Creative Genius or Crazy Scientist? – Delusional or Defamed? – Paranoid or Persecuted?:
A Biographical Essay Commemorating the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Death of Wilhelm Reich*

by
Bernd Nitzschke
 

In a diary entry of December 1935 Wilhelm Reich described his state of internal exile as “a burden to heavy to bear” when, “for the sake of the cause one becomes increasingly alone and is no longer a human being among others”. At that time Reich found himself not only in an internal but also an external exile: early in 1933 he barely escaped being jailed by the National-Socialists (Nazis). His route of escape led from Berlin over Vienna, Copenhagen and Malmö, to Oslo, and later to the United States. But he did not find a safe haven anywhere. Therefore he created for himself a world of his own, a world of unshakable convictions, which he defended in the same self-destructive fashion as Michael Kohlhaas before him.

Reich’s quest for justice had its counterpart in a starkly represented world-view: the oppressor vs. the oppressed, whom Reich was called to redeem, a passion stemming from his own suffering and identification with the disadvantaged and the humiliated of this world. This passion is evident in his later writings Ether, God and Devil (1949) and The Murder of Christ (1953). At the end he paid with his personal liberty and his life for this missionary zeal: in 1954 the Food and Drug Administration outlawed the sale of the so-called orgone-accumulators, with which Reich attempted to capture cosmic radiation to be used as treatment for the sick. However, since he saw himself not as a medical quack but as a genuine scientist in the tradition of Galileo Galilei, he refused to face his accusers in a court of law. Found guilty of contempt of the law he was condemned to a two year jail term which he began to serve on March 11, 1957, days before his 60th birthday. He died of “heart failure” half a year later in the federal Lewisburg penitentiary in Pennsylvania. Or should one rather say: Wilhelm Reich died of a broken heart on November 3, 1957? Therefore his followers honor him to this day as a martyr who held on to his beliefs as truths in spite of defamation and persecution. And his foes? They continue to vilify him to this day: as having been inconsiderately egocentric, uncompromising, unpredictable, arrogant, narrow-minded and intolerant, as deserving to be labeled “crazy”, his writings causing readers to feel “weird”, as described in a German psychoanalytic journal even as late as the end of the 20th century century. Who would want to defend a man like this without himself or herself earning the reproach of being “narrow-minded and intolerant”? But one might ask: why should devotion to a man who was considered one of the leading psychoanalysts of his generation be cause for contempt, years after the man’s demise? The answer is to be found in history, especially the history of psychoanalysis during the years of National- Socialist rule.

Wilhelm Reich was born on March 24 1897 in Dobzau as the first child of Leon Reich and his wife Cecilia née Roniger, both assimilated Jews. The town, formerly in Galicia, is now part of the Ukraine Republic. Shortly after his birth the family moved to Bukovina, to an estate near Jurinets, that belonged to Josef Blum, his mother’s uncle, whose partner Reich’s father became. Reich senior later bought another property. This was possible in Bukovina, the “most outlying outpost of German culture” (Reich), thanks to the so-called “Jewish charter” granted to Jews by the Hapsburg monarchy in 1789, the year the French General Assembly proclaimed the Rights of Man. The charter gave Jews the freedom to exercise the professions and to own land. Jurinets is close to the capital city of Cernowitz, also called Cerniowce, Chernivtsy, Cernauti, a multi-lingual town, a melting pot of faiths, languages, and cultures. Here lived Ruthenians, Poles, Moldavians, Russians, Rumanians, Hungarians, Slovaks, Germans, Jews, Greeks, Turks, Roma and Armenians. Here prayed to their God Roman-Catholics, Greek-Orhodox and Russian-Ortodox Christians, as well as Jews and Moslems. Here an Armenian, a Pole, two Germans and two Jews held the office of mayor between 1864 and 1914. So how could one tell “Germans” from “Jews” in this place? Of course, anti-Semites found many excuses to defame and persecute Jews. Educated citizens found the difference more difficult to define. Thus we find Reich’s father, inspired by a nostalgia for greater Germany, naming his son after a German Kaiser. As Wilhelm Reich remembered in later years: “My mother language was German from the outset and I was taught in German. My parents laid special stress that I should not speak the Yiddish of the surrounding Jewish population. […] On the other hand, Hebrew was the language of piety towards the old Jewish tradition based on a six-thousand-year-old history. The family regarded itself as Jewish aristocracy.”

Reich’s sister was born in 1898 and died shortly after. Two years later brother Robert was born with whom Wilhelm grew up, isolated from the neighborhood children. At first the strict father taught the son himself and readily beat him “for the smallest error” (Reich). Subsequently he was taught by private tutors. The mother had an affair with one of the tutors which the son accidentally disclosed to his father. The “betrayal” unleashed a family tragedy: the mother made many suicide attempts and killed herself with poison in 1911. Three years later the father died of tuberculosis, shortly before losing all his assets in a venture that failed.

After a rushed graduation from high school in 1915 Wilhelm Reich was drafted into military service and took part in World War I, in his last assignment as company commander on the Italian front. He was discharged in 1918 due to an exacerbation of his psoriasis which he first developed during puberty. He first matriculated as a law student at Vienna University and shortly thereafter switched to medicine. As medical student he joined the Akademische Verein jüdischer Mediziner [Academic Union of Jewish Medical Students] where he met Otto Fenichel, the leader of a “seminar in sexology”. The Union propagated the ideals of the youth movement: “anti-authoritarian” education and sexuality liberated from the constraints of the patriarchal society. Here is the source for many ideas that Reich later combined with psychoanalytic concepts and elaborated further in his later “sex-economic” and “orgonomic” theories. In 1920, for the first time he attended a session of the Wiener Psychoanalytische Vereinigung (WPV) [Vienna Psychoanalytic Society]. In October he held his inaugural lecture: Libidokonflikte und Wahngebilde in Ibsens „Peer Gynt“ [Libidinal Conflicts and Delusions in Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt”] (published posthumously). In January of 1921 he was already treating “two paying patients referred by Freud” (Reich). He started a personal analysis with Isidor Sadger and continued with Paul Federn. In 1922 he graduated from medical school and married his former analysand Annie Pink (1902-1971), with whom he had two daughters (Eva born in 1924 and Lore born in 1928).

Also in 1922 Reich started working at the Wiener Psychoanalytische Ambulatorium [Vienna Psychoanalytic Outpatient Clinic] which offered free treatment to indigent patients. In 1924 he became the leader of the “technique seminar” at the VPS. In this capacity and based on his publications on drive theory and ego psychology (character analysis and resistance analysis) he won the reputation of brilliant theoretician. He became one of the most influential teachers of the psychoanalytic generation between the two world wars. Edith Jacobson later remembered him as “a highly gifted, brilliant man […]. It was a pleasure to discuss things with him”. Bruno Bettelheim, as a very old man, expressed himself similarly: “[Wilhelm Reich] was a fascinating person, so very persuasive in his explanations and extremely brilliant. […] He was a glowing personality, very charming, lively, and open in his manner. Willy was loveable, he had a magnetism that drew people to him. In any event, he was important to me because of our friendship and the wonderful conversations about analysis, which we all took part in.”

The year 1927 was a fateful one for Reich. That year was published his book Die Funktion des Orgasmus. Zur Psychopathologie und zur Soziologie des Geschlechtslebens [The Function of the Orgasm. The Pathology and Sociology of Sexual Life]. Freud, to whom this work was dedicated, regarded it favorably. Three years later Freud sought to assure Reich that his functions at the VPS would be reinstated in case he chose to return to Vienna from Berlin, where Reich had moved in 1930. However, 1927 already marked the beginning of the political campaign against Reich which over the next years was applied with increasing acrimony to his theories and analytic abilities, ultimately leading to a break with Freud.

On the 30th of January 1927, in Schattendorf in the vicinity of Vienna, a crippled war veteran and an eight year old boy were shot to death by political reactionaries during a demonstration of the Social-Democratic Party. The murderers belonged to a political movement that would become the seed of Austrian Fascism. The judge let the murderers go free. As a result, on the 15th of July 1927 a mass demonstration took place during which the Palace of Justice was set on fire. The police reacted with brutality: one thousand demonstrators were wounded, 80 were killed. Among the demonstrators was the thirty-year-old Wilhelm Reich who would never forget the screams of the wounded and the sight of the dying, because not too long prior to this event he himself looked death in the eye: in January 1927 he developed tuberculosis and was sent for a prolonged course of treatment in Davos, Switzerland. Reich’s brother Robert had died of tuberculosis a year earlier, as did their father in 1914.

Following the crushing of the 1927 demonstration Reich joined the Social-Democratic Party. A year later, together with the dermatologist Marie Frischauf-Pappenheim, he founded in Vienna the Sozialistische Gesellschaft für Sexualberatung und Sexualforschung [Socialist Society for Sex Counseling and Sex Research]. In 1929 he traveled to the Soviet Union. He wrote a report on this journey marked more by hopes and illusions than by a realistic perception of the situation in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s dictatorship. In 1929, increasingly unhappy with Social-Democratic politics in regard of Austrian Fascists, Reich founded the Komitee revolutionärer sozialdemokratischer Arbeiter [Committee for Revolutionary Social-Democratic Workers]. This led to his exclusion from the Social-Democratic Party that same year. Early in 1930 he joined the Communist Party. He left Vienna at the end of 1930 and settled in Berlin, the city rife with the most violent clashes between adherents to the red and the brown ideology. He rented lodgings in the “artist colony” neighborhood, in which lived, among others, Ernst Busch, Alfred Kantorowicz, Johannes R. Becher und Ernst Bloch. This was the stronghold of the resistance to the National-Socialists.

As a member of the Communist Party he was instructed in 1931 to take part in the founding of the Einheitsverbands für Proletarische Sexualreform und Mutterschutz [Association for Proletarian Sex Reform und for Protection of Mothers]. That year he himself founded the Sexpol-Verlag [Sexpol Publishing House], allegedly financed by his student and friend Karl von Motesitzky (who later perished in Auschwitz). Reich read his inaugural lecture at the Berlin Psychoanalytic Institute on 19th of December 1931 on Die sexuelle Ökonomie des masochistischen Charakters [The Sexual Economy of the Masochistic Character]. Because in that lecture Reich criticized Freud’s death instinct theory, Freud imputed to Reich, in a letter to Ferenczi of January 24, 1932, the “nonsense” that “the death instinct is the work of the capitalist system”. Half a year before Hitler’s seizure of power, on June 28, 1932, Reich delivered another lecture which made him even less likable in the eyes of most of his colleagues. This time he spoke about Massenpsychologische Probleme innerhalb der Wirtschaftskrise [Mass-Psychological Problems and the Crisis of the National Economy]. He held that National-Socialism is a movement of the petty bourgeoisie that, seizing upon the misery of the masses caused by economic exploitation and sexual repression, based the Nazi movement on reactionary ideology; that, furthermore, National-Socialism directed the anger, resulting from mass misery, against minorities, as if the latter were the cause of that misery, instead, that the people, enlightened about its political goals and of the mechanism of repression, would devote its energies to combating the real architects of that misery.

Reich did not hang on theoretical constructions alone but pursued practical goals. As an opponent of National-Socialism, he delivered more and more political speeches at public events, combining them with psychoanalytic concepts. The overwhelming majority of the conservative-rightist psychoanalysts were unwilling to support this position. Moreover, when after the National-Socialist regime seized power and Reich demanded that the psychoanalytic organizations in Germany disband voluntarily, he was denounced not only by Freud and the bourgeois psychoanalysts but also by most progressive-leftist psychoanalysts, who formed an opposition to Reich led by Fenichel. The latter, in order to avoid a break with the International Psychoanalytical Association (IPA), preferred a clandestine resistance to the politics of accommodation with the regime instead, as Reich wanted, an open rebellion.

Reich saw in psychoanalysis an instrument of enlightenment and thus a means of promoting the political fight against National-Socialism. Freud, on the other hand, viewed psychoanalysis as an “apolitical” science, “neutral” as mathematics, that can be practiced in any political system as long as it is not prohibited. Already in May of 1932, in a letter to the then president of the Deutsche Psychoanalytische Gesellschaft (DPG) [German Psychoanalytic Association] Max Eitingon, Freud warned against the “dangerous fool” Reich. After Hitler seized power Reich’s political position became in fact a source of danger: had the National-Socialist really equated psychoanalysis with Reich’s position, psychoanalysis would have been banned immediately. However, contrary to accepted opinion, this did not happen. Moreover, the readiness of the psychoanalyst to accommodate with the regime, resulting in surrender, made prohibiting psychoanalysis in Germany superfluous. Later Freud openly advocated the expulsion of Reich from the DPG and thus from the IPA: “I demand this for scientific reasons, but I am not opposed should this happen for political reasons as well, and wish him every success as a martyr”, as he wrote on April 17, 1933 to Eitingon, who shortly thereafter emigrated to Palestine whereupon the “Aryans” Felix Boehm and Carl Müller-Braunschweig took over the presidency of the DPG in the fall of 1933. Those two undertook to “save” psychoanalysis in Germany, a word (“save”), which was used at that time by Anna Freud and IPA president Ernest Jones as well. In the subsequent years Boehm and Müller-Braunschweig continuously coordinated their efforts with the leadership of the IPA, to which Anna Freud belonged as well. Here is one example: In the summer of 1933, in a number of encounters with Nazi officials, Boehm explained the difference between the positions of Freud and Reich. Müller-Braunschweig summed up Boehm’s arguments in a paper entitled Psychoanalyse und Weltanschauung [Psychoanalysis and Weltanschauung] (1933) and discussed this paper in a meeting with Jones in Holland, about which Jones informed Anna Freud in Vienna. After everybody became acquainted with the content of the article, Müller-Braunschweig published it in a periodical sympathetic to the Nazi regime.

About the same time Reich’s name was stricken from the roster of the DPG. Reich, at that time in exile in Scandinavia, learned about this one year later, at the 13th International Psychoanalytical Congress held in Lucerne. Based on the legally formal argument that nobody could be an IPA member without being a member of a constituent society (from which Reich was first secretly expelled), Reich was told in Lucerne that he no longer belonged to the IPA. Freud’s wish to get rid of Reich was finally fulfilled. After the war ended, Jones, still occupying the office of IPA president, declared at the 16th International Psychoanalytical Congress in Zurich, clearly alluding to Reich: “The temptation is understandably great to add socio-political factors to those that are our special concern, and to re-read our findings in terms of sociology, but it is a temptation which, one is proud to observe, has, with very few exceptions, been stoutly resisted.”

The aforementioned policy of the DPG led to its joining the Deutsche Institut für psychologische Forschung und Psychotherapie [German Institute for Psychological Research and Psychotherapy], whose director was Heinrich Mathias Göring, a cousin of Reichsmarschall Göring. This merger was preceded by the publication of an essay again written by Müller-Braunschweig: this time the subject was Nationalsozialistische Idee und Psychoanalyse [The National-Socialist Idea and Psychoanalysis] (1935). A further precondition for entry into the “Göring Institute” was the “voluntary” resignation of all the Jews still belonging to the DPG. Jones, the IPA president, travelled to Berlin at the end of 1935 in order to urge the Jewish DGP member to resign “voluntarily” “in the interest of our psychoanalytic cause in Germany”.[i]

Although the DPG has now become ‘judenrein’ (cleansed of Jews), as expressed in the Nazi-jargon of the time, she continued as a constituent society of the IPA. In the Korrespondenzblatt (bulletin) of the IPA (printed as an addendum to the Internationale Zeitschrift für Psychoanalyse) one reads this optimistic prospect for the future: “With the approval and support of the adjudicating authorities the ‘German Institute for Psychology and Psychotherapy’ was founded in June [of 1936, B. N.], which will begin its activities in October of 1936 and in which the DPG will participate as a fully accredited member alongside the other schools of psychotherapy; it is to be expected that this will draw auditors and candidates in increasing numbers” (1937, p. 333). However, this “apolitical” institutional policy came to an end in 1938. The Nazis ordered the DPG dissolved. In the International Journal of Psycho-Analysis the following communication appeared: “In November 1938 the German Psycho-Analytic Society, transformed into Arbeitsgruppe A of the Deutsche Institut für psychologische Forschung und Psychotherapie, resigned its membership in the International Psycho-Analytic Association“ (1939, p. 134). All this was in stark contrast to the fact that the expulsion of Reich (or his “resignation” as Jones characterized it after the war) from both the DPG and the IPA was not mentioned at all in any of the organs of the associations. Reich simply disappeared from institutional annals without leaving a trace.

Finally, the bitter irony of this story is that just as Freud began to reproach Reich for spreading “bolshevist propaganda” in psychoanalytic journals, Reich’s conflicts with the Communist Party increasingly came to a head. While the Stalinist comrades had already looked askance at Reich’s advocacy of a sexuality freed from bourgeois compulsions, the publication of Reich’s Massenpsychologie des Faschismus [Mass Psychology of Fascism] in 1933 gave them cause to kick him out of the party, either at the end of 1933 or beginning of 1934. In that book Reich was critical of the communist doctrine that the proletariat should be immune from National-Socialist propaganda and that a socialist revolution in Germany was imminent. Reich, for whom by his own admission psychoanalysis and Marxism were like mother and father, now became an orphan for the second time. From then on he was the only bearer of his science. This historical and biographical background reveals the full meaning of the aforementioned introductory quotation from the 1935 entry in Reich’s diary: “it is a heavy burden to bear” when “for the sake of the cause one becomes more and more alone and no longer a human being among others.”

Half a century later, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Reich’s birthday (24 March 1997), Professor H. G. Petzold, a scientist interested in the history of psychotherapy but not himself a psychoanalyst, addressed a request to the officers of the IPA and the two German psychoanalytic societies the DPG and the Deutsche Psychoanalytische Vereinigung (DPV) to revoke Reich’s expulsion retroactively. The officers of the IPA and the DPV did not even deign to answer while the president of the DPG agreed to publish a communication, extracted from a report in the house organ, in which was stated, among others, that while Reich’s expulsion was an injustice, a symbolic rehabilitation could not be offered, because “in view of Reich’s later theoretical developments, calling Reich today a psychoanalyst and a posthumous readmission to membership are no longer possible. This would not be in keeping with his numerous ideas and activities nor with the present-day psychoanalytic image of the DPG”.[ii] Such reasoning by professional psychoanalysts would be the delight of a basher who, after having beaten his roommate black and blue, would refuse to take him back because he now looked so ugly.

Whereas it is arguable that Reich’s work could be fairly divided into separate segments, – thus an original psychoanalytic phase, a sex-economy and vegetotherapy intermediate phase and an orgonomic end phase, – Reich himself regarded his work as an integrated whole. In this way he attributed an identity to his scientific theory that is lost in the frequently fragmented biographies. Therefore, in view of the fact that Reich was in the habit of elaborating and emending his early writings according to later “realizations”, it is very difficult to achieve a clear historical and critical perspective on his work. Thus, for example, his book Geschlechtsreife, Enthaltsamkeit, Ehemoral. Kritik der bürgerlichen Se­xualreform [Sexual Maturity, Abstinence, Marriage Morals. Critique of Bourgeois Sex Reform] (1930) was reissued in 1936 with the title Die Sexualität im Kulturkampf [Sexuality in the Culture Struggle] and it was this new edition that was then used as the original for the American translation that appeared in 1945 as The Sexual Revolution Toward a Self-Governing Character Structure. In this way, across many editions and various languages, an epigraph of a chapter of the 1936 edition in which Reich described the libertarian sexual politics in the Soviet Union in the 1920’s (Second Part, Chapter Two), became the slogan of the 1968 student movement.

The 1968 rebels found in Wilhelm Reich their apostle; before this happened, Reich was remembered only as a crazy scientist, a rain maker, an UFO researcher or an orgone healer. In this way they made a crucial contribution to the rediscovery of this “political” psychoanalyst. On the other hand, it is also time to rediscover the psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, who in the course of his work in the counseling sex clinics he founded came to know intimately patients today diagnosed as ego-psychologically impaired. On the basis of these experiences Reich was able to include the nonverbal, bodily, expressive behavior and acting out of these patients within the verbal therapeutic process because he wanted to help such patients instead of excluding them as unsuitable from psychoanalytic treatment.[iii]


 

[i] Bernd Nitzschke: „... im Interesse unserer psychoanalytischen Sache in Deutschland“. Die Ausgrenzung Wilhelm Reichs aus der „Internationalen Psychoanalytischen Vereinigung“ – Marginalien zu einer Vereinsgeschichte oder Paradigma für den Prozeß der Institutionalisierung der Psychoanalyse unter (politisch) erschwerten Bedingungen? In: Wiesse, Jörg (Ed.): Chaos und Regel. Die Psychoanalyse in ihren Institutionen. Göttingen (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht) 1992, pp. 76-131.

[ii] Quoted from Karl Fallend &Bernd Nitzschke: Vorwort zur Neuauflage [Preface to the New Edition]. In: Karl Fallend &Bernd Nitzschke (Eds.): Der ‚Fall’ Wilhelm Reich. Beiträge zum Verhältnis von Psychoanalyse und Politik. Neuauflage. Giessen (Psychosozial-Verlag) 2002, pp. 13-28.

[iii] Further details about the life and work of Wilhelm Reich as well as comprehensive bibliographies can be found in the following works of the author:

Bernd Nitzschke: Psychoanalysis during National Socialism; present-day consequences of a historical controversy in the “case” of Wilhelm Reich. The Psychoanalytic Review 86, 1999, pp. 349-366;

Bernd Nitzschke: Psychoanalysis and National Socialism. Banned or Brought into Confirmity? Break or Continuity? International Forum of Psychoanalysis 12, 2003, pp. 98-108;

Karl Fallend & Bernd Nitzschke (Eds.): Der ‚Fall’ Wilhelm Reich. Beiträge zum Verhältnis von Psychoanalyse und Politik. [New edition]. Giessen (Psychosozial-Verlag) 2002.

 

* Translated from the German by Zvi Lothane, M. D., Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, Mount Sinai School of Medicine. Member of the American Psychoanalytic Association and IPA. Author of In Defense of Schreber Soul Murder and Psychiatry (German version: Seelenmord und Psychiatrie Zur Rehabilitierung Schrebers). Additional information at www.lothane.com

Bernd Nitzschke is a certified psychologist, psychoanalyst in private practice, and science journalist. Member of the Institute for Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy in Düsseldorf. At the Institute for Psychotherapy Research, Method Development and Postgraduate Education in Cologne he functions as training and supervising analyst and academic lecturer. He published books about the life and work of Sigmund Freud and, with Karl Fallend, the book The “Case” of Wilhelm Reich – Contributions to the Relationship Between Psychoanalysis and Politics. Additional information at the internet site: http://www.werkblatt.at/nitzschke/index.html