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Kurt R. Eissler and the Sigmund Freud Archives

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(The following post is by Anton O. Kris, M.D., 2014 executive director of the Sigmund Freud Archives and a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School. It is the first in a series of three weekly guest blogs by current and former executive directors of the Sigmund Freud Archives (SFA), an independent organization founded in 1951 to collect and preserve for scholarly use Sigmund Freud’s personal papers. The collection assembled by SFA and others has resided at the Library of Congress since 1952 and is now available online. In this blog, Dr. Kris recounts the roles of Kurt R. Eissler, SFA’s founding secretary, and Freud’s daughter Anna Freud in launching the effort to collect and preserve Freud’s correspondence and writings.) default

The plan to preserve Sigmund Freud’s letters began with his daughter Anna Freud, who consulted Ernst Kris and Edward Bibring, and then enlisted the help of Max Eitingon to retrieve Freud’s letters to Eitingon and those to be found among colleagues in Palestine.

The plan to develop the Sigmund Freud Archives, however, was Dr. Kurt R. Eissler’s, and it cannot be overstated that he, almost single-handedly, obtained the enormous collection that is now in the Library of Congress, including his many interviews of people who knew Freud. A great scholar and an extraordinarily hard worker, who made many significant contributions to the psychoanalytic literature, Eissler pursued his quest for completeness out of his belief in Freud’s personal as well as scientific virtues.

Eissler shared the prevailing admiration for Anna Freud and acceptance of her word as the final authority on matters concerning publication of Freud’s letters. She was mostly against release. And so was joined a dispute between Eissler and the biographical researchers. More than anything, Eissler feared that any material made public would become a vehicle for distortion and attacks on Freud.  And certainly, there wasand continues to bemuch evidence for that point of view.  Eissler wished to find responsible editors, who could be relied upon to protect the rights of patients and others who might be harmed by revelation. These editors, and only these editors, would, for example, have access to the letters.

Here is an abbreviated account of a contrary position expressed in a 1973 letter to Eissler from Professors Peter Gay, Peter Loewenberg, and Carl E. Schorske:

As historians professionally concerned with European cultural history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we wish to urge you to change the restrictive policies of the Sigmund Freud archives. We understand the problem you face: much of the archival material that has come to you may contain details—about analysands (people who undergo analysis-ed.)—that their children, or even grandchildren, might consider delicate or embarrassing.  As you told one of us, it is hard to separate out the various items in the archive without more secretarial or archivarial help than you have available now.  Despite these very real obstacles we persist in hoping for a change of policy.

Dr. Eissler based his opposition to this appeal on the grounds that the letters were donated only with guarantees that they would not be opened prematurely. He also felt that the trusted editors he sought could protect privacy.

Eissler resigned his position in October 1984, in a dispute with the board of the Sigmund Freud Archives. Subsequently, the board, with leadership from Professor Joseph Goldstein of the Yale Law School, a psychoanalyst and co-author of books with Anna Freud and Albert Solnit, moved in the direction of full disclosure.  The restrictive dates for public access were questioned and re-evaluated.  In June 1985, Harold Blum, former editor of the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, was chosen as secretary, and ultimately as Executive Director of the Sigmund Freud Archives, and was charged to accomplish this difficult task.   Many letters were redacted to remove patients’ names. This process took many years, and Freud’s letters, redacted when necessary, were open to the public at the Library of Congress.

Thirty years after he departed the Sigmund Freud Archives, the board of the Archives, with the agreement of his literary executor, named Kurt R. Eissler its principal founding director, in honor of his great achievements.

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