Austrian Jews Respond to Nazism, Part 1

Jewish Identity: Reflections on Bettelheim, Frankl, and Amery.

Posted Jun 28, 2018

Part 1 of 3

After finishing my paper on Frankl, Levi, and Auschwitz, I turned to frame Frankl’s decisions and choices before the war with other Austrian Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Two of the most famous Austrian survivors, Bruno Bettelheim and Jean Améry, seemed to fit my agenda of placing Frankl in a wider context. Tentatively titled "Austrian Jews Respond to Nazism," my broader lens aspired to focus on class, character, political orientation, and religious identity in Bettelheim, Améry, and Frankl. I was befuddled with Frankl’s decisions in the 1930s and early 1940s, and I thought by comparing him to other Jewish survivors I might gain insight and perspective. And honestly, I also expected to discover that Bettelheim and Améry had “better” responses.

My initial question was: Is there an “authentic” Jewish response to the rise of Nazism? My tentative answer was that authenticity doesn’t really work as a historical category, but all three responded uniquely to the rise of Nazism and the Anschluss primarily based on their Jewish identity; however, their Jewish identity is perhaps best explained, or more aptly determined, by their class position/consciousness. All three were bourgeois, but Bettelheim was more of a “haute bourgeois” and a humanist deeply impacted by Freudianism; Frankl was middle class and much closer to his Jewish identity, and became a medical doctor and psychiatrist; and, finally, the "petit bourgeois" Améry was a self-educated bohemian intellectual, and his outrage over the rise of Nazism turned him into a vehemently protesting Jew. 

First Bettelheim —

Bettelheim was a fully assimilated, upper-middle-class Jew, with a somewhat typical childhood and youth for a member of his class. During his teenage years, he more or less rejected his Jewish heritage, and Judaism in general, as a nuisance and something that kept him distinct from his peers. 

As a young man, he studied philosophy and psychology at the University of Vienna. Given his reputation as a neo-Freudian, it seems surprising that his stud­ies and dissertation do not appear to have been significantly influenced by psychoanalytic interests. He earned his doc­toral degree on February 4, 1938, with a thesis that argued the aesthetic experience of nature was more demanding on the psyche than the aesthetic experience of a work of art. The unusual length of Bettelheim's university studies (he first entered the university in the early 1920s) is attributable to the fact he took over the family lumber mill from his father. The business was a double-edged sword for Bettelheim, because it obviously consumed a great deal of time, and yet also al­lowed him to pursue his intellectual interests as long as he desired, without needing to prepare for a professional career.

Like many Viennese Jews, Bettelheim and his wife were alarmed at the Anschluss and immediately attempted to flee Vienna. According to the Austrian historians Christian Fleck and Albert Mueller, their flight failed when they were turned back at both the Czechoslovak and Hungarian borders. The next day, the Bettelheims made a second attempt by train, and Bettelheim’s wife was permitted to exit the country, but Bettelheim's passport was confiscated, and he was ordered by the police to remain in Vienna. During the next few days, his apartment was searched, and he was arrested and interrogated by the police before eventually being released. About a month later, he was arrested again, ques­tioned closely about his political activities, and once again released. Two weeks after this, he was arrested for a third time and informed his arrest was ordered by the Gestapo headquar­ters in Berlin. He spent three days in prison and was then transferred to Dachau in early May, 1938.

It is not exactly clear why the Nazis focused in on Bettelheim, but his politics might be one explanation. According to Bettelheim's statement to the Nuremberg tribunal, he was a member of the outlawed Social Democratic Party. In addition, Bettelheim’s fellow Dachau survivor Ernst Federn (in Witnessing Psychoanalysis) claimed that Bettelheim was also active in the resistance to the Austrian Authoritarian Government during the mid-1930s.

Some other possible explanations for Bettelheim’s arrest are that his name appeared on one of the lists of political enemies of the pre-1938 authoritarian government, or someone denounced him, or he was arrested as a replacement for another member of his family. For our interests, one thing is certain: Bettelheim was likely sent to the concentration camp because of his politics and not solely because he was Jewish. Indeed, immediately after the Anchluss in 1938, people were not sent to Dachau solely because they were Jewish; they also had to belong to at least one additional category of persons subject to persecution and detention.

Christian Fleck and Albert Mueller also describe how Bettelheim’s depiction of Jew­ish prisoners varied. His first accounts in 1943 and 1946 contain almost no references to the specific role of Jewish prisoners in the camps. However, he placed greater importance on the persecution of Jews in the texts written (or revised) at a later date. In general, it can be said that Bettelheim placed more emphasis on the role of Jewish con­centration camp inmates in his later works, and that retrospectively he characterized himself more clearly as a Jewish prisoner. The change in emphasis is curious. It may be that his original identification in the Nuremburg tribunal that he was a socialist and a political prisoner would have led to his ostracization in the conservative, Cold War political climate of America in the 1950s. Another possibility is that Bettelheim did not realize how much his Jewish identity meant to him until after the Holocaust, when he had immigrated to the United States. Finally, his trip to Israel in 1964 gave him a more positive Jewish Identity.  He even told a friend when in Israel he had attended a Heder (traditional school usually conducted in the home of a Rabbi). By the time he penned Freud’s Vienna in 1983, he describes the pride he felt as a young man at belonging to such a venerable tradition and also being interested in Buber. He also directly connected his Jewish identity to his concentration camp experience with the statement that his “affirmative sense of a Jewish identity became especially important to me, and possibly even life-preserving, in face of the abuse and mistreatment I suffered in German concentration camps because I was a Jew.”