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Freudian Psychology

Sigmund Freud and the Nazi Nobelist

The curious relationship between Sigmund Freud and Julius Wagner-Jauregg.

Key points

  • Freud and Wagner-Jauregg differed in social strata, their approach to medical training, and their relationships with traditional academics.
  • Perhaps their greatest difference was their view of the physician's obligation to the patient and society.
  • Nonetheless, they had a friendship spanning four decades, withering only with the tumultuous rise of fascism in the 1930s.
Source: Zde / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Source: Zde / Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Part II of II

Sigmund Freud and Julius Wagner-Jauregg shared many things in common. As mentioned in the first post, they both grew up in Vienna, attended medical school courses together, studied post-graduate pathology, aspired unsuccessfully to enter internal medicine, and turned to treat mental illness. For decades, they maintained a cordial relationship, for instance, exchanging birthday cards and correspondence using the German familiar word "Du" rather than the more formal "Sie."

This post takes a look at how they were able to maintain this relationship for so long until it finally withered under the weight of the very different courses their lives took. Ultimately, Freud fled to London after persecution by the Gestapo, while Wagner-Jauregg became a leading spokesman for "racial purity" and the involuntary sterilization of "degenerates" advocated by the Nazis.

On the other hand, it could be argued that in some senses, the experiences of Freud and Wagner-Jauregg differed, not least in their places in the social hierarchy. Wagner-Jauregg came from a patrician family, which later became titled, and attended a secondary school known for teaching the children of the nobility. In contrast, Freud was the son of an unsuccessful wool merchant, had attended a public school, and was painfully aware of his financial shortcomings. This consideration had led his mentor Ernst von Brücke to urge him in 1882 to leave his research in pathology in favor of clinical work at Vienna’s General Hospital.

The two also took different approaches to become doctors. We know little about Wagner-Jauregg’s decision, but he is said to have been fascinated with dissection in his secondary school years and followed a relatively straightforward path to graduation once entering the University of Vienna. On the other hand, Freud came out of secondary school interested in languages, philosophy, and law. He entered the university at the early age of 17, is said to have been influenced into more scientific interests by the writings of Goethe (who was both poet and scientist), and took a round-about course, studying philosophy and zoology, before graduating a year later than usual.

After graduation, their hopes for careers in internal medicine were frustrated, and they came to treat mental illness by very different routes. Wagner-Jauregg, who had expressed no earlier interest in the field, by chance got a tip about a vacant position at the Vienna asylum from a professor acquaintance at a coffee house; with limited options available, he applied for it with alacrity. Freud’s interest had a clearer evolution. In keeping with his earlier circuitous route to studying medicine, once at the General Hospital, he worked in various disciplines before turning to clinical neurology and psychiatry. Ultimately he was drawn to Charcot’s work with hysteria, and after returning from his studies in Paris, he continued to be stimulated by his older colleague Joseph Breuer.

As mature men, they came across very differently in public settings. Wagner-Jauregg had "an extraordinarily powerful personality," tended to dominate gatherings, often seemed gruff, and was later described in an obituary as a giant in body and spirit.1 Freud was slim and professorial, and one has the impression that he generally had a quieter way of controlling meetings. He certainly had a quality that drew students to him, but he also had little tolerance for their deviations from his ideas. In a therapeutic setting, he produced tremendous loyalty from his patients, who made extraordinary efforts to help him in difficult situations.

Freud and Wagner-Jauregg also had very different trajectories at the university. Wagner-Jauregg's was very much in the traditions of the formal institutions, and he rose rapidly, achieving a full professorship in 1893. Freud, in contrast, felt differently about his relations to institutions. When awarded a fellowship to study with Charcot in 1885, he resigned from the university clinic at the General Hospital, though he could have taken a leave of absence. On his return in 1886, he established a private practice which he maintained for half a century. Having a university title was important to him in the sense that it allowed him to lecture, but the path was hard and slow, perhaps due to antisemitism and certainly related to his radical ideas. He did not receive a full appointment until 26 years after Wagner-Jauregg did, in 1919, and even then, it was largely titular.1

Perhaps one of the biggest differences between Freud and Wagner-Jauregg, however, may have been in their attitude toward the doctor’s obligation to their patients and society. The patrician Wagner-Jauregg seemed to see himself much more as representing the society that had treated him well. Thus he emphasized methods to return his soldier-patients to duty rapidly. Likewise, in his growing post-World War I interest in sterilizing "degenerate" patients and his later advocacy of racial hygiene, he was coming to see himself more and more as an agent of the state.

In contrast to Wagner-Jauregg, Freud’s focus was on the obligation to the patient. In the years after World War I, Freud had come to realize that civilization has a complex role in the development of the individual and, indeed, functions to regulate instinctual drives. He concluded that its role could be double-edged, either helping to control or unleashing the impulse toward violence in some circumstances. Moreover, politicians are authority figures, invoking all the reactions to father representations he had considered at such length.

What, then, was the bond between Freud and Wagner-Jauregg beyond their common background? Perhaps they recognized that they were likely to be in positions to influence each other’s careers. Wagner-Jauregg wrote letters regarding Freud’s applications for a professorship in 1899 and 1919, though he was critical of psychoanalysis; Freud, in turn, was the first to testify at the hearing on Wagner-Jauregg’s treatments for shell shock in 1920. Even though he expressed disagreement with Wagner-Jauregg’s methods, he did his best to be protective. Perhaps he realized they were both part of a small psychiatric community in Vienna. And perhaps they both recognized the brilliance in each other, though they disapproved of the directions they had taken.

In the 1930s, they had little contact beyond formalities, and their differences continued to increase. Wagner-Jauregg had been delving into the endocrine aspects of sexuality and psychiatric illness; although Freud continued to explore the role of the sexual drive as well as destructive instincts in behavior, his interests grew to grapple with the role of society and religion in personality development.

Although Freud's fame flourished in his profession, he became increasingly isolated from his previous German/Austrian identity and ultimately died in exile. Wagner-Jauregg saw himself more and more affiliated with the rise of German fascism and used his knowledge of medicine to further its promotion of racial hygiene, a stance from which his reputation never recovered. And we are left with the intriguing puzzle of their four decades of friendship before the later fateful years in which so much changed.

Portions of the article are adapted from The Psychoanalyst and the Nazi Nobelist: The Curious Story of Sigmund Freud and Julius Wagner-Jauregg.


1. Whitrow, M.: Julius Wagner-Jauregg (1857-1940). J. Medical Biography 1: 137-143, 1993.

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