Fenichel, Otto (1897-1946)

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FENICHEL, OTTO (1897-1946)

Otto Fenichel, an Austrian physician and psychoanalyst, was born in Vienna on December 2, 1897, and died in Los Angeles on January 22, 1946. He was born into a family of Viennese Jewish lawyers. As a student he took part in the Viennese youth movement that had coalesced around Siegfried Bernfeld. He took an interest in cultural and educational reform and was especially interested in information about sexuality and its scientific study. Released from serving in the military, he began, after the winter of 1915/1916, to attend Sigmund Freud's presentations at the University of Vienna, and after 1918 he participated in discussions held by the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. In February 1919 he organized, at the university, a Viennese Seminar on Sexology, a working group to study psychoanalysis and sexual matters. In 1920, while still a student, he was accepted as a member of the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society after his talk on sexual problems in youth movements. He received his medical degree in 1921.

Fenichel began an analysis in Vienna with Paul Federn and continued, after moving to Berlin, with Sándor Radó. In 1926 he became a teacher at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute and that same year organized a seminar on child psychoanalysis, an open forum on the problems of clinical and applied psychoanalysis. He was a member of the German Psychoanalytic Society from 1926 to 1934. After 1932 some members of the seminar began discussing psychoanalytic issues from a Marxist perspective. Fenichel had to flee to Oslo, Norway, in 1933. There he became secretary of the Dansk-Norsk Psykoanalytisk Forening (Danish-Norwegian Psychoanalytical Society).

In Norway, in the spring of 1934, he continued the meetings on Marxist psychoanalysis, writing clandestine circular letters that he sent to his colleagues in exile. By 1945 he had written 119 such letters. In 1935 he moved to the Czechoslovak city of Prague, where he ran the Prager Arbeitsgemeinschaft (Prague Study Society), which was associated with the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society.

After the introduction of National Socialism in Vienna and the dissolution of the Prague group, in the spring of 1938 Fenichel and his family left for Los Angeles. There he joined the Los Angeles Psychoanalytic Study Group. In 1942 he helped found the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Society and in 1944 became vice president. After 1939 he was an editor of the Psychoanalytic Quarterly. In the summer of 1945 he began studying psychiatry to obtain his California license at the Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Los Angeles.

The focus of his interest, which he shared with Siegfried Bernfeld, Wilhelm Reich, Erich Fromm, and others, lie in the development of a form of psychoanalysis that provided sociological explanations and was capable of making contributions to politics. His most important work, The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, appeared in 1945 and became a key source for analytic training. One of Fenichel's most important contributions to psychoanalysis, overlooked until 1998, has been his circular letters, which have shown him to be an important historiographer of the psychoanalytic movement.

Elke MÜhlleitner

Work discussed: Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis, The.

See also: Addiction; American Imago; Asthma; Berliner Psychoanalytisches Institut; Boredom; Bulimia; Claustrophobia; Czech Republic; Dependence; Dipsomania; Evenly-suspended attention; Germany; Indications and contraindications for psychoanalysis for an adult; Lehrinstitut de Wiener Psychoanalytischen Vereinigung; Narcissism of minor differences; "Neurasthenia and 'Anxiety Neurosis"'; Norway; Oedipus complex, early; Politics and psychoanalysis; Stammering; Tics; Transference relationship; Wiener psychoanalytische Vereinigung; Second World War: The effect on the development of psychoanalysis; United States.


Fenichel, Otto. (1945). The psychoanalytic theory of neuroses. New York: W. W. Norton.

. (1953-1954). The collected papers of Otto Fenichel. New York: W. W. Norton.

. (1998). 119 Rundbriefe (1934-1945) (2 vols.). Frankfurt am Main: Stroemfeld.

Mühlleitner, Elke. (1992). Biographisches lexikon der psycho-analyse: die Mitglieder der psychologischen Mittwoch-Gesellschaft und der Wiener psychoanalytischen Vereinigung, 1902-1938. Tübingen, Germany: Diskord.