There are times when I rejoice in sheer serendipity – like when I go to a film at random and find I am viewing a gripping, attention-grabbing classic, or when I pick up a book, not quite randomly, but having been attracted by its unusual title, and then cannot put it down until I have read it all in one sitting. Well, this latter experience happened me with the wonderful little book The Death of Sigmund Freud: Fascism, Psychoanalysis and the Rise of Fundamentalism by the American scholar Mark Edmundson. A very long title, I’ll admit, but it sums up fully the substance of the book. I have long been captivated by the megalomaniacal mass murderer Adolf Hitler and, indeed, who is not? After all, is it not unbelievable that millions of people could have been taken in by his venomous and racial invective and had both consciously and unconsciously supported his world-domineering and mass-murdering political policies? Such a riddle has long been a rich area for study and important questioning. Then, to find the rise to power of this megalomaniacal dictator, coupled with the the waning physical powers and death of possibly one of the greatest cultural influences on Western Civilization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – that is Sigmund Freud - paralleled between the covers of one book had me captivated immediately. Such a book simply said: “Buy Me and Read Me!”
The book is divided into two very apt sections. To use a well worn literary analogy The Death of Sigmund Freud is literally a tale of two cities: the first section is called Vienna and the second London. Here, we immediately have the focal points of this powerful book. The opening is gripping, because it reads like the beginning of a thriller or some novel dealing with international political intrigue. In the opening pages, we find ourselves in the world of Vienna in the year 1909. In this fateful year Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) was twenty, homeless and living in a hostel while Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) was 53 and at the height of his intellectual powers and international fame as a leading psychiatrist and founder of Psychoanalysis. Edmundson presents us with wonderful cameo pictures of both as they stride about Vienna in that year, 1909. Hitler had come to the Austrian capital in the hopes of becoming an artist or indeed an architect. His portfolio of paintings were rejected again and again by the cognoscenti as were all his attempts to become an architect. He ended up homeless and living in a public hostel or shelter where he gave long and boring orations to his fellow inmates, who mostly laughed at this sad little man. Our author recounts how some of the others used tie the tails of his coat to his chair so that when the orator literally “got hot under the collar” from his passionate speeches and had cause to jump up he would pull the chair around the room unwittingly while he still spoke. And this was the sad little man who would become the most powerful dictator the world has ever known.
Speaking again about Hitler, Edmundson remarks:
People who met the man sometimes had doubts about his sanity: none of them imagined that Adolf Hitler…would ever have been of consequence in the world. (Op.cit., 5)
and a little later our author suggests quite illuminatingly, if imaginatively:
If Hitler and Freud passed each other on the street on an afternoon during the cold late autumn of 1909, what would each of them have seen? In Hitler, Freud would have seen a rank denizen of the crowd, a street rat. (Freud was no populist). But he probably would have felt sorry for the unfortunate man as well. For his part, Hitler would have seen a Viennese burgher (he despised the upper middle class) and probably would have recognised Freud as a Jew. Hitler would have drawn back in shame at his threadbare coat and his broken-down shoes. If things were bad enough, he might have extended a hand to beg. Whether Freud gave or not – he could well have; he was generally good-hearted – would have made little difference; the encounter would still have left the young Adolf Hitler seething. (ibid., 8)
Above I have uploaded a picture of a bust of Freud from the Freud Museum, London. This picture is in the public domain.