Erich Fromm Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)
0111206303-Fromm.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Fromm was influential in synthesizing the field of psychology with social, political, and philosophical ideas. Through his many popular books written for the layperson, he explored the theme of the dehumanizing effects of modern society on mankind and the actions man must take to save himself from destruction. Fromm also insisted on a more humanistic approach to psychoanalysis.

Early Life

Erich Fromm was born in Frankfurt am Main on March 23, 1900. His father, an independent businessman, was the son of a rabbi. Fromm, an only child, grew up in a very religious household and was a close student of the Old Testament. There was an underlying tension in Fromm’s household, however, produced by the Orthodox Jewish traditions that were so deeply a part of his family’s past and his father’s strong materialistic strivings. Fromm studied the Talmud at an early age and was profoundly influenced by the ethical and humanistic implications of the writings as well as the mystical revelations found throughout.

Two major incidents occurred in his early teens that were influential in his eventual decision to enter the field of psychology. The first was the suicide of a young woman friend, an incident that he found both monstrous and incredible. The second was World War I. Fromm was overwhelmed by the war and could not understand how his family and acquaintances could one moment be sympathetic to a particular group of people and then suddenly metamorphose into irrational, hateful fanatics.

By the war’s end, Fromm had become obsessed with a desire to understand the hidden forces that act to produce irrational, mass human behavior. In 1918, he began studying psychology, philosophy, and sociology at the University of Frankfurt. At this time, he was introduced to the writings of Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, the two major figures in Fromm’s life. Throughout the rest of his life, Fromm would attempt to synthesize the philosophies of these two men into his own view of man and society.

From 1919 to 1922, Fromm studied at the University of Heidelberg, where he obtained his doctorate in philosophy with a dissertation on the sociopsychological structure of three Jewish communities; thus, with his first major paper, Fromm blended the disciplines of sociology, psychology, and philosophy, a practice that he would perfect in his later writings. Around this time, Fromm discovered Zen Buddhism and broke with his Jewish heritage.

After further studies in psychology and psychiatry at the University of Munich, Fromm married Freida Reichmann, a psychoanalyst and physician, and began practicing therapy as a strict Freudian. His marriage, however, lasted briefly, and in 1929 he moved to Berlin to attend the Psychoanalytic Institute, where he was a student of Hans Sachs and Theodor Reik. From 1930 on, Fromm’s research was directed toward a synthesis of the various insights and practices that he had learned as a child, student, and trained observer of the psyche of man.

Life’s Work

The madness of World War I had produced in Fromm a deeply suspicious attitude toward any official dogmatic ideology. Out of this questioning of authoritarian principles came his first major work, Die Entwicklung des Christusdogmas: Eine Psychoanalytische Studie zur Sozialpsychologischen Funktion der Religion (1931; The Dogma of Christ, and Other Essays on Religion, Psychology, and Culture, 1963). Writing from the point of view of a strict Freudian, Fromm adhered closely to Freud’s own view of religion, that it is an infantile psychic gratification transferred to a collective fantasy. Unlike Freud, however, Fromm stressed the importance of taking into account the total character structure of a particular individual within a group, how private individual needs are made public, thus hinting in this early work the development of his “social character” theory. Fromm also brought into question the dogma of Freud himself.

In 1930, Fromm became a member of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Frankfurt, where he taught psychoanalysis. Out of this association emerged an even deeper questioning of Freud’s theories. Freud’s beliefs were based on principles that he believed to be universal to all human beings, rooted in biological drives—specifically sexual—that, if repressed, produced neurosis. According to Freud, civilization could be viewed as the result of redirected sexual energy. Without civilization, said Freud, man was a savage beast; however, the price of civilization was neurosis, anxiety, and depression.

With the alarming rise of Nazism in Germany in the early 1930’s, the Institute for Social Research was forced to move its headquarters, first to Geneva, then to Columbia University. Fromm followed the move, émigrating to the United States in 1934 and resuming his psychoanalytic practice in New York. At the institute’s new headquarters, he met fellow émigré Karen Horney and American Harry Stack Sullivan, both of whom were influential in Fromm’s decision to break formally with Freud’s theories and emphasize the importance environment plays on the development of the individual. Although Fromm never discounted the biological...

(The entire section is 2164 words.)