Anna and Sigmund Freud on their way into exile, June 1938

The rise of fascism

The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1918 had brought a wave of educational reform, opening up new possibilities for progressively-minded teachers and psychoanalysts like Anna Freud.

Sadly, it was short-lived. The 1930s saw right-wing and increasingly militarised factions gaining power in Vienna. In 1932, the Matchbox School shut down. In 1938, Austria was taken over by the Nazis and the Freud family had to flee.

After a brief scramble to make arrangements and obtain travel documents, the family arrived in London in 1938, settling at 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead (now the Freud Museum).

In early September 1939, the Second World War broke out, and a few weeks later Sigmund Freud died.

Anna quickly settled down to work in her new home. “England is indeed a civilised country,” she wrote, “and I am naturally grateful that we are here. There is no pressure of any kind and there is a great deal of space and freedom ahead.”

The Hampstead Clinic

After the outbreak of war Anna set up the Hampstead War Nursery, which provided foster care for over 80 children of single-parent families. She aimed to help the children form attachments by providing continuity of relationships with the helpers and by encouraging mothers to visit as often as possible.

Together with Dorothy Burlingham she published studies of the children under stress in Young Children in Wartime and Infants without Families. Later she was to say:

“I have been especially fortunate all my life. From the very beginning, I was able to move back and forth between practice and theory.”

The Freud-Klein controversy

Psychoanalysis was already established in England when Anna Freud arrived. A key figure in British psychoanalysis was Melanie Klein.

Klein was especially interested in child analysis, and her views were sharply opposed to those of Anna Freud.

Against the background of the Second World War, the growing differences between Anna Freud and Melanie Klein were debated in a series of scientific meetings, which later became known as the ‘Controversial Discussions’.

The psychoanalyst Margaret Little later recalled:

“The first scientific meeting of the British Psycho-Analytical Society that I attended was a noisy evening with bombs dropping every few minutes and people ducking as each crash came. In the middle of the discussion someone I later came to know as D.W. stood up and said, ‘I should like to point out that there is an air raid going on,’ and sat down. No notice was taken, and the meeting went on as before!”

The ‘Controversial Discussions’ ended with a formal division within the British Psychoanalytical Society, between the Anna Freudians, the Kleinians and the independents. This division continues to this day.