Friday, March 26, 2010


By Helen Fry

The History Press/Trafalgar Square, $29.95

223 pages, illustrated.


It’s not often that a reviewer gets to point out just how the apostrophe is placed in the book’s title, but for those of us who love punctuation in its proper place, there is no denying that there is a special pleasure in doing so. At first glance, because of Sigmund Freud’s special fame, it might be natural to assume that it is his war that is under discussion in these pages. But he was lucky enough to be born in 1856 and so be spared the duty to fight for his beloved native Austro-Hungarian Empire, although patriot that he was, he would doubtless have done so.

Already approaching 60 when World War I broke out, he was too old himself, but all three of his sons served in the Austrian military and it is they, along with some Freud grandchildren, whose varied service in both the 20th century’s world wars is the subject of “Freuds’ War.”

Its author, Helen Fry, an academic at London’s University College, describes Martin, Oliver and Ernst Freud as “fiercely patriotic and did not think twice about fighting for their country.”

“Ironically,” she adds pointedly, “less than 20 years later that would count for nothing when the Nazis annexed their country.” Which is how Martin’s only son, Walter, and Ernst’s three sons, Lucian (the famous portraitist), Clement (a TV personality and later member of the House of Commons) and Stephan all came to serve in the British forces in World War II.

Ms. Fry paints a detailed portrait of these very different military experiences, ranging from those of an Austrian horse artillery officer complete with sword and dueling scars (not that these were very useful on the Russian or Italian Front) to a British Special Operations paratrooper dropped behind enemy lines (in Austria no less). In doing so, she not only takes us into unusual corners of global conflicts, but illuminates the odd effects that historical volte-faces can have on people’s well-entrenched patriotism.

We learn from “Freuds’ War” that Sigmund and his offspring were loyal citizens well-entrenched in the interwar Austrian Republic, although, like most of its citizens, they mourned the passing of the old monarchical empire. Ms. Fry tells us of a world within a world where almost everyone these children knew, at their secular school or in their neighborhood, was Jewish, although obviously their father’s fame and his practice ranged further.

All this security vanished overnight, of course, when Adolf Hitler’s 1938 Anschluss swallowed Austria into the noxious bosom of a Greater Germany, where Jews were not only pariahs, they were not even citizens.

“We were driven out of Austria like mangy dogs,” wrote reserve officer Martin Freud, who had spent 1914-1918 fighting for Germany’s Central Powers followed by nine months in a British POW camp, “and considered ourselves lucky to escape alive,” ironically to Britain. (This nation welcomed Professor Freud and his descendants to London in 1938, but this did not spare Martin and his son Walter from being interned by the British as enemy aliens in 1940.) Not so fortunate were Sigmund Freud’s four elderly sisters, three of whom were gassed at Auschwitz/Treblinka and one of whom starved to death at the “model” Nazi camp of Theresienstadt.

Ms. Fry has chosen to center her book on Martin Freud and on his son Walter, perhaps because both left behind a considerable written record, some of it unpublished, to illustrate their story. Through these sources, she not only takes the reader along with these Freuds in their military exploits, but gives us a sense of the special privileges and burdens they bore as Sigmund Freud’s son and grandson. And through them we do get a sense of what the great man was really like at home, very human certainly, but manifestly a great man even to those in closest proximity to him.

The climax of “Freuds’ War” comes with the amazing tale of Walter’s mission into enemy Austrian territory at the very end of World War II. After years in an internment camp in Australia, not to mention a nightmarish nine-week journey there in an overcrowded troopship that narrowly escaped being sunk when the torpedo that struck it failed to explode, Walter was able to return to Britain and volunteered to join its military.

Still technically an enemy alien, he had to endure a spell in the Pioneer Labor Corps before the authorities recognized that his special knowledge of Germany (to say nothing of his fluency in its language) made him a natural for special operations. Alone among the group of German and Austrian Jewish soldiers being trained to parachute behind enemy lines, he refused to change his name despite the danger, saying he wanted Austria to know that a Freud had returned.

The story of how he ended up alone but still able to seize the airfield he had been sent in to capture during the chaotic last days of the Reich makes for thrilling reading. And his work after the war interrogating - and bringing to justice at the end of the hangman’s rope - some of those actually involved in the manufacture and application of the Zyklon B poison gas used in the extermination camps was not only personally satisfying but important. And it even brought him a happy personal outcome.

While arranging for the trial of a Danish collaborator (later hanged by the Allied military authorities), he met his future wife, whose family had been actively involved in the Resistance and in helping most of Denmark’s Jews to escape Nazi capture by going to neutral Sweden.

Sigmund Freud will always be the most famous member of his family. But after reading this book, readers will associate the name Freud with a lot more than psychoanalysis.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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