sigmund freud

An Unconscious Network – How Freud’s Disciples and Ideas Conquered the World

An Empire fell. Psychotherapists became divided by borders. Then the turbulent history of 20th century Europe spread them – and their ideas – even further around the world. Without any master plan, psychoanalysis took over the globe. This is how it happened. 

Most of Freud’s famous students were Jews from various corners of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany, all key to the development of the movement. This was not what Freud himself had intended: He had imagined it only as a small group of disciples devoted to him and his ideas. 

Taking root in Central Europe

To begin, Freudism quickly spread close to home, within the successor countries of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Although there were considerable variations in psychoanalytic development from country to country following the breakup of the Empire in 1918, there were common threads. Often there were difficulties establishing or re-establishing psychoanalytic organizations and a lengthy process of integration into the official community, known as the International Psychoanalytic Association. There was also often a powerful retrenchment in the new psychoanalytic generation in each country, as they experienced feelings of loneliness and separation from their former peers. The consequence was a deficit of self-esteem and a painful feeling of being second-class analysts in the international community.

The engine of Freudianism in Central Europe was the Hungarian Sándor Ferenczi, who had joined the psychoanalytical movement in 1908, six years after its foundation. Freud called Ferenczi both a spiritual son and a “great leader” and wanted Ferenczi to be his successor, especially after Jung chose to go his own way in 1910. Ferenczi exchanged more than a thousand letters with Freud – far more than all the other disciples combined. it was Ferenczi who founded both the international and Hungarian psychoanalytical societies in 1910, recognizing that in order for psychoanalysis to take off and gain influence worldwide, it needed its own identity. “Besides the psychological and pathological problems, someone would have to treat the practical experiences to date,” he wrote, “[along with] the most expedient methods of propaganda for our psychological movement.” 

His connection with Freud was special: For twenty-five years they had been friends and companions, sharing ideas and projects, working together in the movement, and discussing their personal lives. Freud hoped that Ferenczi might marry his eldest daughter Mathilda. Later, he was therapist and adviser to Ferenczi himself, his mistress Gizella Palos, and her daughter Elma.

They both wanted to explore the teaching of psychology from a biological point of view, both advocates of Darwin, and trying to reconcile it: What is of animal origin in a person? And what is the result of civilization. Their shared background also contributed greatly to the lightning-like friendship: both came from a Jewish families in Austrian Galicia. Both their fathers wore traditional Jewish garb and headgear and spoke Yiddish. Their sons, by contrast, wanted to integrate into the larger society, which remained a major motivation throughout their life. 

As Jews, they differed from the majority culture, and as atheist Jews, they were also in a minority within a minority. Then again, the interest of assimilated Jews in deep psychological and sociological research may not be a coincidence. It is also worth noting that Freud asked the Swiss protestant Jung to head the newly founded Psychoanalytic Association becoming one of the few non-Jews among his followers, and thus a way to refute the widespread view in Viennese medical circles that psychoanalysis was a specifically Jewish discipline.

In his last letter in 1933, Ferenczi pleaded with Freud to leave Vienna and go to England before it was too late. Freud ascribed Ferenczi’s anxiety to illness. He did not feel that he was in danger, and it was not until 1938, a few months before the Anschluss, that he finally left his homeland. Many Hungarian psychologists, including psychoanalysts, too were forced to emigrate, bringing to an end the most prestigious psychoanalysis society in Europe.

In parallel, psychoanalysis also emerged in Prague and Belgrade in the late 1920s and mid-1930s. In both Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia some were committed to the new view of psychoanalysis, but an organized psychoanalytic community could not be strengthened because of the political and societal turmoil from the 1930s.

Ferenczi would have liked one of his followers, Sándor Lóránd, to become an ambassador to Czechoslovakia for psychoanalysis. However, the plan fell apart as Lóránd, like so many Hungarian psychoanalysts, left the continent in the wave of emigration that swept the 1920s. Similarly, others who tried to set up shop in Prague, including many who fled Berlin in the early 1930s, were forced to move on and psychoanalysis gain a foot hold there until after World War II. 

In spite of the turmoil and emmigration, though, the seeds were sown. The countries of Eastern Europe, particularly Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia saw a slow rebirth of psychoanalysis, tolerated – but just barely – by the Communist regimes.

Vienna, Berlin, New York, Hollywood

Though Freud turned students away when they challenged him, these psychoanalytical heretics still contributed to the spread of Freudism with theories building on the master’s.

Freud, after all, had not intended to be an autocrat:  In his 1910 proposal for the establishment of a Psycholanalytic Association in Vienna at the 2nd Psychoanalytic Congress, he described an organization as “a family where the Father’s authority is not dogma, but based on his abilities.” It was in fact these conflict-ridden relationships with his disciples that prompted him to begin thinking about the mythical theme of “killing his father” in his major work Totem and Taboo. He found it difficult when his disciples deviated from his views, although it often led to significant contributions to the development and practical application of psychoanalysis. 

These neo-Freudians were the future of psychoanalysis. And while all generally agreed with Freud that childhood experiences matter, most of them de-emphasized sex, focusing more on the social environment and effects of culture on personality.  And it was these who ended up taking the movement’s ideas to the United States.

Alfred Adler was born in what is today’s Burgenland, but was instrumental in bringing Freudian thought into the U.S. He was the first president of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society (Freud’s inner circle of colleagues), and was the first major theorist to break away from Freud. He founded a school of psychology called individual psychology, which focuses on the drive to compensate for feelings of inferiority. Freud believed that we are motivated by sexual and aggressive urges, but Adler hypothesized that feelings of inferiority in childhood are what drive people to attempt to gain superiority, and that this was the driving force behind progress. By the mid 1920s he was already lecturing in the U.S. and settled there in 1934. 

Erik Erikson, originally from Frankfurt, was another disciple instrumental in taking Freud’s ideas to the United States. He received his diploma from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute in 1933, but as Nazism spread across Europe, he emigrated to the U.S.. Erikson, like Adler, emphasized that social relationships are important at each stage of personality development, and saw the later years of childhood as decisive in personality development.

The Swiss Carl Jung also had major disagreements with Freud: He did not accept that sexual drive was the primary motivator in personality development. And, although Jung agreed with Freud’s concept of the unconscious, he thought it incomplete, to be nuanced by a “collective unconscious,” which he called “archetypes”. He founded a competing but also complementary school of psychology and can claim much credit for the proliferation of Freud’s ideas.

Karen Horney, the only woman in the group, is best known for a single bon mot: Life itself is a very effective therapist. She believed that people were able to act as their own therapists, emphasizing the individual role each person has in their own mental health and encouraging self-analysis and self-help. She rejected Freud’s concept of penis envy, declaring it to be both inaccurate and demeaning to women and countered with a concept of womb envy, by which men experience feelings of inferiority because they cannot give birth. Equally importantly, she took Freud’s ideas to Berlin, at the time the intellectual capital of Germany. Moving to the U.S. in the early 1930s, she was also instrumental in exporting psychoanalysis to the U.S.  

Not all was lost with emigration. It was thanks to the remarkable influence of the new generation of psychoanalysts who emerged to the United States in the 1950s and 1960s that Freudianism and psychoanalysis become mainstream, even infiltrating popular culture. Among the most well-known examples are the psychological thrillers of Alfred Hitchcock, including Spellbound (1945), or the Oscar-winning 1960 thriller Psycho, both of which deal with the way the childhood trauma becomes a driving force later in life. 

Fast forward 50 years, and today know Vienna as much for Freuc as for Sissy or Johann Strauss. The color and style of the psychologist’s couch may have changed – but it all originated right here.