History of psychology


During the war years, those working in science also had to do military service. Many of those who practiced psychology were doctors who served in the military service. The war exacerbated social problems. Military collapse and the cataclysmic social-political events that followed created new opportunities for the emerging field of psychology, besides causing much suffering and disruption. The 133 days of the Hungarian Soviet Republic (the second communist state of the world) brought an unprecedented rise in the fields of psychoanalysis and child study due to the support of the communist state, but this support had an adverse effect on the two fields after the rapid fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic.

Psychological tests began to be used on a mass scale in the United States during the entry into the First World War. The Austro-Hungarian army also started using tests in some military hospitals in Vienna. The main task of the psycho-technical laboratories set up there was to carry out psychological competency tests, primarily to select soldiers (pilots, drivers, telephone operators, telegraph operators) to handle the new mechanized military equipment. Another issue that became a major challenge for psychology was the problem of soldiers sent home from the front who were suffering from ‘neurotic’ symptoms that caused them to be unfit for combat. Temporary barracks hospitals were set up alongside the large state mental hospitals to care for the injured soldiers. The associated neurological wards received the ‘neurotic’ soldiers, but there was no adequate treatment for their care. At this point, the intervention of psychoanalysis gained importance.


For the development of psychoanalysis, the First World War was of outstanding importance. The “war neurosis” (also known as “shell shock”) played a significant role in the progress of trauma theory and created new challenges for treatment. The problem of war neurosis also provided an opportunity for the psychoanalytic movement to gain formal recognition. In 1916, Sándor Ferenczi as a military doctor treated patients with shell shock in a barracks hospital in Budapest. He developed a psychoanalytic interpretation of the phenomenon, which he discussed with Freud. During these years, Ferenczi was Freud’s closest collaborator, and they were in daily correspondence. Their ideas on war neuroses successfully raised the interest of the Monarchy’s military authorities. Ferenczi was able to arrange for the Fifth International Congress of Psychoanalysis to be held in Budapest in September 1918, the main theme of which was the question of war neurosis. The leaders of the army also represented themself. Following the congress, the Austro-Hungarian Minister of War issued a decree stating that disabled soldiers who could not be helped should be taken to an institution where they could receive psychoanalytic therapy. There were also discussions on the establishment of a state-run psychoanalytical clinic in Budapest. These plans were washed away within a few weeks by the collapse of the Monarchy.


The decision-makers of the Hungarian communist state began a radical transformation of society. In the years before the war, groups of intellectuals were actively engaged in issues aimed at modernizing the backward country. Representatives of psychology were present in left-wing radical and socialist-communist intellectual circles. Most of them were not communists but when the communist state’s policies provided an opportunity to put their progressive ideas into practice, they took advantage of this. Psychoanalysis, child study, and experimental psychology also became the beneficiary of this historic moment.

At the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Budapest, Géza Révész was appointed to head the newly established Department of Experimental Psychology at the end of 1918, formally still under Franz Joseph the Emperor and King. He started to equip the first Department of Experimental Psychology and the associated laboratory at the end of 1918. The communist Revolutionary Governing Council, which took power on 21 March 1919, confirmed this development, and Révész was able to continue building his department, where also young people with psychoanalytical interests were appointed as assistant professors (Imre Hermann, Alice Cziner/Hermann, and Julia Láng, who later became renowned psychoanalysts).

The Revolutionary Governing Council went further in its support of psychoanalysis than the previous Liberal government, and the first Psychoanalytic Department in the world was established at the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Budapest, under the leadership of Ferenczi, despite the faculty’s protest. Academic autonomy was abolished by the Hungarian Soviet Republic. At that time (and for a long time to come) there were no psychoanalytic departments in any other universities in any other country, and psychoanalysis itself was on the periphery of academic life. Psychoanalysts were also appointed to the Clinic of Neurology and Mental Disorders, headed by Ernő Moravcsik, while several professors and assistant professors were removed from academic positions. Several members of the Hungarian Psychoanalytical Association were appointed to political decision-making positions. Psychologist Jenő Varga became the people’s commissar for Social Production (later he became one of the leading economists in the Soviet Union), Sándor Varjas headed the scientific propaganda department of the people’s commissariat for public education, and Sándor Radó worked in the Department of People’s Commissariat for Public Education. At this time Freud raised the idea that Budapest could be the “new capital” of psychoanalysis.

The Hungarian Soviet Republic also took up the cause of child study. As early as 1918, László Nagy proposed the introduction of “child study subjects” (experimental pedagogy, developmental psychology, criminal pedagogy) at universities. Soon during the Soviet Republic, child study was promoted, and László Nagy was appointed to the People’s Commissariat for Public Education to carry out plans to restructure education.


The Revolutionary Governing Council took innovative measures to transform the whole healthcare system. The pillar of this was the nationalization of healthcare institutions (hospitals, clinics, sanatoriums) and private medical practices. Most of the nuns working as nurses were dismissed, while workers were given free hospital care, and everyone was given access to state psychiatric care. Doctors who resisted the revolutionary measures were suspended from their jobs. Psychoanalytic therapy was elevated to state status – Ferenczi was also given the task of setting up a psychoanalytic clinic in an expropriated clinic.


After 133 days of rule and days of the “red terror”, the Hungarian Soviet Republic fell on 1 August 1919. The situation culminated in the loss of the war, the dissolution of the Monarchy, the Romanian occupation of large parts of the country, and ultimately, in the Treaty of Trianon by which Hungary lost two-thirds of its former territory and two-thirds of its inhabitants. In the period between March 1, 1920, and October 15, 1944, Hungary had the conservative–authoritarian regent, Miklós Horthy as its leader. In the early 1920s, a deep economic and social crisis ensued. The flare-up of antisemitism capitalized on the fact that many of the leaders of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, including psychoanalysts, were of Jewish origin. In fact, the vast majority of Jews in trade and industry were the victims of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. Psychoanalysis became politically stigmatized. In the early 1920s, many of the representatives of psychoanalysis (Géza Révész, Mihály Bálint, Alice Bálint, Alexander Franz) emigrated to the West, either temporarily or permanently. The psychoanalytic chair of Sándor Ferenczi (which existed only formally) was closed, and he was expelled from the University and the Royal Medical Association of Budapest. László Nagy, the leader of the child study movement, had to retire. In the early twenties, both were forced to defend themselves from charges of supporting communism.


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