Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud, the two great, towering intellectuals of the 20th century – who both strongly identified as Jews and were proud of their Jewish heritage – will always be linked. As Freud himself commented in 1926: “the Jews all over the world boast of my name, pairing me with Einstein.” Six years later, their names would be aligned through an important but not well-known correspondence published in pamphlet form as “Why War?”

In incredible letters, written in 1932, the two scientists discuss the questions of whether there is a way to save humanity from war; to what degree a government can influence the decisions of its citizens; what should the relationship be between the majority and the minority; and if there exists a way to nullify a person’s aggressive instincts.

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The letters – which, ironically, were published shortly after Hitler was appointed German chancellor – had a very small circulation of only about 2,000, notwithstanding the worldwide fame of the two correspondents, and most of the copies were destroyed in WWII, when both men were driven into exile by Hitler.

“Why War?” – An exchange of letters between Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein

The original “Why War?” correspondence sold for $150,000 in 1991 (they are likely worth many hundreds of thousands of dollars today); my personal copy of its 1935 translation into Hebrew is unfortunately worth far less than that. Exhibited here is “Lama Milchama?,” published by Eretz Press in Tel Aviv. Few of these pamphlets are known to exist.

Hitler’s infamous book burnings included “Why War?” but, ironically, a copy signed by Freud was found among Benito Mussolini’s possessions. The back story: The father of one of Freud’s ailing psychiatric patients who was a close friend of the Italian dictator asked Freud to dedicate a gift for Il Duce. Unable to refuse the request, Freud sent a subtle message by deciding to send him a copy of “Why War?” and inscribing it “To Benito Mussolini, with respectful greetings of an old man who recognizes in the ruler a cultural hero.”

Einstein and Freud met only once, briefly, in Berlin in 1927 when the two discussed their work in physics and psychology. Einstein, who once wrote that Freud “had an exaggerated faith in his own ideas,” remained unconvinced about the soundness of Freud’s psychological theories in general and of psychoanalysis in particular, which he rejected as lacking scientific basis.

Asked if he would consider undergoing psychoanalysis himself, Einstein responded sardonically, “It may not always be helpful to delve into the subconscious… I should like very much to remain in the darkness of not having been analyzed.” When Freud was nominated for a Nobel Prize, Einstein declined to support the nomination because, he declared, he could offer no reliable opinion on the legitimacy of Freud’s theories.

Nonetheless, Einstein came to admire Freud’s intellect and brilliantly literate writing style; as he wrote in a 1938 letter to psychologist Theodor Reik, “I am an eager admirer of Freud as an author and thinker.” Later, however, Einstein admitted that “through various little personal experiences, I am convinced at least of his [Freud’s] main theses.”

It is therefore peculiar that when Einstein’s son Eduard became schizophrenic, Einstein never sought Freud’s input on his illness, instead sending him to a psychiatric hospital. Moreover, as we shall see from his correspondence with Freud, Einstein did occasionally dabble in psychology, as to which Freud famously commented in 1927, “Einstein understands as much about psychology as I do about physics.”

By this time in his life and career, Einstein had transformed himself from a scientific genius to an intellectual figure of international renown whose thoughts and opinions on philosophy, religion, and politics were equally as respected as his scientific achievements. As such, he was invited by the International Institute for Intellectual Cooperation (IIIC) – a League of Nations entity and a precursor to UNESCO – to exchange ideas about war and politics with a scholar of his choice. He chose Freud.

Although the subject of “How do we end war?” was prompted by Einstein, both scientists were eloquent pacifists, and both considered the League of Nations the utopian paradigm for ending war and maintaining peace. Freud had previously written about war. He had, in fact, expressed initial support for WWI; later, however, he grew apprehensive about his son, who was fighting at the Russian front. He became disappointed by the nations’ lust for power, their failure to observe treaty commitments, and their appeals to patriotism and expectation that citizens endorse their malfeasance.

After the war, he was consulted by the Austrian War Ministry to opine on the treatment of soldiers suffering mental distress, which helped to shape his later views on war.

Einstein believed that aggression had a biological basis and, as early as 1915, he used Freudian language to explain the underlying human drive for violence and savagery: “I think it is the sexual character of the male that leads to such wild explosions.”

However, Hitler’s rise to power presented a great challenge to Einstein who, though a pacifist, understood that to prevent war, it was sometimes necessary to use force, especially against a threat as monumental as that posed by the Nazis. Einstein wrote to Freud and officially invited him to participate in the IIIC-inspired conversation:

This is the problem: Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war? It is common knowledge that, with the advance of modern science, this issue has come to mean a matter of life and death for civilization as we know it; nevertheless, for all the zeal displayed, every attempt at its solution has ended in a lamentable breakdown…

Is it possible to control man’s mental evolution to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness? … [H]ere we have the best occasion of discovering ways and means to render all armed conflicts impossible.

I believe, moreover, that those whose duty it is to tackle the problem professionally and practically are growing only too aware of their impotence to deal with it, and have now a very lively desire to learn the views of men who, absorbed in the pursuit of science, can see world problems in the perspective distance lends…

I know that in your writings we may find answers, explicit or implied, to all the issues of this urgent and absorbing problem. But it would be of the greatest service to us all were you to present the problem of world peace in the light of your most recent discoveries, for such a presentation well might blaze the trail for new and fruitful modes of action.

Adopting Freud’s own vocabulary and citing “strong psychological factors at work which paralyze these [peace] efforts” including “a lust for hatred and destruction,” Einstein expressed strong support for the League of Nations as a solution. He advocated creating a legislative and judicial organization to which all nations would cede sovereignty and whose decisions would be obeyed by all nations; such an organization would be required to have its own international military authority to enforce its resolutions if necessary.

Freud responded that he would participate in the exchange only if he could unabashedly express his deeply pessimistic views on the feasibility of ending war and his lack of support for the League of Nations: “All my life I have had to tell people truths that were difficult to swallow. Now that I am old, I certainly do not want to fool them…I accepted your invitation because I did not want to miss an opportunity to collaborate with you. I have no sympathy for the League of Nations and I nurture no expectations from this organization.”

Einstein assured him that he was seeking only Freud’s thoughts and analysis and not any public-pleasing pablum. In his correspondence officially accepting Einstein’s invitation, Freud expressed surprise that Einstein had not selected a topic to which each could bring his own perspective with the purpose of ultimately leading to a joint proposal. He added that he was “dumbfounded” by the thought of his own incompetence on the subject, until he realized that Einstein had posed the question not as a physicist but, rather, “as a lover of your fellow men.”

Freud said that he ultimately agreed to participate because “I was not being called on to formulate practical proposals but, rather, to explain how this question of preventing wars strikes a psychologist.”

As was typical for Freud, his answer to Einstein’s questions ran the gamut of disciplines, including philosophy, biology, history, law, evolution, and sociology. He believed in the inevitability of war because of Thanatos, an inborn human drive that compels humans to engage in risky and self-destructive acts, such as thrill-seeking and aggression, that could lead to their own deaths.

In his September 1932 response, he employs a form of Darwinian analysis leading him to the conclusion that, in the long run, the strongest will always resort to violence to gain advantage by waging war:

The upshot of these observations, as bearing on the subject in hand, is that there is no likelihood of our being able to suppress humanity’s aggressive tendencies… Conflicts of interest between man and man are resolved, in principle, by the recourse to violence. It is the same in the animal kingdom, from which man cannot claim exclusion; nevertheless, men are also prone to conflicts of opinion, touching, on occasion, the loftiest peaks of abstract thought, which seem to call for settlement by quite another method. This refinement is, however, a late development… Now, for the first time, with the coming of weapons, superior brains began to oust brute force, but the object of the conflict remained the same: one party was to be constrained, by the injury done him or impairment of his strength, to retract a claim or a refusal. This end is most effectively gained when the opponent is definitely put out of action – in other words, is killed. This procedure has two advantages: the enemy cannot renew hostilities, and, secondly, his fate deters others from following his example. Moreover, the slaughter of a foe gratifies an instinctive craving….

As to Einstein’s support for the League of Nations as the solution to war, Freud countered:

Thus, under primitive conditions, it is superior force – brute violence, or violence backed by arms – that lords it everywhere. We know that in the course of evolution this state of things was modified, a path was traced that led away from violence to law. But what was this path? Surely it issued from a single verity: that the superiority of one strong man can be overborne by an alliance of many weaklings, that l’union fait la force. Brute force is overcome by union; the allied might of scattered units makes good its right against the isolated giant. Thus we may define “right” (i.e., law) as the might of a community. Yet it, too, is nothing else than violence, quick to attack whatever individual stands in its path, and it employs the selfsame methods, follows like ends, with but one difference: it is the communal, not individual, violence that has its way. But…[s]ome other man, trusting to his superior power, will seek to reinstate the rule of violence, and the cycle will repeat itself unendingly . . .

Freud fatalistically seems to discourage even an attempt to achieve permanent peace, characterizing all such efforts as futile because the primal mind is “imperishable”; moreover, consistent with his Thanatos theory, he understood war as not only unavoidable, but also as an inherent human tendency to be accepted as part of natural life.

Unfortunately, I am able to present here only a taste of this extraordinary exchange between two of our greatest minds on a fascinating subject of great contemporary importance. Interested readers may – indeed, should – read the exchange in its entirety, which is readily available online.

At the end of the day, neither Freud nor Einstein could answer the question of “Why War?” or devise a means to prevent it. Freud believed that his communications with Einstein were no more than a “tedious and sterile” written exchange of ideas by two friends, that their ideas “won’t save humanity,” and that neither of them would earn a Nobel Peace Prize for their correspondence.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.