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# 62 | Freud and War | Françoise Coblence

Freud was in a bellicose state of mind for just two weeks at the start of the Great War of 1914-1918.  Very quickly thereafter, he began to devote himself to an attempt at understanding, doing so in an all the more singular way as he found himself faced with a radically unprecedented situation.  The force and the gloom of his 1915 text “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death” are magnificently highlighted by Françoise Coblence, who allows us to gauge the extreme turmoil Freud was going through as his illusions were being dashed and the signs of disaster were mounting.  For, in a sudden release of their aggressive drives and the liberation of a still enigmatic mass psyche, the “civilized” peoples of the world found themselves capable of destroying themselves in a few short months and, in the long run, of destroying everything that had underpinned their civilization for centuries.

Laurence Bertrand Dorléac

Freud and War

Françoise Coblence

In 1914, when war broke out, Sigmund Freud was 58 years old.  Unlike Romain Rolland, he was caught off guard.  Freud was right in the middle of preparing his Psycho-Analytical Congress as well as in the midst of his personal war with Carl Jung.  While he briefly shared in the collective elation of bellicose feelings, his fervor died down by the end of two weeks.  And the longer the War endured, the more he longed for peace, and his tone became increasingly melancholic.

Thoughts for the Times on War

Freud’s best known text on war is the one he wrote in 1915: “Thoughts for the Times on War and Death.”  According to Ernest Jones, it was written under pressure from his publisher, Hugo Heller, to make up for the dearth of studies to appear in the review Imago. [1] Freud had by that time lost his illusions about a brief war and had gauged the extent of its horror.  During this same period, he immersed himself in his work, writing and working out a major metapsychology, as if work and reflection were the only weapon against war’s offence to the psyche and its ideals.
These “Thoughts” begin with the following assessment of the conflict: “We cannot but feel that no event has ever destroyed so much that is precious in the common possessions of humanity, confused so many of the clearest intelligences, or so thoroughly debased what is highest.” [2] Far removed from any Romanticism, from a call to heroism, or from the slightest sense of fascination, Freud deems the war responsible for the mental distress of “noncombatants.”  Indeed, such distress went well beyond the material difficulties people experienced, since Freud treats here the disillusionment caused by war.  The illusions this war forced one to give up were, first of all, those of peace among “civilized” nations or peoples.  The disappointment stems from the unfitness of civilized morality to settle conflicts, from its impotency.
Hope, indeed, is always disappointed: “foreign” and “hostile” are equivalents, as they were for the Greeks of Antiquity or for the child who treats them as interchangeable.  Recognition of the wrong done to culture points to the fact that Europe is not a museum in which different nations might be able to coexist and in which one could have a European identity.  Europe is not the  “School of Athens” dreamt of by the painters and humanists of the Renaissance or by the philosophers and writers of the Enlightenment; the community of cultures and languages does not exist, or in any case it is unable to resist the destruction of human bonds, as brought on by war.  Freud ties closely together these two types of loses: that of human lives and that of the belief in progress and civilization, in a “high plane of morality,” and in the rule of law.  This war is most horrifying on account of the values and distinctions it tramples underfoot: wounded/unwounded, belligerents/civilians.  In this regard, it inaugurates a new era that dooms the future along with the present: “It cuts all the common bonds between the contending peoples, and threatens to leave a legacy of embitterment that will make any renewal of those bonds impossible for a long time to come.” [3] The disillusionment thus brought about reveals the narcissistic character of our cathexis of culture, a cathexis that is revealed to be an overestimation, a result of an idealization, as Freud said when he returned to the issue in 1927 in The Future of an Illusion.  But in 1915, as a cruel irony and an affront to culture, it is war itself that performs this denunciation of illusions, whereas ordinarily that is the prerogative of psychoanalysis and critical thinking.
The reasons for disillusionment are twofold.  They relate to both individuals and collective entities.
As regards the brutality of individuals, Freud’s position never budged.  Man is a being of drives; his drives demand satisfaction without consideration of moral grounds.  The formulations in Civilization and its Discontents are famously well known: man is not a mild being, in need of love, who would, at most, be forced to defend himself when attacked; included among his drives is a very strong inclination for aggression.  Freud adopts Hobbes’s formula: Man is a wolf to man.  Yet in 1915, before the introduction of the death drive, the individual’s drives are neither good nor bad and have to do with neither life nor death; they are simply egoistic and, in themselves, antisocial.  Altruism and devotion are reaction formations relating to guilt or fear of losing the esteem or love of those on whom one depends.  In no way are these virtues “natural.”  Education and culture teach man to renounce satisfaction of his drives.
This is why the second set of reasons for this disillusionment, those resulting from the brutality of so-called civilized States, are the worst.  The barbarity of nations intensifies the barbarity of individuals.  Thus, unless one hypothesizes that one’s acquired culture is itself an illusion (or that most cultivated men are “cultural hypocrites”), nothing more is to be expected that would come to limit drive-based inclinations: neither external compulsion, nor education, nor obedience to a higher principle.
Whence the implacable conclusion: “It is just as though when it becomes a question of a number of people, not to say millions, all individual moral acquisitions were obliterated, and only the most primitive, the oldest, the crudest mental attitudes are left.” [4] Number sweeps away culture, and, whereas Totem and Taboo grounded culture on the murder of a single person (the father of the horde), the mass murder forced upon us by this war destroys our cultural world and forces upon us the idea of mass death for a “mass psyche”—an idea pursued in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921).[5]

Changes in the Theory

In addition to the repercussions on his evaluation of culture, the War led Freud to modify his theory of trauma and neuroses.
In September 1918, at the Fifth International Psycho-Analytical Congress, a discussion took place about war neuroses.  In defining them, Freud took two tacks.  First, he brought out their specificity, both in relation to traumatic neuroses (following a shock or an accident whose intensity and violence cannot be absorbed) and in relation to transference neuroses (“peacetime” neuroses).  War neuroses fit into a dynamic of conflict, provided that one specify that it is a matter not of a conflict between the Ego and the sexual drives (as with transference neuroses) but of a conflict in the Ego, a conflict between “the soldier’s old peaceful ego and his new warlike one. ”[6] This conflict becomes acute as soon as the old ego protects itself against the danger to his life by taking flight into neurosis.  The new warlike and heroic ego is seen as a “parasitic double” threatening one’s life when the shell arrives.
The expression “flight into neurosis” has, of course, no moral connotation: the flight is unconscious.  It constitutes a way out for the ego that is not only overwhelmed by a too major breach but threatened by a new configuration of the ideal.  The ego ideal forced upon one by war rests on object relations (one’s superiors, one’s comrades) that are new but also vital and sometimes as lasting as the old ones, as literature and painting show us.
This understanding of the nature of war neuroses lay at the heart of Freud’s position when he was asked to testify as an expert on the question of the electrical treatment of war neuroses, in 1920.  Here, again, he takes two tacks: Freud maintains both that the neurosis has a psychical aetiology, that it follows upon an insoluble psychical conflict, that it constitutes a “flight into illness,” and that, nonetheless, the neurotic cannot be treated as a malingerer.  For, while war neurosis does indeed follow upon the soldier’s tendency to withdraw from the demands of active service, to escape from the danger to his life, this tendency (which, it could be said, is reasonable) is unconscious, for otherwise the “neurotic” would desert or would just report in sick.  Treating the neurosis as an instance of malingering would confuse conscious and unconscious intentions.  In addition, shock treatment is, according to Freud, indefensible: the basic defect of this “treatment” is that it “did not aim at the patient’s recovery, or not in the first instance; it aimed, above all, at restoring his fitness for service,” and the doctor himself was put under “military command,” which is incompatible with his activity as a physician (and then it was the doctor himself who experienced insoluble conflict and confusion).
Freud concludes his expert testimony with some words that resound like a warning: “In these circumstances some of the army doctors gave way to the inclination, characteristic of Germans, to carry through their intentions regardless of all else—which should never have happened.”[7]


[1] Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud, vol. 2 (New York: Basic Books, 1955), p. 367.

[2] Thoughts for the Times on War and Death (1915). Standard Edition, vol. 14, p. 275.

[3]  Ibid., p. 279.

[4] Ibid., p. 288.

[5] The original German title includes the word Massenpsychologie, whereas the standard English translation has Group. The French translation follows the German and thus contains the word “masses.” —Trans.

[6] Introduction to Psycho-Analysis and War Neuroses (1919), Standard Edition, vol. 17, p. 209.

[7] Ibid., p. 214.


APFELBAUM, Laurence. “Limites du modèle traumatique.” Libres Cahiers pour la Psychanalyse, 16(2007): 21-30.

EISSLER, Kurt R. Freud as an Expert Witness: The Discussion of War Neuroses Between Freud and Wagner-Jauregg. Trans. from the German by Christine Trollope. New York: International Universities Press, 1986.

FREUD, Sigmund. Thoughts for the Times on War and Death. 1915. Standard Edition. Vol. 14.

FREUD, Sigmund. “On Transience.” 1915. Standard Edition. Vol. 14.

FREUD, Sigmund. Introduction to Psycho-Analysis and War Neuroses. 1919. Standard Edition. Vol. 17.

FREUD, Sigmund. “Memorandum on the Electrical Treatment of War Neurotics.” 1920. Standard Edition. Vol. 17.

FREUD, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents. 1930. Standard Edition. Vol. 21.

FREUD, Sigmund. “Why War?” Letter from Freud to Einstein. 1932. Standard Edition. Vol. 22.

JONES, Ernest. The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud. 3 Vols. New York: Basic Books, 1953-1957.

NEAU, Françoise. “Le narcissisme dans la guerre et sa disgrâce.” Libres Cahiers pour la psychanalyse, 16 (2007): 71-86.

VERMOREL, Henri and Madeleine. Sigmund Freud et Romain Rolland. Correspondance 1923-1936, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1993.

Françoise Coblence is a philosopher and psychoanalyst.  A professor emeritus of aesthetics (University of Picardy) and a member of the Paris Psychoanalytic Society (SPP), she is the editor of the Revue française de psychanalyse.  She is the author of Le dandysme, obligation d’incertitude (Press Universitaires de France, 1988), Sigmund Freud, vol. 1 (1886-1897) (Presses Universitaires de France, 2000), and Les attraits du visible. Freud et l’esthétique (Presses Universitaires de France, 2004), as well as of various articles on Baudelaire, psychoanalysis, and aesthetics.









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