Freud and War, by Marlène Belilos

Thoughts for the Times on War and Death


War is obviously still a core issue for us today – just as it was for Freud, as Eugenie Lemoine-Luccioni observes in the title of her article (‘War: A core issue for Freud’) for this book.

Freud and War brings together Freud’s central writings on the subject of both war and the death drive, and provides illuminating commentaries and original articles on Freud’s lifelong interest in the issue of human conflict. It also contains the famous Freud-Einstein correspondence (published in 1933 under the title Why War?), in which the two great figures of the twentieth century discuss what can be done to liberate humanity from the menace of war. (The original book would be included in the book burnings in Berlin in the very year of its publication). Freud and War examines Freud’s construction of the instinct of death and explores the investigation of Freud by officials of the Italian Fascist embassy. It also includes the English translation (by Mark Solms) of Freud’s lecture at B’nai Brith, ‘Death and Us’ (Wir und der Tod), which is published here for the first time.

sons-Freud with sons Ernst (left) and Martin. Salzburg, August 1916.

Freud with sons Ernst (left) and Martin. Salzburg, August 1916, signing up for the Death Instinct

It has long been recognised that this lecture was the basis for the second part of Freud’s ‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’ (1915), which he entitled ‘Our relationship to death’ (Unser Verhältnis zum Tode). The first version of this lecture was composed for oral presentation to a lay, and almost exclusively Jewish audience—an audience for which Freud felt considerable personal affection. In the second version, the lecture was rewritten as an essay, expressly for printed publication, in a specialist journal, with a predominantly psychoanalytical readership.

In a terrible irony, Freud dedicated a copy of Why War? to Mussolini, who nonetheless instituted a police investigation of its author. As Laura Sokolowsky explains in her chapter on Freud’s dedication, it also led to numerous troubles for Edoardo Weiss, the effective founder of Italian psychoanalysis, who confided this episode to Ernest Jones on the condition that Jones refrain from mentioning it; Jones however, did not abide by this.

Eugenie Lemoine-Luccioni’s chapter explores the central significance of war for Freud’s understanding of the psyche: “War is central to his life as the creator of psychoanalysis since it involves the death drive. With Wilson, he addressed what should have been its opposite, Peace; there it is the defeat of the superego and its ideal. In Civilisation and Its Discontents, Freud highlights the fact that culture tends towards man’s destruction. This is still difficult to accept. Yet, the fact is that developments in technology threaten humanity with destruction while, at the same time, leading to an increase in man’s material wellbeing.”

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The dynamics also lie at the heart of Freud’s letters to Einstein in Why War? As François Ansermet notes, in this powerful exchange of letters Freud repeatedly expresses the idea that “the organism preserves its own life, so to speak, by destroying another”. How then are we to understand this paradox? Might destructiveness, in certain circumstances, be vital? Could it become necessary for the preservation of life? Could it even be a response to a fundamental requirement of life?

We end the book with Philippe de Georges: “The Freudian death drive lies at the heart of Lacan’s earliest work, at least from the time of those texts that clearly fall within the field of psychoanalysis. For example, in the opening lines of ‘Aggressivity in psychoanalysis’, we meet “the enigmatic signification that Freud expressed in the term death instinct” (Lacan, Écrits). That was in 1948 and it is noteworthy that Trieb was still being translated as “instinct”, as was customary at the time, until Lacan himself pointed out how improper the term is and the biologising slide that it enables.”

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Marlène Belilos is a psychoanalyst who has also worked for many years as a journalist for Swiss television and French radio (France Culture). She has published various articles in l’Anti-Livre noir de la psychanalyseLa règle du jeu, and the Revue de l’École de la Cause freudienne. She is a member of the École de la Cause freudienne and the Association Mondiale de Psychanalyse.

The English edition of her edited collection Freud and War is published this week by Karnac Books. Contributors to the book include François Ansermet, Marlène Belilos, Philippe De Georges, Eugénie Lemoine-Luccioni, Laura Sokolowsky, Mark Solms, and Jean Ziegler.


Reviews and Endorsements

‘This book offers a remarkable set of new insights on the key issue of destructivity in Freud’s work. The topic is extremely pertinent for the current state of affairs in the world and highlights once again the extraordinary insights that Freud has provided through his writings. The panel of experts selected covers the topic in a lucid and deep manner. A must-read for psychoanalysts and possibly even more importantly for neuroscientists, sociologists and political scientists.’
– Pierre Magistretti, Professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne and President of the International Brain Research Organisation

‘At a time when barbarism between men has returned, this decisive contribution by Marlène Belilos brings Freud’s thesis on the effects of the death instinct out of the alwaysmenacing darkness. She has successfully collected works that show the modernity of Freud’s thesis, and made it a tool to decipher the enigmas of our time.’
– Jean-Daniel Matet, President of the EuroFederation of Psychoanalysis


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