A Perfectly Staged 'Concerted Action' against Psychoanalysis: The 1913 Congress of German Psychiatrists

By Falzeder, Ernst M.; Burnham, John C. | International Journal of Psychoanalysis, October 2007 | Go to article overview
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A Perfectly Staged 'Concerted Action' against Psychoanalysis: The 1913 Congress of German Psychiatrists


Falzeder, Ernst M., Burnham, John C., International Journal of Psychoanalysis


An eyewitness account provides evidence of a significant clandestine effort to neutralize the legitimacy and authority of psychoanalysis. In a letter, the witness confirms the existence of a perfectly staged concerted action among German psychiatrists against Freud's influence in 1913. Their congress in Breslau was meant to present the united front of German psychiatrists, who were going on record as being against psychoanalysis and, in that context, to give Eugen Bleuler, a leading psychiatrist, whose (however half-hearted) support for psychoanalysis had alarmed his colleagues, a public opportunity for back-pedalling. The letter shows that Freud and his allies were not the only ones who tried to manage an intellectual movement by using informal networks and 'behind the scenes' manoeuvring.

Keywords: psychiatry in Germany, history of psychoanalysis, intellectual history, Freud, Eugen Bleuler, Alfred Hoche

Did Freud's views gain a fair hearing in the scientific community of his time? Freud himself certainly did not believe so. According to him, his early communications were met with 'silence'. His 'writings were not reviewed ... or ... were dismissed with expressions of scornful or pitying superiority' (Freud, 1914, pp. 21-3). 'Word was given out to abandon me, for a void is forming around me' (Freud, 1985, p. 185).2 In a letter of 1904, Freud cited the 'expressions of malicious superiority' on the part of 'his Viennese colleagues' as the reason that he did not publish any substantial works at that time (Gundlach, 1977, p. 912).3 There is also that famous instance at the Nuremberg Congress in 1910, where, according to an eyewitness, he said that he was 'perpetually attacked' and, seizing his coat by the lapels, 'They won't even leave me a coat to my back' (Wittels, 1924, p. 140).4 There is no doubt that he identified a group of 'enemies of analysis' (Freud, 1914, p. 49).

Freud's self-portrayal as a lone fighter for truth, who met with the fiercest resistance, was taken over, or even further embellished, by many of his followers and biographers (most notably Jones, 1953, 1955, 1957). More recent studies challenged that image. Sulloway tried to refute the 'complex myth that both Freud and his followers have sought to propagate-a mythology that pictures Freud as the lonely "psychoanalytic hero" who, all by himself and against a universally hostile outside world, "invented" a totally original psychology' (1979, cover). Decker (1977), following up on work by Bry and Rifkin (1962), found that, at least until 1907, Freud's publications and ideas gained a respectful hearing in major publications. According to Decker, large numbers of people in the German-speaking world were aware that Freud had introduced some innovative ideas, and there was a broad spectrum of reactions. There were indeed strong criticisms, but they were made perfectly openly. In sum, in Decker's view psychoanalysis had a fair hearing in Germany before World War I and was often alluded to, even if unfavourably, in, for example, textbooks: 'Freud was by no means totally ignored or rejected' (Decker, 1977, p. 1, our italics).

Was the hostility against Freud himself and against psychoanalysis, then, never as fierce, unfair or unrelenting as he claimed? Was there no 'organized' opposition at all? Was there never 'word given out'? And did, thus, Freud have a 'paranoid streak' (Crews, 1995, p. 108) and imagine conspiracies? Esterson (2002, pp. 123-4), for instance, speculates that Freud's sense that he was isolated by his colleagues was 'the reflection of a mild tendency toward paranoia', possibly growing out of his use of cocaine.

In this paper, we take a closer look at one seminal event, a session at the annual meeting of German psychiatrists, specifically dedicated to a discussion of psychoanalysis. This event seems specially suited to serve as an example. This was the official congress of the German Society of Psychiatry. It was the first occasion that such an august and influential body had chosen psychoanalysis as a topic.

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