This Day in Jewish History

1900: A Psychoanalyst Who Couldn’t Understand War Is Born

Erich Fromm asked, ‘How is it possible that men stand in trenches for years and live like animals – and for what?’

Arturo Espinosa / Wikimedia Commons

March 23, 1900 is the birthdate of the Jewish scholar and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, who gave up the religious obligations of the Orthodox Judaism of his youth for the study of the psychology of love – and war, which, to his mind, made very little rational sense.

Born and raised in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, Erich Pinchas Fromm was the only child of Naftali Fromm, a wine merchant, and the former Rosa Krause. Erich had rabbinical forebears on both sides of the family; people who, as he later described approvingly, “sat the whole day and studied the Talmud and were not the slightest bit interested in making money or in trade, or in anything of that kind.” His first teacher of Talmud was his mother’s brother.

World War I was one of the formative events of Fromm’s youth. For the rest of his life, he would theorize about the social and psychological pressures that led nations to go to war. “How is it possible that men stand in trenches for years and live like animals – and for what?” he asked. “The irrationality of human behavior impressed me in this way, and I became curious about the problem.”

Nationalism, an unnecessary evil?

Despite some early involvement in Zionist activities, Fromm early on renounced nationalism, in large part because of what he witnessed during the war. As he told an interviewer in 1962, “I just didn’t want to participate in any division of the human race, whether religious or political.”

Together with this, he saw authoritarianism – which included some religious beliefs, in his eyes – as one of the great threats to human freedom.

Fromm had graduated from Frankfurt’s Wöhler Gymnasium in 1918 and began studying law at the University of Frankfurt. After two semesters, he gave that up for the study of sociology, which he pursued at the University of Heidelberg under Alfred Weber (the brother of Max Weber). He completed a PhD in the field in 1922, writing a dissertation on the role played by Jewish law in three Jewish communities: the Karaites, Reform Jews and Hasidim.

All the while, Fromm was also meeting daily with a rabbi associated with Chabad, Salman Baruch Rabinkow, who not only studied Talmud with him but also introduced him to the mystical Chabad text, the “Tanya.” According to Fromm, Rabinkow, whom he described late in life as having “influenced my life more than any other man,” was someone “with whom one could never, even at the first meeting, feel oneself a stranger.”

Therapy and Judaism

In the 1920s, Fromm began studying psychoanalytical theory with Frieda Reichmann, eventually undergoing therapy with her. Together, the two of them opened up the Therapeuticum, an experimental, residential, psychoanalytic institution that combined therapy with Orthodox Jewish observance.

Though Reichmann was 11 years Fromm’s senior, the two married, in 1926 – the same year they gave up their religious observance. The Therapeuticum closed two years later.

In 1930, Fromm joined the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research (the “Frankfurt School”), and, like its mostly Jewish faculty, moved with it to Geneva in 1933 and later to New York, where it became associated with Columbia University. Until he parted ways with the Institute – because of both professional differences and clashes with some of its leading figures, including Theodor W. Adorno – he was its resident expert on social psychology.

Fromm was a working psychoanalyst for most of his life, and also held academic positions at Bennington College, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (he and his second wife, Henny Gurland, moved to Mexico in 1949 because of her ill health), and several other institutions.

He also wrote a total of 20 books, the most well-known being “The Art of Loving” (1956). It was a popular book that examined the meaning of love, which Fromm characterized as the “only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence.” In it, he analyzed and demystified the phenomenon, and argued that love of others needed to be predicated on self-love.

Erich Fromm was also politically active, mainly as a pacifist and antinuclear campaigner. He died of a heart attack on March 18, 1980, in Muralto, Switzerland, where he had moved in 1974 with his third wife, Annis Freeman.