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(For reasons of readability, the male form is used with personal names, however the female form is also always intended.)

Anton Walter Freud: A Life in Exile

Author: Peter Pirker / Sabrina Zehetner


The historian and political scientist Dr. Peter Pirker tells the story of Sigmund Freud´s grandchild Anton Walter Freud and his adventurous life as a refugee and SOE agent.

How did you learn about Anton Walter Freud and what made you interested in the topic?

Peter Pirker: I came across Anton Walter Freud while doing research about the role of Austrians in British Intelligence, namely the Special Operations Executive. This included deserters of the Wehrmacht as well as Jewish people, and political opponents that were driven out of Austria by the Nazis in 1938. After detention and deployment in the pioneer corps of the British army, they were recruited by the SOE as they had agreed to undertake dangerous missions behind German lines to support the fight against the Nazis. I was particularly interested in the history of resistance – both from deserters of the Wehrmacht and refugees in exile who decided to make an active contribution towards crushing National Socialism. Initially, I had a list of Austrians who were part of the SOE. Most of them used pseudonyms – cover names they had adopted In British exile for their own safety, so that they wouldn´t be identifiable in case of being taken captive. Among the few agents who didn´t change their names was Anton Walter Freud. For me, he was one of those easiest to identify, and with the help of another refugee, Eric Sanders, I got in touch with Anton Walter Freud.  Eric Sanders is now 97 years old and the last living Austrian refugee who was part of the SOE. After 1945, Eric Sanders organized the reunions, if you will, the annual veterans´ meeting, and ran a small archive on the Austrian division of the SOE. That´s how I got in touch with Anton Walter Freud through Eric Sanders in 2003. At the time, I was preparing for a trip to England to interview a number of Germans and Austrians who had joined the SOE. I didn´t get a chance to meet Walter Freud as he had passed shortly before our arranged appointment in 2004. However, after writing him a letter, we had a long phone conversation. Essentially, he tried to assess who I was, my background and my reason for being interested in his story. Both the questions he asked and his opinion on Austria and Austrian society were quite interesting.

You write that SOE agents were considered criminals in post-war Austria – is this still the case?

Peter Pirker: This mainly concerned the deserters of the Wehrmacht who were labeled deserters, traitors and detrimental to the community by the Wehrmacht judiciary. In many cases, captured deserters were executed. We estimate about 1.4000 executions. The deserters were officially rehabilitated in 2009 by the laws of the Republic, and as of 2014, there is a memorial dedicated to them on the Ballhausplatz but when I researched those stories, deserters were considered traitors by broad segments of the population and the sentences by the Nazi judiciary had not yet been lifted. At that point, they were still socially discriminated, meaning they were socially worse off than SS men that had been guards in the concentration camps. Regarding the refugees, Anton Walter Freud frequently pointed out that he criticizes the way Austrian post-war society and post-war politics treated those displaced by the Nazis. He, for example, expected Austria to ask him to return, or at least receive an invitation. According to him, this never happened which grieved him and remains a common critique among former refugees. This slightly improved in the 2000s after the national foundation was established. It´s safe to say that Anton Walter Freud always remained skeptical towards Austrian post-war society. In our phone conversation, he first asked me where I came from. I said, “From Vienna” and he asked, “No, where did you grow up? Where do you come from?” to which I replied, “From Carinthia”. He then immediately referred to the political situation in Carinthia under former governor Haider, and pointed out that he assessed the situation very critically and said, “Well, from Carinthia – this is bad. In Carinthia, there are still a lot of Nazis.”

Did Anton Walter Freud ever return to Austria?

Peter Pirker: He did visit Vienna, but in private. He also spent a holiday in Veden in Carinthia, but an official invitation to return didn´t occur.

Had anyone else addressed this issue before you did?

Peter Pirker: Yes - Two texts by Anton Walter Freud regarding his experiences between 1938 and 1945 were first published in a book by Adi Wimmer in 1993. In general, Austria was very late to address this issue of exile. Essentially, any research since the mid-1980s had been driven by The Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance and other non-academic initiatives such as the Theodor Kramer Society.

Quite late…

Peter Pirker: This is absolutely late and related to the fact that the expats and refugees weren´t asked to return after 1945, or rather there weren´t any political initiatives to bring the displaced back to Austria. Even though a lot has been done to return the prisoners of war, there was no action regarding the thousands of displaced. On the contrary, everything was done to not promote or arrange a mass-return.

What changed after your research?

Peter Pirker: The SOE inquiries were – to a large extent -  uncharted territory. The archives of the SOE had been closed until the late 1990s as it contained secret service records, and were disclosed by the British government due to public demand. My first book on this subject - published in 2004 - was presented at the British embassy. Yes, it did strike a chord. Nevertheless, the story surrounding the deserters of the Wehrmacht started off a much bigger debate. The documentation of the involvement of Wehrmacht deserters in SOE missions exposed that many deserters didn´t desert out of cowardice or for personal reasons, as they were often accused of, but also to contribute to Austria´s liberation as was demanded of Austria by the Moscow declaration in 1943, so that Austria could be established as a sovereign state.

Going back to Walter Freud -  Did he ever mention Sigmund Freud?

Peter Pirker: I believe it was rather the other way around. Anton Walter Freud was frequently inquired about his grandfather. Especially in England and the U.S. there is a tremendous interest in Sigmund Freud. In the 1960s and 70s, the most popular persona of Austrian origin in the U.S. and Britain wasn´t Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – It was Sigmund Freud. The Freud family was very popular, very famous – not only Sigmund Freud, but also other members of the family. Anton Walter Freud was less popular. After his return to England, he studied chemistry in Loughborough and spent most of his life working as a chemist for British Petrol.  Even though he wasn´t at the center of public attention, he often gave accounts of his family and his grandfather and held lectures as well. Apart from family dinners and family events, the relationship with his grandfather in his childhood didn´t seem to be too close.

Inside the SOE, there was a connection to Wolfgang Treichl and Georg Breuer. Did they befriend each other? Did they ever meet or knew of each other?

Peter Pirker: The connection between Breuer and Freud stemmed from the fact that both were recruited by the SOE in England where they met each other and were trained to become agents. Eventually, they went off together on a parachute mission in April 1945. I doubt that they knew each other in Vienna since Georg Breuer was more than ten years older than Walter Freud. Their grandfathers Josef and Sigmund, however, knew each other well. They wrote the popular studies on hysteria together. A different path led Wolfgang Treichl to the SOE. He was a Wehrmacht commander, deserted in 1942 during the battle in El Alamein, and in British imprisonment had declared himself willing to switch sides to fight against the Nazis. If Breuer, Freud and Treichl met in person in Southern Italy in 1944 where they awaited their missions, I can´t say with absolute certainty. In any case, Freud was aware of Treichl´s biography and service, and later wrote an article about it. Wolfgang Treichl was shot during a mission in October 1944 in Tolmezzo, or rather shot himself when he was captured by a Wehrmacht unit.  The encounter between Freud, Breuer and Treichl in the SOE also characterizes the milieu of the Viennese bourgeoisie from whom the leading commanders in the SOE expected active resistance against the Nazis. Additionally, there was a certain intellectuality, education, fitness and self-assured manner – traits that were necessary to handle the risky missions. The short post-war careers in the British army were similar as well. Freud became an investigator for the British War Crimes Investigation Unit in Northern Germany and significantly contributed to the conviction of NS perpetrators. As a trained lawyer, Breuer took part in establishing a legal system within the British Army Legal Unit.

In your work, you mention that the agents weren´t aware of being part of the SOE. How did this come about?

Peter Pirker: They didn´t know the organization´s name, but of course they were aware of being part of some sort of military secret service. Before the training had started, they had to sign a Secrets Act where they accepted the obligation to maintain silent.  The name of the organization remained a secret until its dissolution after the war when the reports were published to show what this unit had achieved.

Could you describe the missions a little?

Peter Pirker: After at least one year of training, Freud was transported to Italy in the Summer of 1944 along with other agents, where the SOE base for missions in Austria, Northern Italy and the Balkans was. The plan of action focused on establishing contact with resistance organizations in Austria – via infiltration supported by the partisans from Yugoslavia on the land route. In 1944, this turned out to be of little avail. Then, there were both successful and failed attempts to infiltrate agents via the partisan strongholds in Friaul to Austria. It caused many casualties. Some agents just disappeared in Austria and never showed up again, so that the route was closed down in late autumn in 1944. In spring 1945, in the final stages of war, parachute missions were prepared. Groups of agents blindly jumped into specific neuralgic points, i.e. without any reception committee and not knowing what to expect. On the one hand, the tasks included sabotaging the traffic infrastructure, and on the other hand involved collecting information on the political situation, and if possible, prepare the invasion of the allied troops. This was essentially the task area of those SOE agents who jumped into Upper Styria - Anton Walter Freud and Georg Breuer were among those men. However, many missions weren´t off to a good start as it was quite difficult to reach the exact target area. Take-offs often took place under harsh weather conditions which also affected Anton Walter Freud who got separated from his group and basically landed alone in Upper Styria near Judenburg – relatively far from his target location. He had to struggle along on his own for a few days. Ultimately, he managed to reach the airport at Zeltweg that was of great interest to the British, e.g. to evacuate prisoners of war who were located in a camp in Wolfsberg. Freud attempted through negotiations with the airport´s commander to obtain command over the airport. There was a meeting with local NS officials. Nobody knows what exactly happened and there are many different versions of the story. Later, Anton Walter Freud wrote about this in his memoirs. There was a radio message that he had sent from the airport to the SOE Base where he reported that he was at the airport and in need of a confirmation of his base, so that the Germans would acknowledge him as a British representative. Freud´s commanding officers in Italy didn´t reply to this despatch because they feared he had been captured. Afterwards, the airport´s commanding officer in Zeltweg sent Freud to General Lothar Rendulic who, as the commander of the army group South, had his quarters near Linz.  In the legal sense, at that time Freud was a war prisoner but in his own perception he wasn´t. He was accompanied or guarded, depending on how you look at it, by a major of the German Wehrmacht. Freud wasn´t able to meet Rendulic and flew back to England with the help of the U.S. army via Salzburg and Paris.

Is this the true story?

Peter Pirker: It´s my reconstruction. His own accounts made for a more thrilling read where he also vividly describes his meeting with NS-leaders in Zeltweg: He reported that the Nazi-big shots (“Bonzen”) approached him to affirm their love for the jews.

Freud was also interned as Enemy Alien in Australia. How did it come to that?

Peter Pirker: At first the situation in England for German-speaking refugees, namely from Germany and Austria, was very difficult.  In the beginning, there was a mood of resentment among the British public, especially towards German-speaking refugees because there was a concern, fueled by the tabloids, that there were possibly Nazis among the refugees, more specifically people you couldn´t rely on and who, in reality, were still rooting for Germany.  This was the reason why the majority of male refugees was interned in camps and some of them were shipped off to Australia and Canada. Anton Walter Freud was among the refugees who were taken to Australia. The ship Dunera was an infamous refugee transport headed to Australia as the conditions for the refugees on the ship were quite bad. Freud was interned in Australia for a while. In the meantime, the mood in England had changed and people thought, “Well, Jewish refugees that were expelled from Austria and Germany shouldn´t be treated like enemies. Naturally, they want the national socialists to lose the war.” There were considerations as to how the potential of German-speaking refugees could be used. The refugees could join the British army, but until 1943 , only the unarmed units, namely the pioneer corps. After his return from Australia, Anton Walter Freud was in a pioneer unit. Most of the young refugees weren´t too enthusiastic because they believed they could contribute more effectively in the armed units. That´s why Anton Walter Freud joined the SOE at the first opportunity in 1943.

How did he experience his escape to Great Britain?

Peter Pirker: He escaped along with his father Martin. He arrived in London earlier than the rest of his family since his father ran a psychoanalytic publishing house and expected the Gestapo to soon search through his flat. The main concern was that Martin Freud was at risk of being deported to the concentration camp Buchenwald. That´s why Martin Freud travelled with his son and two other family members via Paris to London, earlier than the rest of his family. Sigmund Freud, I believe, received exit visas but not enough to bring the whole family to safety, so that four sisters remained in Vienna and were murdered by the Nazis. Anton Walter Freud mentioned this family experience in his work and narrations.

What was his impression of Great Britain?

Peter Pirker: It was ambivalent. First, there was the fact that he was admitted into British society. That came with a great gratitude towards England as a safe haven. He was also able to begin his studies in Loughborough, before he was arrested in class and interned. This was a shock followed by the treatment through internment and shipment to Australia – those experiences led to a psychologically demanding situation, to a feeling of utter loneliness that there wasn´t a place on earth where he and his kind, Jewish people, could live without being the target of public authority. He vividly described this feeling of insecurity in his memoirs – the existential uncertainty due to the expulsion from Austria that came as a surprise to the Freud family since they hadn´t expected it would come to such a dramatic situation of expulsion after the annexation. First, there was this insecurity due to the persecution in Austria, and the second uncertainty in England caused by the mistrust that he was met with in British society, and which he experienced himself through arrest and internment. This was the situation from 1939 to 1940/41. In the pioneer corps, there was still the feeling of not having arrived and not being accepted. German-speaking refugees were essentially employed to dig holes, build barracks, clean up air-raid damages – basically unskilled labor and many Jewish refugees thought, “Well, we can do more and want more, but we are not allowed to.” The mission in the SOE was something that restored the self-worth of young, Jewish men.  They were equipped with the appropriate insignia. They had British uniforms with special unit badges. They were given truly professional and good training. They were taken seriously as protagonists and you can tell from the the many descriptions that Freud was able to re-gain and build a lot of self-confidence. Regarding Freud, another aspect came into play. During the training and waiting period in Italy, it occurred that Jewish refugees that had been trained in England, encountered Wehrmacht deserters, for example during a skiing course in the north of Rome.  Conflicts arose between those two groups. The statements made by the SOE agents I interviewed describe how anti-Semitic remarks made by the Austrian Wehrmacht deserters particularly targeted Anton Walter Freud because he came from a well-known Jewish family. Freud was vehemently defended by his SOE colleagues, so that the remarks soon stopped. Ultimately, Freud frequently articulated great gratitude towards British society in his reports. After his military service, he could return to university, complete his studies, and made a name for himself professionally.

Was the mistrust towards refugees a British phenomenon, or could it also be observed in the U.S.?

Peter Pirker: It varied depending on how difficult or easily the refugees handled integration. If you look at the emigration of scientists, it can be observed that it was easier for those who had already made a name for themselves to enter ivy league universities and find employment there. Others, who weren´t this successful – and this was certainly the majority – had great difficulties. The same applies to the U.S. where the military was, if you will, the “assimilation engine”. The integration of young men into society both in the U.S. and Great Britain was mostly done by the military. Partly this was also the case for women who were employed at military institutions. This was described by all the SOE agents I interviewed. The enlistment and, above all, the armed unites made them feel British – along with the equipment, the organization and the environment. It was a decidedly British-English environment and not an enclave of emigration, which is enormously important for integration and adaption. Many received the opportunity to apply for British citizenship due to their service in the British army.

Dr. Peter Pirker is an historian and political scientist at the institute for governance and public policy at the University of Vienna. His areas of research range from contemporary and political history to biographic research and the role intelligence in the Second World War and early Cold War period. In 2012, his renowned book “Subversion deutscher Herrschaft. Der britische Kriegsgeheimdienst SOE und Österreich“ was published.

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