In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Bruno Bettelheim

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Residential Care of Children: The Next Three-Plus Decades
  • Anthropology
  • Society, Order/Disorder, Psychoanalysis
  • Societal Disorder: The 1960’s Rebellion and Bettelheim’s Reactions
  • Literature and Children
  • Education
  • Biographical Attempts and Fictionalized Accounts of the Orthogenic School
  • Weltanschauung and Psychoanalysis
  • The Death Drive and Poetry of the Soul
  • In His Own Words: A Literary (Auto)Biography
  • Spectacles: Movies, TV, Urban Architecture, Museums, and Children
  • Last Testament: A Good Enough Parent (and Its Predecessors)

Literary and Critical Theory Bruno Bettelheim
Nathan Szajnberg
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190221911-0072


Bruno Bettelheim (b. 23 August 1903—d. 13 March 1990) was one of the foremost 20th-century thinkers about psychoanalysis, education, child therapy, and child development and treatment. He was born into a well-off Viennese family—his father, Anton, owned a lumber processing business, and his mother was the former Paula Seidler. (One grandmother had some twelve children, one of whom, he believed, was likely schizophrenic.) He attended gymnasium for a classical education and began his doctorate at the University of Vienna, where he studied until his father died. Bettelheim interrupted his studies to run the family business until 1937, then he completed his thesis on Kant and aesthetics. Some five decades later, he returned to this first love of aesthetics when he was invited to lecture in New York on art. He spoke on the artists who captured his heart and mind—Klimt, Kokoschka, and especially Schiele—artists who attempted to portray on the surface what dwelt within man’s soul. He contrasted them with the Impressionists, who focused on how surfaces shifted with changes of light. Reviewing Bettelheim’s contributions to our thinking means covering the many subjects about which he wrote and thought deeply, particularly after his concentration camp experiences. Like many Jewish refugee intellectuals from Europe—Fromm, Szasz, Erikson, Koestler, Adorno (and the unsuccessful refugee, Walter Benjamin)—his range of thinking was broad. Bettelheim’s writing covered the milieu and residential treatment of children, parenting, loss of autonomy in extreme settings, social prejudice, raising children in kibbutz, fairy tales, mistranslation (and misunderstandings) of Freud, and education. The essay “Freud’s Vienna,” as well as Freud and Man’s Soul, is the closest he came to a memoir. Prior to the Nazi Anschluss, Bettelheim joined the underground army in Austria as an officer. Once the Anschluss was announced, he was surprised, even shocked, that Austria’s neighbors did nothing and the army folded. He spent two months making sure his decommissioned soldiers were safe, and then escaped to the Czech border, where the Czechs promptly handed him over to the Nazis, who imprisoned him in the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps beginning in May 1938.

General Overviews

The ten and one-half months under the Nazis annealed Bettelheim’s personality. To maintain his sanity, he discovered that he had to observe both himself and those around him carefully, honestly, even harshly—self, prisoners, SS. Ironically, his papers—written after his release—were rejected by most journals for two reasons: (1) they didn’t believe that the Nazis would treat people so inhumanely, or (2) Bettelheim was “too close” to the experience to be objective. (Edith Jacobson, imprisoned briefly, insisted in her emotionally distant writings that “prisoners’ symptoms (were) . . . expressions of their psychopathology” (Jacobson 1949, Frattaroli 1992, Frattaroli 1994, Frattaroli 2001). His account of his experiences was published in e the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology (Bettelheim 1943), but only seventeen years later could he synthesize this into his honest, provocative and cautionary book, The Informed Heart (1960). While the Nazi experience was uniquely monstrous, the dangers of new forms of social control could jeopardize societies’ autonomy. This idea was prescient well before the Internet and social media. Frattaroli 1994 is an elegant overview of this work, suggesting that it carries major threads about Bettelheim’s thinking that were woven through his thinking and writing: “(The) lessons he learned in the camps: . . . the true measure of a man is in his actions, . . . the best way to destroy a man’s spirit, his individuality, is to destroy his ability to take meaningful and effective action:” (p. 402). Frattaroli speculates that Bettelheim incited his own ostracism from the psychoanalytic community, Freud’s “compact majority.” Like Freud, Bettelheim’s creativity thrived in such opposition; he could also live with the human dilemma of ambiguities within, and with the opposition of heterodoxy and orthodoxy. Franz Alexander, a Jewish refugee, in his review of The Informed Heart, wrote astutely, “In our highly differentiated and organized machine civilization, individuality seems to wither away, man’s internal “autonomy” dwindles and the conformist mass-man emerges” (Alexander 1961). The Dachau/Buchenwald experience taught Bettelheim that autonomy and intimacy are two core needs. A corollary to Bettelheim’s experience that most academic journals refused to publish his account of Nazi atrocities (when publicizing this by an eyewitness might have saved lives) also led to his publishing in both books and in nonacademic journals, such as the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker, and the Atlantic (see Bettelheim 1987). Knowledge about one’s inner life and about parenting and child-rearing should be publicized widely in a democratic society. His writing was accessible both in its language and in its publication. Prior to the Nazis, Bettelheim and his then wife took into their home a severely disturbed girl, referred to them by Anna Freud. Bettelheim was moved that this girl drew primitive figures that resembled those in the caves of Lascaux. He believed in her inherent intelligence. Bettelheim believed that it was this girl’s family’s intervention in the United States that got him released from Buchenwald. Yet there were cases of high-level interventions that resulted in paradoxical murderous Nazi responses. After Dachau/Buchenwald, he moved to Chicago, working at Rockford College, and then at the University of Chicago, teaching aesthetics. At Rockford, he did a pioneering (unpublished) study, asking students to score their own Thematic Apperception Tests: many surprised themselves at their insights. Bettelheim, reminiscing, felt that he would have been satisfied spending his academic years returning studying art and aesthetics (personal communication).

  • Alexander, Franz. “Mass-Man in Death Camp and Society: The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age, by Bruno Bettelheim.” New York Times Book Review, 8 October 1961.

    Alexander’s is a unique review of the concentration camp experience, in that he is not only a psychoanalyst, but also a refuge from the Nazi regime. He did leave, fortunately, before the war. He became the first chair of psychoanalysis at the University of Chicago, and also a founder of the Psychoanalytic Institute in Chicago. He also was a pioneer in psychosomatic research.

  • Bettelheim, Bruno. “Individual and Mass Behavior in Extreme Situations.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 38.4 (October 1943): 417–452.

    DOI: 10.1037/h0061208

    This is the first personal account of life in the Nazi concentration camps. Bettelheim discussed his psychic reactions to this totalitarian camp with a fellow camp prisoner and psychoanalyst, Ernst Federn, who was also the son of the psychoanalyst Paul Federn. Ernst was not released for several years, despite his father’s desperate efforts in New York.

  • Bettelheim, Bruno. The Informed Heart: Autonomy in a Mass Age. New York: Free Press, 1960.

    It took sixteen years for Bettelheim to revisit and metabolize the terror of the concentration camp experience. In this book, he broadens his concern for maintaining one’s autonomy in the modern mass age.

  • Bettelheim, Bruno. “The Importance of Play.” Atlantic, March 1987.

    Bettelheim drew from his decades observing the disturbed children at the Orthogenic School and his consultation with mothers at the University of Chicago to emphasize the seriousness of play for children. This article emphasizes, with greater clinical examples, what Sigmund Freud observed about the importance of play for children as a way for them to work out significant issues in their lives.

  • Frattaroli, Elio J. “Orthodoxy and Heresy in the History of Psychoanalysis.” In Educating the Emotions: Bruno Bettelheim and Psychoanalytic Development. Edited by Nathan Szajnberg, 121–150. New York: Plenum, 1992.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4615-3316-0_5

    Frattaroli points out that Freud was able to be both orthodox (about his theories) and heterodox (about revising his theories in the face of new clinical material). Freud’s pupils and colleagues, however, usually fell into one of two camps: either remaining orthodox (such as Jones) or heretically heterodox (Adler, Jung, and others). Bettelheim had the capacity to articulate the ambiguity and ambivalence in human minds. He often presented both orthodox and heterodox views of human life and psychoanalysis. For instance, his dictum, “The patient is always right . . . is always wrong,” captures the ambiguity of how patients approach their analytic work (and their lives).

  • Frattaroli, Elio J. “Bruno Bettelheim’s Unrecognized Contribution to Psychoanalytic Thought.” Psychoanalytic Review 81.3 (1994): 379–409.

    Frattaroli is one of the few scholars who recognized that Bettelheim’s original 1943 concentration camp article captured the basic principles behind his psychoanalytic thinking, which endured for decades. Frattaroli gives examples of these continuous threads through Bettelheim’s later books. Bettelheim emphasized that in addition to this personal analysis with Sterba (which brought understanding), his self-analysis in the concentration camp literally saved his psychic life (from going insane), and at times possibly saved his physical life.

  • Frattaroli, Elio J. Healing the Soul in the Age of the Brain. New York: Penguin Books, 2001.

    This book is probably the best application of Bettelheim’s ideas to adult psychoanalytic work. It is also a humanistic, measured criticism of psychopharmacology.

  • Jacobson, Edith. “Observations on the Psychological Effect of Imprisonment on Female Political Prisoners.” In Searchlights on Delinquency. Edited by Kurt Eissler, 341–368. New York: International Universities Press, 1949.

    Jacobson’s article is an example of how an overly intellectualized stance to extreme situations, such as the concentration camp, which is likely a defense against many feelings, including survivor guilt, can be expressed by even a highly regarded psychoanalyst. But Jacobson’s stating that those who had emotional disturbance from the camp experience were expressions of their own psychopathology is both unempathic and a setback to understanding and treating survivors of extreme experience.

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