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The Rescuers Who Brought Him to Freedom
Table of Contents
About The Book
A dramatic true story about Sigmund Freud’s last-minute escape to London following the German annexation of Austria and the group of friends who made it possible.
In March 1938, German soldiers crossed the border into Austria and Hitler absorbed the country into the Third Reich. Anticipating these events, many Jews had fled Austria, but the most famous Austrian Jew remained in Vienna, where he had lived since early childhood. Sigmund Freud was eighty-one years old, ill with cancer, and still unconvinced that his life was in danger.
But several prominent people close to Freud thought otherwise, and they began a coordinated effort to persuade Freud to leave his beloved Vienna and emigrate to England. The group included a Welsh physician, Napoleon’s great-grandniece, an American ambassador, Freud’s devoted youngest daughter Anna and his personal doctor.
Saving Freud is the story of how this remarkable collection of people finally succeeded in coaxing Freud, a man who seemingly knew the human mind better than anyone else, to emerge from his deep state of denial about the looming catastrophe, allowing them to extricate him and his family from Austria so that they could settle in London. There Freud would live out the remaining sixteen months of his life in freedom.
It is “an insight-filled group portrait of the founder of psychoanalysis and his followers…Compelling reading” (The Wall Street Journal).
ON MARCH 15, 1938, THREE days after German troops had crossed into Austria, about 250,000 people greeted Adolf Hitler when he appeared on the balcony of the Hofburg, Vienna’s imperial palace, to announce the elimination of a separate Austrian state. “The oldest eastern province of the German nation shall from now on be the youngest bulwark of the German nation,” he declared. The Anschluss, his oft-proclaimed dream of incorporating the country of his birth into the Third Reich, was now a reality—and the crowd appeared deliriously happy. From the moment Hitler’s troops had marched across the border, most Austrians had responded with similar outbursts of jubilation.
But not all. The new arrivals launched mass arrests of anyone categorized by the Gestapo as anti-Nazi, while simultaneously triggering a wave of anti-Semitic violence. Jews were beaten and killed, their stores looted, and dozens committed suicide. According to German playwright Carl Zuckmayer, who was in Vienna at the time, “The city was transformed into a nightmare painting by Hieronymus Bosch… What was unleashed upon Vienna was a torrent of envy, jealousy, bitterness, blind, malignant craving for revenge… It was the witch’s Sabbath of the mob. All that makes for human dignity was buried.”
Ensconced in his longtime residence and office at Berggasse 19, Sigmund Freud had written a terse note in his diary as soon as the German takeover began: “Finis Austriae” (the end of Austria). For all but the first four years of his life, the founder of psychoanalysis had lived in the Austrian capital—and now, as he was approaching his eighty-second birthday, he found himself right in the middle of the unfolding nightmare. As a Jew, he was automatically in danger; as the undisputed public face of what most Nazi officials denounced as a Jewish pseudoscience, there was no telling what the new masters had in store for him.
Freud was an immediate target. On the same day that Hitler delivered his speech nearby, Nazi thugs invaded both Freud’s apartment and the International Psychoanalytic Press, the publishing house for the works of Freud and his colleagues, which was situated just up the street at Berggasse 7. At the apartment, Freud’s wife, Martha, had the presence of mind to throw the “visitors” off balance by playing the polite hostess. She pulled out the cash she had on hand and asked, “Won’t the gentlemen help themselves?” Anna, the couple’s youngest daughter, then took their “guests” to another room where she emptied the safe of 6,000 shillings, the equivalent of about $840, offering that sum to them as well.
The stern figure of Sigmund Freud suddenly appeared, glaring at the intruders without saying anything. Visibly intimidated, they addressed him as “Herr Professor” and backed out of the apartment with their loot, announcing they would return another time. After they left, Freud inquired how much money they had seized. Taking the answer in stride, he wryly remarked, “I have never taken so much for a single visit.”
But there was nothing amusing about the unfolding drama there or, nearby, at the site of the International Psychoanalytic Press, where Martin, the Freuds’ oldest son, had gone to destroy documents that the Nazis could use against his father. When about a dozen “shabbily dressed” thugs burst into the premises, as Martin recalled, they pressed their rifles against his stomach and held him prisoner for several hours. One of the men ostentatiously pulled out a pistol and shouted, “Why not shoot him and be finished with him? We should shoot him on the spot.”
During that chaotic first day, the invaders looked confused about their mission and it was unclear who was giving them orders. They missed several documents that Martin, while pleading a stomach ailment, managed to flush down the toilet. By the end of the afternoon, all of the Nazis retreated, promising a full investigation later.
Back at the apartment, where Martin joined his parents and sister, there was little sense of relief. Anna was especially despondent. “Wouldn’t it be better if we all killed ourselves?” she asked her father. Freud’s pointed response indicated that he was not about to contemplate anything of the sort. “Why? Because they would like us to?” he said.
But his predicament—with its very uncertain outcome—raised troubling questions: Why had Freud allowed himself to be trapped in this extremely perilous situation? Why had he failed to leave Vienna earlier when it would have been relatively easy for him to do so?
And why, even after the Nazi raiders left his premises on March 15, vowing to return soon, was Freud still reluctant to act? Once Martin was released from the publishing house, he had immediately gone home to check on his parents. “In spite of this trying ordeal, I do not think father had yet any thought of leaving Austria,” Martin wrote. Instead, he hoped “to ride out the storm,” expecting “that a normal rhythm would be restored and honest men permitted to go on their ways without fear.”
The irony was that Freud should have been uniquely qualified to understand the dark forces propelling his world to mass murder and destruction. In his famed 1930 essay “Civilization and Its Discontents,” he discussed man’s “aggressive cruelty,” which “manifests itself spontaneously and reveals men as savage beasts to whom the thought of sparing their own kind is alien.” He specifically noted how often Jews had “rendered services” to others by serving as the outlet for such primal impulses.
During a life that spanned the last decades of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, World War I, and the interwar period, Freud was no stranger to political turmoil and anti-Semitism, which was less of an undercurrent than a regular feature of his immediate surroundings. On one level, he knew that this made for a combustible mix that could explode at any time, threatening him and his family. But on another level, he was in denial. He was struggling with the cancer that had developed in his jaw as a result of his long addiction to cigar smoking, and he was acutely aware that his allotted time was running out, prompting him to hope desperately that he could spend whatever was left of it in relative peace, without the upheaval of settling elsewhere.
It was more than the combination of old age and illness that was holding him back, however. Freud felt a deep attachment to the Vienna that had been a major center of cultural—and Jewish—life in Europe for centuries. Its thriving Jewish community included composers like Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg, writers like Stefan Zweig, Franz Werfel, and Joseph Roth, along with physicists, physicians, and, of course, many of the other leading psychologists of the era. Freud knew or had at least encountered most of them.
The center of Freud’s universe was Berggasse 19, where he and Martha had raised six children. It was also where he saw his patients, wrote his essays and books, and met on Wednesday evenings with the members of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Association. He was wedded to rituals like his evening walks on the Ringstrasse and visits to the city’s famed cafes, where he would smoke his cigars and read newspapers. In short, he was a revolutionary thinker who also subscribed to the German saying “Ordnung muss sein,” which roughly translates as “There must be order.” In the Third Reich, those words would take on a much more sinister meaning, but in prewar Vienna they could coexist with generally tolerant social norms—and Freud’s relentless exploration of once taboo subjects.
Vienna was also the stage where Freud had transformed himself from a self-described outsider who was often scorned by the medical establishment into the city’s widely acclaimed practitioner of his new science. He was the king of his realm, attracting apostles and patients from all across Europe and the United States. By the 1920s and 1930s, he was Vienna’s most famous resident, and his appearance anywhere drew immediate attention.
John Gunther, a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Daily News and subsequently the author of Inside Europe and a string of other popular histories, penned a novel about Vienna called The Lost City. Loosely based on his experiences in the Austrian capital in the early 1930s, the book includes a description of a diplomatic party thrown by the Polish embassy where Freud shows up. It demonstrates Freud’s already mythic stature.
A guest spots the celebrity and exclaims: “Now, ah, we have a true rarity. Enters Freud!” Gunther then writes:
And indeed Dr. Sigmund Freud, no less, with his gleaming violet eyes, his hard carved beard, his note of tense and even exasperated superiority, was advancing gravely to host and hostess. A hush came over the room as he moved forward like a boat through bulrushes; guests crammed to watch, but were bent back by the force of his slow, majestic passage. “Freud!” people whispered. The whole assembly became silent in awe.
That kind of fame could have meant ruination or salvation for Freud. Once the Anschluss was completed, the Nazi overlords could have decided to demonstrate that no Jew, no matter how prominent, was safe from their wrath. Or they could have calculated that, at this early stage of Hitler’s triumphs, it would be better to allow Freud out of the trap he had, to a large extent, set for himself. In reality, though, they had made no firm decision about what to do with Freud when they took over. His fate was still in play, and it would take the concerted efforts of an ad hoc rescue squad to arrange his escape from Vienna.
Those rescuers were an improbable mix of colorful personalities of divergent backgrounds and nationalities. What they had in common was their devotion to Freud and his theories and, in the tense final period, their determination, first of all, to overcome his remaining reluctance to leave Vienna. Then, when he finally bowed to the necessity of doing so, they took on the task of making the frantic arrangements to convince the Nazi authorities to let him go. And at a time when Jewish emigrants were finding it increasingly difficult to find a country to accept them, they were charged with convincing the British government to accept Freud and his large entourage, a total of sixteen people, including family members, in-laws, and his doctor and family. It was a complex operation, with no guarantee of success—and no possibility of success at all if the rescue squad had not risen to the occasion.
The main members of that team:
Ernest Jones, a Welsh physician who first met Freud in 1908 and learned German to study his works. Jones became his most fervent disciple in the English-speaking world. He served as president of the British Psychoanalytical Society and the International Psychoanalytical Association, which propagated Freudian ideas. He would play a key role both in convincing Freud to leave Vienna and in convincing the British government to grant entry to him and his party.
Anna Freud had five older siblings but developed the closest personal and professional relationship with her father, devoting herself to his care until the end of his life. During most of that time, she was involved in what she called a “precious relationship” with Dorothy Tiffany Burlingham, the American granddaughter of Charles Tiffany, the founder of Tiffany & Co. Anna became a leading child psychoanalyst, applying her father’s theories as she treated her young patients.
William Bullitt, the U.S. ambassador to France and earlier the Soviet Union, was Freud’s patient in 1926, when his marriage was falling apart and he was possibly contemplating suicide. Their sessions did not save his marriage but did help him with his depression and led to an unexpected collaboration between the two men on a biography of a statesman they both despised, President Woodrow Wilson.
Marie Bonaparte represented Europe’s high society. She was Napoleon’s great-grandniece and was married to Prince George of Greece and Denmark. Although she conducted a long-running affair with the prime minister of France, Aristide Briand, she started her analysis with Freud in 1925 to overcome her “frigidity” and soon became an analyst in her own right. Like Jones and Bullitt, Bonaparte was a gentile.
Max Schur specialized in internal medicine but, even in his student days, he was fascinated by Freud and underwent analysis himself. During Marie Bonaparte’s stays in Vienna, she was one of his patients. Intrigued by this “psychoanalytically oriented internist,” Bonaparte introduced him to Freud, who took him on as his physician in 1929. Schur, who like Freud was Jewish, was far more alarmed by the looming Nazi threat than his patient. Although he had made arrangements for his family to emigrate to the United States, he stayed on in Austria to care for Freud right up until his departure—and then made sure he had proper care in London as well.
Anton Sauerwald was the member of Freud’s rescue squad who was totally out of place. No one would have predicted that a Nazi bureaucrat, who was assigned the task of overseeing the extortion of Freud’s assets, would play a critical role in the final chapter of his life in Vienna. But that was exactly what happened.
The famous old man in Vienna had to rely on all these people—along with others who helped them—to make it possible for him to spend the final fifteen months of his life in London, granting him his wish “to die in freedom.”
During the 1980s and 1990s, I served as Newsweek’s bureau chief in Moscow, Rome, Bonn, Berlin, and Warsaw. Vienna was often part of my beat. I had first visited the city as a teenager, and I was delighted to return there again and again. It is a place drenched in history, magnificent art, architecture, music, and literature, and it still offers many of the same views and pleasures as it did in Freud’s time.
You can replicate his regular walks around the Ringstrasse, the horseshoe-shaped grand boulevard that was constructed on orders from the Habsburg emperor Franz Josef in the second half of the nineteenth century. As it takes you around the town center, you can admire the Vienna State Opera, the Parliament, City Hall, the university, and other stately buildings and gardens.
Like Freud, you can stop at any number of cafés, including his favorite, Café Landtmann, which is situated next to the Burgtheater. There, you can sit on the velvet banquettes or original Thonet chairs from the imperial era while gazing at the mirrors from the 1920s and exquisite inlays on the wooden walls. Before I fully appreciated this Belle Époque ambience, I discovered that almost everyone I wanted to meet in Vienna—political scientists, sociologists, writers, artists—would suggest that we meet there.
But for anyone who lives in Vienna for any length of time, or even visits often, the city arouses strong conflicting emotions. John Gunther described it as a city that is “so seductive, so oppressive, but possessed of an enigmatic charm.”
Some of that charm was noticed even by the victims of the Nazi era. In the early days of the German occupation of Poland, sixteen-year-old Weronika Kowalska was among a large group of teenage girls in Czestochowa who were abruptly ripped away from their families and dispatched to Vienna as forced laborers. They spent most of the war working in an Ericsson factory producing field telephones for the German army while living in an austere barracks nearby. Much later, when I knew her as my mother-in-law, Kowalska never minimized the hardships she and the others endured. But she also vividly remembered the occasional glimpses she caught of a city that looked completely dazzling to her.
The stories I covered on my trips to Vienna frequently involved explorations of the same sinister past. I often visited the famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, who was based in the Austrian capital, to report on his efforts to bring the criminals to justice. During the early postwar period, many Austrians successfully portrayed themselves as the first victims of the Third Reich, a sanitized version of events that was bolstered in the popular imagination by the immense success of the movie The Sound of Music. The fact that Austrians were among Hitler’s most fervent supporters—and, as Wiesenthal repeatedly pointed out, were disproportionately represented as commandants and other functionaries in the death camps—was largely overlooked.
It wasn’t until former United Nations Secretary General Kurt Waldheim emerged as the leading candidate in the 1986 Austrian presidential election that the country began a long overdue reckoning with its recent past. In official biographies, he had acknowledged his early wartime service on the Eastern Front, but “forgot” to mention his subsequent tour of duty in the Balkans on the staff of General Alexander Löhr, who was later convicted and hanged in Yugoslavia as a war criminal. When Waldheim’s omissions were exposed, the schadenfreude of some of my German friends was all too evident. “The Austrians have convinced the world that Beethoven was an Austrian and Hitler was a German,” they joked. (Hitler was born in Upper Austria, while Beethoven was born in Bonn.)
While I was reporting on this story, I found Waldheim’s reaction to the allegations about his wartime role as disturbing as anything he may have done as an intelligence officer at the time. Seizing on the fact that the World Jewish Congress was in the forefront of those accusing him of war crimes, he resorted to barely veiled anti-Semitic rhetoric to mobilize his supporters, who rewarded him with a bitter victory. Austria’s reputation had been tarred again, but a new generation of Austrian educators took advantage of the controversy to try to introduce more honest programs about history into the schools and public forums.
I have continued to return to Vienna whenever possible. I find the pull of the city to be strong, its appeal hard to resist, no matter what shadows it continues to cast. Perhaps for that reason, Freud’s attachment to it feels completely understandable to me, despite his increasingly fractured emotions. It was an ambivalence he held on to right up until he lapsed into his final sleep in London.
Why We Love It
“I loved the idea of this book when I signed it, and now that it’s finished, I love the execution of the idea even more. Although the premise of the story couldn’t be more disturbing—Sigmund Freud’s life was at risk after the German army occupied Austria on the eve of World War II—it is fascinating to see that Freud, who knew the human mind better than anyone who ever lived, was in some ways just like the rest of us: he was in denial about the peril he was in because he just didn’t want to have to make a momentous decision to emigrate. And like the rest of us, he had to be convinced by people around him who loved him and saw his situation more clearly than he would allow himself to see it. We are all flawed, even giants like Freud.”
—Bob B., VP, Executive Editor, on Saving Freud
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 15, 2023)
- Length: 352 pages
- ISBN13: 9781982172848
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Raves and Reviews
"Nagorski tells a riveting new story, one that shows just how narrow Freud’s escape from the Nazi genocide was. . . . The narrative pace and Nagorski’s fluid writing give this book the character of an adventure story. "
– Rachel Newcomb, The Washington Post
“Crackles like a novel and sparks with the razzle-dazzle of a big-screen extravaganza: an unforgettable cast of characters (think The Dirty Dozen), spine-tingling suspense (The Day of the Jackal), a death-defying savior (maybe Mephisto), and Nazis—the epitome of evil.”
– Kitty Kelley, The Washington Independent Review of Books
"Andrew Nagorski’s absorbing chronicle of Sigmund Freud’s harrowing escape from Nazi occupied Vienna is an insight-filled group portrait of the founder of psychoanalysis and his followers. It is also a psychobiographical thriller about the limits of genius. . . . Their audaciously valiant effort makes for compelling reading."
– Diane Cole, The Wall Street Journal
“Thrilling . . . as edge-of-your-seat gripping as any heist movie.”
– Kathryn Hughes, The Guardian
"Astonishing. . . . In the American journalist Andrew Nagorski this tale has found its ideal narrator: clear, objective and keen to keep things moving. . . It tells its story with a propulsive urgency."
– Sebastian Faulks, The Sunday Times (London)
"As exciting and suspenseful as a spy novel, Andrew Nagorski’s masterful narrative reveals how an eclectic group of Sigmund Freud’s friends, ranging from an American ambassador to a French-born princess, came together to do the seemingly impossible: engineer his rescue from Nazi-controlled Austria as the Gestapo were closing in. Their successful efforts underscore how powerful love, loyalty, and friendship can be, even in the midst of overwhelming evil."
—Lynne Olson, author of Madame Fourcade's Secret War: The Daring Young Woman Who Led France's Largest Spy Network Against Hitler
"An intimate, touching portrait of a genius as an old man. Ill, myopic, in denial and terribly vulnerable, this Freud is more human than any I've encountered before. Andrew Nagorski has an artist's eye for revealing detail and a novelist's ability to bring to life a long-lost world and its myriad denizens."
—Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind
"Part engrossing biography of the father of psychoanalysis, part vivid group portrait of the circle of notables who rescued Freud from the Nazis, Saving Freud pulses with urgent life. Nagorski captures the power of self-delusion and denial even among the most brilliant minds. This is also an all too relevant portrait of the speed with which a refined, hyper-civilized society can unravel."
—Kati Marton, author of The Chancellor: the Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel
"Nagorski mixes the pacing of a historical thriller (think Alan Furst, but nonfiction, and starring therapists instead of spies) with a meditation on the limits of insight and what it means to be attached to a specific place and to live in a given moment in time. . . . The result is hard to put down, poignant, and distressingly timely."
– Patrick Blanchfield, The New Republic
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