‘Freud tended to dodge political questions’
St Paul’s Cathedral, 1940. Image via Imperial War Museum
There was a lot of that sort of morbid speculation going on in Britain during the war. Over five years, air raid sirens went off in London 1,224 times, or about once every thirty-six hours. Nerves frayed, and uncomfortable questions cropped up amidst the ruptured pavement and blasted buildings. Was it all right to feel fear? To hate? To, perhaps, find something thrilling about it all?
It was an auspicious time to ask such questions. As Michal Shapira argues in The War Inside: Psychoanalysis, Total War, and the Making of the Democratic Self in Postwar Britain, Britain, by offering refuge to those fleeing the Nazis, unwittingly turned itself into the international center of psychoanalysis. Anti-Semitism and the war drained Berlin, Munich, Frankfurt, Budapest, Prague, and Vienna of their most prominent psychoanalysts, many of whom were Jewish. Fame offered little protection. The Gestapo visited Sigmund Freud’s home in Vienna and took in his daughter, the psychoanalyst Anna Freud, for interrogation. The family fled to London in 1938, reluctantly leaving behind Freud’s elderly sisters, whom the Nazis deported and murdered.
Sigmund Freud died in London in the fateful month of September 1939, just weeks after Hitler invaded Poland. But it is not clear that he would have had much to say about the war. Freud tended to dodge political questions; when asked in 1923 whether he would like to psychoanalyze Europe, he quipped, “I never take a patient to whom I can offer no hope.” The unfinished task of producing a psychoanalytic response to the war fell to his successors, assembled behind Allied lines. Shapira shines her tightly focused beam on four of them: Melanie Klein, Donald Winnicott, John Bowlby, and, appropriately enough, Anna Freud.
The task they faced was enormous.