Freudian Psychology

Freud on the Fire: Psychotherapists' Peril in Nazi Germany

Psychoanalysts Freud and Fromm fled the Third Reich yet collaborators stayed.

Posted Sep 28, 2020

 Wikimedia Commons (U.S. National Archive, public domain)
Book burning in Nazi Germany.
Source: Wikimedia Commons (U.S. National Archive, public domain)

In 1938, after Nazi Germany annexed Austria, Nazi leaders were divided over what to do about psychology and psychoanalysts. On one side, top officials including Himmler and Goebbels wanted to throw "the whole group in prison," whereas others agreed with Luftwaffe commander Hermann Göring who, ''under the influence of his psychiatrist cousin, was in favor of moderation.'' The cousin Matthias Heinrich Göring, who had learned from Emil Kraepelin and Alfred Adler, had joined the Nazi party and began serving as head or figurehead of a fledgling institution of psychotherapy, both starting in 1933. Whether out of personal belief or for the sake of self-preservation, he and colleagues spoke out against Jewish psychoanalysts and excluded Freudians in particular from their society and organizations. Many psychotherapists who were neither Jewish nor Freudian could remain active under the fascist regime (Cocks, 1985/2018). Psychiatrist Harald Schultz-Hencke and some colleagues actively strove to end the "Jewish science" and replace it with "a new German soul medicine" palatable to Nazi leaders (Goggin & Goggin, 2001). While not all Freudian ideas were rejected, those seen as useful were generally repackaged and renamed - sheltered in disguise or simply plagiarized?

Nevertheless, numerous psychologists and psychiatrists had to decide: Flee or die. Here are a few of the more prominent examples.

  • Seeing what was happening in his native Germany, social psychology founder Kurt Lewin decided (Benjamin, 1993, p. 158), "I now believe there is no other choice for me but to emigrate, even though it will tear my life apart." In 1933, facing the Nazis' treatment of Jews and frequent disdain of psychology, he moved to America. So he was not in Germany when his mother, sister, and so many others were murdered in the Nazis' concentration camps. Tragedies took their toll on him, though: Shortly after World War II, he died of a heart attack in 1947 at age 56. 
  • Renowned developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, whose theory of psychosocial stages of development expanded and to many minds replaced Freud's theory of psychosexual stages, took his family to Copenhagen after Nazis rose to power in 1933.
  • Sociologist-turned-psychologist Erich Fromm built his theoretical foundation on trying to understand how and why his country's people would elevate the Nazis to power and previously-friendly neighbors would turn against Jews, even those they'd known their whole lives. Suffering under the Great Depression, the German population gave up so many liberties for the sake of seeming security under a dictatorial regime. Fromm (1941, 1955) concluded that the most 'basic human dilemma' is the conflict between competing desires for both freedom and security. When Hitler rose to power, Fromm relocated to Geneva. From there, he moved to the United States to teach at Columbia University in 1934.
  • Even though the Nazi leaders who opposed psychology and the therapists who collaborated with authorities against Jews focused much of their ire on Sigmund Freud's ideas, Freud himself resisted leaving his home in Vienna, Austria, to the point that he nearly waited too long. When the Nazis first took power in Germany in 1933, they publicly burned books by Freud and other "enemies of the state" such as Albert Einstein. "What progress we are making," Freud mused (Reef, 2001, p. 191). "In the Middle Ages they would have burnt me; nowadays they are content with burning my books." When the Nazis occupied Austria in 1938, he refused to leave despite friends' encouragement and even pleas. Nazi gangs repeatedly invaded his home. Only after the arrest and release of his daughter, psychoanalyst Anna Freud, did he at last leave for London, where he died the following year. Four of his five sisters soon died in concentration camps. 
  • Not everyone got out. Austrian Viktor Frankl got sent to Auschwitz and, from there, to other concentration camps over the course of three years. Nazis killed his wife, his parents, his brother, and nearly every other relative except for a sister who escaped to Australia (Klingberg, 2001). Over the course of nine days shortly after Americans freed him from Dachau, he wrote what would become the first part of Man's Search for Meaning (Frankl, 1946, 1958/2006, 1962/2006). One of the world's most influential books, it describes his experiences under the Nazis and then outlines his therapeutic method, logotherapy, key to existential psychology. His work exists and endures only because he happened to belong to the tiny percentage of concentration camp victims who survived. Imagine how much the world lost with all those who did not make it.

What of those psychotherapists who at times seemed to thrive under Nazi rule? They faced consequences for their cooperation with fascist authorities, ranging from Harald Schultz-Hencke who encountered great controversy for the rest of his life to ardent Nazi Matthias Heinrich Göring who died in a Poznań prison. In tales of deals with the devil, the devil comes to collect what's due.

Related posts


Benjamin, L. T., Jr. (1993). A history of psychology in letters. Dubuque, IA: Brown & Benchmark. 

Cocks, G. (1985/2018). Psychotherapy in the Third Reich (2nd ed.) London, UK: Routledge.

Frankl, V. E. (1946). …trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen: Ein Psycholog erlebt das Konzentationslager […Nevertheless say ‘yes’ to life: A psychologist experiences the concentration camp]. Vienna, Austria: Verlag.

Frankl, V. E. (1959/2006). From death-camp to existentialism (I. Lasch, Trans.). Boston, MA: Beacon.  (Original work published 1946—see above).

Frankl, V. E. (1962/2006). Man’s search for meaning: An introduction to logotherapy (I. Lasch, Trans., part I). Boston, MA: Beacon. (Part I, original work published 1946—see above. Part II, original to 1962 edition.)

Fromm, E. (1941). Escape from freedom. New York, NY: Rinehart.

Fromm, E. (1955). The sane society. New York, NY: Rinehart.

Goggin, J., & Goggin, E. (2001). Death of a "Jewish science": Psychoanalysis in Nazi Germany. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.

Klingberg, H. (2001). When life calls out to us: The love and lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankl. New York, NY: Doubleday.

Reef, C. (2001). Sigmund Freud: Pioneer of the mind. New York, NY: Clarion.