Why the war?

Carla Barchini, Fragile, Mixed technique on wood, 106 x 156 cm, 2018


Freud's conclusion to Einstein, in his typical critical bent, can be summed up in the question of why human beings would want to keep each other in peace

Although the first offensive between Russia and Ukraine was launched on February 24, 2022, months before, strangely enough, I started to think about the issue I am now writing about. As if anticipating something important for the present, I inserted it as a theme in the set of debates to be carried out during a discipline taught in the master's degree.[I] First, I questioned the pertinence of the theme, but the moment we reached it came to coincide with the outbreak of the present war, unfortunately providing concrete elements of analysis to this dated exchange of letters, about which I share with the academic community impressions, in defense of a psychoanalysis that thinks politically.

Nobel Prize in Physics in the year 1921 at the age of 42, Albert Einstein (1879-1955) made a great contribution to the scientific field of mankind. He was even received by President Arthur Bernardes, in 1925, when he came to Brazil on a trip with the aim not only of spreading his intellectual production, but also of fighting for peace, which he had been insistently doing wherever he went. However, his voice in favor of life had become innocuous in the face of the power of Nazism and, in 1933, Einstein was forced into exile in the USA. It is worth remembering that not only is the “Theory of Relativity” attributed to him, but Einstein also outlined, around 1922, what he called the “Theory of Happiness”[ii].

A neurologist, Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) broke epistemologically with his own area of ​​training, providing the world with one of the most exciting discoveries of the XNUMXth century, the unconscious, which elevated him to the noble status of “Father of Psychoanalysis”. His influence was such that until today the theory dialogues in an interdisciplinary way with different fields of knowledge. Postulating the protagonism of the analysand, Freud pursued the question about the subject's self-research in the discovery of his suffering.

He argued that it was not something individual, but a dialectical theory that transcends the clinical space and touches on aspects of life in society. Similar to Einstein, Freud was also forced to flee Nazism, which happened on the threshold of the Second World War, in 1938, when he managed to do so with most of his family, taking shelter in London.

But, besides the successful escape from that barbaric war, what else do these two icons of world thought have in common?

As soon as the First World War ended, in 1920, through the Treaty of Versailles, the “League of Nations” was created as a body that should diplomatically resolve friction and promote world peace. The work of this international forum ended in 1942, giving rise, in 1945, to the creation of what we now know as the United Nations (UN). Although little has ensured the fulfillment of its purposes, it is instigated under the spotlight of the League of Nations that emerged, in Paris in 1926, “the 'International Institute of Intellectual Cooperation'” (IICI), to “strengthen collaboration between cultural intellectuals and different nationalities, in order to create conditions conducive to the emergence of a new humanism, with the scope of supporting the efforts of the SDN [Society of Nations] in favor of peace” [iii].

It is in this context that this important interlocution about the war takes place, recorded in the letters exchanged between Albert Einstein and Sigmund Freud. The union of two very different scientific paths, on the one hand the pessimistic father of psychoanalysis and, on the other, the discoverer of relativity, in his realistic humanism, embarked on a dialogue that resulted in a singular effort that remains recorded in the annals of history, and continues until today to answer the question: after all, “Why war?” or “why war?”[iv].

Far from being an open dialogue in the void, it is based on an earlier text by Freud, entitled “Zeitgemäßes über Krieg und Tod” (Current considerations on war and death)[v]. This text, written in 1915, is one of those that precede Freud's debate on civilization in 1921, in “Das Unbehagen der Kultur” (The malaise in culture)[vi] and that foresees what would establish as a death drive or impulse in 1920, in the writings of "Jenseits de Lustprinzips” (Beyond the pleasure bases)[vii]. In this text from 1920, Freud describes what would be the “new foundations for the theory of drives”, advancing in the study of their psychic movements. The death drive or impulse would then be “an energy that attacks the psyche and can paralyze the work of the self, mobilizing it towards the desire to no longer desire, which would result in psychic death”.[viii]

The discussion about one of the most polemical concepts of psychoanalysis, the death drive, is, therefore, grounded in the lived facts that devastated human life at the time. In 1915, Freud states that in times of disproportionately felt evil there is no way to glimpse the future and that even science loses its impartiality. Achievements are stifled and the evident disappointment in the face of death is where the war starts: from the white race nations that dominate the world, the same ones that demand from the “individual high moral standards (...), a broad self-limitation and a sharp renunciation to the satisfaction of drives. He amends that the war that emanates from advanced peoples, is made by men – literally –, who confuse “foreigner” with “enemy”. By lamenting this condition, Freud even exalts the harmony between different peoples in the same territory and recognizes the saga of the foreigner who ventures to enhance his culture and a new country through art, the contemplation of nature and laws, so that in each person lived a kind of "School of Athens"[ix].

The war arrives to destroy all of this, infringing international law and, with it, from private property to the necessary distinction between soldier and civilian, there is no law of human civilization left standing to stop the rage that broke out. If nothing interrupts the sound of the missiles, it is a question of the monopoly of injustice, with the State becoming the place where it is exercised par excellence, almost never compensating the individuals who throw themselves into the forehead. At most, a medal is dedicated to the dead, who do not need it in the place where they are deposited.

Freud shows the disappointment with the role that the States assume, since, from “guardians of moral norms” they pass to “scarce morality” and, also, the permissiveness of individuals who, before so well-educated, give full vent to brutality primitive.[X] He is moved that such a context has unfolded in Europe, champion of legal, ethical and religious morality, builder of the most varied institutions, causing perplexity to the citizen who becomes a stranger, demoted in the face of the truth of violence.

But what moves him is not surprising. The father of psychoanalysis well-founded through his findings that the destructive essence of the primeval human remains, with the impossibility of ending evil, given the nature of the selfish and cruel impulses that make up his subjectivity. As much as there are reactive developments to primitive impulses, they coexist under the most refined cultural veneer. Thus, love and hate cohabit, often towards the same object. They are forces that, in their dialectic, throw life at the best destiny that the winning feeling of this fight can climb. Thus, selfish impulses can be channeled into altruism, as well as resulting in the reproduction of evil.

There is one aspect, however, to which Freud draws attention: culture, which we can treat here as “forming”, leads to deformations of the human character, as it results in hypocrisy that is generalized as an intrinsic cultural trait (we will come back to talk about it later). forward). It is for the diagnosis of this precarious conception of civilization that is not at all admirable, to Freud unworthy and disappointing the fact that the regression arising from the imperishability of the primitive psyche is expressed in the violence of war. Hardly anyone manages to attribute any reasonableness to the acts that result from it when the fulminating passion for horror ends its wave. Finally, in response to this disappointment, Freud claims, in the 1915 text, veracity and sincerity as capable of transforming relations between people and rulers.

Obviously, the practice continued to be the opposite of his desire. Humanity does not ascend to the qualities that would bring it a transformative cultural elevation, and the death impulse was announcing itself some time later when, on July 30, 1932, Einstein wrote a letter to Freud.[xi] By attributing to him the place of a scientific authority that knows human instinctual impulses, Einstein begins by talking about the urgency of the question about whether there is a way for humanity to get rid of war. Throwing the challenge to Freud of answering from the side of the mental sciences, Einstein's first solution to understand the problem he named administrative or superficial.

That is to say, at first sight, the war could be undone by what we call, in modern administration sciences, “conflict management”. A kind of “international agreement” is proposed here. But, in the case of something to be developed by humans, Einstein recognizes the impasse in enforcing such a supranational organization, since it creates a threat to the sovereignty of nations. The superficiality of administrativism is wide open.

In the limitation of this first finding and, obviously, also thinking of his interlocutor, Einstein sees the weight of the psychological factors that give rise to the hunger for political power, especially of that group that earns with the war.[xii]. This issue is amended by the question of how the will of the majority bends to accept such destructiveness in favor of the ambition of the few. A "Psychology of the masses and analysis of the self”.[xiii] here it appears interpreted and Einstein tries a response: “the current ruling class, has schools, the press and, generally, also the Church, under its power. This makes it possible to organize and dominate the emotions of the masses and make them an instrument of this minority”. But this is not a satisfactory answer, as the father of modern Physics deepens the question and concludes that “man contains within himself a desire for hatred and destruction”[xiv].

How to contain the human destructive impulse, be it emanating from the uneducated, but also from the educated, is the impasse that Einstein, finally, throws at the father of psychoanalysis, claiming elements for the construction of world peace.

On the other hand, still in Vienna, Freud intended, in September 1932, the answer where he was surprised by the question received, of how to “protect humanity from the curse of war”[xv]. He starts to understand it as launched for psychology to solve and not for the rulers, even though the relationship between law and power was demarcated by Einstein, which Freud relaunches as opposites between “law and violence”[xvi]. Thus, to explain this path that humanity built from violence to the law, the father of psychoanalysis resorts to live analysis in his work, centered on human phylogenesis. From replacing primeval man's muscular strength with instruments and from these to the use of intellectual superiority, the objectives of a clash remain to be to overcome the opponent and, at the limit, to eliminate him. It is understood, for Freud, that the norms of law are born as a result of the union in community through rational thought, in an attempt to supplant primitive violence.

But he recognizes that such norms only work when emotional bonds are created, via identification. Furthermore, power being distributed unequally distances rulers from the ruled, until those seek to escape the rule of law, leaving the application of its force over them. Freud recognizes the struggles of the oppressed classes, as well as the influence of culture to change the law and that, however, there is no total elimination of violence. Violence is well diagnosed by him as a resource paradoxically used by those who want peace, whose growth is gradual and its intensity often leads to total destruction.

Regarding central authority, pointed out by Einstein as an administrative solution, Freud questions whether it will be maintained by the force of ideas, adding that “currently there is no idea that, it is hoped, will exercise a unifying authority of this kind”. To the thesis on the merchants of war, suggested by the physicist, associated with the non-erasure of the destructive impulse, Freud complements by explaining his theory of instincts, “a theoretical formulation of the universally known opposition between love and hate”[xvii]. The death instinct, whose hatred and destruction are its expressions, is directed outside the subject and causes the possible level of aggressiveness that we witness.

By qualifying the death instinct as a “positively insane” process, Freud[xviii] recognizes, along the same lines as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer [xx] at "Dialectic of Enlightenment”, that psychoanalysis can seem like mythology, as well as all sciences, including physics. In fact, on this path for answers to unsolvable questions, the danger lies in enclosing ourselves in new myths that, even with the passage of the dark ages, allow their re-edition through science, especially when critical reflection is not assured.

Apart from being a new mythology, as Freud himself suggests, we can say, following Dunker,[xx] that psychoanalysis contains a well-defined political analysis of society. When Einstein argues that transferring violence to words, challenging psychoanalysis to analyze the possibilities for this, he corroborates the thesis that establishing a political posture is inherent to his practices. Given that violence is recognized by Freud as an ineradicable trait of the human being, since it is related to the instinctual dimension, treating its destinies urges to be a social theme and, therefore, a political one, not just reserved for the analyst's office.

That is, by mediating social ties, psychoanalysis can mitigate possible destructive political damage that may result from them. I would venture to say that the political role of psychoanalysis, if well conducted, would be a kind of policy to prevent barbarism. Obviously, this role will not dissolve the content and chaotic context in which most of the population is inserted.

On the other hand, the thesis contained in Group psychology and analysis of the ego proves itself as in Nazism and Fascism the cycle of war finds the feeling of identification as mortar, in addition to the exacerbation of Thanatos and the fatal threat to Eros. But better unfolding what we said before, we must not forget that the subjective elements are joined by the performance of the productive forces as an important support of society. After all, the materiality of human relations, hierarchically organized, is what has guaranteed the objective survival of the species. And I say survival because in capitalism leading a full life is an ideal that is reserved for the sphere of its myths, which are created and recreated at every moment. Among the names that such myths acquire, in the post-neoliberal era, we can name, by way of example, meritocracy and entrepreneurship.

Even with all the problems of the modern era, Freud[xxx] considers the domain of reason to control destructive instincts, recognizing it, however, as something utopian. At the end of his text, he mentions the revolt against war, as an act of those who are in the pacifist field. Supporters of this team are in favor of advancing civilization through acts of culture, the same as Walter Benjamin[xxiii] will qualify as acts of barbarism, not leaving much of what is produced in humanity outside the negative register. Such notes can offer us a reading that is sometimes similar, if we are going to approach the lens, to what prevailed in the period after the First World War, demarcating, here, the authors of the critical theory mentioned. But Freud is also not displaced from pessimism.

In any case, human production is propelled by the psychic changes brought about in the civilizing process, in which, to the detriment of aggressive impulses, the intellect is given way. War testifies against this process and points us with all its force to today's anachronism, where the cruelties presented throw us back to the first steps of humans on earth, making us forget that "everything that stimulates the growth of civilization works simultaneously against the war".[xxiii]

By the irony of life, the same Einstein who had so fundamentally provoked the father of psychoanalysis, when asked to support the candidacy for the Nobel Prize that Freud so desired, refused to do so, saying he was not convinced of the validity of psychoanalysis. It would be a great irony for Freud to have won it when we remember that the greatest invention of the chemist Alfred Nobel was dynamite. Even more so when we remember that, perhaps driven by a sense of guilt, which was also analyzed by Freud, Nobel will allocate a large part of the fortune conquered with the invention to promote the well-being of humanity. Thus was born the Nobel Foundation, which from 1900 until today distributes the much coveted award around the world.[xxv].

Who knows, dialectically, we can read from here "Götzen-Dämmerung oder Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophirt”, ("Twilight of the Idols: Or How to Philosophize with the Hammer")[xxiv], the Nietzschean diagnosis of the failure of idols and verify, like the author, the need for a real war against all the false cults that limit us, that we ourselves manufacture. They are idols that range from concrete institutions to symbolic systems, represented by the most different “isms” – liberalism, authoritarianism, Nazism, fascism, industrialism, positivism, Christianity – and are established as dogmas that surround us like small circuits of chasms. Hence united to think why the war we will have new elements to interpret this new return of repressed barbarism in humanity, to which we can pose other questions, such as:

How long will we sustain the partiality argument that promotes the most terrible human scientific creations, like atomic weapons? How long will we be able to despise the cultural wealth of another people in favor of territorial conquests and financial and corporate gains? How can we allow ourselves such alienation as to divide the world into “us” and “them”, this common practice of Fascism?[xxv], electing another as a permanent enemy, to be exterminated? Will we ever be able to build States that practice the same morality that their well-written laws preach? Do we not know enough to constitute other ways of life capable of embracing differences, whatever they may be? Finally, what does Freud still explain to us about human self-destruction to assuage the anguish that invades us, in the face of this war that affects us today?

Freud's conclusion to Einstein, in its typical critical bent, can be summed up in the question of why human beings would want to keep themselves in peace. The old distinction between bourgeois and proletarians, coined by the Moor, despite all the variations that the course of history has given it, still has a lot to tell us about human battles.

*Elisa Zwick is a professor at the Federal University of Alfenas (Unifal-MG).



[I] I publicly thank the students who participated in the discussions built in the discipline Special topics in public management and society II: Critical Theory - psychoanalysis and current affairs, taught by me in 2021.2, at PPGPS/Unifal-MG. Obviously, I exempt them from all errors and exaggerations that may have been recorded here.

[ii] https://www.ebiografia.com/albert_einstein/

[iii] SEITENFUS, Ricardo Antonio Silva. The historical context of the dialogue between Einstein and Freud: a debate born of its time, of all times. In: VENTURA, Deisy de Freitas Lima and SEITENFUS, Ricardo Antônio Silva (Apres.). A dialogue between Einstein and Freud: why war? Santa Maria: FADISMA, 2005 (p. 7-11). (Quote from p. 9).

[iv] FREUD, Sigmund. Warum Krieg? Der Briefwechsel mit Albert Einstein. Reclam, Universal-Bibliothek: Stuttgard, 2012a.

[v] FREUD, Sigmund. Zeitgemäßes über Krieg und Tod. Reclam, Universal-Bibliothek: Stuttgard, 2012b; FREUD, Sigmund. Current considerations on war and death. In: SIGMUND, Freud. Writings on war and death. University of Beira Interior: Covilhã, 2009 (p. 4-35).

[vi] FREUD, Sigmund. Culture malaise. Porto Alegre: LP&M, 2010.

[vii] FREUD, Sigmund. Beyond the pleasure bases. Porto Alegre: LP&M, 2018.

[viii] ENDO, Paulo; SOUSA, Edison. Itinerary for a reading of Freud. In: FREUD, Sigmund. Culture malaise. Porto Alegre: LP&M, 2010 (p. 7-19). (Quote from pp. 16;18).

[ix] FREUD (2009, p. 7).

[X] Ditto (p. 10).

[xi] FREUD (2012a).

[xii] The film “The Lord of the guns” (2005), whose screenplay focuses precisely on the lucrative arms trade and the maintenance of war as a backdrop for making large amounts of money. Available in: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hEBA277Rl0U

[xiii] FREUD, Sigmund. Group psychology and analysis of the ego. Porto Alegre, LP&M: 2017.

[xiv] EINSTEIN, Albert. Document no. 1: Correspondence to Freud. In: VENTURA, Deisy de Freitas Lima and SEITENFUS, Ricardo Antônio Silva (Apres.). A dialogue between Einstein and Freud: why war? Santa Maria: FADISMA, 2005 (p. 21-25). (Quote from p. 24).

[xv] FREUD, Sigmund. Document no. 2: Sigmund Freud's reply to Albert Einstein. in: In: VENTURA, Deisy de Freitas Lima and SEITENFUS, Ricardo Antônio Silva (Apres.). A dialogue between Einstein and Freud: why war? Santa Maria: FADISMA, 2005. (p. 29-47). (quote from p. 29).

[xvi] “Law and violence” was the first title proposed by Einstein for the letters between the two, who accepted the change proposed by Freud to appear as “Why the war?” (VENTURA and SEITENFUS, 2005).

[xvii] FREUD (2005, p. 37-38).

[xviii] Ditto (p. 41).

[xx] ADORNO, Theodor. W.; HORKHEIMER, Max. Dialectics of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. 6. reimp. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1997

[xx] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FOgTVeh5S1Q

[xxx] FREUD (2005).

[xxiii] BENJAMIN, Walter. Magic and technique, art and politics: essays on literature and cultural history. 12. reprint São Paulo: Brasiliense, 2010. (Selected Works, v. 1).

[xxiii] FREUD (2005, p. 47)

[xxv] https://mundoeducacao.uol.com.br/curiosidades/premio-nobel.htm

[xxiv] NIETZSCHE, Friedrich. Twilight of the Idols: (Or How to Philosophize with the Hammer). Porto Alegre: LP&M, 2022.

[xxv] STANLEY, Jason. How Fascism Works: The Politics of “Us” and “Them”. 5. ed. Porto Alegre: LP&M, 2020

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