Sigmund Freud’s War

Archive volunteer Laura Langeder delves into the archive to discover the correspondence between Sigmund and Martin Freud during the First World War

“I would appreciate if you could send me a box of chocolate”

– wartime letter from Martin Freud to Sigmund Freud (MF19)

Sigmund Freud has made his feelings about the Great War of 1914-1918 manifest in many essays and books, most prominently Reflections on War and Death (1918). While feeling patriotic at first, as early as 1915 he criticises the war for its brutality. He condemns the fighting parties for their hypocrisy to call themselves guardians of culture and morality while acting so ruthless in warfare (Freud, 1915). Being too old to serve as a soldier, Sigmund Freud was not personally involved in combat. However, all three of his sons, Martin, Ernst and Oliver, fought in battle.

Martin Freud, the oldest son of Sigmund Freud, had active correspondence with his father during the war. His letters reveal an intimate insight into the life of a young soldier, writing not only about food, lodging and hygiene, but also about his fears, struggles and joys. This blog offers a brief insight into the intense war experience of Martin Freud, based on archive material held by the Freud Museum London. As a volunteer at the museum, I had the chance to catalogue these fascinating and moving testimonials. The original letters are written in German, parts of which have been translated for this blog by the author.

IN/0076 Portrait photograph of Ernst, Martin and Sigmund Freud taken in Salzburg, 1916

July 1914

On the 28th of July 1914, war was declared between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, sparking a global conflict that would last four years. At that time, Martin Freud was 24 years old, had just completed his legal studies and a clerkship at the city court of Salzburg, Austria.

August 1914

Martin’s initial reaction to the declaration of war indicates that he feels uneasy about the situation. In a letter to his father he is optimistic that the war will be over within a year and assures his father that he and his brothers will not be affected by the mobilisation. Within a few days, Martin’s perspective must have changed: only nine days after he expressed worries about the war, he informs his father that he registered as a volunteer for the army. He writes: “I had to search for a while to find the right stance towards the recent events. A few days ago, I collected my thoughts and today I volunteered for the artillery. […] I have no obligations and can therefore take the risk of not returning easier than many others, who have to provide for their wife and children. I would probably not forgive myself for staying behind without any good reason.” (Letter Ref.: MF 60; MF62)

September 1914

By September 1914, Martin had already had an eventful time. He spent August in Salzburg, where he was trained at the military academy. By the end of August, Martin and his unit moved to Innsbruck, in West Austria. In a letter to his father, Martin complains about the rigorous rules he faces as a soldier and that he did not get to change his clothes for days. At the beginning of September, Martin and his unit set up camp in a barn in South Tyrol, today Northern Italy. He writes to his father that he is exhausted by night shifts, but at least got to take a bath. (Letter Ref.: MF 54; MF 53; MF 52; MF 51)

IN/0269 Postcard photograph of Oliver and Martin Freud, 1917

October 1914

In October, Martin fell seriously ill. Despite being sent to military hospital, Martin’s pain gets worse and he decides to see a doctor despite the high costs. Sigmund and Martha Freud sent money and food to their son. In a heartfelt letter, Martin explains to his father that he got a few days off and checked in to a hotel to find some comfort, as he has already lost 9 pounds and his commander suspects he is suffering from jaundice. Martin apologises to his father for spending a lot of money on medical treatment and accommodation, and expresses his first doubts about military service by saying: “The last couple of days proved to me that being in possession of money is an invaluable advantage. […] It is strange but lately, in account of fever and being unwell, my military ambitions diminished, giving room to occupational and family interests.” Due to his illness, Martin was allowed a three-week sick leave. (Letter Ref. Code: MF 43; MF 48; MF 47; MF 46; MF 45; MF 44)

January 1915

After his sick leave, Martin was sent back to military school in Salzburg where he was trained to be a corporal. On the 18th of January, he was sent to battle in Galicia and Russia. In a letter he informs his family that his train will pass Vienna at 6 o’ clock in the morning and asks for someone to come to the train station to bring Schnapps, cigarettes and provision for his journey. (Letter Ref. Code: MF 35)

From January 1915 to February 1917, there is a 2 year gap in correspondence 

February 1917

In February 1917, Martin is back in Austria and will spend some uneventful weeks in a military camp in the Austrian city of Linz. In a series of letters, he complains about boredom. (Letter Ref. Code: MF 34-25)

IN/1021 Photograph of Martin Freud, undated

September 1917

In late August, Martin has been moved to Italy, where in early September he sends a letter to his father that depicts his life as a soldier very vividly. He describes: “I live […] about 600 meters (0,4 miles) behind the trench in an artful cavern. Waking up is strange, as no sunlight gets inside, and one is constantly surrounded by darkness, it is difficult to imagine that outside the southern sun burns down on what is left of a vineyard. Around it everything is destroyed, crater after crater. Unless you necessarily need to, you do not leave the cavern […] Life in the cavern is fun, the food is very good and there is enough to drink and smoke. If the rats, which are as big as rabbits here, carry things too far on the wooden boarding of our lodging, the captain ‘miaows’ very skilfully and the vermin hide themselves away.”

In another letter, Martin reports that the local people living along the frontline share their harvest of grapes, corn, nuts and figs with the soldiers. The news service is working well, Martin keeps up to date with war-related events all over Europe. Having overcome gastric flu, Martin sends a postcard saying: “[…] today I spent the morning crawling, shooting and hitting. My appetite is healthy again.” (Letter Ref. Code: MF 18; MF 20)

June 1918

From September 1917 to June 1918, there are no letters from Martin to his father. It seems this might be a mutual circumstance, since Martin complains in a letter from June 1918 about not receiving many letters from his family. Moreover, he does not receive the newspapers anymore and wonders whether his father forgot to pay for the subscription. (Letter Ref. Code: MF 17)

Photograph of Martin Freud taken at Berggasse 19, Vienna, c.1912

August 1918

In late August 1918, Martin went on furlough to Budapest, where the food supply was still good, despite the turmoil of war. A letter to his father from early September seems cheerful, as he reports of the many friends he got to see. Dr. Lajos Levy, Sigmund Freud’s doctor and friend, gave Martin a package of food and cigarettes to take with him to hunger-stricken Vienna. (Letter Ref. Code: MF12)

September 1918

In September 1918, the war had been going on for over four year and the frontline was not adequately supplied anymore. Martin asks his father to send food from Budapest, where Sigmund Freud was visiting friends at the time. Meanwhile, Martin had to make do with white bread and water to allay his hunger, though he was craving Austrian walnut pastry. (Letter Ref. Code: MF11)

October 1918

In October 1918, Austro-Hungarian troops situated in Italy started to reject commands, which led to the end of hostile action and paved the way for a truce on the 28th of October. Despite that positive outlook, a letter to his father reveals that Martin was not confident about the situation. He feels unhappy and disappointed about the apparent defeat and all the effort and time he has spent fighting this pointless war. Worried about his future, he tells his father that he has become hardened and frugal enough to take on any job that will provide for him and his wished-for future wife. He writes: “[…] but I will need all four of my limbs, five senses, an unclouded mind and good health, which won’t be the case if by then I get hanged, shot or massacred.” Further, he contemplates that through his war experience he got “wiser and older, though remaining relatively unharmed”. (Letter Ref. Code: MF2; MF 9)

November 1918

In November 1918, Martin sends a short telegram from an Italian hospital, where he cures a broken leg. (Letter Ref. Code: MF 4)

December 1918

After the end of the war, Martin was taken into Italian captivity. In a short letter he reveals that he has not received any messages from his family and does not know whether his letters and telegrams arrive. He expects to be brought to a detention camp in Genoa. (Letter Ref. Code: MF 6)

IN/0270 Postcard from Martin and Walter Freud to Sigmund Freud


With this last telegram the war-time correspondence between Martin and Sigmund Freud ends. We know today that Martin was in Italian captivity until his release in August 1919, having spent 5 years of his life as a soldier. Observing Martin’s letters in chronological order, it is obvious that his initial enthusiasm about participating in the war faded away as the conflict continued, reaching a point where he felt his time in the military was wasted. It seems this individual case exemplifies the experience of many Europeans, including Sigmund Freud.

After returning from captivity, Martin Freud met his wife Ernestine and they married in December 1919. He took on jobs in banking and publishing until he took over the position of publishing director of the Vienna Psychoanalytical Society in the early 1930s. In 1938, he fled Austria together with his son and settled in London, where he owned a tobacconist’s shop and wrote books.

by Laura Langeder, Archive Volunteer 



Martin Freud Letters, MF1-MF65, part of SF/01/18, Freud Museum London.

Freud, S., 1924 [1915]. Zeitgemäßes über Krieg und Tod. Internationaler Psychoanalytischer Verlag.

Zaufarek, S., 2008. Martin Freud – Biography. Psyalpha, [online] Available at: [Accessed on 19th January 2019].


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