Elizabeth Rottenberg
Words of War

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I. Beyond the Dictatorship of Reason

When in his 1932 exchange of letters with Albert Einstein entitled “Why War?” Freud is asked if there is “any way of delivering humanity from the curse of war [die Menschen vom Verhängnis des Krieges zu befreien]” (SE 22, 200; GW 16, 12), Freud begins by rephrasing the question. [1] Einstein uses the verb “befreien” in his question (which means to deliver, to free, to emancipate), whereas Freud replaces the verb “befreien” with the verb “abwehren” (which means to fend off, to ward off, to repulse or repel, to protect or avert) when he repeats Einstein’s question in his own letter: “You have taken me by surprise […] by posing the question of what can be done to protect [abzuwehren] humanity from the curse of war” (SE 22, 203; GW 16, 13). Where “befreien” connotes a liberating purge or cleansing, the return to an original purity (before the scourge of war), “abwehren” is first a sign of disillusionment. Humanity will never be free of war, so Freud’s letter will address not a world without war but rather “the problem of averting war [das Problem der Kriegsverhütung]” (SE 22, 203; GW 16, 13).

But Freud’s disillusionment with war does not begin in 1932. It begins seventeen years earlier in the midst of what had already come to be known as the “Great War.” And one might think—were one only to read Freud’s letter to Einstein in 1932—that Freud had always been a pacifist, someone, as he claims in his letter, with a “constitutional intolerance of war” (SE 22, 215). On the contrary, as we read in Jones’s biography, “[Freud’s] first response was […] one of youthful enthusiasm, apparently a reawakening of the military ardors of his boyhood” (171). Jones then goes on to quote two letters written by Freud in his moment of elation or “logical bedazzlement [logische Verblendung]” (SE 14,287; GW 10, 339), as Freud himself condescendingly refers to such lapses of “emotional excitement” six months later. The first letter is to Jones: “I should be with [the war] with all my heart if only I could think England would not be on the wrong side,” and the second is to Karl Abraham: “[a]ll my libido is given to Austro-Hungary” (Jones 171).
But nowhere is Freud’s disillusionment with war more palpable (and more explicit) than in “Timely Thoughts on War and Death [Zeitgemäßes über Krieg und Tod],” written some six months after the outbreak of World War I. In the first part of this text, entitled “The Disillusionment/Disenchantment of the War [Die Enttäuschung des Krieges],” Freud will express his ambivalence about the war; he will convey both his compassion for and his impatience with those who have fallen prey to disillusionment. On the one hand, thus, he speaks in the first person plural as one who shares in the confusion of his fellow-citizens:

Caught up [gepackt] in the whirlwind [Wirbel] of wartime […] we ourselves lose our bearings [werden wir selbst irre] with respect to the significance of impressions that crowd in on us as well as to the values of the judgments we form. [2]

On the other hand, however, he speaks as an analyst who has grown weary and bored of his patient’s neurotic infantilisms:

We welcome illusions because they spare us unpleasurable feelings, and enable us to enjoy satisfactions instead. We must not complain, then, if now and again they come into collision [zusammenstoßen] with some portion of reality [mit einem Stücke der Wirklichkeit], and are shattered [zerschellen] against it.  (SE 14, 280; GW 10, 331)


[1] I have silently modified the Strachey translations throughout.

[2] I am using Samuel Weber’s translation of Freud here. For a masterful discussion of Freud’s wartime essay, see Samuel Weber’s, Targets of Opportunity (New York: Fordham UP, 2005), esp. 42-62.