Martha Bernays

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Martha Bernays
Martha Bernays (1882)
Born(1861-07-26)26 July 1861
Died2 November 1951(1951-11-02) (aged 90)
London, England
SpouseSigmund Freud (m.1886–1939; his death)
Children6, including Ernst and Anna
RelativesIsaac Bernays (grandfather)
Michael Bernays (uncle)
Edward Bernays (nephew)

Martha Bernays (/bɜːrˈnz/ bur-NAYZ, German: [bɛʁˈnaɪs]; 26 July 1861 – 2 November 1951) was the wife of Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

Bernays was the second daughter of Emmeline and Berman Bernays. Her paternal grandfather Isaac Bernays was a Chief Rabbi of Hamburg.


Martha Bernays was raised in an observant Orthodox Jewish family,[1] the daughter of Berman Bernays (1826–1879) and Emmeline Philipp (1830–1910). Her grandfather, Isaac Bernays, was the chief rabbi of Hamburg and a distant relative of the German Romantic poet Heinrich Heine and whom Heine frequently mentioned in letters.[2] Isaac's son, Michael Bernays (1834–1897), Martha's uncle, converted to Christianity at an early age and was professor of German at the University of Munich.[3] Although the Bernays and Freud families were well-acquainted - her elder brother Eli married Freud's younger sister, for example[4] - the latter were more liberal Jews, and Freud in particular had no time for ritual observances. Martha told a cousin that "not being allowed to light the Sabbath lights on the first Friday night after her marriage was one of the more upsetting experiences of her life".[5] She was also the aunt of Edward Bernays, Austrian-born American publicist and "father of public relations",.[6] Her maternal cousins were brothers Julius Philipp and Oscar Philipp, founders of Philipp Brothers, which became the largest metal trading company in the world.[7]

Courtship and marriage[edit]

"Freud Corner", Golders Green Crematorium: Ancient Greek bell krater containing the ashes of Sigmund and Martha Freud

Sigmund Freud and Martha met in April 1882 and after a four-year engagement (1882–1886) they were married on 14 September 1886 in Hamburg.[8]

Freud and Bernays's love letters sent during the engagement years, according to Freud's official biographer Ernest Jones, who read all the letters, "would be a not unworthy contribution to the great love literature of the world." Freud sent over 900 (lengthy) letters to his fiancée, which chart the ups and downs of a tempestuous relationship, marred by outbreaks of jealousy on his part as well as affirmations that "I love you with a kind of passionate enchantment".[9]

Their eventual marriage was a much more harmonious affair: Martha consoling herself after his death with the thought that "in the 53 years of our marriage there was not a single angry word between us".[10] The couple had six children: Mathilde (born 1887), Jean-Martin (born 1889), Oliver (born 1891), Ernst (born 1892), Sophie (born 1893), and Anna (born 1895).

Martha Freud died in 1951. She was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and her ashes placed in the Freud Corner, into the same ancient Greek funeral urn that holds her husband's ashes.


The young Martha Bernays was a slim and attractive woman who was also a charmer, intelligent, well-educated and fond of reading (as she remained throughout her life).[11] As a married woman, she ran her household efficiently, and was indeed almost obsessive about punctuality and dirt.[12] Firm but loving with her children, she spread an atmosphere of peaceful joie de vivre through the household (at least according to the French analyst René Laforgue).[13] However, Martha was not able to establish a strong connection with her youngest daughter, Anna.

Ménage à trois?[edit]

Bernays's younger sister, Minna Bernays, was very close to the young couple, and moved in with them in the 1890s, to set up what has (jokingly) been called a ménage à trois.[14] Sigmund and Minna would sometimes holiday together;[15] and the suggestion has periodically been made that she in fact became Freud's mistress. Jung for example reported (late in life) that from Minna he "learned that Freud was in love with her and that their relationship was indeed very intimate".[16] Freud historian Peter Swales "became notorious when, in 1981, he maintained that Freud had had a secret affair with his wife Martha’s younger sister Minna Bernays ... and had arranged for her to have an abortion after she became pregnant."[17][18]

This claim was (and is) controversial. The publication of a hotel log from 1898 registering the pair as "Dr Sigm Freud u frau" in a double room prompted some Freud scholars, including his defender Peter Gay, to regard the conjecture of Freud and Minna having an affair as possibly accurate.[19][20] Other proponents of the affair, however — relying on their analysis of Freud's own autobiographical writings — believe that it was consummated only in 1900.[21]

Opponents point to the unlikelihood of such a betrayal taking place between sisters as close as Minna and Martha, especially given the mores of the time;[22] and to the less sensational possibility of the hotel simply being full at the time.[23] Pending publication of the Freud/Minna correspondence for the period 1893–1910, the truth behind such speculations may not be known for sure.[24]

What does seem certain is that Martha herself in no way knew of, or colluded in, any such affair. Freud described her as thoroughly good, where he and Minna were more self-willed and wild;[25] and for better or worse her commitment to conventional morality, domestic duty and family values is clear.[26] (Her husband too had shocked André Breton by his lack of any Bohemianism,[27] and considered a sexually promiscuous woman as "simply a Haderlump [a ragamuffin]".[28]) Martha's attitude to infidelity is perhaps best illustrated by her reaction to their friend Stefan Zweig's leaving his wife Friderike for a younger woman: six years after Zweig's death in 1942, Martha wrote to his widow that she still resented "our friend's infidelity to you!"[29]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Peter Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1989, p. 38
  2. ^ David Bakan: Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition. Princeton 1958, p. 196.
  3. ^ Bakan, 57, 196.
  4. ^ Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1964) pp. 111-112
  5. ^ Peter Gay, Freud (1989) p. 54
  6. ^ "Edward Bernays, 'Father of Public Relations' And Leader in Opinion Making, Dies at 103". The New York Times. 10 March 1995.
  7. ^ Berlin, Isaiah (7 September 2017). Affirming: Letters 1975-1997. Vintage Digital. ISBN 978-1845952259.
  8. ^ Letters of Sigmund Freud; selected and edited by Ernst L. Freud, Basic Books, 1960; p. 7 ISBN 0-486-27105-6
  9. ^ Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1964) pp. 109, 116-119, 133
  10. ^ Peter Gay, Freud (1989) p. 60
  11. ^ Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1964) pp. 110-111, 165-166
  12. ^ Peter Gay, Reading Freud (1990) p. 172
  13. ^ Peter Gay, Freud (1989) pp. 59-61
  14. ^ Peter Gay, Reading Freud (1990) p. 161
  15. ^ Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1964) p. 150
  16. ^ Quoted in Peter Gay, Freud (1989) p. 752
  17. ^ "Peter Swales, former assistant to the Rolling Stones said to have discovered Sigmund Freud's guilty secret — obituary," Telegraph Obituaries, 6 May 2022.
  18. ^ Peter J. Swales, "Freud, Minna Bernays, and the Conquest of Rome: New Light on the Origins of Psychoanalysis," The New American Review (Spring/Summer 1982), pp. 1-23.
  19. ^ Blumenthal, Ralph (24 December 2006). "Hotel log hints at desire that Freud didn't repress - Europe - International Herald Tribune". The New York Times. Retrieved 4 November 2014.
  20. ^ Eysenck, Hans. Decline and Fall of the Freudian Empire. Transaction Publishers, 2004
  21. ^ Peter L. Rudnytsky, Rescuing Psychoanalysis from Freud: And Other Essays in Re-Vision, Karnac Books, Ltd. (2011); Routledge (2018), p. 17
  22. ^ L. H. Lefkovitz, In Scripture (2010) pp. 76-8
  23. ^ L. Davidoff, Thicker than Water (2012) p. 17
  24. ^ Peter Gay, Reading Freud (1990) p. 179
  25. ^ Ernest Jones, The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud (1964) p. 159
  26. ^ Peter Gay, Freud (1989) pp. 59-60
  27. ^ Jacques Lacan, Ecrits (1997) p. 276
  28. ^ E. Timms, ed., Freud and the Child Woman (1995) p. 169
  29. ^ Quoted in Peter Gay, Freud (1989) p. 60 n.

Further reading[edit]

  • Katja Behling, Martha Freud: A Biography, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005 (translated by Rupert Glasgow from the German Martha Freud: Die Frau des Genies, Berlin: Aufbau, 2002)
  • Esti D. Freud, "Mrs Sigmund Freud", Jewish Spectator, XLV (1980) 29-31
  • Martin Freud, Sigmund Freud: Man and Father (1958)

External links[edit]