Reflections Upon War and Death

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by Jessica Technow

The declaration of World War I in 1914 marked the beginning of an era which to this day has had lasting effects on humanity. New technologies changed the face of warfare and, for the first time, trenches were the main method utilized in military strategy. On the home front, civilians became engrossed in total war—which they had expected to end quickly. This drastic alteration of daily life and drawn out timeframe left many people disillusioned, struggling with their views about death and war. Sigmund Freud, one of the leading psychologists at the time, felt it necessary to help people understand their feelings. His musings on the psychological unrest pervasive in the population were published in an essay titled Reflections upon War and Death.[1]

Context of the Essay

The declaration of war in 1914 was met with jubilation by the people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Crowds of people swarmed the streets in massive outbursts of patriotism. In Vienna, Sigmund Freud’s home, the scene was no different. Citizens banded together to help the war effort, volunteering time and resources to assist the empire in any way possible. Initial excitement for the war was at least partly based on the common expectation that it would end quickly. The most recent European wars had been relatively short-lived and people had no reason to believe this war would cause extensive casualties or significant disruptions to everyday life. People also held an idealistic, romantic concept of war. In fact, some even thought the war would have a cleansing effect, bringing out the best virtues in everyone—loyalty, heroism, and patriotism.

Freud had always remained aloof from politics. However, he could not help but be swept up in the enthusiasm that had taken hold in the people. In a letter to Karl Abraham, the founder of a Freudian association which eventually grew into the Berlin Psychoanalytic Society, he wrote “For the first time in thirty years I feel myself to be an Austrian and feel like giving this not very hopeful Empire another chance."[2] He shared the populace’s expectation of a quick war, and shared their profound shock at the mass casualties and the change in lifestyle which accompanied total war. By the end of 1914, staggering losses had pushed the population into disillusionment. Freud’s practice had shrunk and he was worried about the state of the publishing industry. On February 16, 1915, with two of his sons fighting for the empire, Freud gave a lecture to the B’nai B’rith chapters on the emotional impact of war. As he had not yet had experience with soldiers returning from the front, civilians were his intended audience. This lecture would later be published as Our Attitude Towards Death, the first part of Reflections upon War and Death.[3] The second part, The Disillusionment of the War, was written in the month following his lecture.


The Disillusionment of the War:

Freud has taken it upon himself to help the general civilian population understand and come to terms with their mental distress. He believes that the two major factors contributing to this distress are the disillusionment and altered attitude towards death which the war has brought about.

According to Freud, within the warring nations, high social standards induced much self-restraint on the individual. These social standards were the basis of the civilized state’s existence. Freud asserts, however, that there is a disagreement between the warring state’s moral standards and its actions. The state acts in the way that it openly condemns in the individual, including deliberately lying and using deception (112). It keeps secrets from its citizens while expecting utmost loyalty. However, the state cannot prevent itself from wrong-doing, because that would put the nation at a disadvantage. This relaxation of moral demands has the same effect on individuals. When society cannot rebuke citizens for the sake of hypocrisy, suppression of base passions is relieved, and men commit acts of treachery, cruelty, fraud, and barbarity. Samuel Weber, however, criticizes Freud’s use of psychoanalysis to explain the violence of the war as insufficient.[4] According to Weber, the attempt to account for the phenomenon of war in terms of a theory of “drives,” developed through the interpretation of the behavior of individuals, runs the risk of being dismissed as completely psychologistic. Louis Breger’s disagreement with Freud on this point is aimed more at psychoanalysis in general. According to Breger, psychoanalysis was not able to predict the multitude of citizens who suffered from lasting mental illness as a result of the war.[5]

The disillusionment results not only from the discrepancy in moral relations exhibited by the state and its expectations, according to Freud, but also from the cruelty shown by individuals. The inmost essence of human nature consists of elemental forces, which include those that society considers evil. Civilization is the fruit of renunciation of instinctual satisfaction, and causes instincts to be transformed into altruistic and social ends. Society strains the moral standard to the highest possible point, which forces citizens to diverge even further from their instincts.

Our mortification and disillusionment about the barbaric behavior of our fellow humans in this war is unjustified. In reality, Freud argues, they have not sunk as low as previously thought, because they have never risen so high as society believed them capable of doing. They are merely taking a break from the oppressive moral constraints of society (Freud 121).

According to David Livingstone Smith, Freud gave the impression that war and its atrocities come naturally to human beings. This is a dismal prospect, and one that humans defensively reject. However, Smith says biological evidence supports this statement. Aggressive behavior can be seen in many lower species, such as the digger wasp and a normally benign bacterium which lives in the human digestive tract. These species can display a Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation, because they are designed by evolution to react this way when they detect concentrations of harmful predators. By showing a basic life form displays similar behavior to that of humans in the presence of a threat, Smith makes the case that war is a natural feature of human life.[6]

Our Attitude Towards Death:

According to Freud, the second major factor that contributes to the mental anguish of the time is an alteration in the people’s attitude towards death (121). While humans are aware that death is the eventual outcome of their lives, in reality their own death is unimaginable to them. However, even though they cannot fathom their own deaths, humans are still deeply affected when it occurs to other people. The war has taken away their ability to ignore death. It can no longer be denied, as people are dying by the thousands.

Primitive man was violent, as evidenced by the murderous history of man which children learn in school. However, the sense of guilt that humans feel can be traced back to primitive man’s unease about killing humans. Contemplation of a loved one’s corpse prompted early man to feel guilt and sorrow. The corpse not only influenced the development of the soul, but also the first inkling of a moral sense—Thou shalt not kill. According to Freud, this final development is no longer experienced by civilized man (128).

When the unconscious is probed, Freud finds that it has the same view of death as the primitive man. There are two antithetical attitudes: that which acknowledges it as the destruction of life, and the other which denies its success in that endeavor. Towards the stranger, our minds are murderously-minded. Our own death is inaccessible to us, and loved ones evoke an ambivalent or divided mind-set. The war strips us of civilization’s effects on our minds, and causes us to regress to the primitive man within us.

Freud ends with an adaptation of an old saying: If you would endure life, be prepared for death (133). Weber finds this conclusion to be ironic. According to Weber, everything that Freud said earlier in the article only proves how difficult it is to follow his parting words of advice.[7] Freud’s ending, however, shows how far modern culture and society are from even acknowledging that the task of preparing for death might be necessary.

Freud and Modernity

Freud is considered one of the major contributors to modern thought. His Reflections upon War and Death is a commentary on the modern mental state of people in the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the First World War. This mental state of disillusionment and anguish could be attributed to the war at hand, and people’s expectations surrounding it. The mass casualties brought about by modern warfare had a direct effect on the people’s attitudes towards death—the major subject of the second part of the essay. Not only were the casualties far greater in number than expected, but the fast pace of the stunning losses shocked people as well. What were these new horrific methods that slaughtered so many people at once? Also, the face of modern politics, as far as the people were concerned, had changed. The state upheld different moral standards for its own relations with other nations and for its citizens. The modern political situation caused anxiety in people, as they could no longer look to the state as a paragon of moral standers. People’s base instincts were relieved from their suppression and brutal acts of cruelty were committed.

Freud has greatly influenced other modern thinkers through his attempt to unravel psychological turmoil rampant in the war era.

  1. Freud, "Reflections upon War and Death," in Character and Culture, ed. Philip Rieff (New York: Collier Books, 1963), p. 107. All subsequent parenthetical citations refer to this text.
  2. Louis Breger, Freud: Darkness in the Midst of Vision (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2000), p. 234.
  3. Ibid., p. 240.
  4. Weber, Targets of Opportunity: on the Militarization of Thinking (New York: Fordham University Press, 2005), p. 46.
  5. Ibid., p. 243.
  6. David Livingstone Smith, The Most Dangerous Animal (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007), pp. 37-39.
  7. Weber, p. 52.
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