Sigmund Freud

Reflections on War and Death 1

I. The Disappointments of War

Caught in the whirlwind of these war times, without any real information or any perspective upon the great changes that have already occurred or are about to be enacted, lacking all premonition of the future, it is small wonder that we ourselves become confused as to the meaning of impressions which crowd in upon us or of the value of the judgments we are forming. It would seem as though no event had ever destroyed so much of the precious heritage of mankind, confused so many of the clearest intellects or so thoroughly debased what is highest.

Even science has lost her dispassionate impartiality. Her deeply embittered votaries are intent upon seizing her weapons to do their share in the battle against the enemy. The anthropologist has to declare his opponent inferior and degenerate, the psychiatrist must diagnose him as mentally deranged. Yet it is probable that we are affected out of all proportion by the evils of these times and have no right to compare them with the evils of other times through which we have not lived.

The individual who is not himself a combatant and therefore has not become a cog in the gigantic war machinery, feels confused in his bearings and hampered in his activities. I think any little suggestion that will make it easier for him to see his way more clearly will be welcome. Among the factors which cause the stay-at-home so much spiritual misery and are so hard to endure there are two in particular which I should like to emphasize and discuss. I mean the disappointment that this war has called forth and the altered attitude towards death to which it, in common with other wars, forces us.
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To be sure, we used to say that wars cannot cease as long as nations live under such varied conditions, as long as they place such different values upon the individual life, and as long as the animosities which divide them represent such powerful psychic forces. We were therefore quite ready to believe that for some time to come there would be wars between primitive and civilized nations and between those divided by color, as well as with and among the partly enlightened and more or less civilized peoples of Europe. But we dared to hope differently. We expected that the great ruling nations of the white race, the leaders of mankind, who had cultivated world wide interests, and to whom we owe the technical progress in the control of nature as well as the creation of artistic and scientific cultural standards—we expected that these nations would find some other way of settling their differences and conflicting interests.
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But the war in which we did not want to believe broke out and brought—disappointment. It is not only bloodier and more destructive than any foregoing war, as a result of the tremendous development of weapons of attack and defense, but it is at least as cruel, bitter, and merciless as any earlier war. It places itself above all the restrictions pledged in times of peace, the so-called rights of nations, it does not acknowledge the prerogatives of the wounded and of physicians, the distinction between peaceful and fighting members of the population, or the claims of private property. It hurls down in blind rage whatever bars its way, as though there were to be no future and no peace after it is over. It tears asunder all community bonds among the struggling peoples and threatens to leave a bitterness which will make impossible any re-establishment of these ties for a long time to come.

It has also brought to light the barely conceivable phenomenon of civilized nations knowing and understanding each other so little that one can turn from the other with hate and loathing.
Translated by A. A. Brill & Alfred B. Kuttner

Sigmund Freud: “Reflections on War and Death” (New York: Moffat, Yard & Co., 1918)
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Sigmund Freud


As befits the father of psychoanalysis – and of three sons at the front –, Sigmund Freud (b. May 6, 1856 in Freiberg, Moravia, d. September 23, 1939 in London) had an ambivalent and changing attitude towards the war. Still, the war years proved an extremely productive phase for Freud; among the many works he wrote or finished during that period are his timely “Reflections on War and Death” (1915).