By the spring of 1938 everyone in Sigmund Freud’s circle, apart from the great man, could see that the game was up. In March, the Nazis had annexed Austria, putting the founder of psychoanalysis – known to them as “a Jewish pseudoscience” – at enormous risk. By now Freud was 82, terminally ill and determined not to panic. Five years earlier, when the Nazis had made a public bonfire of his books in Germany, he had breezily declared: “What progress we are making. In the middle ages they would have burnt me; nowadays they are content with burning my books.” If only that had been the case.
Why was Freud so convinced that he didn’t need to worry? Partly because he had spent a lifetime claiming that he didn’t do politics, apparently unaware that politics might still insist on doing something to him. The sturm and drang of Bolshevism and nazism and everything in between struck him merely as a noisy sideshow, the outward manifestation of various individuals’ ragged inner lives. Sort out the oedipal complex, the death drive and other bits and pieces, and international common sense would return. So the old man clung on in Vienna, the city where he had lived for all but the first three years of his life, convinced that things would come right in the end.
They didn’t, of course, and this thrilling book, as edge-of-your-seat gripping as any heist movie, tells the story of how a “rescue squad” was marshalled to get Freud out of danger before it was too late. It included Freud’s devoted daughter Anna, his first biographer Ernest Jones and Marie Bonaparte, not only a pioneering female psychoanalyst but, most usefully, a princess of both Greece and Denmark. Even more important was Max Schur, Freud’s personal physician, who was tasked with taking care of a man so riddled with jaw cancer that even his beloved dog shied away from the stench of decay. Together, this devoted team managed to get permission for Freud and his extended family to travel by the Orient Express to Paris and from there to London.
Britain suited Freud. He’d visited as a young man and maintained that he would be happy to live there permanently despite “the rain, fog, drunkenness and conservatism”. America might have been a safer bet, but Freud had spent his career being rude about it. On 28 July 1938, the family bought a house at 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead with a mortgage of £4,000 from Barclays Bank. By this time, Freud was too ill to work, although he did feel strong enough to have Leonard and Virginia Woolf over for tea. Just over a year later he was dead.
Andrew Nagorski spikes his thriller with truly terrifying notes. Shortly before the dash for freedom, two of Freud’s children, Anna and Martin, were questioned by the Gestapo. They had taken the precaution of asking Schur for a deadly barbiturate to take if torture ensued. Moreover, four of Freud’s elderly sisters stayed in Austria; three perished in Treblinka, while the fourth starved to death. At the end of this otherwise excellent book we are still left pondering how Freud himself, whose work was all about facing up to the unpleasant realities of human life, could carry on believing for so long that he alone could give History the slip.
• Saving Freud: a Life in Vienna and an Escape to Freedom in London by Andrew Nagorski is published by Icon (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply