When Freud and Einstein Tried to Answer an Age-old Question: Why War?

Einstein and Freud, two genius 'godless Jews,' had a profound exchange that marked a turning point in the history of human thought

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Sigmund Freud as he poses for sculptor Oscar Nemon in Vienna, 1931.
Sigmund Freud as he poses for sculptor Oscar Nemon in Vienna, 1931.Credit: AP file photo
Eran Rolnik
Eran Rolnik
Eran Rolnik
Eran Rolnik

In October 1924, Sigmund Freud became the first scientist to appear on the cover of Time magazine. Albert Einstein would be accorded the same honor five years later. On New Year’s Eve 1927, the two met in Berlin for the first time, at the home of Freud’s youngest son. Freud reported on the meeting to his pupil Sandor Ferenczi: “He [Einstein] is cheerful, confident and kind, understands as much about psychology as I do about physics, and so we had a very good conversation.” He also related his impressions to the psychoanalyst Princess Marie Bonaparte: “The lucky fellow [Einstein] has had a much easier time than I have. He has had the support of a long series of predecessors from Newton onward, while I have had to hack every step of my way through a tangled jungle alone. No wonder that my path is not a very broad one, and that I have not got far on it.” And to author Arnold Zweig, he wrote: “How often do I not envy Einstein the youth and energy which enable him to support so many causes with such vigor. I am not only old, feeble and tired, but I am also burdened with heavy financial obligations.”

A turning point in the relations between the two – one that threatened to make it "too personal" – occurred in the wake of an unfortunately worded birthday greeting that Freud sent Einstein in 1929 on the occasion of the latter’s 50th birthday: “To wish you good fortune would be superfluous. I would rather rejoice with countless many others at the fact that you have had, and are still having, so much good fortune.” Even if Einstein lacked a grasp of psychology, he certainly knew how to give tit for tat: “Why the emphasis on my good fortune? Although you, you who have slipped into the skins of so many people, and even of mankind itself, you have had no opportunity of slipping into mine!”

Freud’s failure at empathy tormented him. Less than two weeks later, another letter landed on Einstein’s desk in Berlin. This time the psychoanalyst began with a confession, went on to bemoan the frustration that attends a man of science who links his fate to the study of the human psyche, and concluded with an unusual request that this current missive letter be destroyed: “It was the expression of my envy, which I am not afraid to own. Envy need not be something ugly. Envy can include admiration and is reconcilable with the friendliest feelings for the person envied. However, in deciding what I should envy you for, I was not troubled by my ignorance.”

In that convoluted and quite despairing letter, Freud offered as an excuse for his envy of Einstein the fact that as a physicist, Einstein enjoyed the status of an authority in his field – whereas he, whose occupation was psychology, had to accept that even complete laymen did not hesitate to proffer opinions about his work. This was in fact another barb hurled by Freud, casting doubt on Einstein’s ability to express a reasoned opinion about the scientific value of psychoanalysis. Writing to his Berlin pupil Max Eitingon, who knew about the correspondence with Einstein, Freud noted: “I couldn’t confess my envy without hurling a barb at him in the name of my science[] it was a foolish letter because it expressed too much intimacy before a strange person and because it turned out later that Einstein had no understanding for psychoanalysis.”

‘A great conception’

Freud’s mixed feelings about Einstein are best understood in the context of the former’s wish to be awarded a Nobel Prize (he didn't specify which one), and Einstein’s refusal to add his voice to the lobby that was working to that end. In response to one letter soliciting his support for Freud’s candidacy, Einstein wrote: “Notwithstanding my admiration for the ingenious achievements of Freud, I hesitate to intervene in this case. I couldn’t convince myself of the validity of Freud’s theory and I am therefore unable to form an authoritative judgment for others.”

Greetings he sent Freud on the occasion of his 80th birthday signaled something of a shift in Einstein’s approach to psychoanalysis: “Until recently I could only apprehend the speculative power of your train of thought, together with its enormous influence on the Weltanschauung of the present era, without being in a position to form a definite opinion about the amount of truth it contains. Not long ago, however, I had the opportunity of hearing about a few instances, not very important in themselves, which in my judgment exclude any other interpretation than that provided by the theory of repression. I was delighted to come across them, since it is always delightful when a great and beautiful conception proves to be consonant with reality.”

Freud was very moved by Einstein’s remarks: “I really must tell you how glad I was to hear of the change in your judgment – or at least the beginning of one. Of course I always knew that you ‘admired’ me only out of politeness and believed very little of any of my doctrines, although I have often asked myself what indeed there is to be admired in them if they are not true, i.e., if they do not contain a large measure of truth. By the way, don’t you think that I should have been better treated if my doctrines had contained a greater percentage of error and craziness?”

In 1931, the League of Nations’ Committee on Literature and the Arts asked the Paris-based International Committee on Intellectual Cooperation to organize a public exchange of correspondence between intellectuals that would promote the common interests of the League and of intellectual life. It would not be extreme to surmise that an unconscious collective fantasy about a liberating potential embedded in the interaction in linking towering Jewish intellectuals is what ensured that the two Great Men would launch a dialogue and “stay in touch,” whether or not they found a common language. The universal interpretation they accorded their identity as “godless Jews” also played a part in creating their special public status as cultural superheroes, who represented at one and the same time objective scientific values and humanistic principles that transcend regular political and ideological bounds.

Einstein suggested Freud as his correspondent. Freud sought to prepare Einstein for the possibility that he would not respond to the questions he would put to him directly, and that his reply might not be optimistic, because he had no intention, not even in his old age, of treating his readers as if they were stupid. In a letter to Max Eitingon, Freud mentioned his looming correspondence assignment with Einstein: “I wish Einstein had chosen a better topic for our correspondence. In any case, I don’t expect to be awarded a Nobel Prize for my essay.”

Freud and Einstein (illustration).Credit: Eran Wolkowski

“I really can’t see any merit in this correspondence besides publicity,” Freud wrote when he conveyed his text to Einstein to the organizers of the public exchange of letters, which were published in 1932 under the title "Why War?" “Surely Einstein could have picked a more fruitful topic other than the prevention of war.” Einstein, for his part, was pleased and thanked Freud: “I knew I am being used as a bait, the worm that should lure the great fish to swallow the hook. By doing precisely this you have given us a wonderful essay.”

In light of the dynamics of the relations between the two, it was to be expected that Einstein’s candor would draw a similar response from his interlocutor: “I accepted your invitation because I did not want to miss an opportunity to collaborate with you. I have no sympathy for the League of Nations and I nurture no expectations from this organization.”

Shortly before the publication of his reply to Einstein, Freud summed up for Dutch psychoanalyst Jeanne Lampl-de Groot his impressions from the exchange: “My discussion with Einstein won’t save humanity either. Yes, why does Einstein commit such stupidities like writing about his confession of faith and other unnecessary things? Perhaps because he is so good-natured and otherworldly.” Indeed, it was not only Einstein’s “good fortune” that loomed as a source of envy for Freud, but also the fusion between idealism, social responsibility and a good temperament – traits that Freud valued very highly and with which he was less well endowed than Einstein.

Freud did not make a great effort to address each of Einstein’s questions. He replied politely and somewhat curtly. But when he surrendered to the flow of his thoughts, his ability to conceptualize clearly took wing and was seen in all its diversity. Freud never writes only what he thinks, but writes in order to think. His veteran readers were likely already quite familiar with the languorous pace of his thinking, which is suddenly broken by a decisive conclusion or is abruptly truncated with a kind of despairing wringing of the hands because a thought process he had tried to pin down eluded him.

Freud’s reply to Einstein twists and turns amid a plethora of issues: the development of the concept of justice, the central place of socialization in the development of culture, the balance of power and conflicts of interest within communities, a distinction between good wars and bad wars, the psychoanalytic theory of drives. His response is a veritable cornucopia of disciplines: evolution and history, philosophy, law and politics, social criticism, group psychology, biology and the theory of impulses, even a utopian vision and a memorable, scientific-sounding formula: “whatever fosters the growth of civilization works at the same time against war.” But hanging over the psychoanalyst’s masterful reply to the physicist is a certain melancholy lassitude, perhaps even an impuissance that demands deciphering.

Realm of not-knowing

To understand why a reading of “Why War?” is simultaneously satisfying and saddening, it is worth reading “On Transience,” an earlier text by Freud, written in the midst of World War I. It too was a commission and was published in the German propaganda volume “Goethe’s Land.” In it Freud addresses the enigma of mourning and the distinction between different forms of grief over loss. What great passion throbs between the lines of the lyrical composition: “It was incomprehensible, I declared, that the thought of the transience of beauty should interfere with our joy in it [] the value of all this beauty and perfection is determined only by its significance for our own emotional lives, it has no need to survive us and is therefore independent of absolute duration.”

And what vast optimism informs the final lines of the essay: “When once the mourning is over, it will be found that our high opinion of the riches of civilization has lost nothing from our discovery of their fragility. We shall build up again all that war has destroyed, and perhaps on firmer ground and more lastingly than before.”

Freud wrote “On Transience” when he was still a relatively young man, who had not yet experienced the pointlessness of a world war. When he wrote the letter to Einstein, he already knew that there are losses that cannot be restored and that no good will spring from their disappearance. Freud draws on a wide variety of sources to explain the phenomenon of war. Deep inside, he knows he does not really have an answer to the question of “Why war?” Freud’s search for the causes of war turns out to be a journey into the “realm of non-knowing.”

Similarly, Einstein’s opening letter to Freud also contains more than meets the eye. Naive reflections are interwoven with radical ideas. Naivete, for example, informs the physicist’s idea that educative methods “lying more or less outside the scope of politics” could eliminate psychological obstacles that serve as the basis for war.

Albert Einstein riding a bicycle in Santa Barbara, California, February 18, 1933.Credit: REUTERS

We need to remember that at the time the two geniuses corresponded, they lacked the one modern nonpareil example of human evil: The Holocaust of European Jewry had not yet occurred. How is it possible to speak about evil without knowledge of the Holocaust? How can one propose a formula that will evaluate an unprecedented human phenomenon that is simultaneously concrete and quantitative, yet also immeasurable? Einstein would probably not have insisted on removing politics from psychology if he’d written his letter knowing of the scale of destruction that would befall Europe’s Jews in World War II. After all, it is not the “banality of evil” or psychology that made possible the destruction of European Jewry, but political and ideological evil.

Would the extermination of Europe’s Jews have been possible if Hitler had not come to power in the name of a politics in which “Jews” was a key political term? It is, therefore, a mistake to attribute the “scourge of war” to the existence of metaphysical evil, or to a murderous human instinct that assumes different forms throughout history. It is this stance, which aims to remove evil from political discourse and locate it in the field of psychology, that is Einstein’s point of departure for his request to Freud to suggest educational means that are not political.

Yet, while Einstein’s pacifism has an amazingly nave ring to it, his social critique is trenchant and mischievous: “The craving for power which characterizes the governing class in every nation is hostile to any limitation of the national sovereignty. This political power hunger is often supported by the activities of another group, whose aspirations are on purely mercenary, economic lines. I have especially in mind that small but determined groups, active in every nation, composed of individuals who, indifferent to social considerations and restraints, regard warfare, the manufacture and sale of arms, simply as an occasion to advance their personal interests and enlarge their personal authority.”

Einstein wondered how a small clique could impose its will on the majority – which would ultimately lose out and suffer as a result of war – and make it serve its ambitions. As Einstein saw it, the minority that has control of the education system, the press and the religious institutions is able to sway the emotions of the masses and make them its tool.

Possibly the key to understanding the immanent difference between the worldviews of these two thinkers, and perhaps to understanding their personality differences as well, lies in the sentence that concludes Einstein’s letter to Freud: “Experience proves that it is rather the so-called ‘intelligentsia’ that is most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual has no direct contact with life in the raw but encounters it in its easiest, synthetic form – upon the printed page.”

Freud, unlike Einstein, is an elitist who thinks that the role of the intelligentsia is to impose the “dictatorship of reason,” as he writes in "Why War?": “More care should be taken than hitherto to educate an upper stratum of men with independent minds, not open to intimidation and eager in the pursuit of truth, whose business it would be to give direction to the dependent masses.”

But Freud’s position is not all that simple. In the main part of his thought, he showed how biology evolved into culture and psychology. Yet in his response to the question, “Why War?” he returns the historical-sociological argument back to biology. Going beyond the original question, Freud examines the origins of pacifism, too, maintaining that the pacifist’s rejection of war is not a question of free choice that rests solely on an intellectual or emotional foundation.

Einstein argued simply that “man has within him a lust for hatred and destruction,” as though this were an ahistoric, natural law of physics, whereas Freud is in no rush to make his psychological explanation for war contingent on an ahistoric concept such as “human nature.” He does not purport to explain war solely with a reference to the “death drive,” and does not equate the scourge of war with aggression as such.

In “Why War?” Freud presents in outline form a historical and evolutionary process in which war might one day become to be seen by man as debasing not for conscious rational or emotional reasons, but for reasons that are structural, organic and aesthetic. He writes: “we pacifists have a constitutional intolerance of war, an idiosyncrasy magnified, as it were, to the highest degree. It seems, indeed, as though the lowering of aesthetic standards in war plays a scarcely smaller part in our rebellion than do its cruelties.”

Without saying so explicitly, Freud uses his letter of reply to Einstein to hypothesize about the existence of a “second nature” in man, of a historical human subjectivity that transcends both biology and individual psychology. That second nature is a historical-cultural product and the fruit of social construction; but only when it becomes a type of biological intolerance, or in Freud’s words, “pacifism for organic reasons,” is it likely to constitute the basis for an authentic repudiation of war. In his response to the question of “Why War?” Freud, the even-tempered pessimist, sounds more optimistic than Einstein.

And what shall we say today of the oft-quoted Freudian formulation, “whatever fosters the growth of civilization works at the same time against war”? Isn’t it a bit outdated, in the sense that it showcases civilization as a force that operates against the dark human lust for catastrophe? After all, it stands to reason that “agents of culture” of a new breed are behind the manifestations of war and suicidal terrorism of our era: agents who flee the anesthetizing excitement of the social networks and create blood-drenched spectacles, a reality that is neither fictitious or imagined, one that, even if its meaning eludes understanding, is undeniable in its concreteness and realism

Admiration mixed with sorrow: that’s what I felt when I recently translated “Why War?” into Hebrew. Admiration for a serious, substantive correspondence that is radical and but not ideological, innocent but not with feigned innocence. It’s a correspondence that reflects a search for truth in the mode of “geniuses of yore,” of the kind that’s conducted not in order to be rid of the pain that is entailed in not knowing, and without pretending that we have what we do not have.

For those who would dismiss the approaches of Einstein and of Freud because they were not sufficiently consistent, we will recall what Walter Benjamin wrote to Gershom Scholem concerning political action: In politics you have to act always radically, never consistently.

As for the sorrow, it welled up in me along with the thought that history did not hold its breath in response to the correspondence between Einstein and Freud, and that, all told, their exchange documented a turning point in the history of modern thought, after which postmodern life began to turn away from the Real and enter a condition of simulation. It is impossible to exaggerate the gravity of the moment at which Einstein and Freud accepted the League of Nations’ invitation in the summer of 1932 and asked one another, “Why War?” The correspondence appeared in Paris in March 1933. In Germany, where the National Socialist Party was already at the helm, it was banned for publication.

“The Freud-Einstein ‘Why War’ Correspondence, & Essays on Pacifism,” edited by Ofer Ashkenazi, David Bargal and Eran Rolnik, will be published in Hebrew shortly by Carmel Publishing House.

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