Freud was dying of cancer, the Nazis were closing in — and his last book challenged Judaism. Why?

The father of psychoanalysis spent his final years penning a bizarre book on Jewishness that appalled many

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published October 29, 2022 10:00AM (EDT)

Sigmund Freud, 1856-1939, Austrian psychiatrist, in the office of his Vienna home looking at a manuscript (Getty Images/Bettmann Contributor)
Sigmund Freud, 1856-1939, Austrian psychiatrist, in the office of his Vienna home looking at a manuscript (Getty Images/Bettmann Contributor)

Anti-Semitism is surging in a manner eerily reminiscent of the mid-20th century, when World War II broke out and the Holocaust claimed 6 million Jewish lives. There are extreme right-wingers coalescing around new media platforms (radio then, the internet now) to spread their hate-based philosophy. Conspiracy theories continue to be shared about Jewish banking families controlling the weather and Jewish space lasers igniting wildfires. Year after year there has been a rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes, which may even be underreported.

On top of the inherent injustice of religious and ethnic persecution, anti-Semitism has also darkened the lives of many of history's most important intellectuals, from Franz Kafka to Albert Einstein. One of these famous intellectuals to also be victimized by anti-Semitism is the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. He was less than two months away from his 82nd birthday during the Anschluss, or the annexation of Austria by Adolf Hitler's expanding and genocidally anti-Semitic German empire. A lifelong Austrian who loved his home city of Vienna, Freud was destined to flee his native land while in the thrall of a mortal disease and spend his dying days in a distant city. While enduring these hardships, he also penned a work called "Moses and Monotheism" that dealt specifically with Jewish issues — and in a way that many of Freud's critics felt was profoundly disrespectful to Judaism.

The tale of Freud's last days is a strange one, and rarely told, perhaps because it may not reflect well on his state of mind. What was a genius of psychology and a Jew doing writing a book that, at least by today's standards, might seem faintly anti-Semitic to some — and at the same moment the Nazi regime was devouring Europe, too? 

To understand this requires going back in time. Today, Freud is most widely known as the founder of psychoanalysis, the practice in which patients talk to doctors trained in mental health so they can receive diagnoses for ailments in their psyches. Yet apart from psychoanalysis and psychology, Freud had a wide range of ideas about a multitude of subjects. He identified (and was identified in the public mind with) political liberalism, although he was so cynical about human nature that he doubted even the best intentions in politics (such as those he ascribed to certain Communists) could ever realistically do much good. Religiously he was an outspoken atheist, but was also pragmatic about the social implications of his Jewish heritage. Even though he did not go to synagogue services or accept any of the Judaic theology as real, Freud recognized that Jews experience persecution — and had encountered more than a fair share of it in his own life.

Freud was not a Jew by religion, but he was a Jew all the same. Perhaps this is why, as the Nazis began to sweep over Europe and burn his books by the thousands, he made the darkly self-aware joke that from a humanitarian standpoint the book-burnings struck him as a step in the right direction. After all, Freud remarked, centuries ago Jews and free-thinkers like him were personally burned at the stake; now, it seemed, anti-Semitic reactionaries could be contented with merely burning his books.

"Most consider his claims about the secret Egyptian identity as signaling his last wish to rethink his own Jewishness."

Except, as Freud was soon to learn the hard way, the Nazis were not content with just burning his books. After the Nazis arrested his daughter Anna (a psychoanalyst like her father), Freud was convinced by his friend and colleague Welsh neurologist and psychoanalyst Ernest Jones that he had no choice but to flee. Over the two months spanning from early April 1938 through June 6th of the same year, Freud endured a bureaucratically and physically torturous ordeal as his friends painstakingly arranged for his safe emigration to London. In addition to being a frail octogenarian, Freud was also dying of jaw cancer and in such severe pain that he needed morphine to alleviate his agony. Because he had resources and connections, Freud achieved what millions of his fellow Jews could not: He escaped the Nazis' clutches and was allowed to die peacefully in bed (after being given extra morphine doses that at least one scholar has argued constituted "indirect active euthanasia"). Freud's four elderly sisters, who lacked their famous brother's connections to power and influence, were not so fortunate; they all died in concentration camps.

This brings us to Freud's last book, "Moses and Monotheism." He began writing it four years before the Anschluss, so in a sense much of the main intellectual work had already done before his forced exile. Yet even back in 1934, when he first put pen to paper on the subject, Freud was sufficiently alarmed about the Nazi menace that he was unsure if he would ever publish his ideas. By 1938, however, Freud had started to view "Moses and Monotheism" as his swan song, and focused intently on perfecting what had once been a more fitful endeavor. The end result is a bold work of Biblical and historical revisionism, an attempt by an impassioned psychoanalysis to retrace steps made by his ancestors several millennia earlier in order to comprehend the deeper meaning of their heritage and, by extension, of his own. Drawing from his deep knowledge of Jewish culture and theology, Freud offered a new spin the Book of Exodus: Moses, instead of being a Jewish slave who led his people to freedom from Egyptian tyrants, was in Freud's worldview an Egyptian royal who led a small group of Jewish rebels out of Egypt. Moses' motive, Freud hypothesized, was to preserve a sect of the ancient Egyptian religion which rejected polytheism and only worshipped the sun god, Aten. When the Egyptian ruling class insisted on a strictly polytheistic society, Moses and his followers first rebelled and then fled.

Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter The Vulgar Scientist.

Freud was not yet finished with his provocative thesis. He guessed that at some point while wandering through the desert, a conflict arose between Moses and his followers, and the leader was ultimately killed. Overwhelmed with remorse, the small Jewish tribe suppressed memories of the direct cause of their collective sense of shame, but the guilt percolated up nonetheless. Freud argued that this tribe eventually met another group of Egyptian emigrants, only that band worshiped a mountain god called Yahweh. Over time, their faith was melded with both Moses' monotheistic beliefs and various other psychological detritus from the ancient Jews' collective interactions with him. The end result, according to Freud, was the Jewish religion and culture. On top of that, Freud speculated that the Christian anti-Semitic myth that Jews bore collective guilt for killing Jesus Christ was psychologically linked to the Jewish sense of collective guilt over killing Moses.

The public reacted to Freud's arguments with outrage — which he no doubt expected, as he introduced his book with the sentence, "To deny a people the man whom it praises as the greatest of its sons is not a deed to be undertaken light-heartedly, especially by one belonging to that people." To many of his contemporaries, it was particularly galling for Freud to insult the religion for which many of his fellow Jews were dying while he — a non-practicing Jew — was only spared that same fate because of his social privileges. Even when these moral reservations were set aside, Freud's book is almost stunningly whimsical in its approach to facts.

Despite repeatedly attempting to give the appearance of grounding his arguments in research and with examples, "Moses and Monotheism" always seems to have one foot firmly planted in Freud's creative imagination. This did not need to be a fatal flaw, as this was not Freud's first foray into applying psychoanalytic methods to understanding history and sociology: One of his greatest masterpieces, the 1930 book "Civilization and Its Discontents," adopted a similar approach. Yet this method did not always pan out for Freud, such as when he wrote a biography of President Woodrow Wilson (co-authored with journalist William Christian Bullitt Jr. and published posthumously in 1967) in which his perception of Wilson as a bigotreactionary, egomaniac and emasculated weakling turned his text into a polemic rather than a dispassionate scientific analysis.

As he wrote "Moses and Monotheism," this aspect of Freud's mind — the man who struggled to separate his subjective emotions from his detached judgment — may have been at the fore. Without question, Freud had strong personally feelings about Moses. The difference between Moses and Woodrow Wilson, however, was that Freud actually liked Moses.

"By writing the book, Freud defiantly asserted his Jewishness and defended the essential contribution Jews have made to human civilization."

"Freud strongly identified with Moses much of his life, as he told his friend Lou Andreas-Salome while writing the book," Matthias Beier, Ph.D. — a psychoanalyst and pastoral psychotherapist at Christian Theological Seminary who has discussed Freud in his work — told Salon by email. Yet Freud also viewed Moses as being Jewish in the ways that counted (his contributions to history), and was proud of what he saw as a tendency by Moses to be "defiant."

"By writing the book, Freud defiantly asserted his Jewishness and defended the essential contribution Jews have made to human civilization," Beier explained. For instance, when he visited Michelangelo's famous statue of Moses in 1901, Freud was so fascinated that he frequently revisited it in Rome and even wrote about it in a paper in 1914.

"He interpreted the moment captured in the statue as the one when Moses controlled his inner rage against the rebellious Israelites," Beier pointed out. "This interpretation was different from the biblical account of Moses breaking the tablets of the law in rage. Freud saw in Moses a person who had gained 'the highest mental achievement that is possible,' namely, 'that of struggling successfully against an inward passion for the sake of a cause to which he has devoted himself.'"

Two other Freud experts, philosopher Dr. Gilad Sharvit of Towson University and German professor Dr. Karen S. Feldman of University of California, Berkeley, wrote to Salon that scholars have "endlessly discussed" Freud's reasons for writing "Moses and Monotheism" when he did, including Beier's argument that it was an attempt to address the problems of antisemitism and Jewish identity.

"Most consider his claims about the secret Egyptian identity as signaling his last wish to rethink his own Jewishness," Sharvit and Feldman wrote to Salon. "Some argue that the story represents an unconscious wish to become an 'Egyptian' (like Moses), that is German or non-Jewish, or at least his ambivalence regarding his Jewishness. Freud, to remind, was an assimilated Jew. Others comment on Moses who was betrayed by his people as a figure that Freud — himself a fierce and powerful leader of the psychoanalytic movement — could identify with (because he was also betrayed by his own followers like Jung)."

"While Freud's 'Moses and Monotheism' does not hold up in terms of historically verifiable facts, it still has an urgent message for us today at a time when we witness globally and locally the resurgence of hatred of the 'other.'"

Just as scholars remain unsure about why Freud felt compelled to write "Moses and Monotheism" from his literal deathbed, so too are they unclear about whether they should regard the book as a success or as a failure.

"Since the 1990s, 'Moses and Monotheism' has been one of Freud's most researched books," Sharvit and Feldman explained to Salon. "There are numerous publications addressing this book as: (1) work in philosophy of history, (2) work in religious studies and Jewish studies (3) work in trauma studies, (4) work on antisemitism and race theory, (5) and even a work on Zionism."

Beier told Salon that the "verdict" among scholars on "Moses and Monotheism" is "mixed," but added that it has literary value independent of its scientific and historical veracity.

"While Freud's 'Moses and Monotheism' does not hold up in terms of historically verifiable facts, it still has an urgent message for us today at a time when we witness globally and locally the resurgence of hatred of the 'Other' and of a group psychology centered around quasi-divinized repressive and oppressive leaders," Beier pointed out. "Among the key ideas of the book is the thesis that envy of others' self-confidence, self-assuredness, and self-control is a major reason for anti-Semitism as well as for religious violence in general. A point can be made that this applies even to forms of violence not explicitly religious."

Personally, I think there is a very big clue at the end of "Moses and Monotheism" that illuminates Freud's reasons for shuffling off this mortal coil with this particular book. As he describes the "question" of "how the Jewish people acquired the qualities that characterize it," he adds that there is also a question of "how they could survive until today as an entity," which he observes "has not proved so easy to solve." Yet he does not seem demoralized by this, because he argues that a person cannot "reasonably demand or expect exhaustive answers of such enigmas." Perhaps Freud, despite his reputation for arrogance, had sufficient humility to accept the limits of his own knowledge. It is entirely possible that even he did not fully understand why he was so personally drawn to this particular topic, despite relevant self-insights (he admitted that he identified with Moses in the sense that Freud had also been "betrayed" by his disciples).

Yet Freud wrote the book anyway, and more than 80 years after his death, scholars are still talking about it. Freud, like Moses, has an immortal legacy — and that is something that no one, not even the Nazis and their bookburnings, can ever take away from him.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

MORE FROM Matthew Rozsa

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Anti-semitism Deep Dive Fascist Freud Jewish Judaism Moses Nazi Nazis Psychology Sigmund Freud