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Sezione Locale della Società Psicoanalitica Italiana

Sezione Locale della Società Psicoanalitica Italiana

Why war?

With no wind in the sails and slow mills

We are publishing the version of this paper prepared for the conference and therefore lacks the bibliographical references.

Alberto Luchetti

(Padova) Full Member and Training Psychoanalyst Member Italian Psychoanalytical Society, Centro Veneto di Psicoanalisi

My introduction to our work today is simply to re-capitulate the writing that Freud dedicated to war exactly ninety years ago. That being said, it was not easy to embark on a journey to accomplish it. First of all, we inevitably find ourselves inhibited to speak or write about war here, involved but protected, while once again (but has it ever been otherwise?) war tragically engulfs millions of people: once again people close to us, in Europe, have come under attack for months. On the other hand, how can we not feel torn—like Freud himself—between the need to reflect psychoanalytically about these catastrophes provoked by human beings and the feeling of impotence and futility we feel in doing so, appalled at the disturbing repetition of what von Clausewitz himself called “nothing but mutual destruction”, which accompanies ab origine the history of human beings?[1]

These feelings and sensations are expressed well by the title Warum Krieg? / Why war? / Perché guerra? which, rather than alluding to an explanation (much less an exhaustive one), conveys bewilderment, perplexity, astonishment in the face of war. Rather than the starting point of Freudian reflection with the goal of reaching an answer, it emerges as its end point, its result. The answer to that question, is the self-same question…

Ninety years ago, it was Freud, in the absence of his correspondent who had already flown to the United States, who insisted on giving this title to the exchange of two letters—the minimum to be considered correspondence—with Albert Einstein. The latter, as we know, had been invited by the “Permanent Committee for Literature and the Arts” of the League of Nations through initiatives of the International Institute of Intellectual Co-operation, to choose an interlocutor and a topic of universal interest on which to exchange respective ideas. Einstein had mentioned the name of Freud, whom he had met five years earlier, and the topic he proposed was, “Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?” in the firm, personal conviction that “The ill-success, despite their obvious sincerity, of all the efforts made … to reach this goal leaves us no room to doubt that strong psychological factors are at work, which paralyse these efforts”. Einstein then asked, “Is it possible to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychoses of hate and destructiveness?”

Freud insisted on the title Why war? instead of Right and violence, that he himself had used to replace the one proposed by Einstein—Law and might—, deeming the word “violence” “balder and harsher” if one wishes to indicate without feigning what it is about (on another occasion, he mentioned the importance of not “giving way first in words, and then little by little in substance”). Freud goes as far as to state that: Right and violence “seems absolutely insufficient. I cannot accept it and I feel myself obliged to demand that ‘war’ also appears in the title.”

Yet Freud makes no explicit mention of the shadow of war that, in those dark times, was no longer a threat coming from behind but already casting grim shadows over the future. Indeed, we have the impression that Freud was speaking from a Turris eburnea—as has been mentioned—withdrawn from the menace outside, taking refuge in his laboratory of thought, “turning his back on the external living world in the present in favor of the past and inner world” (P. Bion). This impression is also given by comparisons with his other writing on war, dating from the spring of 1915, Thoughts for the Times on War and Death, which began describing Freud’s bewilderment: “In the confusion of wartime in which we are caught up, relying as we must on one-sided information, standing too close to the great changes that have already taken place or are beginning to, and without a glimmering of the future that is being shaped we ourselves are at a loss as to the significance of the impressions which press in upon us and as to the value of the judgements which we form. We cannot but feel that no event has ever destroyed so much that is precious in the common possessions of humanity, confused so many of the clearest intelligences, or so thoroughly debased what is highest. Science herself has lost her passionless impartiality”. At the end of that same year, 1915, Freud wrote to one of his correspondents that “… If you will now observe what is happening in this war—the cruelties and injustices for which the most civilized nations are responsible, the different way in which they judge their own lies and wrong-doings and those of their enemies, and the general lack of insight which prevails”.

What is more, again in that 1915 writing, Freud wrote of “the mental distress felt by non-combatants, against which it is such a heavy task to struggle”, while those who are fighting became “a cog in the gigantic machine of war”, which, once set in motion, then proceeded on its own accord. Misery was brought about by, among others, disillusionment that civilization had not overcome barbarism, and by the imposed change in attitudes toward death, which could no longer be denied.

Seemingly, none of this comes out in Why War? Here, Freud declares his own incompetence: what he could say as a “philanthropist” had already been said by Einstein: “But though you have taken the wind out of my sails I shall be glad to follow in your wake”. Indeed, Freud seems uncertain of his ability to offer a precisely psychoanalytical contribution, and apologizes at the outset “You must forgive me if in what follows I go over familiar and commonly accepted ground as though it were new”. Furthermore, he had expressed his dissatisfaction to Eitington even before beginning the correspondence. “I don’t expect to get a Nobel Peace Prize for it”, and once it had all been concluded, spoke of it as “the tedious and sterile so-called discussion with Einstein”.

However, in the text, as mentioned above, he begins with an abrupt consideration that originates from an initial, bitter consideration: “You begin with the relation between Right and Might. There can be no doubt that that is the correct starting-point for our investigation. But may I replace the word ‘might’ by the balder and harsher word ‘violence’”? The right developed out of the violence. As in the whole animal kingdom, conflicts of interest are, in principle, “settled by the use of violence”. There is no other option but to transfer the latter (first in the form of muscular strength, with the introduction of weapons, to an intellectual one) to an enduring community: “L’union fait la force. … right is the might of a community [Gemeinschaft]. It is still violence, ready to be directed against any individual who resists it; it works by the same methods and follows the same purposes. The only real difference lies in the fact that what prevails is no longer the violence of an individual but that of a community”. To be maintained permanently, this community must be organized through norms, institutions, and especially by the growth of emotional ties which are the true source of the strength of the group of people.

At this point, rather abruptly and categorically, as if irritated at not finding wind for his own sails, Freud declares: “Here, I believe, we already have all the essentials: violence overcome [Überwindung] by the transference of power [Übertragung der Macht] to a larger unity, which is held together by emotional ties between its members. What remains to be said is no more than an expansion and a repetition of this”.

With this “transference of power”, in reality, the problems actually shift. They recur when inequalities are recreated within the established community. “Thus we see that the violent solution of conflicts of interest is not avoided even inside a community”. Hence a second bitter conclusion and warning is made: “We shall be making a false calculation if we disregard the fact that law was originally brute violence and that even to-day it cannot do without the support of violence.” “The attempt to set up a central authority to which the right of giving judgement upon all conflicts of interest shall be handed over and to replace actual force by the force of ideas seems at present to be doomed to failure.”

But why is it “so easy to make men enthusiastic [begeistern] about a war?”, Einstein asked. What is “inflammable” in the human animal? Here, Freud’s recourse to his theory of erotic and destructive drives—to the new dualism of Eros and the death drive—is another decisive plunge into the unique condition of human beings, namely, to be a drive animal. Indeed, another bitter conclusion follows. “Do not now ask us to turn too quickly to the values of good and evil. Both drives are equally indispensable, because the phenomena of life depend on their concurrence and contrast.” It is rare for action to be the work of a single drive, itself already composed of Eros and destruction: the reference to Lichtenberg and his “Compass of Motives” is to emphasize that the pleasure of attacking and destruction is present, mixed with other drives, even the higher ones, which are sometimes hiding behind those two.

Here Freud takes an in-depth examination of the death drive:

  • it acts in every living creature and its aspiration is to bring it to ruin;
  • it becomes a destructive drive when it turns outward, against objects. “The organism preserves its own life, so to say, by destroying an extraneous one”.
  • part of the death drive, however, remains active within the living being, in an internalization of the destructive drive (again, a “transference of power”). “We have even been guilty of the heresy of attributing the origin of conscience to this diversion inwards of aggressiveness”.

And he gives us another bitter conclusion: “if these forces are turned to destruction in the external world, the organism will be relieved and the effect must be beneficial. This would serve as a biological justification [biologischen Entschuldigung] for all the ugly and dangerous impulses against which we are struggling. It must be admitted that they stand nearer to Nature than does our resistance to them for which an explanation also needs to be found”. Regarding nature, to speak of “biological justification” confirms what Fornari would later state as a criticism of Freud (who surely alternates between endogenous and exogenous): the expression “nearer to Nature” is meant to refer to “human nature” rather than nature in general. Fornari continues: “the problem of guilt [and of drive, which is above it] represents a novelty brought into the world of nature by man as animal who is in conflict with his instinctual life … the rise of peculiarity of guilt is due to a condition of primary ‘mutation’ (used here in the same sense that this term is accorded in biology)”.

Therefore, it is Homo homini lupus—as Freud had written a few years earlier referencing Hobbes—but clarifying that the wolf is neither a lupus to the other wolf (not even in male rivalry) or to its prey: “No pleasure in causing suffering [that is, no sadism]; no inclination to massacre the entire herd in a holocaust!”. And the wolf is not lupus to man, either. “The wolf of … Hobbes is a kind of emblematic figure for our own cruelty, but can in no way serve as an argument for invoking … the so-called biological character of our destructiveness”. (Laplanche) Only man is lupus for man. Man’s sadistic and destructive aggression is absolutely unrelated to any animality, and the drive is not an original “natural-ness,” but a true “second nature” deposited in man by the effects of the child’s rapport with the adult other. Money-Kyrle pointed out int hose years that war is a human passion, all too human: in the higher animals there is nothing corresponding to the warfare made by human beings; “if war consists in fighting, between members of the same species, in cooperation … in the rutting battles of animals only the first two items in this definition are fulfilled”, “But the man is capable of fighting under a leader, with one group against another; the ape apparently is not”.

Precisely because of this intimate and inseparable connection between human beings and drives, Freud concludes that “there is no use in trying to get rid of men’s aggressive inclinations”, and thinking you can do so is a risky illusion. In those same weeks, he wrote in another context of a “sad disclosure”: “It really seems as though it is necessary for us to destroy some other thing or person in order not to destroy ourselves, in order to guard against the impulsion to self-destruction”. However, one can take these and “try to divert them to such an extent that they need not find expression in war”. But how can we achieve this diversion? “Anything that encourages the growth of emotional ties between men must operate against war.” The structure of human society is to a large extent based on these ties, which may be of two kinds: love, though inhibited in the sexual aim, and identification.

These “indirect methods of combating war” are surely more practicable in contrast to an ideal “subordination of the instinctual life to the dictatorship of reason” [an ideal that would thus fall under the category of “transference of power”], But they give no guarantee of success, much less a quick one. If there is no wind in our psychoanalytic sails, the mills at the disposal of humanity, and psychoanalysis with it, to grind this “human matter” and to feed with it the building or rebuilding of these bonds is slow, too slow and for this reason perhaps painfully ineffective. “An unpleasant picture comes to one’s mind of mills that grind so slowly that people may starve before they get their flour”. But wasn’t it Freud that pointed to psychoanalysis as “slow magic”, the talking cure?

Discouragement is inevitable. And contrary to the impression of Turris eburnea, here Freud expresses it, in reverse, by asking a seemingly cynical question, yet explicitly stating that this is “a mask of assumed detachment”: but why then do we become so indignant at war, resisting it instead of accepting it as “one of life’s many painful calamities,” that is, considering it in accordance with nature and fully justified biologically, and in practice quite avoidable?

Though the question seems cold and detached, the answer is actually quite impassioned: “ everyone has a right to his own life, because war puts an end to human lives that are full of hope, because it brings individual men into humiliating situations, because it compels them against their will to murder other men, and because it destroys precious material objects which have been produced by the labours of humanity … [and because of the present-day] perfection of instruments of destruction a future war might involve the extermination of one or perhaps both of the antagonists”.[2] And just like the inflammability of war, we feel this way because “we cannot help doing so”: “we are obliged … for organic reasons”. For incalculable ages mankind has been passing through a process of evolution of culture or civilization, whose “causes and beginnings are obscure and its outcome uncertain … It may perhaps be leading to the extinction of the human race”. To this process we owe “the best of what we have become, as well as a good part of what we suffer from”, comparable to the domestication of certain species of animals and involves physical and psychical alterations: including a progressive displacement of instinctual aims and a restriction of instinctual impulses, a strengthening of the intellect and above all an internalization of the aggressive impulses.

Freud continues, “Now war is in the crassest opposition to the psychical attitude imposed on us by the process of civilization, and for that reason we are bound to rebel against it; we simply cannot any longer put up with it. … [we have] a constitutional intolerance of war, an idiosyncrasy magnified, as it were, to the highest degree. It seems, indeed, as though the lowering of aesthetic standards [here again we see a reference to organic, perceptive, and sensorial modifications] in war plays a scarcely smaller part in our rebellion than do its cruelties”. It is precisely on these organic reasons related to our civilizational evolution that the “non-utopian” hope that wars can be ended in the near future is based, “one thing we can say: whatever fosters the growth of civilization works at the same time against war”.

Confronted once again with war (not only by Einstein’s call for it), Freud can only come back to it from the point he had reached in Civilization and its Discontents, from that assessment and consideration of the human condition and the “disturbing factor” that characterizes it. In Discontents, he starts from the original impotence of the man-child, narcissism, and the resulting aggression and destructiveness from the need to ward off that which causes displeasure and pain – the body, the external world, and especially relations with others. Freud emphasized that hostility to civilization arises precisely because it imposes on the infant body a “treatment” that implies a limitation and transformation of drive sexuality produced precisely by those relations. A treatment that is indispensable so that the drive state can flow into civilization and contribute to the bond between individuals more strongly and stably than mere interests in self-preservation, draining significant amounts of libido.

In Discontents, through the paradoxes of the internalization of aggression, with psychoanalysis Freud arrived with astonishment at some painful but inescapable truths:

–          That is, there is “a kind of compulsive impulse of an almost organic nature” to get rid of the internal drive-attack (which has something entirely irreconcilable about it and of which anxiety is an initial, rudimentary form) by means of a passage into the real and the act: it is “the need to create an act, so that the drive itself finds its limit” (Laplanche), a link that is already a first sketch of representation: “It is a matter of giving a certain positivity in the real to what is formless, in order to succeed in relieving its burden” (Goldberg). From this need for punishment to curb the drive in reality, we move on to guilt (“a topographical variety of anxiety”, Freud says), which curbs that drive attack through the construction of a topic, a “new step in the Ego,” the Super-Ego.

  • The only realistic strategy for satisfying destructive aggression (equivalent to the sex drive) is to dominate it, but the only way to dominate it, after initially diverting it by directing it against the other, is to satisfy it by leading it back against the ego as superegoic aggression and guilt.
  • If human drive sexuality has an irreconcilably disruptive register, and if sexuality equals aggression, then civilization neither lies outside of this equivalence nor in front of it: “civilization itself repeats rather than opposes the other two terms” (Mistura), so that the heresy of Civilization and its Discontents is the triple tautology that ensues: sexuality equals aggression/destruction equals civilization. “What a powerful obstacle to civilization aggression must be, if the defense against it can cause as much unhappiness as aggression itself!” he exclaimed in Discontents; here, in Why War?, he suggests that “it may perhaps be leading to the extinction of the human race.”
  • A few days before writing Why War?, he wrote that the alternative for the sexual death drive that flowed back from the external world was either being bound by the Super-Ego and accordingly turning against the ego, or letting it carry out “its mute and uncanny activity as a free destructive instinct in the ego and the id.” So, it is binding versus

Discontents outlined a diagnosis not of human adaptation but of what makes us unsuitable for the civilization/culture that is nevertheless necessary for us to adapt and which organically modifies us. Indeed, we are unfit because of “our blind destructive fury” that turns out to be “an intractable psychic function,” insofar as it coincides with the sexual that, along with language, indeed intertwined with it, characterizes our being human. “We can, at best, … adapt to that which makes us incapable of adaptation. To go any further … would be to cure ourselves of being human” (Bersani). But this is precisely the Kulturarbeit, the impossible but indispensable cultural and civilizational task that Freud entrusts to psychoanalysis, an endless and precarious task, always to be resumed like the draining of the Zuiderzee, he says in those same weeks of 1932: to cure ourselves of our humanity, of which war seems to be a tragic “corollary.” After all, we wonder if Freud, by pushing the newly introduced death drive onto a biological or meta-biological plane where there are only instincts and physical forces actually ends up bringing the “iron and fire” of the sexual into the very foundations of life, just as, in the body of the man-child, it is the generalized subversion introduced by sexuality that brings human war into life (Laplanche).

In those early 1930s, the Freudian question found immediate resonance, developments and equally radical reassertions.

As early as 1931 and again in the context of certain initiatives from the League of Nations, Edward Glover, emphasizing the role in war of sadistic and masochistic impulses and the unconscious defenses against them, argues decisively that the real functions of war are destructive. Indeed, the more just and realistic the immediate motives for war appear, the more men use them to deny the evidence of unconscious motives. The purpose of psychoanalysis would be precisely to uncover the irrational and illusory character of political-economic rationalizations. War is a dramatic attempt by the group to resolve internal, individual conflicts and anxieties, causing the id to coincide with the superego, which short-circuits the ego.

In 1934 and then in 1937 Money-Kyrle, along with a sexual theory of war, seen as an eruption of sexual fantasies, and an Oedipal theory, where the warlike impulse originates in ambivalence toward the father, added a paranoic theory of war. This held that, at its root, there was a psychotic mode of dealing with real difficulties, specifically unconscious persecutory anxieties that lead to identifying a foreign group with the internal bad object that must be attacked in order to defend itself, and depressive anxieties about attacking and destroying the internal good object. Significantly, Money-Kyrle points out how these modes can insinuate — and here another destructive effect of warfare – into those who must defend themselves against brutal and unprovoked aggression by an enemy group or people, risking to distort thinking and undermine action either by excess or defect, for example prompting denial of real danger.

As we know, these reflections will be taken up, in Italy, by Fornari, who would trace the “war phenomenon” back to the sphere of human reactions to mourning and, in general, to human attitudes in the face of death, which have important possibility of controlling depressive and persecutory anxieties in their socialization. This is a socialization where sharing itself becomes the criterion of reality and truth, a psychotic dimension of group life that is intolerant of different criteria of validation, hence the slide from separate to different, different to extraneous, alien, and finally alien to enemy. “If the ‘other than the self’ is perceived as a threat to, or a destruction of, the reality of the self, the killing of the ‘other than the self’ coincides with the affirmation of the reality of the self” and of its own truth, not to be set apart.

Hence the psychoanalytic definition of war proposed by Fornari: “a criminal act, fantasied individually and consummated collectively for the purpose … of preserving the love object through a paranoid process.” It is precisely by offering the possibility of a paranoid reaction to mourning that war can go so far as to seem an admirable institution – as Freud asserted – but now proven to be historically and definitively illusory with the technical advances by which, as Freud wrote in Discontents, the “men have gained control over the forces of nature to such an extent that with their help they would have no difficulty in exterminating one another to the last man.”


Surely, if Freudian reflections land on a painful and enigmatic enquiry, there is, on the other hand, certainty regarding the traumatic consequences of war. These have been evidenced by the pioneering psychoanalytic research on the traumas of World War I, then on the equally terrible of World War II and then all the wars and conflicts that have followed in various forms and extents over the past decades.

This leads me to another legitimate question: considering the latency with which their effects are detected (in fact, they transcend several generations), don’t we find distant but pulsating echoes of wars in all analytical events, especially at moments when these most challenge us? Doesn’t the madness of war, which annihilates human lives physically and traumatically by breaking bonds and dismantling relational, social and cultural references, emerge in the transference where we struggle with areas without words and without Ego or subject, where the unrecognizable fragments of histories that were expunged from History break through?

Just as Rabelais’s Pantagruel found himself sailing on the border of the Frozen Sea when he suddenly hears voices and sounds in the air without seeing who or what is making them. He picks up these frozen words, burning in his hands, and they can finally be heard, for they were “in some barbarous language.” “Many sharp words, and bloody words too … there were terrible words, and others unpleasant to behold.” In those seas, the helmsman testifies, an immense and cruel combat had taken place, for “at that moment, the words and shouts of men and women, the beating of clubs, the clanking of men’s armor and horses, the neighing of steeds, and all the remaining din of battle froze in the air. And now that the rigors of winter have passed and the beautiful, calm and temperate weather has returned, they melt away and can be heard.”

We will need other seasons and the warmth of human bodies to unfreeze the words, sounds, voices, affections, even the time itself that the war has frozen.

The experiences we will hear from our friends and colleagues will testify to this.



(Translated by Scott Alan Stuart)




[1] Anthropologists, archaeologists, and ethnographers disagree on the origins of war. According to recent studies, it appears that the earliest documented occurrence of warfare was at Jebel Sahaba (a submerged necropolis at least 13,000 years old and located in the north of present-day Sudan, near the border with Egypt), where in the late Pleistocene the Nile Valley was the scene of repeated clashes, probably caused by territorial disputes exacerbated by climate change.

[2] Moreover, here Freud also takes a position concerning defensive wars: “one cannot condemn all types of war to the same extent; as long as there are states and nations ready to annihilate other states and nations mercilessly, the latter are required to prepare for war”.


Freud S. (1929). Il disagio della civiltà. O.S.F., 10.


Patrizio Campanile, Venezia

Centro Veneto di Psicoanalisi



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