#RivetingReviews: Hella Pick reviews SAVING FREUD by Andrew Nagorski

The Freud Museum in London is one of the city’s gems. Tucked away in Maresfield Gardens, a residential street near Swiss Cottage, this double-fronted commodious house with its secluded back garden served as Sigmund Freud’s home and workplace for the last year of his life. By 1938 he had become a refugee, but had the good fortune that the Nazis had allowed a large part of his library and figurines to leave Vienna and be transported to London. Even his famous couch from the Berggasse had been brought to Maresfield Gardens. Though Freud was suffering from terminal jaw cancer, he was surrounded by family, friends and distinguished visitors, continued to see patients, and put finishing touches to two controversial books – a biography of President Woodrow Wilson, co-authored with the US diplomat William Bullitt, and a book on Moses claiming he was Egyptian rather than Jewish.

Andrew Nagorski in his book, Saving Freud: A Life in Vienna and an Escape to Freedom in London, devotes only two brief chapters to Freud’s life as a much-honoured refugee in London. Instead he anchors the main theme of his book to his hero’s reluctance to leave anti-Semitic Vienna even after the Anschluss, and to the devotion of a small group of friends who were convinced that Freud could not insulate himself against Vienna’s anti-Semitism and who finally facilitated the great man’s transfer from Vienna to London. Woven around this core, Nagorski, an experienced American journalist, sets himself an almost impossible task. Early sections of the book summarise Freud’s life, family background, rise to fame, his theories and his relationship to Jung, against the background of anti-Semitism in Austria and Hitler’s rise to power. Nagorski then turns to the four ‘rescuers’, all but one of whom were close to Freud, and who plotted for years to find ways of convincing him to accept the prospect of emigration. They also had to figure out, when the time was ripe, how to achieve the great man’s withdrawal from Hitler’s Austria.

At this point the book goes astray. Each of the friends – Ernest Jones, the Welsh psychoanalyst, William Bullitt, the journalist and diplomat, Marie Bonaparte, the wealthy aristocrat and Max Schur, his personal doctor – has a chapter devoted to their biography and to their links to Freud. Freud’s favoured daughter Anna’s personal trajectory is also portrayed in considerable detail. Plenty of space is given to the back story of Anton Sauerwald, the Nazi official who authorised Freud’s exit permit from Austria and instead of sequestering Freud’s papers, books and treasures allowed them later also to leave Austria. While all this background material contains snapshots and quotations of considerable interest, much of it diverts from the main story and risks losing the focus on Freud and his mistaken sense of security in Vienna.

Freud’s political antennae were not well-honed. In fact they were very inadequate. Though Nagorski makes no judgement, there are numerous Freud quotes to demonstrate how slow his hero was to understand that Hitler was no passing phenomenon and how blind he was even to the consequences of the Anschluss. It also shows up in Freud’s visceral dislike of the United States and in his harsh criticism of President Wilson and the League of Nations.

Nagorski explains that Freud could not have contemplated any country other than Britain as his place of asylum. But the author also takes it for granted that Freud could never have been treated as an ordinary refugee. It was only natural, we read, that Freud’s high status had to be respected at all times. Unlike many other prominent Jewish intellectuals, Freud was, in fact, given a unique kind of VIP refugee status. When the day for departure from Vienna came in June 1938, Marie Bonaparte ensured that Freud, his family and entourage – housekeeper included – travelled from door-to-door in style and luxury. Ernest Jones had intervened directly with the British Foreign Secretary to secure their visas, and the party had to go through none of the formalities that other refugees were obliged to undergo. Once installed in London, the VIP refugee was made welcome in ways few other refugees could ever have experienced. 

The eighteen months left to Freud from 1938–39 were well spent in London, even though his long-standing cancer of the jaw was increasingly painful and slowly reaching a terminal stage. Max Schur kept an early promise and ensured that Freud did not have to suffer beyond a certain point. The book should also have ended at that point. But Nagorski could not be parted from his ‘rescue squad.’ He evidently felt obliged to deliver summaries of their post-Freud lives. It is, again, operation overkill. 

Reviewed by Hella Pick


by Andrew Nagorski 

Published by Icon Books (2022)

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Hella Pick CBE was born in Vienna in 1929. She left Austria for Britain on a Kindertransport in 1938. A renowned British-Austrian journalist, she worked for the Guardian for thirty-five years and Invisible Walls, an account of her life and career in journalism, was published in 2021. She is also the author of Simon Wiesenthal: A Life in Search of Justice (1996) and Guilty Victim – Austria from the Holocaust to Haider

Category: The Austrian RiveterApril 2023 - The Austrian RiveterReviews


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