone of Freud’s thought during his final years well known, but what is less widely appreciated is the stark contrast between this period and the bright hopes of his youth.

In The Secret Ring, Phyllis Grosskurth draws attention to Freud’s youthful optimism by way of introducing the rather dispiriting story she goes on to tell about the secret committee he established in 1912 to guide the development of the psychoanalytic movement. Referring to the recently published letters from Freud to his boyhood friend Eduard Silberstein, she observes,

Because much of our knowledge of Freud comes from the letters of his mature years, it is difficult to imagine him as young. But we see him in these letters as very young and high-spirited, delighting in the vagaries of life (“Isn’t life one of the strangest things in the world?”), even suffering from a hangover occasionally.

One finds in the letters a charming, light sense of humor and an enthusiasm for life that seem to have vanished by 1919, when he wrote to Sandor Ferenczi, the leading Hungarian psychoanalyst, to say, “I can’t remember a time of my life when my horizon was so thickly veiled by dark clouds…” Grosskurth asks, “What had happened to the joyous Freud of the early letters?” and the various answers to this question reveal much about Freud’s personality and the relationship between his work and the historical forces of the time.

Certainly one contributing factor to the increasing pessimism of Freud’s later years was the onset of the physical ailments that accompanied his old age, one of the major themes to emerge from Michael Molnar’s edition of The Diary of Sigmund Freud, the brief chronicle Freud kept during the last decade of his life from 1929–1939. His struggle with cancer of the jaw, which began in the early 1920s, is recorded in many entries listing, but seldom commenting on, the painful operations and treatments he endured during these years.

Even more numerous, however, were the entries taking note of political events, and here the record was one of ever deepening disaster. Molnar augments Freud’s brief entries with information about the people and events he mentions, as well as passages from Freud’s letters and those of his family and friends. In one of these, Anna Freud writes to a friend a few weeks after Adolf Hitler became German chancellor that “sometimes I am amazed that in such times as the present spring and summer come as if nothing had happened.” In a letter of 1935, Freud provided an ironic professional evaluation of his own mental state: “I would diagnose it as senile depression in anyone else. I see a cloud of disaster passing over the world, even over my own little world.” But Freud’s feelings proved to be fully in touch with reality.

The political world had not always been a source of disappointment and danger to him. During the early 1870s, when he began his correspondence with Eduard Silberstein, the successes of Austrian liberalism had so inspired Freud’s hopes that he had briefly considered pursuing a political career. Nor did he abandon his political interests when he decided instead to go into science and medicine. Freud shared the belief of many Austrian liberals that the main opponent of enlightened rationalism was the superstitious, medieval perspective of the Roman Catholic Church, and indeed his early work on hysteria had hidden political concerns which reflected these anti-clerical sentiments. Following the great French psychiatrist Jean Martin Charcot, with whom he studied in Paris, Freud took the view that what medieval Catholic superstition had seen as witchcraft and demonic possession was actually misunderstood examples of hysteria. Freud’s later work on such subjects as dreams, telepathy, and the occult derives in part from this early interest in witchcraft, and his approach to these sometimes bizarre subjects reflected the values of Austrian liberalism, particularly the idea that reason and science could unlock the secrets of superstition and remake the world along more modern lines.

In the writings of his later years, such as Totem and Taboo and Civilization and its Discontents, Freud openly argued that the forces he saw at work within the human psyche could also be seen to shape the external world of politics, society, and culture. For Freud this was a “felt” correspondence, which depended on the experiences of his own intellectual and emotional development. But we can now see that the political and social forces of Freud’s own time powerfully influenced his thoughts and feelings in a way that shaped his understanding of psychology throughout his life, from his early conviction that demonic possession was misunderstood hysteria to his final book on Moses and Monotheism; as he wrote to Arnold Zweig, the Nazi persecution of the Jews impelled him in this book to explore the origins of the enduring power of anti-Semitism.


During the 1880s and 1890s the rise of anti-Semitism and authoritarian political forces in Vienna—culminating in the election of an openly anti-Semitic mayor—made Freud feel that he must disengage himself emotionally from his previous hopes. He accomplished this in two ways. First by transferring many of the liberal values of his youth into his work in creating psychoanalysis, and second by using the external world and his own reactions to it as a kind of laboratory for understanding the correlation between inner psychological forces and society at large.

This process can be seen in the late 1890s in Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, and something similar is evident in the history of the secret committee described by Grosskurth. Writing in the years following World War I, Freud drew on his experience in the advice he offered Sandor Ferenczi on dealing with his sympathies for Hungarian nationalism; he told him to “retrieve your libido in good time from the fatherland and give it shelter in psychoanalysis, for otherwise you will suffer.” The extreme nationalism of the postwar years directly affected the functioning of the secret committee. Commenting on the ceaseless conflicts among its members, Grosskurth observes, “The dissension within the Committee was a microcosm of the wider world.” The nationalistic tensions of the age had their counterpart in psychoanalytic nationalism, in the efforts by the various members of the committee to gain preeminence for their particular national psychoanalytic associations.

Grosskurth calls her history of Freud’s secret committee The Secret Ring for several reasons. The idea for the secret committee was initially put forward by Ernest Jones,1 the leader of the psychoanalytic movement in Britain and later the author of the first detailed biography of Freud. Jones thought of it as a circle that would protect Freud from his opponents, whether anti-Semites, conventional critics of his inquiries into sex, or opponents within the psychoanalytic movement. “My wish,” Jones writes to Freud, “has long been to form a ring round you of men who will deal with the opposition while you progress with the work itself.”

Freud authorized the members of the secret ring to undertake much of the management of the movement, including appointment of the editors of its journals and the officials of the movement’s organizations in various countries. In keeping with the romantic spirit of a secret committee Freud gave each member an ancient intaglio which they then had mounted in gold rings: “Traditionally intaglios had been used as seals on contracts…. The rings were pledges of eternal union, symbolizing the allegiance of a band of brothers to their symbolic father, Freud the ring-giver.” Grosskurth argues that Freud saw himself “as a towering figure in a Wagnerian opera,” and she refers at various points in her book to the Ring of the Nibelungs, calling one of her later chapters “The Twilight of the Committee.”

Freud was not particularly drawn to Wagner’s operas but occasionally he made ironical allusions to the Nibelungenlied in his dealings with its members. In letters to Ferenczi, for example, he referred to the money set aside for the psychoanalytic movement by a rich benefactor as the “Niebelung-treasure,” and he later observed that while the practice of giving a kiss as a harmless greeting might have been followed “in the time of the Niebelungs,” it was not appropriate as part of Ferenczi’s analytic technique. Grosskurth is not being far-fetched when she implies that Freud enjoyed playing the role of Wotan. She recalls that in 1923, at Freud’s request, the other members of the committee gathered at San Cristoforo in the South Tyrol to carry on their discussions in his absence while he remained two thousand feet above them at a hotel atop a nearby mountain.

In tracing the history of the secret committee Grosskurth emphasizes that it is a story that “has no heroes.” Wotan never found a Siegfried to lead and protect the psychoanalytic movement. In fact the secret committee was created at least in part to undo the damage resulting from Freud’s earlier choice of Jung as his successor, a choice that once again reveals the pernicious influence of politics. One of Freud’s main reasons for choosing Jung was that he was not Jewish and would, Freud believed, help to insulate the psychoanalytic movement from the constantly increasing force of political anti-Semitism. But the choice of Jung simply caused more dissension within the movement, in part because the many Jewish analysts resented the reasons for it and in part because of Jung’s independent temperament and ideas. The secret committee was above all a secret from Jung, and its initial task was to ease him out of the positions of leadership Freud came to regret giving him.


Although the story of the secret committee, as Grosskurth caustically tells it, has no heroes, it does not lack for villains. Freud himself emerges as deeply flawed in his inability to sustain friendships, in his reluctance to accept intellectual challenges to his own ideas, and in his failure to even allow, let alone encourage, his followers to become independent of him. These failings were particularly evident in Freud’s relationship with the youngest member of the committee, Otto Rank, who served as his right-hand man in running the Vienna psychoanalytic establishment. Freud treated him as a favored youngest son and entrusted him with key editorial positions on two of the psychoanalytic movement’s most important journals, Imago and the Internationale Zeitschrift für ärtzliche Psychoanalyse. But from Grosskurth’s account we get an unattractive picture of Rank as obsequious in his relations with Freud and arrogant in his relations with others in the movement. His break with Freud in the mid-1920s proved to be particularly destructive to the work of the committee.

Of all the members of the committee, however, it is Ernest Jones who suffers the most from the evidence Grosskurth has collected in her history of the secret ring. Although Siegfried may be missing from the story, Alberich is not. Like Alberich, Jones’s aim was world domination, in his case of the international psychoanalytic movement, and as it turned out, he had a large measure of success. As the only gentile on the committee and the only member who did not speak German fluently, Jones felt himself to be an outsider, and was regarded as such by the other members of the committee, who, according to Grosskurth, “always seized every opportunity to make him aware that he could never belong. His fantasy of penetrating the inner circle…was an illusion, because he would [for the others] forever be an unattractive little man with his ferret face pressed imploringly against the glass.”

Following World War I, Jones, in what seemed to some of his colleagues an attempt to emulate the Allied victory, tried to dislodge the international psychoanalytic movement from its Central European homeland and move it to the West. Jones proposed that the first postwar Congress of the International Psychoanalytic Association should be held in The Hague rather than Berlin; against considerable opposition he was able to prevail with the argument that a meeting in Berlin “would harm the cause greatly in England by reinforcing the view of psychoanalysis as a German decadent science, and not an international movement which we want it to be.” Jones’s victory was confirmed by his election as president of the association. Following the meeting Freud and the Vienna members of the committee wrote him to observe that “the centre of our activity has now shifted…and we hope you will behave cautiously and lead us out of the stress in which we find ourselves at the moment.” With Central Europe suffering deep economic privation, England and the West offered the financial resources the movement needed to survive.

Jones also worked tirelessly to ingratiate himself with Freud and to undermine the other members of the committee.2 At one point, Jones, who had a rather unsavory reputation for sexual misconduct with his patients, began to express a romantic interest in Anna Freud, and Freud found it necessary to discourage his hopes. Grosskurth writes, “Aware that Jones was dancing constant attention on her, Freud continued to be nervous that Jones was using Anna to further his political ambitions.” The fact that Jones was capable of anti-Semitic remarks, apparently referring to Rank as a “swindling Jew,” also imposed a strain on his relations with the other members of the committee; and increasingly Freud used his influence against what he described as “the arrogance and clumsiness of the British.”

Still, even in the face of Freud’s opposition and obvious dislike, Jones remained relentlessly loyal to him, and this was his chief strength in the power struggles within the committee. Moreover, history was on Jones’s side. With the triumph of Nazism, the psychoanalytic movement was temporarily wiped out in Central Europe, and Freud was one of the small number of psychoanalytic refugees whom Jones was able to welcome to England in the face of the coming Holocaust.

The quarrels and Byzantine politics of the secret committee raise serious questions about the character of some of its members, but Grosskurth rightly emphasizes that as a result of its work “psychoanalysis was institutionalized on a firm basis.” By the time the committee ended its existence in 1927 it had established a complex network of national and international psychoanalytic associations devoted to training candidates, publishing journals, and carrying on the work of analysis. For all its infighting, the secret committee can be seen as an efficient board of management for the entire psychoanalytic movement.

The Nazi assault on the psychoanalytic establishment and its founder is a central theme of The Diary of Sigmund Freud, which begins two years after the dissolution of the secret committee and continues until the month before Freud’s death in September 1939. Perhaps the most striking thing about the diary, in view of the events of this period, is how devoid of feeling Freud’s entries seem to be. Even with the additional material Michael Molnar introduces from letters and other sources to fill out their meaning, Freud revealed surprisingly little of his emotional reactions to the terrible events leading up to World War II. He simply notes without any further comment such events as the assassination of the Austrian leader Dolfuss by the National Socialists. This coolness might seem to tally with what Grosskurth regards as Freud’s unfeeling responses to the emotional needs of the other members of his committee, but it may seem odd in a man whose life’s work emphasized the importance of understanding emotions. It also stands in stark contrast to the young Freud, who did not hold back his feelings in his letters to his friend Silberstein.

In seeking to understand this apparent paradox, we can find a useful clue in the comment of Freud’s son Martin on an entry recording a particularly important historic event, the end of Austria. According to Martin Freud’s account: “Father kept on his desk a kind of unbound diary in the form of large sheets of white paper upon which he recorded in a most laconic way those events of each day that seemed to him of importance. On 12th March 1938 he wrote the words ‘Finis Austriae‘…” Martin Freud goes on to describe the events leading up to this dry Latin entry, which was made two days before Hitler’s triumphant appearance in Vienna. When the daily newspaper had been brought in, Freud

read through the headlines and then, crumpling it in his fist, he threw it into a corner of the room…. [F]ather’s perfect self-control seldom, or never, permitted him to show emotion: and thus all of us remained silent in the livingroom, well aware that a turn of events which would allow him to fling a paper from him in disgust and disappointment must have alarming implications.

The implications were indeed alarming, for these events meant that Hitler’s virulent anti-Semitism had now triumphed in Freud’s own homeland and city.

These events certainly warranted Freud’s brief loss of “perfect” self-control, but his reaction also has particular historical significance in echoing his earlier emotional vulnerability to anti-Semitic and reactionary political events. The emotional restraint on which Freud prided himself had been hard-won in the years at the end of the nineteenth century when he carried out his self-analysis while having to deal with political issues very similar to the ones he confronted in 1938. Through his self-analysis Freud came to recognize and accept the emotional repercussions of an early experience of disillusionment with his father, who, while living in the Moravian town of Freiburg, had, he thought, been cowardly in refusing to make any response when a gentile knocked his hat off and said, “Jew, get off the pavement.” Holding himself to a higher standard, Freud invested his emotions in fantasies in which he became a dynamic political opponent of the forces he associated with anti-Semitism, particularly Roman Catholicism.

This attitude had much to do with his sympathy for Austrian liberalism, whose leaders demanded an end to discrimination against Jews. Freud’s self-analysis led him to see how he was quite literally “driven” by his emotional responses to political events. In 1897, feeling a strong emotional reaction to the latest successes of political anti-Semitism, and with his father, who had recently died, much on his mind, he remembered the incident involving the anti-Semitic insult and came to see it differently. He realized now that his father had not been driven by cowardice but had been trying to maintain his dignity through self-control. And seeing this, Freud could now begin to make peace with his feelings about his father. At the same time, recalling the memory of the insult revealed to him how fantasies of being a political hero had gained such power over his emotions. From that time on, self-control was the ideal he upheld in response to the increasing pains inflicted by the political and social world in which he found himself; and that ideal emerges with particular clarity in his phlegmatic diary.

For Freud, self-control was a way of achieving momentary freedom in a world that had become full of destructive political passions. What Molnar calls the “declining curve of Freud’s life” was paralleled by the rise of mass politics in Central Europe. Freud’s diary contains a brief but telling reference to an essay by Thomas Mann entitled “Freud’s Position in Modern Intellectual History,” whose central theme was the contrast between the irrational political movements of Central European politics and Freud’s outlook. Mann points out that in opposition to the contemporary fashion for “dynamic principle, mindless nature, the folk-soul, hatred, war,” Freud’s analytical thought contributed “one of the great foundation-stones to a structure of the future which shall be the dwelling-place of a free and conscious humanity.” Freud no doubt saw the emotional restraint he exercised in his diary as part of the analytic attitude that Mann praised.

Paradoxically, this restraint invests the diary with great emotional tension as it approaches the crucial year in which Hitler took control of Austria. As Molnar observes in his introduction, “after mundane beginnings, the desultory preoccupations of an old man…” the diary “begins registering political drumbeats in the background, and these gradually rise to the crescendo of 1938.” In March of that year the diary records how the Nazi advance and Freud’s stubborn refusal to take flight from the anti-Semitic forces he had opposed all his life combined to trap him in Vienna after it came under Hitler’s control. While less naive about the Nazis than many of Europe’s leading statesmen, Freud certainly underestimated how dangerous they were; he could not, of course, foresee that his three aged sisters would die in Nazi concentration camps. The reader’s awareness of the approaching Holocaust lends powerful emotional force to the brief entries of mid-March 1938: “Su 13/3 Anschluss with Germany…Mo 14/3 Hitler in Vienna…Tu 15/3 Search of press and house…Th 22/3 Anna with Gestapo…”

Anna Freud’s arrest by the Gestapo brought home to Freud the full horror of the situation. According to Freud’s physician, Max Schur, who was present that day, “The hours were endless. It was the only time I ever saw Freud deeply worried. He paced the floor, smoking incessantly.” Anna’s release, which may have been obtained by American diplomatic intervention, occurred later that day, and after many agonizing weeks of delay Freud and his immediate family were eventually allowed to leave Vienna for England.

The only times Freud noted the hour as well as the day in his diary were on this final trip; he left Vienna in the morning and twelve hours later he crossed from Germany into France, commenting, “Now we are free.” Later that year, when he made a BBC recording describing his life and career, he said he had come to England “to end my life in freedom.”

This political freedom, which Freud and other Austrian liberals had always associated with England, and the limited measure of psychological freedom which he believed psycho-analysis could offer in the form of “self-control” can be seen as different facets of the same ideal of freedom that was central to the culture of nineteenth-and twentieth-century European liberalism. The final words Freud entered in his diary on August 25, 1939, “War panic,” described the alarmed reaction of the British public to the realization that war with Germany was imminent. Now in excruciating pain from inoperable cancer, Freud lived one more month before his final act of freedom, when he directed his doctor to end his life with a lethal injection of morphine.

This Issue

April 22, 1993