The making of a Jew

Sigmund Freud's cultural identity was central to the man and his work, finds William Cook

Sigmund Freud hated birthdays, especially his own, but I think he would have enjoyed the celebrations of his 150th birthday at Berlin's Jewish Museum, which shed fresh light on his German and Jewish antecedents - not least his wonderfully dry German-Jewish sense of humour. "It's less invasive than having my head cut off, which would have been the only other alternative," writes the father of psychoanalysis in one particularly laconic letter, of the operation that he underwent to remove a cancerous segment of his jaw. Freud defined humour as the subversion of expectation, and he recognised that this was where Jewish culture excelled.

Freud was born into an Austrian empire that straddled Croatia and Romania, but his family, being Viennese Jewish, looked north-west to Germany, rather than south-east. As a toddler, Freud lived in Leipzig for a year before the family moved to Vienna. Ironically, in the light of subsequent events, the German Reich was far more welcoming to Jews than was his new home town. "I found I was expected to feel myself inferior and alien because I was a Jew," he wrote. That sense of alienation shaped his life and work. The Berlin exhibition reveals the tension in Freud's writing between the Jewish God of the Old Testament and the Christian God of the Gospels, between the idea of the father as a loving and forgiving figure and the patriarchal lawgiver.

When he was a boy, Freud's father told him how a Viennese Gentile had knocked his hat off and ordered him off the pavement. "What did you do?" asked Freud. "I stepped into the gutter and picked it up," replied his father. To the young Freud, this pragmatic response seemed unheroic, even cowardly, and it incited feelings of contempt (and later guilt) that would inform his writing. His father's death, and the personal crisis it provoked, inspired his first great publication, The Interpretation of Dreams.

Anti-Semitism slowed Freud's academic career at the University of Vienna, and it was not until his mid-forties that he was awarded a professorship. In the meantime, he cultivated links with more liberal academics in Germany. His friendship with Wilhelm Fliess, an ear, nose and throat specialist in Berlin, was especially pro ductive, and it was here rather than Vienna that the world's first psychoanalytic institute opened in 1920. Patients were billed according to their ability to pay - some even received treatment for free - and analysts themselves were required to undergo a year's analysis. "He knew that in Germany his science had a better chance to grow," says the curator of the exhibition, Dr Daniel Tyradellis. Yet by 1933, Freud's "un-German" publications were being burned on bonfires by Nazis in Berlin. "What progress we are making!" he observed, sardonically. "In the Middle Ages they would have burned me. Now they're content with only burning my books."

Freud's links with Jewish Germany were cemented by his marriage to Martha Bernays, a rich observant Jew from Hamburg. Freud regarded all religions as collective neuroses, but Austrian law required the couple to undergo an orthodox wedding (Freud finally got around to learning his Hebrew prayers the night before). Yet he insisted that his family keep Christian holidays. The Freuds even celebrated Christmas. Like for so many other Germans of his generation, it was anti-Semitism that made him a Jew. "Most of you are Jews," he told the members of Vienna's Psychoanalytic Society, "and therefore you are unable to win friends for the new teaching. Jews must be content with the modest role of preparing the ground." Freud's pessimistic view of anti-Semitism led him to champion the Swiss-German Gentile Carl Gustav Jung as his disciple. Jung called psychoanalysis a "Jewish science". Freud thought that it had no future if it remained so. "We are all in danger," he declared. "The Swiss will save us all."

Freud was wrong about the Swiss, but he was right about the danger. After the Anschluss of 1938 he was forced to flee Vienna, but even then his sense of humour did not desert him. To the storm troopers who stole 600 shillings from him, he remarked that this was more than he had ever received for a house call. When the Gestapo made him sign an affidavit saying he hadn't been mistreated, he included the addendum, "I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone." All four of his sisters who stayed on in Vienna died in concentration camps.

Freud's emigration to London broke his lifelong bond with Germany. "I've been told so often that I'm not a German," he said. "I'm glad I no longer need to be a German." However, forsaking his mother tongue ("the loss of the language in which I've lived and thought, and which I'll never be able to replace with another") was an abiding grief. Although he continued to treat patients until seven weeks before his death, his academic English was no substitute for the psychological nuances of his native German. Hence, it feels especially fitting to see this show in Berlin, the city that embraced and then rejected him, in Daniel Libeskind's jagged, jarring building, which evokes the enduring absence of Judaism from Germany's cultural life.

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a giant birthday cake, each slice depicting a different era from Freud's long and productive life. The greatest treat on display, however, is a home movie of his 80th birthday in 1936. A grave, emaciated figure, still puffing on one of his beloved cigars despite dozens of operations for oral cancer, Freud shuffles around his garden, nodding diffidently at well-wishers. Among the tributes was a card from Thomas Mann on behalf of 360 writers, artists and scholars from all around the world. "Nearly all those who wished me a happy birthday will wait in vain for thanks or acknowledgement," said Freud. "In this way I want to teach them not to do it next time."

Thankfully, the Jewish Museum has ignored this tongue-in-cheek directive. The result is a show that reclaims Freud not only as a German-speaking Jew, but as an international thinker who changed the way we see ourselves. Despite fierce persecution during the Reich, followed by 40 years of prohibition under the Communists, there are 800 psychoanalysts today in Berlin. And although not all of them are Freudians, they all owe a huge debt to Freud. "Everyone fights with his father," says Tyradellis, "and the father of psychoanalysis is Sigmund Freud."

"PSYCHOanalysis" is at the Jewish Museum, 9-14 Lindenstraße, Berlin until 27 August. For more details call: 00 49 30 25993 300 (or log on to www.juedisches-museum-berlin.de)

Freud facts

1856 - Born Sigismund Schlomo Freud in Freiberg, Moravia. Moves to Vienna in 1860

1873 - Enters the University of Vienna (Faculty of Medicine)

1884-87 - Publishes a series of papers on the medicinal properties of cocaine

1886 - Marries Martha Bernays

1896 - Coins the term for his new treatment, "psychoanalysis"

1897 - Conceptualises the Oedipus complex

1899 - Publishes his seminal work The Interpretation of Dreams

1901 - Publishes The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, in which he introduces the "Freudian slip"

1906 - Befriends Carl Gustav Jung

1923 - Publishes The Ego and the Id, revising his original hypothesis from The Interpretation of Dreams. He is diagnosed with cancer

1933 - Nazis burn Freud's books in Berlin

1938 - The Anschluss: Germany annexes Austria. Freud flees to London

1939 - Inoperable cancer diagnosed. Freud dies in London on 23 September