Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home

Sigmund Freud: The Promised Land

from Program Two

His final years filled with turmoil, a stoic Freud steadfastly refuses any solace in religion.

Anna Freud (voiceover): My father is here with a very old friend of his. In this picture, neither of these two men knew that they were photographed. That is why the whole thing is so natural.

Narrator: The 1930s would be the last decade of Freud's life. He already had cancer of the mouth and he knew it would kill him.

Anna Freud: My father and mother.

Narrator: Freud's daughter, Anna, looks back at the family home movies.

Anna Freud (voiceover): This was at the time, when we couldn't leave Vienna anymore in the summers, because of my father's illness, and so we took a house in the suburbs. And my father enjoyed the flowers so very much.

Sander Gilman: Ah, he's an old man, he's extremely sick, he's had cancer for decades, and they've been cutting on him for decades, and he's got this huge implement in his mouth that's covering the opening in his palate so his food that he eats doesn't come out of his nose. I mean, you know, he's in terrible pain all the time.

Harold Blum: Freud knew that he was dying. And I think that that led him again to consider the — attitude towards death which he had written about before — [inaudible] times on War and Death and so forth and of course concern with death, disappearances run right through Freud's writings from the very beginning to the very end. He would even say to Ernest Jones "Good bye, Jones. You'll never see me again." [Laughs]. So it was a preoccupation that he had.

He was superstitious about the date of his death for years, through his life. And I think that as death approached and became a reality, he again tried to understand what is the meaning of death. And of course one of the wishes that's involved is a wish for immortality, a wish to not die, along with a wish to be relieved of the suffering, a wish to die. So I think that absolutely preoccupied him.

Anna Freud (voiceover): It is the day of my parent's golden wedding. Now you will see a whole string of visitors — people from the country, a little girl. This is one of my father's sisters, one of those who died in concentration camps, Mitzi Freud.

Narrator: Hitler had been elected Chancellor in Germany. When the Nazis started burning books, Freud's were among the first consigned to the flames.

Freud: What progress we are making; in the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Nowadays they are content with burning my books.

Ismar Schorsch: It was the tidal wave of anti-Semitism in Germany and elsewhere in Central Europe that brought Freud back to confront the historical phenomenon of anti-Semitism. Why was it such a continuous and pervasive, poison in the history of the West.

Narrator: In the summer of 1934, Freud began to work on the last book he would write, Moses and Monotheism. In it, he would turn his attention once again to religion, this time the Jewish faith.

Peter Neubauer: Freud has a long affair with Moses. Long before his last book he went to Rome. He spent days sitting in front of Michelangelo's Moses to study it. That this is not Moses in anger, but Moses in trying to restrain his anger.

Schorsch: Here was Freud arguing that much of what we identify as Israelite religion in the Torah actually is of Egyptian origin.

Freud: Moses was not Jewish, but a prominent Egyptian who led the Jews into freedom and he gave them monotheism. In other words, it was not God the Father who chose the Jews but Moses the Man.

Narrator: Moses leads the Jews out of Egypt, into the desert. But then Freud departs from the Bible.

Neubauer: He gave himself a very interesting Freedom. He says this is not a scientific study, it is a novella, a short story. I will try on some of my ideas and play with it.

Narrator: In Freud's version, the Jews follow Moses into exile, but they do not accept his revolutionary new belief in just one god.

Freud: They revolted and threw off the burden of a religion that had been forced on them. They took their destiny into their own hands and did away with their tyrant. They assassinated Moses.

Schorsch: Moses' ultimate triumph is assured by the manner of his death. The people of Israel are overcome with guilt at what they have done, so they internalize everything that they had rejected while Moses was alive.

Narrator: Freud goes on to re-interpret the Crucifixion in terms of Jewish history.

Schorsch: Guilt has to be relieved. You can't walk around forever, uh, burdened by excessive guilt. So Christianity has provides humanity with a way of relieving guilt. The murder of God's son is a sacrifice that atones not for the eating of the apple in the Garden of Eden but for the murder of the primal father. So Christianity offers relief from unbearable guilt. And Judaism rejects that offer of relief. The world repays Judaism with eternal hatred. That's Freud's deep-seated psychological explanation for anti-Semitism.

Blum: Freud is identified with Moses, who brings the commandments, who preserves the tablets. And who brings a new not only a new set of regulations but a new way of understanding human nature to humanity.

Ana-Maria Rizzuto: The thing that is most significant for a reader of the Bible or anyone who knows the story, is that there is no God to tell Moses what to do. Like Freud, Moses tells himself what to do. He is his own man.

Narrator: But historic events forced Freud to stop working on the manuscript.

Anna Freud (voiceover): Now this is already Hitler in Vienna. That's our house, look, with the swastikas on it.

Narrator: In March of 1938, the German army occupied all of Austria. They began the systematic persecution and deportation of Austria's Jews.

Anna Freud (voiceover): Oh and that is the crowds, cheering Hitler. Look at the crowd. That's how it looked.

Blum: It was an extraordinarily disturbed period — people were refugees on the move all over the continent. He clearly didn't appreciate the monstrous nature of the brutality that the Nazis had in mind. He didn't foresee that the burning of the books was a prelude to the burning of people.

Narrator: Finally Freud saw the danger and allowed friends to buy the visas that would permit him to leave with his family.

Freud: We are waiting more or less patiently for our affairs to be settled. In view of the little time we have left to live, I fret at the delay. Anna's youthful vigor and optimistic energy have fortunately remained unshaken. Otherwise life would be difficult to carry on at all.

Anna Freud (voiceover): We left Vienna by night train and spent a day of rest in Paris. My brother Ernst came to Paris to meet us. My father had hoped to see something of Paris again but he was too tired from the trip.

Blum: Here is a man facing death in exile like Moses leaving Egypt. And he will not get into the promised land. He doesn't really believe that there is an afterlife. He faces death with an attempt again to review his own line of reasoning. The question of whether one believes or disbelieves in a paradise and a heaven or hell and a life after death and immortality. And he rejects all of that for him on the basis of the perpetuation of childhood fantasy into adult life. He thinks that this is not realistic and that one should face death stoically with a realization that that is part of life, it's the end of life, and we do not know why it was designed this way, that life should come to an end.

Narrator: Once established in London, Freud published Moses and Monotheism. The book outraged both Jews and Christians. Though old and sick, Freud was as defiant of his critics as he had been throughout his life.

Gilman: He's in England. He is suddenly freed from all of the constraints of that public face that he had to present in Vienna, and he could do things that, in a sense, he wants to now do as a public figure. At the same time that he writes Moses and Monotheism, he writes an open letter, in English, against the persecution of the Jews. Does he do it as a Jew, or as a scientist, or as a psychoanalyst? At this point, he's all of them.

Anna Freud (voiceover): This is definitely a birthday ... it's the last birthday.

Blum: Freud usually wound the clock in his study. He did not ... he was too sick. And Freud knew that his time was up. The end was very near.

Freud: Our unconscious does not believe in its own death, it behaves as if it were immortal. We cannot imagine our own death and when we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still spectators.

Blum: He faced a great deal of pain and suffering with as minimal treatment as possible, because he was always concerned it might interfere with his thought processes. He didn't want to be in a state where he might be low [inaudible], lethargic, dazed, unable to concentrate.

Freud: I cannot face the idea of life without work. What would one do when ideas failed or words refused to come? It is impossible not to shudder at the thought.

Gilman: All of the sudden, he has to come to terms with this new life, and he does it remarkably. I mean, it's an enormously productive moment given all of these other constraints, and his arrangement, of course, with his physician was that if he was no longer — and this was an arrangement that went back to Vienna — he was no longer able to deal with the pain of the cancer, he would be given an overdose of morphine, which at some point he decides he actually needs.

Freud: My dear Schur, you remember our first talk. You promised me then you would not forsake me when the time had come. It is only torture now, and no longer makes any sense.

Rizzuto: He had all his antiquities with him, all his gods that he talked to, and his personal, intellectual life there with him. It is my personal conviction that the ghost of Moses was saying to him, "Come on, have the courage to get rid of God to the very end." And he died as self-possessed as he has lived, not asking for consolation, not asking anyone to protect him, but simply dying as he had lived, with this kind of rebellious defiance and conqueror stance.

Anna Freud (voiceover): Now this is when three men of the Royal Society came to present the book of the Royal Society for signature to my father because he was not well enough to go there. And I think on that same picture is a signature of Darwin. That was a very nice moment.