The Spanish flu, Covid-19 and Sigmund Freud

What can we learn from history?

Essay by Jeanne Wolff Bernstein, chairwoman of the advisory board of the Sigmund Freud Foundation
"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:

Dear Mother,
I have some sad news for you today. Yesterday morning our dear lovely Sophie died from galloping influenza and pneumonia. We learned of it at noon from a telephone conversation with Minna in Reichenhall. Oli and Ernst have left Berlin to be with Max. Robert and Mathilde are leaving on the twenty-ninth to try and assist the poor bereaved man. Martha is too upset; one couldn’t let her undertake the journey, and in any case she wouldn’t have found Sophie alive.
She is the first of our children we have to outlive. What Max will do, what will happen to the children, we of course don’t know as yet.
I hope you will take it calmly; tragedy after all has to be accepted. But to mourn this splendid, vital girl who was so happy with her husband and children is of course permissible.
II greet you fondly.
Your Sigm
(Ernst Freud, 1960, pp. 326, 327)
One day later, Freud writes to Oskar Pfister, his friend, the Swiss pastor:
Dear Doctor,
(…) That afternoon we received the news that our sweet Sophie in Hamburg had been snatched away by influential pneumonia, snatched away in the midst of a glowing health, from a full and active life as a competent mother and loving wife, all in four or five days, as though she had never existed. Although we have been worried about her for a couple of days, we had nevertheless been hopeful; it is so difficult to judge from a distance. And this distance must remain distance, we were not able to travel at once, as we had intended, after the first alarming news; there was no train, not even for an emergency. The undisguised brutality of our time is weighing heavily upon us. Tomorrow she is being cremated, our poor Sunday Child! Our daughter Mathilde and her husband are leaving for Hamburg the day after tomorrow, thanks to an unexpected connection with an Entente train; at least our son-in-law was not alone; two of our sons who were in Berlin are already with him, and our friend Eitingon has gone with them.
Sophie leaves two sons, one of six, the other thirteen months, and an inconsolable husband who will have to pay dearly for the happiness of these seven years. The happiness existed exclusively within them; outwardly there was war, conscription, wounds, the depletion of their resources, but they had remained courageous and gay.
I work as much as I can, and am thankful for the diversion. The loss of a child seems to be a serious narcissistic injury; what is known as mourning will probably follow only later.
(Ernst Freud, 1960, pp. 327, 328)
And a few days later, on February 4, 1920, Freud writes to Sandor Ferenczi:
Dear Friend
Please don’t worry about me. Apart from feeling rather more tired I am the same. The death, painful as it is, does not affect my attitude toward life. For years I was prepared for the loss of our sons; now it is our daughter; as a confirmed unbeliever I have no one to accuse and realize that there is no place where I could lodge a complaint. (…) Deep down I sense a bitter, irreparable narcissistic injury. My wife and Annerl are profoundly affected in a more human way.”
(Ernst Freud, 1960, p. 328)

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:

"Si vis vitam, para mortem - If you want to endure life, prepare yourself for death." (Freud, 1915, p. 355).
As already indicated, Freud could only surrender to his deep grief when his young grandson Heinerle, Sophie's youngest son, (the younger brother of Ernst who provided him with the key to the structure of language through his “Fort/Da” game) died on June 19, 1923. Three years later, on October 15, 1926, Freud wrote the following lines to Ludwig Binswanger:

“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)

What can initially only be captured with numbers, statistics, graphs and "facts” - since the facts are overwhelming and unimaginable - may only be able to find a hold in a changed language afterwards, which not only registers, informs and excites, but also offers one a symbolic space in which the emotional losses can take shape and resonate.
Jeanne Wolff Bernstein is chairwoman of the advisory board of the Sigmund Freud Foundation. She lives as a psychoanalyst in Vienna and New York.



Dietrich-Daum, Elisabeth (2020), "Not comparable with historical epidemics", available online at:

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


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