Gross, Otto Hans Adolf (1877-1920)

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Otto Gross, a neurologist and psychoanalyst, was born March 17, 1877, in Feldbach (Styria), Austria, and died February 13, 1920, in Berlin. His father, Hans Gross, was a celebrated professor of criminal law and his mother Adèle came from a middle-class family. Young Otto Gross grew up in a well-to-do family environment and was a precocious child.

On the advice of his father, he began studying medicine and completed his degree at the University of Graz in 1899 at the age of twenty-two. He was hired as a doctor on a cruise ship, which introduced him to South Americaand drugs. He was also involved with several women during this time, something that earned him a rebuke from his father on his return, the beginning of a conflict that would last until 1907 and their final break. In 1903 he married Frieda Schloffer, "one of the only Germans I have ever liked," wrote Freud. But his sexual life remained agitated, the reflection of the "sexual immorality" he would turn into a theoretical credo.

In 1901-1902 he specialized in neurology and was especially interested in the hypotheses of Carl Wernicke on associative circuits and their separation (in a February 1908 letter to Carl Gustav Jung, Freud humorously referred to this as "sejunction"). In 1902, he began a detoxification cure at the Burghölzli Clinic, where Jung was working, and discovered psychoanalysis.

In spite of his appointment as Privat Dozent at the University of Graz, he left the citywhere his father had also received an appointmentto settle, in September 1906, in Munich. Here, as an assistant to Emil Kraepelin, he spent time among the artistic and literary circles in the Schwabing quarter. The following year he went to Amsterdam for the first International Congress on Psychiatry, Psychology, and Aid to the Mentally Ill and, with Jung, defended Freud's theory of hysteria. His intellect and creativeness caught Freud's (who felt that "unfortunately he was not quite sane") and Ernest Jones's attention, and he was present at the Salzburg Congress of April 27, 1908.

Gross was again hospitalized at the Burghölzli, where Jung began treating him. Jung kept Freud informed of his progress, for both men felt that because of Gross's intelligence this was a unique opportunity to develop further theoretical insights. Jung diagnosed an "obsessive neurosis" in 1908, which was confirmed by Freud. Gross's condition seemed to get better. He gave up drugsopium and cocainebut things soon got worse, and in June 1908 Jung diagnosed him as suffering from "precocious dementia" after Gross escaped from the clinic and displayed increasing symptoms of pathological behavior. Nonetheless, he continued to work and publish articles in which he explained his theories on the social origin of nervous disturbances. He became involved with anarchist circles, but spent increasing amounts of time in psychiatric clinics, which were paid for by his father.

In 1909, his bookÜber psychopathische Minderwertigkeiten (On Psychopathic Inferiority) was published. On June 3, Freud referred to Gross's book, in which he establishes a connection between genius and degeneracy, as a "bold synthesis overflowing with ideas." The "degenerate," although appearing unsuited to current social life, can also represent the future of the culture. In 1913 Gross published, in the Expressionist review Aktion, an essay entitled "ZurÜberwindug der kulturellen Krise" (How to Overcome the Cultural Crisis), in which he affirmed that "the psychology of the unconscious is the philosophy of revolution." He referred to Friedrich Nietzsche and Sigmund Freud, and one can only wonder what influence this early work may have had on the Marxist psychoanalysts of the following decades.

A few months after its publication, at his father's request, Otto Gross was expelled from Germany, held in Austria at the Tulln Asylum, and placed under his father's care. The international press began to print articles about his arbitrary internment and, on January 25, 1914, he was transferred to the Troppau Asylum in Silesia, where he remained until July 8. He then followed a treatment with Wilhelm Stekel, who refused to diagnose him as a schizophrenic and spoke only of a serious neurosis accompanied by drug addiction. In the Zentralblatt für Psychoanalyse und Psychotherapie, Gross published an article on the symbolics of destruction.

His father's death in 1915 left Gross distraught. At the start of the First World War, he worked as a volunteer in several military hospitals but was himself hospitalized again in Romania for drug addiction at the end of 1916, before being transferred to Munich to stay with his mother, then to Vienna. His writings appeared in various political reviews and made use of psychoanalysis to criticize education, society, and the patriarchy, which communism would supposedly abolish in favor of a matriarchy ("The Fundamentally Communist Conception of the Symbolics of Paradise," July 1919). He is mentioned in a letter from Sándor Ferenczi to Freud on February 7, 1918: He "made his circle of disciples there, who, among other things, had the duty without exception to enter into sexual relations with Dr. Gross'slover, named 'Mieze.' They supposedly classified the young colleague, who found that repugnant, as 'morally unreliable' for that reason. Incidentally, the young colleague had some time ago received news of Dr. Gross's death, which has, however, not been substantiated. He will still pop up here and there as a 'Golem'."

In 1920 he published his last book, Drei aufsätze über den inneren Konflict (Three papers on the inner conflict), this conflict being situated between the "self" and the "foreign," which established a conflict between Freudian sexual drives and the Adlerian ego drive.

He was found unconscious on a Berlin sidewalk on February 11, 1920, and died in the Pankow sanatorium two days later from pneumonia. He was buried "by mistake" in the Jewish cemetery of Berlin.

Known to Franz Kafka, Max Brod, Max Weber, Blaise Cendrars (who protested against his internments), and the Dadaists, this "Golem" continued to be referred to in connection with D. H. Lawrence (whose wife Frieda, born Frieda von Richthofen, had been his mistress in 1912) and the Bloomsbury group. Guillaume Apollinaire had written "La disparition du Dr Gross" in the Mercure de France on January 16, 1914, to protest his internment, and Sándor Ferenczi wrote to Freud, on March 22, 1910, "There is no doubt that, among those who have followed you up to now, he is the most significant. Too bad he had to go to pot." Ernest Jones wrote in his memoirs that "[h]e was the nearest approach to a romantic ideal of a genius I have ever met. . . . He was my first instructor in the technique of psycho-analsysis" (Jones, 1959, p. 173). Paradoxically, the Marxist Freudians seem to have forgotten Gross, their earliest precursor.

Alain de Mijolla

See also: Germany; Politics and psychoanalysis.


Dehmlow, Raimund. and Heuer, Gottfried. (1999). Otto Gross: Werkverzeichnis und Sekundärschrifttum. Hannover: Laurentius.

Freud, Sigmund and Jung, Carl Gustav. (1975). The Freud/Jung Letters: The correspondence between Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung (William McGuire, Ed.; Ralph Manheim and R.F.C. Hull, Trans.). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gross, Otto. (2000). Collected works. (Lois Madison, Ed. and Trans.). Hamilton, NY: Mindpiece.

Hurwitz, Emmanuel. (1979). Otto Gross: Paradies-Sucher zwischen Freud und Jung. Zürich.

Lawrence, David Herbert, and Richthofen, Frieda von. (1961). The memoirs and correspondence. London: E.W. Tedlock Jr.