The Spanish flu, Covid-19 and Sigmund Freud
What can we learn from history?
"If we say we are fighting the virus, we will defeat it, we are speaking in war metaphors that actually do not apply to the virus. This shows how abstract the situation is. We don't even have an appropriate language for it.” (Annemarie Pieper, 2020)
What would be an appropriate language and how can we find one in times of Corona, when there is so much human misery and death during global pandemic? Are we not confronting again “a crisis of the imagination” (see Tom Friedman, New York Times, 2001) as on September 11, 2001, when we could not find any suitable words at first to describe the collapse of the “Twin Towers” in New York after a plane flew into both towers and caused them to collapse? Nowadays we are not faced with a brutal terrorist, a politically motivated act that leaves us speechless, but we are faced with an invisible virus that has infected millions of people and claimed tens of thousands of lives worldwide in a devastating and unexpectedly rapid manner.
In order to find a language, a symbolic system, to grasp linguistically the Real and to integrate the current catastrophe, I became interested in the question of how Sigmund Freud himself, at the beginning of the last century, might have reacted to the then extremely devastating pandemic of the Spanish flu, and how he might have integrated it into his own writings. The only thing I knew was that Sophie Halberstadt-Freud, his favorite daughter, his "Sunday Child", died on January 25, 1920 of this virus infection and that her death, as well as that of her youngest son, Heinerle, three years later evoked a deep sadness and despair in Freud, which was only later to be recognized. He announced the death of Sophie to his mother Amalia on January 26, 1920 with the following words:
The mourning came later, but what did not come was a look back at the effects of the Spanish influenza upon his own work and the traces that the Spanish pandemic had left on the other family members. Thanks to the correspondence with Karl Abraham, however, we can learn that Freud's wife Martha had already contracted "flu pneumonia" in May 1919. "My wife now has a real flu pneumonia, but it seems to be going well, we are advised not to worry" (Freud/Abraham, 2009, p. 620). However, through a footnote by Ernst Falzeder and Ludger Hermanns, we learn that “Martha Freud was not to recover from this flu for months. From 1918 to 1919 the so-called Spanish flu raged, which killed more people than during the First World War, including Freud's daughter Sophie (died January 25, 1920)” (Freud / Abraham, 2009, p. 621). After her recovery, Martha decides to go to a sanatorium in Parsch, near Salzburg and Freud and his sister-in-law Minna drive to a somewhat more expensive sanatorium in Bad Gastein, which prompted him to write the following words to Karl Abraham on July 6, 1919:
My wife is, I can say, completely recovered. She travels to the Parsch sanatorium near Salzburg on the 15th of the month, at the same time as I drive with my sister-in-law to Gastein. Her doctor insists on trying a high-altitude climate with a very calm life. My daughter is trying to enter Bavaria near Reichenhall together with a friend (Margarete Rie, note JWB). Do not be surprised that we choose such expensive stays during these times. Everything near Vienna is even more expensive, almost unaffordable, most summer holidays are blocked, everything related to traveling abroad is still unbearable drudgery. And you don't want to completely miss out on refreshment while it's warm. Who knows how many of us will survive the next winter, from which evil can be expected. Also, the security of material doom as a result of our state situation does not encourage any thrift economy. (ibid., p. 624, emphasis JWB)
In addition to the nonchalance with which Freud informs his colleague Abraham that he is going to the more expensive sanatorium with Minna instead of with his wife Martha to Parsch near Salzburg, we also learn elsewhere that three more Freud children had been suffering from the influenza, they were: Anna, Ernst and Mathilde. There is hardly any mention of their illnesses, because Freud keeps a low profile towards his friends and colleagues with regard to these illnesses. In addition, Freud's concern for his son Martin, who is still in captivity at the end of the war, hovers also rather silently in the background. On December 2, 1918, Freud writes to his friend Abraham that his son Martin had not yet returned, "(...) all information indicates that his entire troop was captured without a fight, so that would not be the worst thing; no news about his personal fate since October 25th. Ernst is in Munich, Oli, unrobed at home. The restrictions are bad with us, the uncertainties are large, practice is of course marginal.” (ibid, p. 604, emphasis JWB) Two weeks later, Freud still does not know where Martin is being held, and “this contributes to the depressed mood of these times.” (ibid., p. 607) It was only on January 19, 1919, three months after the first information about his arrest, that Freud learns that Martin had been arrested in Genoa. In July, at the time when Martha, Minna and Freud were going to separate sanatoriums, Martin was released from captivity and returned to Vienna.
In contrast to today's Covid-19 pandemic, Freud seems to have viewed the Spanish influenza as a difficult, but less prominent “side-show” (Nebenschauplatz) in light of all the other hardships and fatalities he had had to endure. By reading his various letters at a time when he had also written such major texts as, "The Taboo of Virginity" (1918), "The Uncanny" (1919) and "A Child is Being Beaten" (1919), we gain a picture of Freud as a man who was faced almost daily with food and heating costs as well as other economic restrictions of all kinds. "The restrictions are bad for us, the uncertainties are great, clinical practice is of course low" and "it is bitterly cold in the room", he writes to Abraham on December 2, 1918 and then again on February 9, 1919 (ibid., p. 604, p. 610).
The Spanish flu - called "Spanish" because Spain had no press restrictions and could thus freely report about the spread of the disease worldwide – thus, the so-called "Spanish" viruses, were actually brought along from the USA (Haskell County, Kansas State) from the American soldiers who had entered Europe to help its allies in World War I. The Spanish flu was thus intricately linked with the war in Europe, because it actually arrived with the invasion of the US soldiers on French soil who thereby unknowingly brought with themselves an even bigger "killer" to Europe. What was seen as support and assistance from the Allies later turned out to be the more violent, deadly factor.
There are innumerable parallels between the Spanish influenza and today's pandemic, starting with the symptoms (dry cough, high fever, chills, pneumonia) and the course of the disease (if the inflammation did not get better, death usually occurred after nine to ten days, the survivors complained of severe fatigue and subsequent depression); to the first rumors about the origins of the virus - "fake news" - about the course and spread of the disease (the flu was imported from Spain by canned food and these were in turn poisoned by the Germans); to being totally overwhelmed by the large number of deaths - despite quarantine measures taken, the number of dead rose from 2,800 in August, 1919 to 12,000 in September of the same year in the United States alone.
And yet the historian Elisabeth Dietrich-Daum, from the University of Innsbruck, warns not to compare haphazardly the two epidemics. She takes the view that the world war and the aims of the war always remained in the foreground of the world scene: “Soldiers were bundled up and shipped in trains and ships, and if one of them fell ill, he infected the entire force. The quarantine and isolation measures that governments across Europe have taken to contain the corona pandemic were not possible in the First World War.” (Dietrich-Daum, 2020).
A look back into the past may help us to evaluate better the current Covid-19 pandemic and to (re-)integrate it eventually into a symbolic system. It seems likely that we will have to prepare ourselves for several stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, as the Spanish flu also lasted two years, from 1918 to 1920, and reverberated through three successive waves worldwide. We can also learn a lot from the differences between these two pandemics, which are almost a hundred years apart. In contrast to Covid-19, mainly young people (20-40-year-old) died of the Spanish flu and through the First World War the influenza spread again and in the end claimed almost 50 million fatalities, another 500 million were infected. In contrast to the “lung plague” at the time, we have no major wars to fight outside the African continent. At the same time, Europe does not even consider itself able to help the few thousands of refugees who have to remain in Greek refugee camps to flee the Syrian war. We are not fighting famine (yet), our chances of survival are far higher than in the 1920’s thanks to newly acquired safety measures and to newly found medicines and vaccinations which may be on their way in the coming year.
However, the question of why Sigmund Freud hardly mentions the Spanish influenza in his writings is probably due to his close involvement with the "everyday" war events that the First World War brought about. The enormous difference between the number of war victims and those of Spanish influenza only became known in retrospect due to the information and news situation, so that during Freud's lifetime the difference between those who died in the pandemic and those who died in the war could hardly be distinguished. In addition, human-staged death - like a war that could be avoided - would require a more complex analysis of human lust/unwillingness to use violence, in contrast to the consequences of an invisible pandemic, which renders one relatively helpless and frightenend by the unknown.
Nevertheless, we should keep reminding ourselves of the words of Sigmund Freud, which reach us today like an echo from a distance:
“This child has taken the place of all of my other children and grandchildren for me, and since then, since Heinele's death, I no longer take care of my other grandchildren and no longer feel any desire to live. That is also the secret of my indifference - what has been called courage - considering the threat to my own life."
And in 1929 he answered Ludwig Binswanger on April 12 (which would have been his daughter Sophie's 36th birthday):
“Although you know that after such a loss the acute state of mourning will subside, we also know we shall remain inconsolable and never find a substitute. No matter what may fill the gap, even if it be filled completely, it nevertheless remains something else.. And actually this is how it should be. It's the only way of perpetuating that love which we don't want to relinquish. (...) (Ernst Freud, 1960, p. 386).
These are amazing words from a man who speaks in his theoretical writings as in "Mourning and Melancholia" (1915/1917) that mourning is a limited process that, when accomplished, allows new love to be linked to new objects, and who claims that any ongoing mourning is a sign of melancholy in which the subject incorporates the lost object, which then turns against the ego and overwhelms it with complaints and reproaches which allows him never to give up the lost object. "We see with him (the melancholic, JWB) how one part of the ego sets itself over against the other, judges it critically, and as it were, takes it as its object." (Freud, 1915/1917, p. 247)
The idea that a loss leaves an ongoing, open wound that cannot be replaced by a new object and that this could be the proof of an existing and lasting love can no longer be found in his later theoretical work. However, Freud's late realization of an inconsolable love and an ongoing mourning process may indicate that an initially "abstract situation" (Annemarie Pieper) or impossible situation, as Lacan describes the Real in Seminar XI, may be translated into a symbolic, affective language, because even in a traumatic event like the Covid-19 pandemic "it is about an appointment to which we are always called with a real that eludes us." (Lacan, 1973/1981, p. 53)
Dietrich-Daum, Elisabeth (2020), "Not comparable with historical epidemics", available online at: https://www.uibk.ac.at/newsroom/nicht-mit-historischen-seuchen-vergleichbar.html.de
Freud, Sigmund (1915/1917), “Mourning and Melancholia”, SE XIV, 237-260
Freud, Sigmund (1915), “Thoughts for the Times of War and Death”, SE, Volume XIV, 273-302
Freud, Ernst (1960), Letters of Sigmund Freud, selected and edited by Ernst Freud 1873-1939, New York, Dover Publications
Sigmund Freud / Karl Abraham, Briefwechsel 1907-1925, Complete Edition, Edited by Ernst Falzeder & Lidger M. Hermanns, 2009, Turia and Kant
Sigmund Freud / Sandor Ferenczi correspondence, edited by Ernst Falzeder & Eva, 1996, Böhlau, Vienna
Lacan, Jacques, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, Seminar XI, (1973), translated by Alan Sheridan, W.W. Norton Company, New York, 1981
Lohl, Jan, (2016) "But mourning is a great mystery to psychologists." Reflections on Freud's theories of mourning and its social context, lecture, SFU University, October 2016, Vienna
Pieper, Annemarie, (2020), Interview with Annemarie Pieper, Tagblatt, March 25
Spanish flu on Wikipedia
Frei Sprechen - Speak Freely
Haim Steinbach, AHA!, 1997
Monika Pessler, Director
The activities of the Sigmund Freud Museum will explore the leitmotif SPEAK FREELY in the years 2021–2025. Inherent in the ambiguity of this topic are two aspects that are just as relevant to modern discourse as they were to the early historical development of psychoanalysis: On the one hand, it recalls Josef Breuer’s “cathartic method,” which preceded psychoanalysis and was intended to allow patients to SPEAK FREELY, to free themselves of their (unconscious) concerns (for which reason the future women’s rights activist Bertha Pappenheim also spoke of “chimney-sweeping”). On the other hand, the call to SPEAK FREELY forms the foundation and the objective of every psychotherapeutic dialogue. Jointly developed by Freud and his patients, the aim of this “talking cure” was and is to identify the causes of the symptoms and behaviors that complicate or even endanger individual or social existence. Only on the basis of insights gained through constant communication and in-depth analysis can as yet unknown ways to deal with crises be discovered and tested.
Another reason for looking at the tasks, projects, and series of talks at the Sigmund Freud Museum from the perspective of the leitmotif SPEAK FREELY can be found in psychoanalytic cultural theory. In numerous texts, Freud focused on topics that still shape our society (or societies) today: the issue of identity and freedom, which is becoming ever more volatile due to social and economic divides, the propensity for paranoia and denial, which have been intensified by the coronavirus pandemic, as well as aggressions and defense mechanisms motivated by religion, racism, sexism, or homophobia.
The importance of long-established value systems—as formulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and ratified by 171 member states of the United Nations in the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action in 1993—seems to be diminishing. Contrary to the teachings we once tried to learn from history, not only are the debasement and violation of fundamental human rights as a result of national and/or pan-European exclusion policies increasing but the demand for authoritarian systems of government is also growing louder.
In an attempt to find, revise, and work toward constructive responses to these virulent issues of our age, another factor that has always been intrinsic to psychoanalytical communication strategies proves helpful: its inter- or rather transdisciplinarity. Since its very beginnings, psychoanalysis has been an inherently interdisciplinary enterprise, as Freud said: “Any estimate of psycho-analysis would be incomplete if it failed to make clear that, alone among the medical disciplines, it has the most extensive relations with the mental sciences, and that it is in a position to play a part of the same importance in the studies of religious and cultural history and in the sciences of mythology and literature as it is in psychiatry.”
Just as other disciplines avail themselves of psychoanalytical explanatory models, so too does psychoanalysis continue to benefit from the expertise of various branches of knowledge and integrates approaches and hypotheses from the natural and social sciences and the humanities in its own research agenda. Simply think of Freud’s use of “archeological metaphors” whose “architectural dimension” also helped Freud to arrive at the “representative form of psychic reality,” the topography of the “psychic apparatus.”
Therefore, in both theory and practice the psychological dialogue calls for a continuous change in perspective to which inestimable importance is attached for the success of reality reconstruction and its interpretation—as not least the phenomenon of “transference and countertransference” so impressively proves.
From a psychoanalytical viewpoint, the correlating relationship between the individual and the collective psyche is also based primarily on a change in perspective, because the “contrast” between individual and social psychology only seems significant at first glance, writes Freud as early as 1921, and “loses a great deal of its sharpness when it is examined more closely,” as “[i]n the individual’s mental life someone else is invariably involved, as a model, as an object, as a helper, as an opponent; and so from the very first individual psychology, in its extended but entirely justifiable sense of the words, is at the same time social psychology as well.”
Consequently, psychoanalytical concepts can also soon be found in social science analyses and descriptions: in the reformative social pedagogy of the 1920s or contemporary art movements like Dadaism and Surrealism.
The subsequent developments in the second half of the twentieth century may have been encouraged by Freud himself as a result of his description of the relationship and interaction between the analysist and analysand in his late work as a process of “transformation”—an assessment that calls to mind more recent disciplines in the history of psychosocial sciences.
In numerous disciplines, methodically engaging in dialogue and the act of transformation it launches and accompanies evolves into a preferred procedural step: from the mid-1940s in group dynamics, for example, for which Kurt Lewin had already created the foundations with his experimental social psychology in the 1930s.
From the 1950s Ruth Cohn, the daughter of an assimilated Jewish family in Germany who emigrated from Switzerland to the USA as a student in 1941, went from psychoanalysis to theme-centered interaction: "I became a psychoanalyst at a time when humane values fell victim to a ‘philosophy of exclusivity.’ What resulted from this has happened again and again in the course of history and is still happening today,” writes Cohn in the foreword to her collection of texts in 1975. She responds to the past and contemporary developments she describes with an extended process of psychodynamic dialogue, which focuses on a balanced and "deepened understanding of the individual, group, and thematic task and their mutual relationships.”
In the late 1960s Gregory Bateson’s and Heinz von Foerster’s considerations led to a broader questioning of self-organized, biological, and social systems—which can mean both the human system and a system animated by people, like an organization.
Foerster bases his epistemological and communication theoretical analyses on, among other things, the observational method and calls for a “second-order observation” in addition to conventional observation: the observation of the observer. As every way of seeing and explaining depends on the perceiver, their experiences and prejudices, the understanding of the cybernetician and the constructivist, just like the psychoanalyst, is based on there being no “objective reality.” Yet in a dialogue on the observed and the observer, the factors can at least be voiced that underlie their respective assessments and analyses—the construction of the status quo.
Dirk Baecker, a sociologist and cultural theorist, says of second-order observers that in our society it is predominantly “intellectuals, critics, psychoanalysts, and now increasingly artists who are surprised by what others find self-evident […].”
In recent decades, the growing technologization and globalization of financial and commercial markets have given rise to ever-more complex labor and production conditions, which could not fail to have an impact on the structures of their systems. Therefore, from the 1990s the increase in resilience has become vacant not only in the realm of private living conditions but also for operational systems. It is futhermore necessary to research the “nature” of operational structures in professionalized management, to observe and strengthen their communication skills and responsiveness.
If Niklas Luhmann takes another, closer look at Foerster’s cybernetics in reference to the work of the neurobiologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela and describes systems as strictly separate units defined by the distinction between system and environment alone, then in line with transdisciplinarity SPEAK FREELY keeps in sight the evidence of the mutual conditionality of individual and society above all.
For this reason, the attempt will once more be made at Vienna’s Berggasse 19 to establish a connection between the historical and current significance of this place and to recall those aspects that have proven to be “history in a fruitful sense” (Ernst Bloch).
Instead of conceiving of the symptoms of our society as merely “adjustment disorders,” they will be granted “individual knowledge, almost a character” and the “other” (Jacques Lacan) will be given a voice in order to establish a meaningful and shared narrative.
In the SPEAK FREELY format, the criteria that characterize the psychoanalytical dialogue according to Joachim Küchenhoff can be taken into consideration alongside "the way that words can move us, but also the productivity of a conversation, which not only reproduces previous considerations but is also productive.”
Just as the provision of such a “speaking space” is one of the most important tasks of psychoanalysis according to André Michels and Claus Dieter Roth, so too is it essential in the educational work of the Sigmund Freud Museum: here the content likewise shapes the form—and vice versa.
Not as an exclusive community of psychoanalysts but with them and with others, SPEAK FREELY additionally promotes the multiple perspectives cultivated in the arts in support of a system-wide dialogue. Because what applies to systems theory has long applied to psychoanalysis and the museum housed in its birthplace: It “does not lend itself to forbidding others from speaking. In contrast, there is nothing about which it is more curious than hearing others speak.”
 Sigmund Freud, “On Narcissism” (1914); Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921); Civilization and Its Discontents (1930); and his correspondence with Albert Einstein Why War? (1933).
 Sigmund Freud, "Two Encyclopaedia Articles (1923 ): (A) Psycho-Analysis," in The Standard Edition of the Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 18, edited and translated by J. Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, (1955) 2001, 235–254.
 Karl Stockreiter, “Am Rand der Aufklärungsmetapher. Korrespondenzen zwischen Archäologie und Psychoanalyse,” in: Lydia Marinelli / Sigmund Freud Museum (eds.): “Meine alten und dreckigen Götter” – Aus Sigmund Freuds Sammlung. Frankfurt am Main: Stromfeld Verlag 1998, 81–93, 81 ff.
 Sigmund Freud, "Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego” in The Standard Edition of the Works of Sigmund Freud, vol. 18, edited and translated by J. Strachey. London: Hogarth Press, (1955) 2001, 69–144.
 Ruth Cohn, Von der Psychoanalyse zur Themenzentrierten Interaktion (1st ed. 1975), Klett-Cotta, 2009.
 Cf. Heinz von Foerster, “On Self-Organizing Systems and Their Environments,” in: M. C. Yovits and S. Cameron (eds.), Self-Organizing Systems, Pergamon Press, London 1960. Heinz von Foerster, “On Constructing a Reality,” in: F. E. Preiser (ed.), Environmental Design Research, vol. 2, Stroudberg: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross 1973.
 Dirk Baecker, Form der Kultur [Form of Culture], https://www.spacetime-publishing.de/luhmann/FormDerKultur2003.pdf, S.7
 Moritz Senarclens de Grancy: Claus Dieter Rath, Der Rede Wert. Psychoanalyse als Kulturarbeit (Turia + Kant, Wien 2013), Rezension, in: Psyche – Z Psychoanal 69, 2015, 293-294.
 Joachim Küchenhoff, “Das analytische Gespräch auf der Suche nach dem Sinn,” in: Der Sinn im Nein und die Gabe des Gesprächs. Psychoanalytisches Verstehen zwischen Philosophie und Klinik, Weilerswist: Velbrück Wissenschaft 2013, 88.
 Dirk Baecker, Schlüsselwerke der Systemtheorie (2nd ed.), Springer Verlag 2016, 7.
Meet Jennifer Friedlander
Since 1999, the Sigmund Freud Foundation and the Austrian Fulbright Commission invite American scientists for a study visit which is combined with a visiting professorship on a university in Vienna. We introduce you to this year's grantee Jennifer Friedlander, who arrived in March and took office in Berggasse 19. Upon arrival, we asked her some questions: