David Cohen

When Einstein and Freud put tensions aside to write on war

Despite a mutual loathing, when the League of Nations asked the two giants to collaborate over a pamphlet, they agreed

April 28, 2022 14:57

Ninety years ago, Europe was afraid of another war, as we are now.

In 1932 Leon Steinig, an official for the League of Nations, came to see Freud at his home in Vienna. The League believed Freud and Einstein should be able to put their minds together to persuade human beings to be less aggressive and avoid wars.

It was not going to be easy to get them to collaborate, however, as Freud believed Einstein had prevented him getting a Nobel Prize.

But averting war was more important than ego so Freud agreed at once. Einstein sent him “warm personal regards” and added “it is always amusing for me to observe that even those who do not believe in your theories find it so difficult to resist your ideas that they use your terminology in their thoughts and speech when they are off guard.”

The Americans tried to psychoanalyse Hitler from a distance in 1941. Doubtless there are many spooks, well versed in psychoanalysis, playing a similar “Putin on the couch game” today.

There were “psychological obstacles whose existence a layman in the mental sciences may dimly surmise,” Einstein added. But the situation demanded action not surmise. He proposed setting up a “legislative and judicial body to settle conflicts between nations. Nations would agree to abide by its orders.” Agreeing would be hard, as it would mean “the unconditional surrender by every nation, in a certain measure, of its liberty of action.”

William James, the pioneering 19th century psychologist, had said in 1906 that the war against war was “going to be no holiday excursion”. James influenced Freud profoundly.

Consistent failures to find a formula for peace “leaves us no room to doubt that strong psychological factors are at work which paralyse these efforts,” Einstein said. The ruling class had a “craving for power” and arms traders did not care how many died as long as their profits boomed. And it was easy to manipulate the masses, as he called them.
Freud replied: “How is it that these devices succeed so well in rousing men to such wild enthusiasm, even to sacrifice their lives? Only one answer is possible. Because man has within him a lust for hatred and destruction.” And this lust could become “a collective psychosis”. Could it be possible “to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness?”

Freud warned against blaming “the so-called uncultured masses”. It was “the so-called intelligentsia” that was most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual had “no direct contact with life in the raw but encounters it in its easiest, synthetic form – upon the printed page”.

Freud warned Steinig that his ideas would not be very encouraging. “All my life I have had to tell people truths that were difficult to swallow. Now that I am old, I certainly do not want to fool them.” Einstein told Steinig that, even if Freud’s reply would be neither cheerful nor optimistic, it would certainly be “interesting and psychologically effective”.

Freud replied: “Conflicts of interest between man and man are resolved, in principle, by the recourse to violence.” And devastating violence. The best way to silence opposition was to kill it. Killing your enemy has the advantage that “his fate deters others from following his example”.

It was vital, Freud said, to establish “by common consent, a central control which shall have the last word in every conflict of interests. For this, two things are needed: first, the creation of such a supreme court of judicature; secondly, its investment with adequate executive force.”

The League of Nations was a Supreme Court, but it had “no force at its disposal and can only get it if the members of the new body, its constituent nations, furnish it. And, as things are, this is a forlorn hope”.

After the First World War, Freud had revised his theories. We were, he now believed, warped by a death instinct. In 1932, Freud outlined his theories, which Einstein knew well. There were two kinds of human instinct: “those that conserve and unify, which we call ‘erotic’ (in the meaning Plato gives to Eros in his Symposium), or else ‘sexual’ (explicitly extending the popular connotation of ‘sex’); and, secondly, the instincts to destroy and kill, which we assimilate as the aggressive or destructive instincts. These are, as you perceive, the well-known opposites, Love and Hate.”

Freud then invoked a colleague of Einstein’s, Professor G C Lichtenberg, professor of physics at Gottingen. He was perhaps even more eminent as a psychologist than as a physical scientist and evolved the notion of a “compass-card of motives”. He wrote: “The efficient motives impelling man to act can be classified like the 32 winds and described in the same manner; eg, Food-Food-Fame or Fame-Fame-Food.” Aggression was central.

“As a result, there was no likelihood of our being able to suppress humanity’s aggressive tendencies. In some happy corners of the earth, they say, where nature brings forth abundantly whatever man desires, there flourish races whose lives go gently by; unknowing of aggression or constraint. This I can hardly credit; I would like further details about these happy folk.”

However, they had no address, or phone number, of course. Freud went on: “Why do we, you and I and many another, protest so vehemently against war, instead of just accepting it as another of life’s odious importunities? For it seems a natural thing enough, biologically sound and practically unavoidable.”

Freud saw some hope though as culture encouraged “the progressive rejection of instinctive ends and a scaling down of instinctive reactions. Sensations which delighted our forefathers have become neutral or unbearable”.

Culture allowed “firstly, a strengthening of the intellect, which tends to master our instinctive life, and, secondly, an introversion of the aggressive impulse, with all its consequent benefits and perils. Now war runs most emphatically counter to the psychic disposition imposed on us by the growth of culture; we are therefore bound to resent war, to find it utterly intolerable.”

But he spoke only of pacifists. “How long have we to wait before the rest of men turn pacifist? Impossible to say, and yet perhaps our hope that these two factors — man’s cultural disposition and a well-founded dread of the form that future wars will take — may serve to put an end to war.” He signed off: “Should this expose prove a disappointment to you, my sincere regrets.”

Einstein was not disappointed. He replied on 3 December 1932: “You have made a most gratifying gift to the League of Nations and myself with your truly classic reply. We cannot know what may grow from such seed, as the effect upon man of any action or event is always incalculable. This is not within our power, and we do not need to worry about it.”

The physicist signed off graciously, writing that Freud deserved gratitude “for having devoted all your strength to the search for truth and for having shown the rarest courage in professing your convictions all your life.”

By the time the exchange was published in 1933, Hitler, who was to drive both men into exile, was already in power. They changed our views of the universe and of ourselves, but only 2,000 copies of the pamphlet were published. It is worth reading again.

David Cohen is the author of The Escape of Sigmund Freud, available from

April 28, 2022 14:57

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