Thoughts for the Times on War and Death

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There are two essays in Sigmund Freud's "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death," one on disillusionment and the other on our relation to death as revealed or modified by war. Freud wrote them in March and April 1915, six months after war was declared. Although he did not hide his nationalism, the tone is that of a "European" of the Enlightenment more than that of a partisan, especially in the first essay.

The theme of disillusionment is one Freud returns to often. It features in The Future of an Illusion (1927c) and in Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a). Here, it is the ideals of the community of mankind, or at least of Europeans, that are damaged and unsettled by war. Freud emphasizes that psychoanalysis has always maintained that behind the civilization we have struggled so hard to create ("'Civilized' Sexual Morality and Modern Nervous Illness," 1908d), there exist drives that are neither good nor bad in themselves but are classified as such because of their relation to the needs and requirements of the human community. As a result regression is always possible and the reshaping of drives on which the inclination to civilization is based can cause reversion to a previous stage, permanently or temporarily, through various events, primarily war. However, Freud concluded with a question: "Why do individual peoples despise themselves, hate themselves, abhor themselves and others, even during times of peace, and why does every nation treat the others in this way? This is certainly an enigma."

Bernd Nitzschke discovered the text on which the second essay is based. It appeared in a speech given at the Jewish Masonic lodge of B'nai B'rith in Vienna on February 15, 1915. It discusses our relationship to death and, in reality, has little to say about war, even though this was the pretext for the article. Freud reminds us that individual death cannot be represented unless it appears in a fantasy that negates its terror because we appear in it as a spectator. "In the unconscious each of us is convinced of our immortality." Consequently, the interpretation given of the causes of death has always tended to treat death as an unfortunate accident rather than a necessity.

However, having exposed the way thought distances us from the inevitability of death, Freud then goes on to show how it is eroticized in two areas: the taking of risks in our active life and relating the death of others with which we identify in literature. He goes on to say that "in fiction we find this plurality of lives that we need." Civilized man therefore has a contradictory attitude toward death since he denies it for himself and considers it as something that makes life valuable. The same is true of primitive man, who treats death as real in murder and unreal as far as it affects him personally. However, Freud shows that "it is not the intellectual enigma or each particular instance of death but the conflict of feelings experienced during the death of people who are loved and at the same time strangers and hated that has given rise to the spirit of research in humankind." He then adds that the moral commandments also come into being at this time, the most important of them being the interdiction of murder. This leads him to conclude: "If we are judged according to our impulses of unconscious desire, we are ourselves like primitive men, a band of assassins."

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Aggressiveness/aggression; Altruism; First World War: The effect on the development of psychoanalysis; "On Transience"; Reaction formation; "Why War?"

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund. (1915b). Zeitgemässes über Krieg und Tod. Imago, 4: 1-21; GW, 8, 324-355; Thoughts for the times on war and death. SE, 14: 273-300.


Le Rider, Jacques. (1992). Un texte retrouvé: La première version d''Actuelles sur la guerre et sur la mort' (part 2). Revue internationale d'histoire de la psychanalyse, 5, 599-611.

Nitzschke, Bernd. (1991). Freuds vortrag vor dem israelitischen humanitätsverein "wie" des Orden B'nai B'rith: "Wir und der Tod" (1915). Ein wiedergefundenes document. Psyche, 2, 97-131.