21 May 2010

Anton Sauerwald and Sigmund Freud, 1938

The Escape of Sigmund Freud, by David Cohen (JR Books, 2010) is an exploration of Sigmund Freud's dramatic escape from Vienna to London in June 1938.

Freud's home in Vienna, now a museum

Following the annexation of Austria by Germany in 1938, the Nazi Party made it clear that “all Jewish assets are assumed to have been improperly acquired”. Orderly in their business dealings, the Nazis appointed an official  truehandler-trustee to every Jewish business. Anton Sauerwald, a man I had never heard of until the Cohen book came out, was appointed trustee over the estate of Sigmund Freud, specifically to expropriate the psychiatrist’s assets.

Why hadn’t the most famous man in Austria fled to a safe haven abroad, before the German Austrian Anschluss in Mar 1938? Worse still, Freud had to cope with the Anschluss in terrible post-operative pain. Perhaps he thought his fame would save him. Eventually the imminent catastrophe must have become clear, even to Freud, when the Gestapo men took the passports of all the family. His family now had no official papers in a city where not having official papers was a death sentence.

Safely in Paris, New York Times, June 1938

Anton Sauerwald was no unemployed thug. He had published four learned papers in Chemical Monthly, one of the leading journals in the world in the field of chemistry. He had a doctorate from the University of Vienna and was a member of the Nazi party in good standing, an officer and technical expert in the Luftwaffe.

And Anton Sauerwald was no Nazi flunky. He discovered that Freud’s publishing house owed money to its suppliers. Since Jews were not allowed to leave Austria until their companies had paid all their debts. Freud would have needed to find considerable sums of money to pay the company’s debts, as well as the flight tax for his entire family.

Sauerwald’s behaviour was unexpected from a Nazi. Did he see that Freud was a very sick old man and had sympathy for him? Or there may have been a more intellectual reason for Sauerwald softening his attitude towards his charge. The trustee had always been a dilligent professional and it was now his job to administer the Verlag (International Psychoanalytic Press). He wanted to read everything the company had ever published by Freud.

Freud's house in Hampstead, 
turned into a museum in 1986.
Note the two blue plaques, one for Sigmund and one for Anna

Young Sauerwald (aged 35) decided to give visas to Freud and his family because a] Freud was a man of international standing and b] Freud was a friend of Sauerwald’s own beloved professor. The trustee didn't tell his superiors about Freud's foreign assets. And importantly he didn't oversee the destruction of Freud's papers; instead he and a friend hid them in the Austrian National Library, where they remained until the end of the war. Disobeying a Nazi directive to have Freud's books on psychoanalysis destroyed was the greater of Sauerwald's two crimes since the Nazis loathed and feared Jewish psychiatry more than any other aspect of Jewish life.

Finally in March 1938, when daughter Anna Freud (1895-1982) was arrested, Sigmund prepared a list for the British consul in Vienna of those family members he hoped the English would rescue. British psychiatrist Dr Ernest Jones was the president of the International Psychoanalytical Association and the man who worked tirelessly over the next three months to effect the escape.

Another tireless worker for the Freuds was Princess Marie Bonaparte, great grand daughter of Napoleon's younger brother and wife of the Prince George of Greece. Maria had been a grateful patient and disciple of Freud. Apparently she paid for exit visas for Freud and his extended family, and brokered a deal that enabled him to salvage many of his most precious possessions. Freud travelled on the Orient Express train and spent his first day of freedom in 1938 in Marie's gardens in Saint-Cloud, before crossing the Channel to London.

An elderly Freud, working at his London desk

Freud's architect son Ernst, who had been living in London for five years before the family arrived, found the house at 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead. The original couch, that he brought from Vienna, is still in place. Freud's desk is still filled with antiquities from Egypt, Greece and Rome. The library, which had been his pride and joy in Vienna, still contains a healthy array of titles from the original collection.

Against all the odds, Freud died with dignity in his own bed in London in Sep 1939.

After the war, Sigmund’s nephew Harry insisted that Anton Sauerwald had to be located. Harry believed that Sauerwald had robbed his family and destroyed the family publishing business that his grandfather had started in 1919. Harry got into Sauerwald's old flat to seek out documents that would prove the man’s guilt. At the end of October 1945, at Harry Freud’s insistence, Sauerwald was arrested and the police started to investigate every aspect of his past.

This decent Nazi (sic) was charged with war crimes and was sent to be tried in the new People’s Court, which was set up as soon as Germany surrendered in June 1945. The Allies wanted to show that the Nazis had been defeated by civilised people who followed rules.

The iconic couch, in Freud's house-museum

By the time Anton Sauerwald went to trial on charges of absconding with Freud’s secret wealth after the war, Sigmund himself was long dead. Sauerwald’s wife wrote to Anna Freud in London, begging her to explain to the court what Sauerwald had done to help Sigmund back in 1938. Only Anna could intervene in the court case to protect Sauerwald – and she did.

There is a statue of Freud on the corner of Fitzjohn's Ave and Belsize Lane in Hampstead, in front of the Tavistock Centre for mental health care. Oscar Nemon, another refugee from Nazi Europe, sculpted the work in London in 1938, not long before Freud’s death in 1939.

I remembered the London County Council's blue plaque for Sigmund that was unveiled on the site by Anna in 1956, at a time when she was still living in the home. Exploring London had to remind me of the second blue plaque, for Anna, that was placed on the Hampstead house in 2002.


Hermes said...

Another fascinating post - exploring another bit of history I had not come across. I've always found Freud a very unattractive personality and that has limted my reading on him. I did find the Freud museum fascinating:
but I prefer Jung for his ideas.

Dina said...

Thanks for this amazing story. I never knew about the details.
Good for Anna, showing her humanity to save the man who saved them.

BTW, my friend and neighbor's old mother in Vienna is Freud's last living patient. She is quite in demand (the media and lectures) to tell about her one treatment encounter.

Hels said...

Hermes, perfect timing, thank you!! The Museum address you in your note gives the dates for the exhibition as 11th May 2010 - 4th July 2010.

"The Freud in England 1938-39
Exhibition" tells the story of the last year of Sigmund Freud's life, his escape with his family from Nazi rule in Vienna and settling into a new home in London. I couldn't have created a more appropos exhibition, had I organised it myself :)

Spouse and I used to live in Mill Hill. I knew it was a mistake leaving the UK :(

Dina, talking of amazing coincidences!! If you would, print off the post and give your neighbour a copy. She may well remember the events relating to Freud in 1938. Many thanks.

Arti said...

lovely post.. love the history of different places..thanks!

My Yatra Diary...

Hermes said...

I just found this too, but don't think you can view it outside the UK, though I'm sure someone will know a way?


Hels said...

Hermes thanks for the reference. I wonder why people don't find the Freud house museum fascinating. He was after all about the best known man on the entire planet back then.

The BBC programme summary reminded me to add a photo of Freud's iconic couch :)

P. M. Doolan said...

People often mention that they don't like Freud but they do like Jung, but I think that they are unaware that this was the opinion of the German Nazi Party. Contrary to popular belief, the Nazis were not opposed to psychoanalysis, just the Jewish version. When Hitler became leader in 1933 all Jews were evicted from the German General Medical Society for Psychotherapy and they appointed Carl Jung as President, a position he was happy to accept. He then became editor of the Zentralblatt, the main journal of the organisation, after they had banned all of Freud's works (Freud's books had already been burned - Jung's books were not burned). Already in 1933 Jung praised Hitler as "the True Leader" on German radio. In 1934 Jung published the first of his anti-semitic works, The State of Psychotherapy, in which he claimed (these are Jung's words:
"Freud did not understand the Germanic psyche any more than did his Germanic followers. Has the formidable phenomenon of National Socialism, on which the whole world gazes with astonishment, taught them better? Where was that unparalleled tension and energy while as yet no National Socialism existed? Deep in the Germanic psyche, in a pit that is anything but a garbage-bin of unrealizable infantile wishes and unresolved family resentments." I do not believe Jung was actually anti-semitic. I do believe he used the difficulties of his Jewish colleagues to advance his own career in the most despicable manner.

Hels said...

Good stuff PMD,
it is endlessly fascinating. Not that Freud and Jung had professional and philosophical differences - which you might expect. And in any case, so did half the psycho analytic world: Piaget (a non Jew) went with Freud and David Oppenheim (A Jew) went with Jung.

What is fascinating, and scary, is that Freud and Jung had bitter political differences, once the Nazis took power. Freud was extremely fortunate that his life was in the hands of Sauerwald and not Jung.

A very interesting book in this regard is "Pushing Time Away" by Peter Singer which I had a good look at in this blog.

ChrisJ said...

This story makes the new law in Arizona seem even more chilling.

Interesting post.

Mandy said...

Wow! What a fascinating story!! My degree is in psychology and although i am not a classic psychoanalyst, I do subscribe to Erik Erikson who was a disciple of Freuds. This is the third extraordinary story I have encounted in the past year of famous people and the war. The first was Sartre and the second was Einstein. They are all really facinating and certainly make me want to learn more!

Mandy said...

Oh... I had no idea there was a Freud museum in London. I shall have to make a pilgrimage there soon. Thnk you Hermes.

P. M. Doolan said...

I know Singer's book. I found it very moving. A fellow Melbournian (if that's a word) Hels.

Dina said...

OK, I'll send it to my friend.
Last year she and I went to the Jerusalem Cinematheque to see a movie about Freud's neighbor's in the Vienna building where he lived.

Hels said...

Dina, I find this fantastic. Out of 6 billion people on earth, what is the chance of this happening:

I, an Australian, am writing about an Austrian going to Britain in 1938. Now 72 years later, you in Israel read the material, having a neighbour who was Freud's last living patient.

SAVYON said...

I am an Israeli playwright and these days I'm trying to write a play about Freud and Sauerwald. If you have any information about Sauerwald's wife, I would be grateful
Savyon Liebrecht

Hels said...

I am very pleased to hear from you. Like Dina, I am delighted to make contact with a person who, although 12,500 ks away, has close contact with the story.

I am at an interstate conference at the moment, but after I fly back home, I will check my notes re Mrs Sauerwald. Drishat Shalom.

Hels said...


Read the blog Exploring London for an analysis of the objects Freud collected over the decades.


I wonder if all those amazing objects arrived safely to his house-museum in London.

Hels said...


I don't know if you read Discover Britain Magazine (used to be called Heritage). The September 2014 edition has a nice summary of the Freud Museum. It won't help with international comparisons, but the extensive archives might be of interest.

Joseph said...

"Secret Museums" tonight was about the Freud House Museum in Hampstead. The only extra point to make about Freud's choices of stuff for himself and his wife concerned archeological finds all over his shelves. Freud was not just interested in ancient pots and tools for their own sake. Instead he used the relics as a metaphor for psychoanalysis i.e trawling through the past.

Hels said...


I will bring it up on IQ, thanks. In the meantime I went to the Museum's home page to see if they mention archaeology and they do. "The procedures of archaeology provided Freud with one of his favourite metaphors for elaborating his model of the mind and the methods of psychoanalysis itself. The question of what is preserved in the mind from our childhood was fundamental to Freud. The metaphor provided Freud with a shorthand way to think about the issues of surface and depth, past and present, manifest and latent, adult and infantile, hidden and revealed. It was a common point of cultural reference which the readers of his work could easily grasp".

Perhaps his readers could grasp the metaphor but I wonder if his patients did.

Anonymous said...

The British psychoanalyst whose name you are reaching for being effective in Freud's progress from Vienna to London is Ernest Jones.
Wikipedia section re this is revealing on Jones' service. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sigmund_Freud#Escape_from_Nazism

Hels said...


many many thanks. I have waited more than 9 years for the correct answer :)