Psychologist Hanns Sachs: Biography and Contributions to Psychoanalysis

Alexander Tokarev, PhD
Updated on: March 15, 2024
Reviewed by:
Yelnur Shildibekov, PhD
Hanns Sachs – PSYCULATOR
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Hanns Sachs, an eminent figure in the realm of psychology, left an indelible mark on the field of psychoanalysis during the early to mid-20th century. Born in 1881, in Vienna, Austria-Hungary, Hanns Sachs initially began his career in law, receiving a doctoral degree from the University of Vienna in 1904.

Then his interest in Freud’s work on the interpretation of dreams coupled with his academic prowess and dedication led him to become a pioneering force in the field of psychoanalysis and in understanding the complexities of the human mind.

Fast Facts: Hanns Sachs

  • Born: January 10, 1881, in Vienna, Austria-Hungary
  • Died: January 10, 1947, in Boston, Massachusetts, USA
  • Education: Doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1905
  • Contribution: Pioneer in psychoanalysis, co-founder of the New York Psychoanalytic Society, and prolific writer
  • Significance: Work on ego psychology, symbolism, and the application of psychoanalysis to literature and art

Psychoanalytic Roots and Collaboration with Freud

Hanns Sachs was an active member of the "Secret Committee" and unquestionably one of Freud's closest and most trusted disciples.

Sachs' entrance into the world of psychoanalysis occurred during a crucial period when Sigmund Freud's theories were gaining momentum. Hanns Sachs became associated with Freud and contributed significantly to the psychoanalytic movement.

His collaboration with Freud was marked by a shared interest in unraveling the mysteries of the human psyche. Together, they delved into the exploration of unconscious thoughts, ego, dreams, and the development of psychoanalytic techniques.

Teaming up with Otto Rank, he initiated the Imago journal in 1912, subsequently assuming the role of its editor. This influential psychoanalysis journal aimed to propagate Freud's theories across various social science disciplines.

In 1920, Sachs relocated to Berlin, dedicating himself to the field of education by training aspiring psychoanalysts. His doors were a revolving entrance for numerous students who sought him out due to his reputation as an exceptional teacher. Notably, Erich Fromm underwent his educational psychoanalysis under Sachs' guidance. During this period, lax regulations allowed Sachs to even vacation with his patients and those of his colleagues.

Sachs held Freud in such high regard that he commissioned a bust of the renowned psychoanalyst for his clinic. Placing it prominently in front of the therapy couch where he conducted sessions, Sachs demonstrated his deep admiration and respect for Freud's contributions to the field.

Immigration to the United States

As Hitler ascended to power, Sachs relocated from Berlin to Boston in 1932. Despite the geographical distance, he maintained a strong connection with Freud. In a poignant moment at Freud's deathbed in 1939, Freud expressed to Sachs, "I know I have at least one friend in America".

Sachs, moved by this declaration, later published a heartfelt memoir of Freud in 1945, a work considered indispensable by Freud's biographer Peter Gay.

Ego Psychology and Symbolism

Hanns Sachs distinguished himself through his work on ego psychology, a branch of psychoanalysis that focuses on the role of the ego in human behavior. His insights into the functioning of the ego, particularly its adaptive and defensive mechanisms, added a nuanced layer to the understanding of human consciousness.

Moreover, Sachs delved into the realm of symbolism, exploring how symbols manifest in dreams, art, and literature. His investigations provided valuable insights into the symbolic language of the unconscious mind, enriching the psychoanalytic understanding of symbolism as a crucial aspect of human expression.

Application of Psychoanalysis to Literature

Sachs' multidisciplinary approach extended beyond the clinical realm into the world of literature. He applied psychoanalytic principles to the analysis of literary works, demonstrating how the exploration of characters and narratives could unveil hidden aspects of the human psyche.

For example, his examination of Caligula highlighted the shifting characters of those dominated by fleeting and unstable identifications. Sachs' work in this area bridged the gap between psychology and literature, offering a unique perspective on the unconscious mind. He famously said:

"In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."

Hanns Sachs


Hanns Sachs, a prominent figure within the psychoanalytic community, was not immune to controversies during his career. While he made significant contributions, controversies also marked certain aspects of his professional journey.

One notable controversy surrounded Sachs' association with the "Secret Committee" within the psychoanalytic society. The secrecy and exclusivity of this committee raised eyebrows among some members, leading to debates about transparency and the potential influence it wielded behind closed doors. Critics questioned the impact of such clandestine collaborations on the broader psychoanalytic community.

Additionally, Sachs faced scrutiny regarding his role as the editor of the Imago journal, which he co-founded with Otto Rank. The journal aimed to disseminate Freud's theories across social science fields. However, disagreements arose over editorial decisions and the extent to which the journal maintained intellectual integrity versus serving as a platform for promoting specific psychoanalytic perspectives.

Sachs' relocation from Berlin to Boston in 1932 amidst the rise of Hitler stirred controversy within the psychoanalytic circles. While the move was motivated by the political climate, it sparked discussions about the responsibility of psychoanalysts in times of political upheaval and their role in shaping societal discourse.

Despite these controversies, it is essential to acknowledge Sachs' enduring contributions to psychoanalysis. The debates and disagreements within the psychoanalytic society reflect the dynamic nature of intellectual discourse and the evolution of ideas within the field. Sachs, like many influential figures, navigated these controversies as part of his broader engagement with the complexities of psychoanalytic theory and practice.

Psychologist Hanns Sachs: Selected Publications

  • 'One of the Motive Factors in the Formation of the Superego in Women', International Journal of Psychoanalysis X 1929
  • Caligula (1930)
  • 'The Community of Daydreams', in The Creative Unconscious (1942)
  • Freud, Master and Friend (1945)
  • Masks of Love and Life (1948)