Heinz Kohut’s Vulnerable Self, His Reaction to the Holocaust,
and his Break with the Psychoanalytic Establishment

With James William Anderson, PhD (Northwestern University)

A few words about the presenter:

Jim Anderson, our psychoanalyst professor colleague from Chicago, was scheduled to present his important study of Heinz Kohut (1913-1981) almost three years ago when COVID shut down so much of our country’s activities. Having had a wonderful experience in presenting on Winnicott to our Work-in-Progress Psychohistory Forum seminar, Jim was emphatic about only wanting to give this talk in person, and I’m delighted that we can now do it. In teaching the Holocaust and working closely with a number of colleagues who survived this traumatic event, I’ve been fascinated by the ways in which it led some to embrace or distance themselves from their Judaism. Prior to the Nazis taking control of so much of Europe, many Germanic Jews saw themselves as far more German than Jewish.

During my analytic training in the 1970s, there was an enormous amount of interest in the varying approaches of Otto Kernberg and Heinz Kohut.  We got to see Kernberg at conferences but not Kohut. I wonder what Anderson’s connection was with this outstanding psychoanalytic theorist and hope he will share these impressions with us. Below is Jim’s informative letter both explaining why he wanted to do this presentation in person and stating what he’s looking for from the attendees, followed by his paper. Please read his paper ahead of time to add to the value of our discussion. Attached you will also find a paper on Kohut that Arnold Richards wanted to share with his Psychohistory Forum colleagues.

Letter from Dr. James Anderson:

Dear Colleagues,

Several years ago, I gave a presentation at the Forum on Winnicott and experienced a spirited discussion that stands out among the many dozens of presentations I’ve participated in over the years. If this meeting goes half as well, I’ll be delighted. The participants had such knowledgeable and stimulating questions and comments.

The paper on Kohut that we will be discussing had two points of origin. The first was the work of a PsyD student named Sivan Schneider who wrote a thesis on Kohut with me as one of her advisers. An Israeli with many relatives/ancestors whom the Nazi horror had severely affected, she was tuned into the effect of the Holocaust on Kohut, and we wrote a presentation on that topic. The second inspiration of the paper was the discussion that several of us had at lunch after the Forum presentation on Winnicott.  Kohut came up as we were talking, and I heard that there is a negative attitude toward him among many in New York. In Chicago he is, of course, predominantly admired. One of the chief criticisms of him that I heard at lunch was that he was seen as a self-hating Jew.

In the paper, I hone in on the topic of his relationship with his Jewishness. (By the way, I’m Jewish myself despite my Gentile-sounding last name. My mother was Jewish, and my father had a nominal conversion to Judaism. I was brought up in a Reform Jewish home and being Jewish is a part of my identity. My mixed parental background has made me especially interested in the general question of how someone might relate to his or her Jewishness.)

Paul asked what questions I might have for the participants. What I am looking for is what happened with the Winnicott discussion: that you would bring your thoughtful perspectives to a reading of the paper and would bring up whatever strikes you. I would especially expect comments about themes such as:

  • The relationship to Jewishness of those who fled the Nazi regime
  • The connection between Kohut’s life experience and his writing, both his psychoanalytic theory and his method of treatment
  • Observations about the strengths of his work and criticisms of his work
  • How Kohut is regarded by those in New York who are interested in psychoanalysis
  • Ideas about the larger dynamics of how innovators relate to Freud’s legacy
  • The workings of the psychoanalytic establishment.

I look forward to our meeting on November 12th.

James William Anderson, PhD


Heinz Kohut’s Vulnerable Self, His Reaction to the Holocaust,
and his Break with the Psychoanalytic Establishment
By James William Anderson

In trying to illuminate some features of the life of Heinz Kohut, I start with the Anschluss, March 13, 1938, Nazi Germany’s takeover of Austria, a black day for the Jews in Vienna. Though anti-Semitism was rampant in Vienna, there was no official policy in Austria attacking the Jews as there was in Germany under Hitler until the Nazis came into power.

Kohut, whom I would describe as a secular Jew, was 24 years old and a medical student at the University of Vienna. He lived with his mother Else (his father had died in the previous year). She owned and ran a fashionable dress shop.

The Nazis mounted a ferocious assault on the Jews of Vienna.  Tens of thousands of Jews were arrested, and transports to concentration camps began, although at this point the main purpose of the Nazis was to eject Jews from living and working in Austria; they wanted them to leave and had not yet started a campaign of mass murder. Jewish businesses were shut down, and Jews were forced to sell their homes at prices far below their worth. The large majority of Jewish faculty and student were ejected from the University.  Heinz Kohut, as a student at the university, and his mother, as a shop owner, were typical of Jews who were prime targets of the marauding Nazis.

Those who follow Sigmund Freud’s life know that Freud was under assault after the Anschluss. He remained in Vienna for another three months until, with the help of high-level diplomatic contacts, he managed to leave for England on June 4, 1938. During that three-month period, the Nazis stormed into his home and office. His daughter Anna Freud was arrested, but fortunately released soon, by the Gestapo. Kohut learned the details of Freud’s planned departure from August Aichhorn, a close colleague of Freud’s who was Kohut’s analyst, and he went to the train station to view Freud as he left. Kohut was not to get out for another nine months, until March of 1939.  He saw his world collapsing around him. Knowing how frightening it was for Freud during his last three months in Vienna, we can imagine how terrifying it was for Kohut who was stuck in Vienna for an additional nine months.

In August, 1938, no less a Jew-hater than Adolf Eichmann came in to head the war against the Jews of Austria. The Kohuts were among those forced to sell their home at a fraction of its worth. The potential buyers, the Kraulic family, pressured Else Kohut to sell quickly. Herr Kraulic once called her in the middle of the night and threatened that he would make sure her son was sent to a concentration camp if she did not sell quickly.

Most Jewish students were simply expelled from the university. Kohut had done all the work toward his medical degree except taking the final exams and wondered whether he could finish elsewhere, such as in Switzerland or the U.S. But in September the Nazis ruled, surprisingly, that Jewish students in Kohut’s situation would be allowed to take their exams.  Kohut had four weeks to study and then took and passed the exams. There was so much pressure that he described himself to a friend as being “shattered” by the experience (Strozier, 2001, p. 60). He received his M.D. degree on November 3, 1938.

Four days later, a 17-year-old Polish Jew, whose parents had been deported from Germany, shot and killed a German diplomat. In retaliation, the Nazis went on a rampage during what has been called Kristallnacht, the night of November 9th.

Throughout Germany and Austria, they harassed and beat and sometimes killed Jews, burned synagogues, and destroyed Jewish-owned businesses and shops, including the women’s clothing store owned by Else Kohut. Her store was looted and destroyed. What was left of the store was soon confiscated.

Kohut lived in fear for another four months until he was able to leave on a transport of Jews to Great Britain.  One document illustrates Kohut’s psychological state during the period in which he was assaulted by the Germans. A friend wrote him in 1943 that he, the friend, had been battered by his experience of forced exile from Vienna. These experiences, the friend wrote, “have ruined my [brain] to a certain degree…and…come to threat[en] me into a panic whenever I try to bring my very Ego into action.” The friend then added, “I might compare this state of mind almost with yours in 1937-38” (Kohut Archives, Chicago Psychoanalytic Institute). It seems that Kohut suffered from a fragmented self (to borrow a term from his psychology of the self) at that time of his life.

Here I acknowledge Sivan Schneider, who wrote, with me as an adviser, an excellent thesis at the Illinois School of Professional Psychology. She was early tuned into the importance of the Holocaust for Kohut and she discovered this key letter in the Kohut Archives. We also wrote a paper together that includes much of the material from this paper.

I have gone into this much detail, because I want to point out that Kohut, not surprisingly, was severely traumatized by his year of living in terror. His trauma deepened after the war as he learned of the deaths of so many people who had been close to him. In a letter to Aichhorn, a Gentile who was one of few psychoanalyst who remained in Vienna throughout the war, he wrote, “Unfortunately, almost all of my relatives died in various concentration camps: a brother of my mother’s and his small daughter, a brother of my father’s along with his wife and son, a sister of my father’s, another sister together with her husband, etc., etc.” (Cocks, 1994, p. 48). (Strozier says that this isn’t 100% accurate, but there is no doubt that Kohut lost many people close to him.) His mother was one of his few relatives who escaped.

Kohut used the word trauma in referring to “the trauma of leaving my home, leaving my city, and leaving my culture” (Quinn, 1980, p. 12).

Another time he referred to “the experiences of the late 1930s when I witnessed the disintegration of the whole culture that had formed and sustained me” (Letter to Daniel Offer, 13 December 1978, in Search for the Self, IV, p. 613).

Now I’ll go back to Kohut’s development as he grew up in Vienna.

We know a great deal about his inner life because he describes it in camouflaged form in “The Two Analyses of Mr Z.” He makes clear that he underwent severe difficulties in his early years.  In short, he had a distant, often absent, father, whom he had trouble modeling himself after, and an intrusive mother who, he later concluded, had an underlying psychotic process throughout his childhood. Kohut as a boy developed a split in his personality.  He largely lived out of a self that was enmeshed with his mother and that displayed a grandiosity that he derived from her.  He also had an independent male self that was largely repressed (Ornstein, IV, 441-2).

Despite having vulnerabilities lurking under the surface, Kohut developed some relative stability.  One of the main factors that enabled him to do so was his identification with a major strand of Viennese culture, which can be described as secular, educated, cultured, and liberal.  But the Nazi takeover of Austria destroyed that culture.

In an unpublished interview, Kohut made clear how devastating it was to him that that culture was destroyed. He said:

I had the feeling of a crumbling universe, not just because of Freud, but because this was a symbol of everything that I had lived for. I was passionately involved with German and Austrian culture, this was the peak of humanity to me—Goethe and the great German philosophers and writers and the German musicians and the whole refined Viennese culture….You know, this was life to me. And then, all of a sudden these bullies came along who claimed they were the real Germans, you see, and I was all of a sudden a foreigner and didn’t belong.  It was the end of a world, it was the end of an era.  And I had the feeling it was the end of my life, not in terms of necessarily danger to my own life, but in terms of the continuity of my cultural existence. (Quinn, interview with Kohut, 1980, p. 11)

After leaving Vienna, he spent a year in England (living most of the time in a refugee camp) and, once he received a visa, immigrated to Chicago. No doubt the experience of moving to a new country was further unsettling to him.  While living in Chicago, he gradually built a new identity to replace the identity that had been undermined by the turmoil in Europe.  Seeing himself as secular, and not as Jewish, was one facet of this new identity.

Here we come to the topic of Kohut’s relationship to his Jewishness.  Strozier, based on interviews with many people who knew Kohut, pointed out in his biography that Kohut made numerous contradictory and confusing comments when people, such as colleagues and patients, asked whether he was Jewish. His answers included “yes,” “no,” my father but not my mother was Jewish, and my mother but not my father was Jewish. Some people have charged him with being a liar and a self-hating Jew. Arnold Goldberg told me that he and Paul Ornstein and others were angry at Kohut for denying his being Jewish (personal communication, March 10, 2010). My view is they completely misunderstand what happened.

Kohut, like many others was traumatized by his experience in Vienna after the Anschluss, and so he consciously and deliberately set out to portray himself as being non-Jewish because he thought that would be safer. He kept up that effort until his death. As his son, Thomas Kohut wrote me:

My dad was wholly Jewish, certainly racially he was wholly Jewish. I was never in any doubt about that, and he didn’t try to deny it… He wanted to appear to be non-Jewish to the outside world to avoid being killed. He wanted me to be non-Jewish to avoid my being killed… the Holocaust sat very deeply in him and in our family. The notion that he might have to flee with us in the event of an emergence of Nazism in the U.S. was a very real fear. We never owned property. Etc., etc… I do wish that people would transcend the “self-hating Jew” cliché in reference to my father and appreciate the enduring horror of the Holocaust in those who managed to survive it. (email 12 August 2009)

In 1972 a 21-year-old man (who, by the way, was not Jewish) attempted to assassinate Alabama’s segregationist governor, George Wallace. (Wallace survived but became paralyzed from the waist down.)  Heinz Kohut panicked. He was ready to have his family and himself flee because he was afraid there would be a mass attack on the Jews (Thomas Kohut, email 12 August 2009). Most likely, suffering from PTSD, he was thrown back into his memories of Kristallnacht.

Another illustration of the effect of the Holocaust on Kohut is buried in his paper on “The Two Analyses of Mr. Z.” Mr. Z, who is Kohut is disguise, had “recurrent attacks of severe anxiety, including a number of frightening, quasi-psychotic experiences in which he felt himself disintegrating and was beset by intense hypochondriacal concerns.” During those periods Mr. Z that horrible nightmares that included: “most deeply upsetting,…heaps of piled-up human bodies, like those in pictures of concentration camps he had seen on T.V. The last image was especially horrible because…he was not sure whether the bodies were those of dead people or people still barely alive” (p. 19).

While his main reason for concealing his Jewishness was his attempt for safety, there were other contributing factors.  While he probably had gone through a Bar Mitzvah, he considered himself a secular Jew, and his main connection, as I have pointed out, had been to the German culture of Goethe, Rilke, and Thomas Mann.  His son noted that Heinz Kohut probably preferred the religious philosophy of Unitarianism, with which he become involved, to that of Judaism. And Thomas Kohut also speculated, “his efforts to distance himself from Judaism was part of his effort to distance himself from his family. He had an unhappy early life, which he associated with his family to some degree, and he wanted to stay as far away from his family as he could” (email 12 August 2009).

With the loss of his connection to Viennese culture, Kohut sought for a way to buttress his self, and he organized his new identity around his tie to psychoanalysis.  Psychoanalysis offered a bridge to his past life in Vienna, because he had received treatment there from an analyst close to Freud, August Aichhorn.  Psychoanalysis, was meaningful to him also because it was a product of the lost Viennese culture that Kohut had idealized.  Kohut further had a deep admiration of Freud and in some ways modeled himself after the founder of psychoanalysis. He developed an intricate knowledge of Freud’s psychological thinking, underwent a Freudian analysis with Ruth Eissler, and completed psychoanalytic training at the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. He became a faculty member at the Institute in 1953 and went on to become known in Chicago as “Mr. Psychoanalysis.” Reaching the elite of his profession, he served as President of the American Psychoanalytic Association from 1963-1964 and as Vice President of the International Psycho-Analytical Association during the years 1965-1973.  Looking back at this period, he commented once, “I was at the center of [psychoanalysis] and beloved by everybody and on the right handshaking terms” (Strozier, 2001, p. 135).

In summary, his identity as a psychoanalyst, his identification with Freud, whose photo he had in his office, and his sense of belonging to the local and world-wide psychoanalytic community, offered him a stability that protected—given that he had a fragile self, which still lurked beneath the surface.  Because of his personal experiences with an endangered self, he became attentive to understanding the intricacies of the self. At first he described his research as a study of narcissism. Freud had said that narcissism was an area that needed to be studied further. Kohut could see himself as accepting Freud’s work and merely extending it in a direction of which Freud would have approved. He presented his ideas in papers on narcissism and in his first book, The Analysis of the Self.

Kohut’s relationships with two people were intrinsic to his sense of having a safe home as a leading member of the psychoanalytic world. The first was Anna Freud.

Kohut wrote her in 1964 congratulating her for receiving an honorary degree. He added, “In all I behave like a relative in a family affair: more identification than object relation” (Letter of 4 August 1964, Cocks, p. 98). This statement illustrates his identification with her and her family; he felt he belonged to psychoanalysis.

Anna Freud encouraged him. She wrote a year later, soon after the death of Chicago analyst, Max Gitelson, “I had pinned very many hopes for the future of analysis on him.” She added, “Who will take his role now? Will you be the one?” (Letter of 21 February 1965 in Cocks, p. 112)?  She was inviting him to protect and extend her father’s work.  Kohut wanted to think he was doing just that in writing about narcissism.

Anna Freud wrote him effusively about one of his early papers on narcissism.  “I feel very excited about it since I do not only feel your argumentation very convincing but also I feel it to be one of the most beautiful analytic papers which I have read in recent years.”  She made it clear that she was especially pleased with his remaining wedded to her father’s legacy.  She noted with approval that his treatment of narcissism was “in the very best analytic tradition.”  She concluded, “There has been no analytic writing like this, really, for a very long time” (Letter, 4 January 1966, in Cocks, 1994, p.133).

The second person whose positive attitude showed that Kohut had become central to the psychoanalytic establishment was Kurt Eissler.  One of the most powerful figures in New York City, the largest analytic community, Eissler might be seen as Freud’s foremost defender in the United States. Kohut valued Eissler’s support because of his status.

Eissler was just as enthusiastic about Kohut’s early work as was Anna Freud.  After Eissler heard Kohut give a paper, he wrote him, “Everyone I talked to admires the magnificent paper you presented [on] Tuesday in New York, and I would like to congratulate you once more by letter” (Letter, 2 December 1971, Kohut Archives).

Kohut seemed to have had it made. But there was one problem. As he delved into the nature of the self, it gradually became apparent to him that he was not merely extending Freud’s work, he was developing a new paradigm.  To some extent, his personal experiences with an endangered self told him that Freud’s model was not sufficient to explain the psychological experience of people like himself. Moreover, his own experience was representative of what a large number of people experienced in the second half of the Twentieth Century.  Due to various factors, including the disruptions of the Second World War and the changes in social thought, disorders of the self became widespread. Kohut saw the shortcomings of Freud’s model.  But if he let his work go to its logical conclusion, Kohut would be in danger of losing his hard-won identity as Mr. Psychoanalysis. Instead of having a safe status as a respected, accepted figure in the psychoanalytic world, he would risk becoming an outcast. Without the support he had won for himself through years of effort as a psychoanalytic thinker, teacher, and leader, his vulnerable self might be endangered. Kohut, nonetheless, forged ahead and made his break with Freud more obvious, and, as could be expected, he was expelled from his position in the center of psychoanalysis.

The change in how he was regarded can be seen most clearly in Eissler’s reaction to him.  In 1974 Eissler wrote Kohut a letter in which he said he heard Kohut speak but did not understand a word of what he was saying. The letter, Kohut commented, gave him a “feeling of despair” (Cocks, p. 306, letter from April 18, 1974). Michael Basch, one of the key members of Kohut’s circle of supporters, wrote him what he, Basch, thought had happened:

I am convinced that the problem lies with [Eissler] and not with your paper….you come along and not only create a revolutionary expansion of psychoanalysis but communicate it effectively. Recognition and honor is heaped on you—notwithstanding the reactionary opposition, the young, vital people who will set the course for analysis are flocking to your banner and Eissler knows this. (Letter, 25 April 1974, Kohut Archives)

Kohut saw Eissler as being typical of the psychoanalytic establishment.  He described him as “really just one of the great number of my colleagues who attack me & my work in the most violent way” (Strozier, 2001, p. 271).

Kohut experienced himself as ostracized and attacked not only in the larger psychoanalytic world but also in the psychoanalytic community in Chicago.  In 1978 when he was not reelected as a member of the Institute’s Council, he described it to a colleague as a “wounding rejection from the side of my colleagues at the Institute” (Letter to Daniel Offer, 13 December 1978, in Ornstein, ed., Search for the Self, IV, pp. 611-619).

In an essay, Kohut wrote that “the idealization of Freud by the individual members of the psychoanalytic community has played an important role…in maintaining both the psychic equilibrium of the individual analyst and group cohesion in the analytic community” (“Creativeness, Charisma, and Group Psychology,” in Ornstein, ed., Search for the Self, 1978, II, pp. 793-843 [first published in 1976], p. 798).  I would argue that Kohut’s own equilibrium was threatened when he gave up his idealization of Freud and separated from the psychoanalytic establishment.

How did Kohut cope with his danger of isolation?  He did so largely by gathering devoted followers around him, including Marian and Paul Tolpin, Arnold Goldberg, Ernest Wolf, and Michael Basch.

Kohut frequently telephoned his supporters, and he regularly invited them to come talk to him in person.  He delegated them to speak for him and to carry out various tasks, such as meeting with young scholars.  He saw these bright, younger psychoanalysts as an extension of himself.  He met regularly with them at his house. He read his writings to them as he wrote them, and they discussed his work, but, as Marian Tolpin told me, he did not expect them to disagree with him or to argue with him.

In this presentation, I’ve spoken a lot about Kohut’s vulnerable self. First as a child, he developed what he would later call a disorder of the self.  Then his frightening experience in Vienna after the Nazi takeover traumatized him.  As an adult he had significant psychiatric symptoms, according to his description in “The Two Analyses of Mr. Z), namely: a propensity for “disintegration anxiety” (p. 419) and a tendency to “depression and hopelessness” (p. 421). His engagement with enlightened German and Austrian culture helped bind him together, but the Nazi rule in Vienna ruined his connection to that culture. He found another way of shoring up his self through his identification with Freud and the psychoanalytic community. But when he let himself develop his ideas, he found himself to be at odds with that world.

My view is that each original theorist develops the theory that accounts for the theorist’s personal problems.  If anyone ever had a classic Oedipus complex, it is Freud himself who had such a complex.  Erik Erikson had a prolonged identity crisis.  Donald Winnicott struggled with a false self.  Throughout his life, Kohut had a vulnerable self.  He found the psychoanalytic theory of his time to be inadequate because it didn’t provide a way of dealing with the kind of self problems that he himself had, and he was driven to develop a new theory, even though doing so separated him from the psychoanalytic community that had become a refuge for him.

(First presented at meeting of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Chicago, June 24, 2018.)


  • Cocks, G. (1994). The Curve of Life: Correspondence of Heinz Kohut, 1923-1981. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Kohut, H. (1971). The Analysis of the Self. New York: International Universities Press.
  • Kohut, H. (1977). The Restoration of the Self. New York: International Universities Press.
  • Kohut, H. (1979). “The Two Analysis of Mr. Z.”  Int. J. Psycho-Anal, 6:3-27; also in Ornstein, ed. (1950-1978).
  • Ornstein, Paul, ed. (1950-1978). The Search for the Self: Selected Writings of Heinz Kohut, 4 volumes. New York: International Universities Press.
  • Quinn, S., (unpublished), Interview with Heinz Kohut dated March 29, 1980.
  • Strozier, C. B. (2001). Heinz Kohut: The Making of a Psychoanalyst. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Please contact Dr. Paul Elovitz, for more information and to register, at cliospsycheeditor@gmail.com