Resolution #3: Read Einstein and Freud on War


What did Einstein and Freud have to say about war, and how does it apply today?

writing letters



As the wars in the Mideast, Ukraine, and elsewhere wage on, what can psychiatry contribute to its understanding and resolutions, if anything? That same question emerged after World War I as the embers of World War II were heating up, and as modern psychiatry was just emerging, when the scientific genius Einstein wrote a letter to Freud in 1932. Here are a few excerpts with my reactions1:

Einstein: “Is there any way of delivering mankind from the menace of war?”
“The ill-success, despite their obvious sincerity, of all the efforts made during the last decade to reach this goal leaves us no room to doubt that strong psychological factors are at work, which paralyze these efforts . . . The craving for power.”
“And so we come to our last question. Is it possible to control man’s mental evolution so as to make him proof against the psychosis of hate and destructiveness? Experience proves that it is rather the so-called ‘Intelligentsia’ that is most apt to yield to these disastrous collective suggestions, since the intellectual has no direct contact with life in the raw, but encounters it in its easiest, synthetic form upon the printed page.”

Certainly, Einstein’s premonitions were right on. The League of Nations failed to have enough collective authority. It would take, he thought, a deeper psychological understanding, which is why he asked Freud. Freud wrote back about a month later.

Sigmund Freud: “. . . Nevertheless, men are also prone to conflicts of opinion, touching on occasion, the loftiest peaks of abstract thought, which seem to call for settlement by quite another method. This refinement, however, is a late development.”
“We have seen that there are two factors of cohesion in a community: violent compulsions and ties of sentiment (‘identifications’, in technical parlance) between the members of the group . . . Such notions can only be significant when they are the expression of a deeply rooted sense of unity, shared by all.”
“On the psychological side two of the most important phenomena of culture are, first, a strengthening of the of the intellect, which tends to master our instinctive life, and, secondly, an introversion of the aggressive impulse, with all its consequent benefits and perils.”

Of course, we know that their ideas did not lead to better preventions of war. However, one aspect of Freud’s analysis still seems to leave some better possibilities if enhanced, as Freud did believe in the evolution of civilization. That is the peaceful potential of identifications with the other, which includes historical and current similarities. In the case of Israel, we have origin stories of coming from the same Mideast areas of future Arabs, as told in the story of the stepbrothers Ismael and Isaac. Unfortunately, their relationship deteriorated when the young Ishmael was banished, but the same God gave him a future people, too. In terms of future religions, Islam eventually evolved out of Christianity and then Islam, in a sort of psychological family progression along generations.

Is there a way to revive and restore the family origin relationships, whether by mutual forgiveness and common goals for the future, in a sort of psycho-historical family therapy?

Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry and is now in retirement and retirement as a private pro bono community psychiatrist. A prolific writer and speaker, he has done a weekday column titled “Psychiatric Views on the Daily News” and a weekly video, “Psychiatry & Society,” since the COVID-19 pandemic emerged. He was chosen to receive the 2024 Abraham Halpern Humanitarian Award from the American Association for Social Psychiatry. Previously, he received the Administrative Award in 2016 from the American Psychiatric Association, the one-time designation of being a Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Speaker of the Assembly of the APA in 2002, and the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in 1991. He is an advocate and activist for mental health issues related to climate instability, physician burnout, and xenophobia. He is now editing the final book in a 4-volume series on religions and psychiatry for Springer: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, Christianity, and now The Eastern Religions, and Spirituality. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.


1. Strachey J. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, Volume XXII. Hogarth Press; 1964.

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