Book Review – Mitchell G. Ash (ed.): Psychoanalyse in totalitären und autoritären Regimen (Frankfurt a. M. 2010)

By Uffa Jensen

“Psychoanalysis in totalitarian and authoritarian regimes”

In political terms, Freud’s view of his creation – psychoanalysis – was ambivalent. In the wake of the First World War, he argued in favor of the use of psychoanalysis by the expanding welfare state under a Socialist or reformist leadership.  When later referring to the threat of Bolshevism against psychoanalysis in Russia, he stated, however, that psychoanalysis required a “certain liberal attitude”. And after the rise of Nazism, he did not hesitate to advocate the continuation of psychoanalysis in the name of pure science, despite the evident intimidation of Jewish psychoanalysts. This raises important questions (not just) about the history of psychoanalysis, which are explored in this collection of essays. How flexible was psychoanalysis as a system of knowledge in its adaptation to a political context? Did it have a clear political nature? Or could psychoanalysis as a therapeutic technique and a scientific body of ideas be reinterpreted to fit almost every political system, including authoritarian or totalitarian dictatorships?

In his introduction, the editor of this volume, Mitchell G. Ash, broadens the perspective beyond the history of psychoanalysis: in the history of science more generally we can find numerous examples of a false opposition between true science in democracies and pseudo-science in totalitarian or authoritarian regimes. Historically, this contrasting interpretation results itself from an ideological constellation: the anti-totalitarian mobilization of science during the Cold War era. Such views enabled and supported the conventional view of psychoanalysis, which, particularly in the case of Nazi Germany, stresses the incompatibility of psychoanalysis and totalitarian political regimes. In contrast to other sciences, the practice of psychoanalysis in a totalitarian society poses a specific problem as a therapeutic instrument: to treat patients should mean to restore their self, but this also requires a certain degree of social and political adjustment. Thus, psychoanalysis could prove to be attractive to very different political regimes. As Michael Schröter can demonstrate in this volume, this functional (re-)orientation of psychoanalysis as a therapy proved to be the way in which the remaining psychoanalysts tried to convince the new regime of their usefulness. A similar point is discussed by Geoffrey Cocks, who stresses the importance of therapeutic ideas for the Nazi regime in its attempt to mobilize and discipline the human resources available to it. For such normalizing efforts, practical psychoanalytical methods were much more helpful for the regime than any discussion of a “German” form of therapy (“deutsche Seelenheilkunde”).

In his essay, Michael Schröter further explores the relationship of the psychoanalytical movement and the emerging Nazi regime. He concentrates on the early phase of the regime from 1933 to 1936 – the period in which there was still hope that psychoanalysis could survive under Nazism. It is important to note that in this period psychoanalysis was ridiculed by the regime, but its practitioners were not directly persecuted. While many Jewish psychoanalysts had to leave Germany, they often did so because of restrictions and humiliation, not yet because of direct physical threats. The only exceptions here were psychoanalysts on the radical left like Wilhelm Reich. Schröter carefully discusses the developments during the period and stresses their fundamental openness. He even puts into context the infamous attempts by German, non-Jewish psychoanalysts like Felix Boehm or Carl Müller-Braunschweig to establish a psychoanalysis with a “specifically German character”, which were at least implicitly directed against its supposedly “Jewish” character. Schröter’s piece is noteworthy in its attempt to treat these protagonists with “understanding and compassion” and “to identify exactly the point where understanding and compassion reach a limit” (164). This has already sparked considerable discussions in German psychoanalytical circles, as a recent volume of “Psyche” (Vol. 65/2, 2011) reveals.

In her contribution, Birgit Johler approaches a similar issue from an entirely different angle. She provides insight into the therapeutic practice of August Aichhorn, one of the few remaining psychoanalysts in Vienna after 1938. This is part of an ongoing project on Aichhorn’s daily work that attempts to describe the social profile of his patients. An interesting detail is his particular use of his date-books before and after the Nazi’s seizure of power in Austria. It remains unclear, however, how to explain his deliberate attempt to conceal meetings and sessions, with the use of two different date-books. It could have been an instrument to deceive the Nazi regime about the true nature of his psychoanalytical practice – or to just evade the tax system.

In her contribution, Jacqueline Amati Mehler recounts the early history of the Italian psychoanalytical movement under the Fascist regime as a “story of David and Goliath” (136). Yet, she stresses the relatively relaxed relationship until the mid-1930s. The fact that she finds little evidence of collaboration by Italian psychoanalysts may, however, have more to do with the comparatively low level of institutionalization of psychoanalysis in Italy – and individual opposition to the regime – than with strict ideological incommensurability.

Igor M. Kadyrov recounts the development of psychoanalysis in the Soviet Union and in contemporary Russia. He describes the early phase of psychoanalytical reception until the mid-1920s as a period of immense discursive richness, combined with an acute lack of trained personnel, proper psychoanalytical training, and coherent and systematic therapeutic practice. While the movement had thus always stood on shaky grounds, the actual destruction of the psychoanalytical movement in Soviet Russia certainly came from above and was, in particular, a consequence of the political power struggle between Stalin and Trotsky, who was closely associated with psychoanalysis. In Kadyrov’s account, it was only in the 1970s that psychoanalysis started to make inroads into Soviet society again.

There are more historical essays in this collection, exploring similar problems, i.e. in Belgium, Norway, or Brazil. Other contributions concentrate on the historical consequences of the Nazi period for postwar psychoanalysis. However, two further texts also underline the difficulties of approaching this subject. In her essay, Elizabeth Brainin analyses dreams during the Nazi era. She does raise some interesting points: discussing two of Victor Klemperer’s short dreams, she can show how prevalent fear and persecution were in his daily life – up to the point that dreaming itself lost its function as a refuge and any possibility of wish fulfilling. Her discussion of Charlotte Beradt’s collection of “Dreams in the Third Reich” (1966) is also useful, at least in part. In general, however, her approach does not fit well with the other essays, because of its a-historical nature, in two different respects. Firstly, her arguments rest upon Freudian concepts of dream interpretation, which are themselves not analyzed as historical entities, but taken for granted. Secondly, she portrays Nazi ideology as an irrational evil that subjugates the individual dreamer. Hence, much of her discussion of dreams by non-Jews assumes that a wish to coexist with the regime stood in sharp conflict with the wish to resist it, which existed in the superego. Thus, the individual dream was not a fulfillment of a wish, but ripe with conflict. But how can we presuppose that a wish to resist the regime existed in the superego? Historians of Nazis would find such a prevalence of resistance truly astonishing, given what they know about the nature of opposition under Nazism. Hence, this seems to come dangerously close to simply reproducing the self-image of the dreamers as objects and, in some way even, as victims of the Nazi dictatorship. Similar problems arise in Daphne Stock’s essay on psychoanalysis and democratic consciousness. Here, again psychoanalytical categories are used and not questioned for the analysis of the politics of the present era.

But apart from such criticism, this collection of essays is an important contribution to the debates about the history of psychoanalysis and, in general, of science in totalitarian regimes. A further comment for future research needs to be added here. Interestingly, these essays primarily approach the problem of political utilization from the perspective of psychoanalysis. The question how adaptable psychoanalysis was under totalitarian or authoritarian regimes could be turned around as well: how willing were such regimes to accept psychoanalysis? Here, additional insights may be gained, because it seems that in most cases it was the lack of interest and, after a while, even open hostility of these regimes that in the end destroyed the official psychoanalytical movements, not the other way around. On the whole, psychoanalysts tried to adapt to the political circumstances, if they were allowed to do so. But what perceptions of psychoanalysis caused the general mistrust, aversion, or ignorance with which totalitarian and authoritarian regimes approached it? Why were they – after a while – no longer interested in an explicitly psychoanalytical technique of psychological adjustment? Was this caused by anti-Semitism and by the complementary image of psychoanalysis as an unacceptable “Jewish science”? What role in this rejection was played by the allegedly bourgeois character of psychoanalysis? Or by its emphasis on sexuality? At least in part, it was the somewhat late, but nevertheless resolute rejection by these regimes that gave psychoanalysis its now disputed reputation of a democratic and politically defiant force.

Uffa Jensen is currently affiliated with the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, where he is a researcher in the project on “Curing Emotions. Psychoanalysis in Berlin, London, and Calcutta 1910-1940.”

  1. http://clarespark.com/2010/04/18/links-to-nazi-sykewar-american-style/. It is a curiously neglected subject, the publications of progressive social psychologists in America circa 1940. They too appropriated Freud for purposes of molding public opinion, and did it to create a national program of subliminal propaganda (as I relate in my book Hunting Captain Ahab. The link above summarizes an excerpts a book I hadn’t found during my research, but did later. It had the backing of the leaders of the progressive movement in America and shows their fear of the skeptical man in the street who would resist attempts at mind-management.

  2. Sorry for the bad typing above. The book that I excerpted was German Psychological Warfare, ed. Ladislas Farago, and published by the Committee for National Morale. It explained to me why other social psychologists I had studied thought it was appropriate to copy Nazi methods for total war.

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