Why War?

views updated


In 1931 the Permanent Committee on Literature and the Arts of the League of Nations proposed exchanges of letters between intellectuals. Contacted in June 1932, Freud agreed to respond to Einstein's letter, which he received in August. The result was a "Letter to Albert Einstein" titled "Why War?" On September 8, 1932, he stated to Max Eitingon that he had finally finished writing the "tedious and sterile so-called discussion with Einstein" (quoted in Jones, 1957, Vol. 3, p. 185). To Einstein's question "Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?" (1933b [1932], p. 199), Freud would respond by returning to a number of issues that he had already addressed in his work on this subject, from "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death" (1915b) to Civilization and Its Discontents (1930a). Instead of his correspondent's proposal to consider the relationship between right and might, he preferred to consider the relationship between right and violence, and he argued that as distinct from the primitive law of the strongest, "right is the might of a community" (p. 205). But right itself cannot be exercised without violence. The wish to prevent war was no doubt embodied in the League of Nations, but that organization remained impotent, except on the level of ideas.

According to Freud, Einstein was correct in positing an instinct of hate in humankind, a notion that fit with "our mythological theory of the instincts" (p. 212). "The death instinct turns into the destructive instinct when, with the help of special organs, it is directed outwards on to objects. The organism preserves its own life, so to say, by destroying an extraneous one" (p. 211). This was a factual circumstance that had to be taken into account; the Bolshevist utopia clearly pointed up the illusion of egalitarian material satisfaction.

Freud acknowledged that he did not have much to propose: "We are pacifists because we are obliged to be for organic reasons" (p. 214). "We are shaped by the long process of the development of civilization, to which we owe the best of what we have become, as well as a good part of what we suffer from. Though its causes and beginnings are obscure and its outcome uncertain, some of its characteristics are easy to perceive. It may perhaps be leading to the extinction of the human race, for in more than one way it impairs the sexual function; uncultivated races and backward strata of the population are already multiplying more rapidly than highly cultivated ones. The process is perhaps comparable to the domestication of certain species of animals and it is undoubtedly accompanied by physical alterations; but we are still unfamiliar with the notion that the evolution of civilization is an organic process of this kind" (p. 214).

"How long shall we have to wait before the rest of mankind become pacifists too? There is no telling.... But one thing we can say: whatever fosters the growth of civilization works at the same time against war" (p. 215).

In the spring of 1932, William C. Bullitt presented Freud with the manuscript of their jointly authored "psychological study" of President Thomas Woodrow Wilson (1966). This study was in line with the hope that Freud expressed in the last pages of his letter to Einstein: "One instance of the innate and ineradicable inequality of men is their tendency to fall into the two classes of leaders and followers. The latter constitute the vast majority; they stand in need of an authority which will make decisions for them and to which they for the most part offer an unqualified submission. This suggests that more care should be taken than hitherto to educate an upper stratum of men with independent minds, not open to intimidation and eager in the pursuit of truth, whose business it would be to give direction to the dependent masses. It goes without saying that the encroachments made by the executive power of the State and the prohibition laid by the Church upon freedom of thought are far from propitious for the production of a class of this kind. The ideal condition of things would of course be a community of men who had subordinated their instinctual life to the dictatorship of reason. Nothing else could unite men so completely and so tenaciously, even if there were no emotional ties between them. But in all probability that is a Utopian expectation" (1933b, p. 212-213). In London in 1948 it was suggested that political leaders be systematically required to undergo psychoanalysis. This naturally elicited particularly acute reactions among psychiatrists who were members of the French Communist Party.

Written in that summer of 1932, on the threshold of the rise of Nazism and the deployment of the death instinct that would result from it, Freud's reflections later became a premonition whose accuracy he could not possibly have imagined.

Alain de Mijolla

See also: Civilization (Kultur ); Death instinct (Thanatos); Mythology and psychoanalysis; "Thoughts for the Times on War and Death."

Source Citation

Freud, Sigmund. (1933b [1932]). "Warum Kreig? (Brief an Albert Einstein [sept. 1932]), Warum Kreig? Pourquoi la guerre? Why War? Paris: Internationales Institut für gestige Zusammenarbeit am Völkerbund (Institute for International Cooperation); GW, 16: 13-27; Why war? SE,22:197-215.


Freud, Sigmund. (1915b). Thoughts for the times on war and death. SE, 14: 273-300.

. (1930a [1929]). Civilization and its discontents. SE, 21: 57-145.

Freud, Sigmund, and Bullitt, William. (1966b [1938]). Introduction. In their Thomas Woodrow Wilson, twenty-eighth president of the United States: A psychological study (pp. xi-xvi). New York: Weidenfeld and Nicholson.

Jones, Ernest. (1957). Sigmund Freud: Life and work. London: Hogarth.